have courage. take heart. bear witness.

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Adele Kubein interview transcript

Peace activist mother, National Guard daughter

Adele: I've been active in the peace movement, actually, since the Viet Nam era. And I credit, really, my mother, because my mother worked for the Army as a keypunch operator at the Presidio, in San Francisco. And her job was to tally every single Viet Nam war casualty. And she used to come home just weeping and cursing, because she said far more soldiers were being injured and killed than the newspapers would admit. She was the one who had to do a keypunch card for every single one of those dead and injured soldiers. So she raised an awareness of me. I was born in '54, so I was only about twelve years old when I began to protest the Viet Nam war. And by the time I was thirteen, I think, I had been beat up by the tactical squad in a big protest in San Francisco, so I came to it early—to that awareness.

So, in 1998, I had left my husband at the time, and my daughter and I moved in together, and we were really struggling to survive. My daughter was in college at Oregon State University, in a marine biology program, and she knew that I was working seven days a week just to help her get through college. So she decided that the Oregon National Guard might be a good way to earn some extra money. She was really in the height of youth and health and strength. She was 19 years old. She was a wild-land firefighter. We used to go hiking and backpacking and mountain-biking together, and climb mountains, and she was kind of macho, you might say.

So I said, "Why are you doing this?" And she just rolled her eyes at me, like any 19-year-old and said, "Oh, Mom, there's never going to be another war." And I said, "Well, I hope you're right." And she said, "I want to fight fires. I'm going to build roads. They're going to teach me how to be a diesel mechanic, and I can serve the people of Oregon, and I'll get some college money for it."

And she also felt a need for discipline. I did raise her in a rather unstructured fashion. And we just didn't know, at the time, that something like September 11th was going to happen. So, you know, I just said, "Well, okay, you know, you're an adult—you can make your own choices, and it's probably a good thing. You'll get some discipline, and you'll learn how to focus more on stuff." And we left it at that, until September 11th, 2001, when she and I just kind of looked at each other, and I said, "You're going to war." And she said, "Yep, I know I am."

And we talked about it, and I said, "You know, I'll support you if you choose not to." And she said, "I have to. I'm a sergeant. I have my own soldiers that I have to take care of. I have to fulfill my commitment." And she told me that they told her unit, "You will go to Iraq and you will build schools and you will build orphanages, and the people are going to welcome you with flowers and candy."

And I just looked at her and said, "Well, you don't believe that, do you?" And she said, "No, but maybe we can do some good there." She was mobilized on February 14, 2003, before the invasion happened—and at the time, it was believed, "Oh, it will be just like the first Gulf War, you know. We'll go in, we'll bomb the hell out of them, we'll get out." There was only those of us who really were well versed in foreign policy understood what was going to happen.

Our gift from the war

Adele: When she first went to Iraq, she was the .50-caliber gunner and the convoy field mechanic—and she got into Mosul, and she thought, "Well, I'm going to act as if this is my family." And she started befriending people and shopping in the local market. The other soldiers just couldn't understand her. And she would bring food to widows and have them cook for her, and she saw the scars that Saddam Hussein had left on the people, particularly up in the north, which is ... Mosul is close to Kurdistan. And so she at first said, "You know, this country will be better off."

But within three weeks of their arrival, things started to deteriorate, because her unit was attached to the 101st Airborne, and those guys, they were not trained to be nation-builders. And the mix of the National Guard troops and those professional soldiers was not good, at all. And it wasn't good for the people of Mosul, either, and we know the rest. It spiraled into chaos, quickly. And, shortly, she wasn't able to shop in the market anymore, and then she wasn't able to go out and meet with her friends anymore. And she saw the rubble, the mess that was left of Mosul, a town that had many million people when they first got there. And it's agonizing to her to think of what's happened to the people that she befriended.

You know, as a mother, you raise your children to respect life and to be kind to people, and you have hopes for your children. And you always think you're prepared to accept anything they do, even up unto murder, or whatever, because they're your children and you love them and you can never actually turn away from them, no matter what they do.

Before my daughter left for Iraq, I said, "No matter what happens there, you always just keep talking to me. And I will always love you, no matter what, because I trust you to make the right judgment in the moment that you're in."

And one night, she called me in the middle of the night and she was just weeping and she was out there in the middle of the desert. And she said, "Mom, I'm never going to be able to come home. I am never going to be able to live a normal life again. I cannot live anymore. I just can never come back."

My heart just sunk, and I thought, "Oh, my God. What's happened? What's happened?" And she said, "Mom," she said, "I killed a 12-year-old boy today." She said, "I looked in his eyes when he was dying." She said, "He was just trying to protect his family." She said, "I was just so scared." And she said, "What am I going to do? How can I ever come home again?"

And I just begged her. I said, "You just get back here." I said, "We're going to make everything okay. You just get back here." And I just despaired, because I thought, "Now this is part of who she is and we will never, ever, ever be able to go back. And she's going to be there longer, the war is intensifying, and she's going to kill other people."

I was so angry and so upset that my daughter had been taken away from me—taken away for real. That she was never coming back, even if she came back. That that would not be her. So, she did come back, but she didn't come back as her.

So after that fateful phone call, I just continued to encourage her, "Please, please, you know, everything's going to be okay. And you did what you had to do at the moment, and it doesn't make you bad."

