February 28, 2008 — Like many of his fellow Americans who enlisted in the military after Sept. 11, 2001, Mike Totten was compelled to serve by a heightened sense of patriotism. The promise of money for college helped to seal the deal.
In April 2003, Totten, who graduated from Livonia High School in 2000, was deployed to Iraq as part of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne unit and assigned to a security detail for high-ranking commanders.
As he traveled across the country, Totten said he didn’t see any improvement in the lives of the Iraqis — and there were no weapons of mass destruction, contrary to what the Bush administration had claimed.
“It kind of got me thinking: ‘What the hell am I doing here?'”
Wednesday night, Totten, president of the Rochester chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and other veterans who served in war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam described the nightmare of war to a group of more than 100 people at the Cinema Theater.
“Forty years later, we haven’t learned,” said Roberto Resto of Rochester, who served with the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam for eight months in 1968 until he was wounded. “We are back in the same quagmire, the same war. Only this time, our weapons are more powerful.”
Totten, 26, is now a senior at Nazareth College studying social work.
He was medically discharged from the army in September 2004 for severe back pain, the result of explosions jolting the trucks that he rode in again and again.
Totten was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. On Oct. 16, 2003, three soldiers in his unit were killed in a firefight in Karbala. One of the men, just an arms-length away, was shot in the neck. He died in Totten’s arms.
“Combat is not something that anyone can train you for,” he said. “The amount of training that you can receive can never prepare you for seeing your friends get hurt — or worse.”
Once he got home, Totten said, his anti-war feelings grew.
“It really just made sense that this whole entire occupation of Iraq was for something other than what we were told it was,” he said.
Resto said his anti-war feelings grew after he and another group of soldiers took an elderly Vietnamese woman out of her hut and burned it down.
“That completely turned me against the war because that could have been my mother.”
Denique Conner, 27, of Rochester, a member of the New York Army National Guard 401st Civil Affairs Battalion, served as an administrative assistant in Afghanistan from November 2002 to July 2003.
“In the military you are trained not to think, you’re trained to follow orders,” she said. “When I began to think, then I began to be against (the war).”
The panel discussion followed a showing of a film that documented the 1971 testimony of Vietnam veterans about their experiences in combat called Winter Soldier Investigation.
From March 13 to March 16, veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan will hold similar testimonies in Washington, D.C.
“We have to stop this nightmare,” Resto said. “We cannot continue to send young men and women to die in a war for oil and profit.”