Vet with a voice: Sol­dier spreads word on need to win in Iraq

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Susan Du­c­los

Iraq war vet­eran 1st Lt. Pete Hegseth served in 2005-06 with the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Air­borne Di­vi­sion. Now serv­ing with the New York Army Na­tional Guard, Lt. Hegseth is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Vets For Free­dom, a non­par­ti­san group es­tab­lished by vet­er­ans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to “ed­u­cate Amer­i­cans about the im­por­tance of achiev­ing suc­cess in th­ese con­flicts.”

Vets for Free­dom re­cently be­gan air­ing television ads urg­ing sen­a­tors to sup­port con­tin­u­ing the U.S. mis­sion in Iraq.

A grad­u­ate of Prince­ton Univer­sity, Lt. Hegseth plans to pur­sue a mas­ter’s de­gree at Prince­ton in the fall. The fol­low­ing are excerpts of a re­cent in­ter­view with Lt. Hegseth:

Ques­tion: For those that haven’t heard of Vets for Free­dom and the “Ten Weeks to Tes­ti­mony” cam­paign, why don’t you start off telling us a lit­tle bit about it?

An­swer:

Vets for Free­dom started ac­tu­ally in early 2006 by com­bat vet­er­ans be­cause we did not feel that voice, the vet voice, specif­i­cally the pro-mis­sion vets’ voice, was [. . . ] be­ing heard and was not part of the de­bate, and those sol­diers that have seen it first­hand and fought in com­bat, their voices were not be­ing heard in the me­dia and through­out the coun­try. So Vets for Free­dom was founded as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion plat­form, a non­par­ti­san, apo­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tions plat­form to re­ally get th­ese guys out there talk­ing about why it is im­por­tant that we com­plete the mis­sion. [. . . ]

It is im­por­tant that we give [U.S. Iraq com­man­der Army Gen. David] Pe­traeus the time, the troops and the re­sources nec­es­sary to see his coun­terin­sur­gency strat­egy through. So our “Ten Weeks to Tes­ti­mony” is re­ally a crys­tal­liza­tion of our larger mis­sion, and we are boil­ing it down to 10 weeks over the sum­mer, lead­ing up to and un­til Gen. Pe­traeus re­ports [to Congress on progress in Iraq] in the mid­dle of Septem­ber and re­ally mo­bi­liz­ing our vet­er­ans to get ac­tive in the states and then in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

We had vets on [Capi­tol] Hill in July, about 40 of them on very short no­tice, and in Au­gust we are [. . . ] em­pow­er­ing them lo­cally to get in­volved in town hall meet­ings and writ­ing to [news­pa­per] edi­tors and re­ally mak­ing sure th­ese mem­bers [of Congress], while they’re home in the Au­gust re­cess, are re­ally hear­ing from vet­er­ans from their lo­cal area, who have been there re­cently and are telling them we need to com­plete the mis­sion.

Then in Septem­ber, that’s the cul­mi­nat­ing event for the “Ten Weeks to Tes­ti­mony” cam­paign, we’ll be hav­ing what we hope to be hun­dreds of Iraq and Afghanistan vet­er­ans on the Hill, meet­ing with mem­bers of Congress in the days sur­round­ing when they will be vot­ing about what the fu­ture con­duct is of the war and whether or not we should con­tinue to fund Gen. Pe­traeus. It is re­ally just in­ject­ing that vet­er­ans’ voice that’s the most cred­i­ble and the most in­formed, and also the least rep­re­sented, in the de­bate. [. . . ]

Q: I see that you were in Iraq, 2005-2006, dur­ing the [Iraqi] na- tion­wide elec­tions in Oc­to­ber and De­cem­ber, right? A: Q: Well, for peo­ple that — all you see in the news is “the Iraqis this,” “the Iraqis that.” You were there at a very im­por­tant time. Could you give the Iraqis a face for peo­ple?

A:

Yes.

That’s an im­por­tant part that gets lost. Ev­ery­body talks about Iraq and the Iraqi peo­ple, and how they hate each other, and they’re killing each other — the Sunni and the Shia and the vi­o­lence — and my ex­pe­ri­ence just does not re­in­force that.

