Fort Hood: Iraq and Afghanistan - the resurgence of anti-war cafes

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In Killeen, Texas, the Under the Hood Cafe is getting military families and soldiers organised. Its founder, Cynthia Thomas, talks to Judith Orr


Why did you set up the Under the Hood Outreach Center and Cafe?

The concept of the coffee houses has been around since the 1960s during the Vietnam War. There was actually one here in Killeen during that time called the Oleo Strut. When the wars started with Afghanistan and Iraq, people were talking about setting up a coffee house again.

Then in 2005 my husband was severely wounded in Iraq and he was flown to Washington. He was on life support. After 30 days of minimal rehabilitation we chose to go home to Fort Hood where again he got little help. With our support and his self-determination he managed to get back on his feet.

But in 2007 the military decided to redeploy him for the third time despite the doctors saying that because of his physical injuries he could not wear his protective equipment or even his gun. He also had traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yet they redeployed him.

Only two months into his deployment his son, my stepson, decided he was going to join the Marine Corps. That's when I realised, our children are going to be fighting these wars.

I started looking for other groups and organisations that were against the war the very next day. Killeen, Texas, is a very conservative town and all the area around here is very pro-military and pro-war. I had to go to Austin to meet an anti-war group. I started speaking out, going to protests and actions.

The idea of a coffee house was always talked about but raising enough money for it and doing it is a very different thing. Then one day someone contacted a local soldier, an Iraq Veterans Against the War member, and we talked about raising money. He and our other members were all soldiers on active duty who had no time to work on the project. So I told them I would take it on.

What's been the response in Killeen?

We've not had a problem. I had spoken to some spouses on a forum - they were all from Fort Hood and they thought it was a great idea. We helped soldiers by informing them of their rights. For example, if they are discouraged or denied legal or medical help we put them in contact with an attorney or councillors. When we started supporting our resisters they weren't so happy, but we haven't had any major issues.

On 25 May 2009, Memorial Day, we had our first anti-war march here in Killeen since the Vietnam War. We got positive responses: people drove by giving us the peace sign, honking their horns, and people from some businesses came out and waved at us. People need to know how hard it is for soldiers to speak out, especially because the command here has a lot of pull. So some stayed quiet, but they did give us the thumbs up. There were soldiers who wanted to come but were worried their command might find out.

Most soldiers have PTSD or traumatic brain injury. Others have issues with the command about not being taken care of. The cafe is a place they can come and talk about those things. To unwind we have big screen TV; we have an Xbox and darts, things like that. They come, we listen to music, we talk - a lot of the time we just talk about foreign policy and stories we're hearing about other resisters.

Do you think there is an increase in the number of resisters?

It's very hard for soldiers to just stand up and say they won't go back. They do other things to resist. They end up going awol or they will take drugs, even just marijuana, in the hope they'll be discharged from the army when they are tested for drugs.

We have found out that a lot of our soldiers do that instead of going up to the command and saying, "I refuse to go." When they refuse the first thing the command wants to do is court-martial them and send them to jail to set an example.

One of your board members worked in the original cafe, the Oleo Strut.

Absolutely. Tom Cleaver, who was the first to contact me, did. That's why he thought it was really important that soldiers start talking about how they can work together. The times are so different now. Back in the 1960s a lot of them were draftees who were single. Now we have a lot of families and they're a "volunteer" military.

At Fort Hood we're seeing soldiers coming back from all these deployments with mental, emotional and psychological issues and they're getting forced out with no benefits, without any help. A lot of these boys are self-medicating to a very high degree, they're violent, they have a lot of anger issues, memory loss, blackouts, and they have no impulse control. They're pushing them out and just recruiting more.

In Britain there is a growing mood turning against the war in Afghanistan, it's no longer seen as the "good war". What is the mood around the people you work with?

They feel the exactly the same way. They ask, what are we doing over there? For them it's basically a suicide mission. The soldiers say, "We're not going to win. We will never have enough troops and there is no specific mission." Even when they go out on patrol they're like, "Ok, so what's our mission? What are we supposed to do? What are we looking for?" and the officers tell them, "I don't know. Just go out there and patrol." It's a joke, and they know it.

They all thought it was great that we were getting out of Iraq but now they're getting sent to Afghanistan. They know it's not going to stop. They're just hoping they survive it and don't come back too messed up; they want to finish up their contracts and leave.

Do you feel that Barack Obama is offering anything different?

Personally, he is a huge disappointment. I hoped he was going to be the peace president, hopefully more to the left.

The anti-war movement here in the US sort of died down once Obama was elected. In our military community we are wondering what the hell's going on. Our soldiers are still dying - we're still stuck here in these wars. It's extremely frustrating to watch even our very vocal anti-war organisations quiet down.

Now we have to fight that much more to renew the struggle. We need to remind people of what's happening. The majority of Americans now don't want the war but the politicians don't care what we think. We have to start waking people back up because nothing is going to change otherwise. We are going to lose thousands more, and we have already lost so many. Fort Hood has lost the most soldiers because it is the biggest and main deployment base.

At this time our goal is to raise enough money to keep Under the Hood open for another year because the soldiers really do benefit from it. Some who come in are considering suicide and we make sure they get immediate help, and that family members get the support they need too. We don't just give the soldiers a voice; we also help them get through any crisis they're having, which the military is definitely not doing.

For more information or to support the Under the Hood Cafe go to its website


Anti-war coffee shops at a glance

During the Vietnam War dozens of anti-war coffee shops were set up next to military bases across the US. They were places soldiers could go for support and to get organised and were part of the huge groundswell of anti-war resistance in the military that saw mutinies, fragging of officers and a mass campaign against the draft.

Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, is the biggest US military base. Its first coffee house, the Oleo Strut, was set up in July 1968. It took its name from the shock absorber in a helicopter's landing gear - to give soldiers a softer landing.

Within a month it played a part in an inspiring episode of GI resistance. After a night-long meeting of 100 black soldiers on the base, 43 refused to fly to Chicago to be used against anti-war demonstrators outside the National Democratic Convention. The 43 were chosen as they were all combat veterans who had been awarded medals for bravery - to stop the army accusing them of cowardice.