At Occupy Camps, Veterans Bring the Wars Home

ows veteransWe’re in a coffee shop near McPherson Square, the location of Occupy DC, and Michael Patterson, 21, and I are having hot cocoa on a cold November night. He’s wearing an Iraq Veterans Against the War sweatshirt and baggy shorts. It’s freezing outside. “I’m from Alaska,” he offers as an explanation. He’s been sleeping in a tent in D.C. for over a month now. I’ve traveled to five Occupations in two countries. In every demonstration (including the one in Canada) I’ve found a vet to talk to:

In Zuccotti Park, Army Specialist Jerry Bordeleau, 24, was sitting next to a table of IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) literature. On his sweater were two buttons: an Iraq Campaign metal and one from the IWW. He served two tours in Iraq and now says he’s unemployed and can’t find work for over $10 an hour. And he can’t live on $10 an hour. When I asked him why he’s at Occupy Wall Street he says, “I went and fought for capitalism and that’s why I’m now a Marxist.”

At Occupy Baltimore, I met 21-year-old Justin Carson, who tells me he served in the Army National Guard in Iraq from 2009 until this February. His nickname is Crazy Craze. He says he has PTSD and is bipolar but won’t “do pharmaceuticals.” Then he told me I should look into the Illuminati since I’m writing an article.

It was a surprise to meet Iraq war vets at these protests. There are only, after all, around a million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in what was once dubbed the War on Terror.

Their presence became national news when Iraq vet and former Marine Scott Olsen’s skull was fractured by a non-lethal round fired by police in Oakland in late-October. A week later in New York, around 30 vets held a solidarity march from Zuccotti Park to the Stock Exchange. They had a rally at the park afterward where Bordeleau spoke. “This is the first major movement for social change we’ve seen in this country since the ’70s,” he said to me.

At Occupy DC, a painting of Scott Olsen in uniform is draped on the side of a tent. He’s become a symbol of the Occupation Movement — he fought overseas only to be injured when exercising his “freedom” of peaceful assembly at home. His name has become a shorthand to talk about why so many vets are at Occupy Wall Street.

“There’s a reason Scott Olsen got shot in the head,” says Patterson, looking down at his chain-restaurant hot cocoa. “Because he was out front.”

Patterson still sports a military haircut and a bit of the Army swagger. He also has a touch of that telling hyper-awareness war vets sometimes display; he’s a little twitchy, a little intense. He tells me he has PTSD and has been self-medicating with weed. He says it helps. What’s also helped is being a part of this protest movement. “This is the only peaceful solution,” he says. “If this movement doesn’t work, our country is not going to make it … We’re just not going to make it.”

tina dupuyPatterson became an interrogator in Iraq straight out of high school. His mother had to sign his enlistment papers. He turned 18 in Basic. “We’re an industrialized nation who’s a third world country. The super wealthy elite pretty much control our democratic process and everyone here is pretty much fighting for scraps and that’s not right,” he says.

I ask him what was the switch for him and when. He explained that it was WikiLeaks. It was the footage of the Apache helicopter gunning down Iraqis released by WikiLeaks in April of 2010. Up to that point he had been interrogating Iraqis and using what he describes as psychological torture. He was 10 years old when the World Trade Center was hit. He wanted to fight terrorism in Iraq. He bought into the whole thing, he tells me. He had been looking forward to signing up ever since the 5th grade and then, suddenly, last November, he found himself watching a video of his fellow soldiers gunning down Iraqis on the street and it all changed for him.

The Apache video, to a civilian, makes war look like a video game, but to Patterson, it was the first time he saw Iraqis as real people. Random people, with children and families who care about them. He tried to get out of the military as a conscientious objector after that. He was told it wouldn’t work because he’s an atheist. “So I just smoked a bunch of pot and got kicked out,” he says. He was officially discharged on June 7th of this year. He went back home to Alaska, where he read about Occupy Wall Street on Reddit.

He then went to D.C. to sleep in a tent a block away from the White House.

Patterson speaks in sound bites. He’s had a conversion and like those who find religion, the awakening has given him fervor. He’s witnessing: “Combat at Arms and Military Intelligence all come to the same conclusion: War is a business!”