Yes, there is vi­o­lence; yes, there is ha­tred on the fringes, but for the vast ma­jor­ity of Iraqis, they want sta­bil­ity, they want peace, they want the abil­ity in their day-to-day lives to have nor­malcy. And when we can pro­vide that, and when we do pro­vide that, they do stand up. It’s just that there are so many [ar­eas of Iraq] that we have not had enough troops and have not had the right strat­egy.

I am not blam­ing it all on us, but there are times when they’re still out­num­bered, and the Iraq se­cu­rity forces are not suf­fi­cient. It is dif­fi­cult to ex­pect them to stand up, but what we are do­ing now is cre­at­ing [. . . ] the kind of se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ment where Iraqis do feel em­pow­ered to stand up, and they will be­cause, like I said, they are hu­man be­ings. We de­hu­man­ize them some­times, and we shouldn’t be­cause they want the same free­dom we do. It is just about set­ting them up to do it suc­cess­fully.

Q: In your words, why do you see that it is im­por­tant for Amer­ica to see vic­tory in Iraq?

A:

I think the most com­pelling case is that it is im­por­tant for Amer­ica. Our strate­gic in­ter­ests are di­rectly linked to the out­come of what the Iraqi peo­ple do there and what we al­low them to do, be­cause if we don’t, if we don’t bring about a suc­cess­ful out­come, we will leave be- hind a haven for al Qaeda and those af­fil­i­ated with them. We will leave be­hind a re­gion that is un­sta­ble, where Iran thinks it can im­pose its will. Where out­side state ac­tors be­come in­volved in the out­come in Iraq be­cause of the power void, and it is un­sta­ble.

Our in­ter­ests are di­rectly linked, and it is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant, the largest, I think the more over­ar­ch­ing ar­gu­ment to why it is im­por­tant to Amer­ica is vic­tory or de­feat in the eyes of al Qaeda. If al Qaeda thinks they have won in Iraq, that will be a pro­pa­ganda bo­nanza for them and em­bolden them for years and years to come.

Peo­ple tell me all the time, “Amer­i­can sol­diers are cre­at­ing more ter­ror­ists.” In some ways, sure, our pres­i­dent ag­gra­vates a lot of in­sur­gents in Iraq. But you don’t think our de­feat would em­bolden them even more and cre­ate even more of a prob­lem?

So, that, for me, is the big prize in this. It is a war of per­cep­tion, and how would this war be per­ceived by our en­e­mies and by our pub­lic. Be­cause [. . . ] his­tory will judge us, not on when we leave, but on what we leave be­hind. [. . . ]

Q: Are you still in con­tact with the sol­diers that are in Iraq right now?

A:

Oh, ab­so­lutely, I am in touch with sol­diers in Iraq and in touch with Iraqi in­ter­preters [. . . ] that we had, and I get fairly reg­u­lar up­dates and, ac­tu­ally, be­cause of the po­si­tion I am in now, I get a lot of un­so­licited e-mails from troops over there, say­ing, “Thanks for what you guys are do­ing” and “Here is my ex­pe­ri­ence that backs up what you are say­ing 100 per­cent.” So I have heard more and more from the troops than I would have oth­er­wise, and it has all been en­cour­ag­ing, and it all re­in­forces the prin­ci­ple that we have been talk­ing about and shows that, in fact, things are im­prov­ing. So we see our work as noth­ing but an ex­ten­sion of our ser­vice and noth­ing but our op­por­tu­nity to have the backs of the guys that are still there. [. . . ]

What we want to do is set the con­di­tions for a fair re­cep­tion for what [Gen. Pe­traeus] re­ports, and that is what we are try­ing to do. And then be­yond that, we are go­ing to con­tinue to make sure that our voice is heard in the de­bate.

Lt. Pete Hegseth pho­to­graph / Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Times

Lt. Pete Hegseth (right), seen here pa­trolling Sa­marra, Iraq, with Capt. Pete Carey, said he joined the Vets for Free­dom group, which was be­gun last year, to get other vet­er­ans “out there talk­ing about why it is im­por­tant that we com­plete the mis­sion.”

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