October 7, 2008 – Tuesday night, Iraq War veteran Kristofer Goldsmith tried to describe what a dead human body smells like to a wide-eyed audience of more than 50 students, professors and community members.
“I can tell you that it doesn’t smell like a raccoon that got run over a week ago. It doesn’t smell like road kill. There is a very, very distinct smell to a dead human.”
He said he experiences this smell every time he sees gore in a movie like “Saw.”
“The smell isn’t just your nose. You can taste it. You can taste the iron of the blood floating in the air,” he said.
Goldsmith, 23, came to Brown as a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, a group that advocates for veterans’ rights and the end of U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq, to speak about his traumatic experience serving in the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry between 2005 and 2007. The talk was sponsored by anti-war group Operation Iraqi Freedom, Students for a Democratic Society, Brown Democrats, Rhode Island Mobilization Committee, Active Minds and Brown American Civil Liberties Union. It took place in MacMillan 115.
Goldsmith, a Long Island native, joined the army when he was 18 in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. He was first deployed to Iraq in January 2005. By the time he returned to the United States in December 2006, he had developed post-traumatic stress disorder and severe alcoholism.
“I didn’t feel human anymore,” Goldsmith said.
His contract, which was set to expire in May 2007, was extended indefinitely as part of the troop surge announced by President Bush in January 2007. On Memorial Day of that year, the day his infantry was set to redeploy to Iraq, he attempted suicide.
“You’re looking at someone who couldn’t even get killing himself right. I took enough Percocet to kill a f*cking cow. I don’t know how I survived,” Goldsmith said.
Goldsmith was critical of the army’s mental health services. He had sought mental health counseling prior to his suicide attempt and was diagnosed with adjustment disorder, a mental disorder similar to PTSD but with fewer healthcare benefits. He was only diagnosed with PTSD by a Veterans’ Affairs hospital four months after being kicked out of the army for “malingering,” or faking a mental illness. The army also took away his college benefits, he said.
Goldsmith vividly described the horrors of war in Sadr City, the slums of Baghdad, from the perspective of an on-the-ground intelligence reporter tasked with documenting major events in the area. He showed photos he had taken of giant puddles of sewage that filled streets, surrounding hospitals and polluting elementary schools. According to Goldsmith, the American military had destroyed every sewage and water treatment plant in Sadr City during the invasion.
As an intelligence reporter, it was his job to photograph the faces of tortured and murdered Iraqis found in mass graves for identification purposes. He placed the pictures of these mutilated faces in a neat row on the desk in front of him for all the audience to see.
“Every one of these pictures in its most intimate detail was burned into my head the second that I saw that flash,” Goldsmith said.
Goldsmith said he was lucky because Iraq Veterans Against the War gave him the opportunity to help people better understand all veterans, including those who are less open about their war experiences.
This May, Goldsmith became the youngest person – “and the only person with a mohawk” – to ever testify on the state of war before Congress. He said he has spoken with politicians such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, about the need for withdrawal from Iraq. He criticized both presidential candidates for voting against increased funding for the Veterans’ Affairs hospitals.
Students said they were deeply affected by Goldsmith’s lecture.
“He has such a unique and harrowing story to tell. I had no idea what I was getting into,” said Will Lambek ‘09.5, who saw an IVAW member speak at Brown two years ago. “Every chance that one has to hear from somebody who has been directly affected is an opportunity to really humanize one’s own opposition and one’s own resistance to the war.”
“I think (the lecture was) a little bit overwhelming,” said Daniel Patterson ’12, “but in the best way possible.”
Rick Ahl ’09 of Operation Iraqi Freedom was pleased with the turnout. “Nothing is quite as personal as this,” he said. “I think we need to be listening to more veterans tell their stories without the filters of other media sources.”
Ahl said that Operation Iraqi Freedom plans to have Camilo Mejia, another veteran, speak at Brown on Oct. 30.