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‘Occupy' protests lure veterans

Many see links among war, unemployment and Wall Street

Nov. 18, 2011 - 03:03PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 18, 2011 - 03:03PM  |  
Army and Iraq War veteran Joseph Carter, 27, with his fist raised, speaks Nov. 2 at the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City.
Army and Iraq War veteran Joseph Carter, 27, with his fist raised, speaks Nov. 2 at the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City. (Bebeto Matthews / The Associated Press)
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Former Army Spc. Jorge Gonzalez said he's not proud of his participation in what he calls the occupation of Iraq. But he's now doing everything he can to help the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Wearing his combat uniform top with a rack of medals on the left side of his chest at a march in downtown Seattle recently, Gonzalez said he has been to rallies nearly every day for weeks while also helping to organize new Occupy protests in nearby Tacoma, Wash., where he lives.

Joining the ranks of hundreds of Occupy offshoots that have sprouted up in cities across the country, veterans are enlisting in the grass-roots movement in increasing numbers, even ascending to leadership positions.

They are also among the movement's first casualties.

First blood

Former Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Olsen suffered a fractured skull after police fired tear gas at Occupy protesters in Oakland, Calif., on Oct. 25.

Olsen joined the Marine Corps in 2006 and served two tours in Iraq before being discharged in 2010. He works as a systems network administrator by day and was attending rallies in the evenings and on weekends before he was injured.

"Scott was marching with the 99 percent because he felt corporations and banks had too much control over our government, and that they weren't being held accountable for their role in the economic downturn, which caused so many people to lose their jobs and their homes," said former Army buddy Keith Shannon, who deployed with Olsen to Iraq.

Another veteran required surgery after being arrested Nov. 3 in Oakland. Former Army Sgt. Kayvan Sabeghi, who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, suffered a ruptured spleen after being beaten by police while participating in the Oakland rally, Esther Goodstal, who co-owns a brewery with Sabeghi, told The Associated Press.

Former Marine Sgt. Shamar Thomas, another two-tour Iraq veteran, was one of the first Occupy protesters in the national spotlight after a video of him dressing down a platoon of New York City police for rough tactics went viral last month.

"This is not a war zone! These are not armed people!" Thomas is seen telling wide-eyed police in the video.

That was just the third Occupy Wall Street rally he had attended. "I was still just kind of scouting things out, trying to figure out what it was all about," he says now.

"It was a peaceful protest, and there were women and children in that crowd. But the police were just indiscriminately grabbing people, punching them and hitting them with batons. I didn't go there planning on doing anything, but when I saw what was going on, I had to speak up."

Now he's fully committed to the effort, appearing on several national TV shows while urging veterans and others to join the movement.

"I'm not a weed-smoking hippie, a liberal or conservative — I am a veteran," Thomas told Military Times.

"We fought overseas — we should be willing to fight for what is right here at home," he said. "My parents both did 20 years in the military. My mom has a Bronze Star from her service in Iraq. And they're both struggling to find jobs right now. That's not right."

Hard times

Scott Kimball, a former Army infantryman and Iraq veteran and now a college student at the University of Illinois, helped organize a rally a week before Veterans Day that drew about 100 military veterans — many in full uniform — who marched from New York City's Vietnam Veterans Plaza through the financial district and into Zuccotti Park, the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

"We wanted to use this moment to reach out to veterans and service members to help them find their voice and let them know they're not alone," Kimball said. "We see an explicit connection between the interests that sent us to war and economic problems at home."

Dubbed "Veterans of the 99%," the marchers said those who risked their lives fighting for their country have the right to protest economic policies and business practices they believe give vets a slimmer chance of finding jobs than most Americans.

From 2008 to 2011, veterans unemployment rose 5.1 percentage points, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A recent Labor Department report shows one out of every five veterans 24 years and younger are unemployed, compared with a national rate less than half that.

"For 10 years, we have been fighting wars that have enriched the wealthiest 1 percent, decimated our economy and left our nation with a generation of traumatized and wounded veterans that will require care for years to come," former Army Sgt. Joseph Carter told veterans and onlookers in New York City.

Online support

An Occupy Marines Facebook page created shortly after Olsen was hurt in Oakland has garnered more than 13,000 "likes."

"Marines support the movement," wrote the page's creators. "We will support demonstrators with organization, direction, supply and logistics, and leadership."

Since the Marines' page appeared, Occupy pages for each of the other services also have been stood up.

"I am the wife of a USAR officer," reads the note held by a woman in the profile picture of the Occupy Military Families Facebook page. "Overall military life has been good. It is the future I am worried about."

Online posts called on veterans to join local Veterans Day rallies slated throughout the country on Nov. 11.

"Call to action for veterans," wrote one Facebook poster planning an event in Orlando, Fla. "We will honor all our fallen brothers and sisters, those who have been wounded by the Corporate Oil company wars in the Middle East and our brothers Kayvan [Sabeghi] and Scott Olsen during this present Occupy operation."

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