He interrogated people who were later put to death in Iraq with no appeals process, he says. It haunts him. He didn’t fulfill his contract so he’s not eligible for the GI Bill. Even if he were, he explains, he still couldn’t afford to go to school without loans. He’d be wracked with debt just like so many other students who are down at their city’s Occupations. “I just want to go to college and teach high school,” he says.

For Patterson, like the other vets I spoke to, the Occupy Movement has provided a way to channel their outrage and their energy. Their involvement has been a plus for the movement, too, because vets are extremely helpful if you are planning a tent city in a park — they can get things done, and they are used to living in tents.

tina dupuy

It’s worth noting the anti-war movement during Vietnam was given legitimacy after the vets became their voice (John Kerry for example). But the vets themselves take solace in the act of being useful.

Or as Patterson puts it: “I haven’t had one nightmare since I’ve been here.”

Tina Dupuy
Taking Eternal Vigilance Too Far 

Image credit: Tina DuPuy


  1. Ray Bishop says

    Tina thanks for reporting on our Vets. I am a Vietnam Veteran who lived in a tent for a year and I share the feelings of some of the Vets you spoke to who understand war and are opposed to it. I had gone to the war Gung Ho for America and my Religion, the son of a WWII and Korean War Hero. I did my job in Vietnam and was commended for my actions.
    I came back with a distrust for the American System and Religion as well. I felt lost at home and survived by my efforts an activist and organizer for an end to the war. It is such a shame that we grow up believing in Religion and our Country and then must face up to the lies, after seeing and feeling first hand the devastation of war. It is no surprise to me that Veterans sometimes feel that they were mislead into a war to benefit the wealthy and have difficulty assimilating into society after the experience. In recent times the answer was to go back to the war but that has made everyday life even more difficult. It is sad to think that we do not learn from our past.

  2. Ryder says

    Hi Tina,

    Did you do an article on the veterans at the Tea Party events? If not, I’m curious as to why not? Is it because those veterans don’t agree with you, and your reporting is really just “confirmation bias”?

    And I am curious about people’s attitudes toward the second 1%… those in the 98-99% range… just under the 1%.

    Do you really support that group? Do you think they are your peers?

    At $8.35 an hour, does that mean you consider yourself on parity with the second 1%?

    I wonder how well people have thought this through….

    People learn. People gain experience. This is why an 18 year old occupier with tats and various piercings who’s most impressive skill is his skateboarding expertise makes minimum wage, while a 52 year old project manager in charge of the on time, on-budget construction of a new geothermal power plant makes quite a bit more.

    People become more valuable, the longer they have lived on the earth, and their incomes show it.

    We all know that the demographics of the US is that we are getting older… with far, far fewer young children then in decades past. the massive bulge of baby boomers is at retirement age… earning the maximum there lives have ever produced…

    This means that demographics are pushing the $ upwards… and those in the high tax brackets are at all time highs…. not because they are getting richer… but because there are vastly more of them.

    You should hope that as you approach “retirement age” (a strange concept to begin with…) that you are similarly valuable in your skill set… unless you simply don’t want to be paid well for your skills and experience in order to show sympathy toward the skate boarders of the world.

  3. Marie says

    My gratitude to all those vets who have woken up from this Killing-machine-Hypnose, and now are speaking up.
    This way they really become the defenders, serving and fighting for this country’s survival.
    When the military, and the police, both realize how they have been brainwashed into the conveniences of the big Corporations and top 1%, a better world becomes possible again.

  4. says

    I can’t wait until the troops come home from Iraq and start to see what has been happening over here while they were away from their loved ones. I look forward to a LOT more of them joining in the movement when they see how pitiful the job market is out here. I’m making 8.25 an hour and the only reason I will do that is so I don’t have to sleep on the streets and be a burden of society. As it is, I STILL qualify for food stamps, even though I work a full 40 hour week, every week. How sick is that?

    Go Vets! We need your voices to get this point across: WAR IS BUSINESS – it ONLY serves the wealthy no matter what reason or ideology it is cloaked in!

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