And in November of 2004, she was shot down in a helicopter, close to Mosul, and she was injured. But her sergeant didn't believe that she was hurt, and he kept her in combat for two more months, until an officer saw her limping and forced them to send her to the hospital for x-rays. And it turned out that she had a shattered leg and it had been that way for two months, and that they probably wouldn't be able to repair it. And so they medevacked her out to, first Germany, and then the United States. And when they did a preop screening on her, she found out that she had been pregnant in combat for three-and-a-half months.

They didn't tell the female soldiers that the antimalarial drugs made their birth control fail. So they told my daughter, "Well, you're going to have to have an abortion, because, you know, we can't operate on you like this, and if we let the leg go, it'll just be messed up forever." And she said, "I've killed enough people, and I'm not killing another soul."

And so, of course, they were very worried, because my daughter had been exposed to depleted uranium and exposed to anthrax shots and oil fires and a number of other toxins. And so they did all these tests on the baby—on the fetus—and they thought that everything was okay.

And she had the baby on August 5, and he's beautiful and gorgeous and, until he was about a year old, and I noticed he wasn't talking. And I said, "There's something wrong." Apparently, he has something so rare that they really haven't seen it before. He is unable to use language in any form—written, sign, or verbal. And we have no idea, at all, how he processes things.

So he's our gift from the war, really, because he is the way that my daughter has come to terms with the things that she did and saw in Iraq. She was suicidal when she came back. And until she realized that she was pregnant, I could see she was going to go downhill. So by raising this lovely child, she is atoning, and it has saved her life.

Getting care, taking care

Adele: Posttraumatic stress is a very real disorder. I saw my friends come back from Viet Nam, and they were wrecked. Not every soldier comes back unable to function. But if you have any kind of compassion for other human beings, and you see the kind of carnage that you see in war, you are going to come back scarred. You may not be a bad person. You may not turn into an alcoholic or a drug addict. You may be able to hold a job. You may be just fine. But, still, that is inside your head.

My daughter, she wakes up screaming sometimes. Any loud noise still makes her hit the deck, and she's been back for four years. So these things are very real, and soldiers really need help for them. I have three close friends whose sons have committed suicide since they returned. And they didn't get the help that they needed.

So, this is a fine line. You have to be aware of what these troops have been through, but you can't stigmatize them. I don't know exactly where that line is, but they need our help. They don't need us to wave flags and yellow ribbons at them. They don't need us to glorify the things that they've seen and done. What they need us to do is give them opportunities, care, compassion, and love and acceptance.

We must understand that no matter what they did over there, we sent them to do it. They were soldiers. They were doing what they said they were going to do, and they were following orders. We're the people who were pulling the lever in the voting booth. So now all of those returning troops are our responsibility. We have to do the very best that we can for them.

My daughter has fought the Veterans Administration, for almost five years now, just to get care. She lives in constant pain. There are no tendons and ligaments holding her bones together anymore, and the bones just rub together every time she makes a movement. The doctors have recommended that she have an amputation and a nice prosthesis so maybe once again we might be able to go hike, or go up on a mountain again together, do some of those things where she could live a pain-free life again.

We have struggled and struggled for almost five years. Every time that I go to a congressman's office or the governor'' office, they pay attention to her for a little while, and then she falls between the cracks again. They're supposed to fit her for new orthotics and a new brace, every six months, because the leg degenerates so rapidly. She has been sewing the same brace together by hand for two years now.

She is just one of over 400,000 veterans who are in the system right now, and the VA system is so overburdened, and people who don't have somebody to fight for them, they have nothing. They just get pretty much shunted out there into the cold. You cannot imagine how many people are not getting the care that they deserve. So it's up to the people out there to make sure that the vets are treated with compassion—that they're taken care of.

Every single one of you has a voice. I have spoken with many Congress people. They tell me that when they get a handwritten letter or a phone call from a constituent, it's a big thing to them. You have far more power than you can ever imagine.

Not only that, we must take care of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan who we have devastated. We can't put it back together again. We broke it. But that doesn't mean that we have to abandon those people. So we've got to push. We have to push to take care of people—both American troops and the Iraqi people and the people of Afghanistan, as well.

Speaking up

Adele: Military Families Speak Out was formed in November of 2002. It was formed by three parents. We range all the way from extremely conservative and finely focused, to antiwar and pacifist, and every kind of gradation in between. The hope was that they could get military families together, who would then go to Congress and sort of head off the war before it began. But that didn't work.

But what happened was, when family members started seeing this organization, all of a sudden, there was a landslide of people writing in and going, "I want to join, I want to join." Because they thought, "What can I do?" I mean, we were powerless. We're not rich, we're not highly educated, normally. Then, all of a sudden, here was an organization that was supposed try to stop this war. And, so, we grasped at it, and it gave us the means to do something, rather than just sit at home and cry about what was happening to our loved ones.

In my own particular case, my daughter was stuck on an Army base a thousand miles away from home, and they weren't gong to send her home. At the beginning of the war and the occupation, there was no plan in place for National Guard troops should they be injured. At the time, 40% of the troops in Iraq were National Guard—40%. Here, we have injured soldiers coming back, they have to go on an Army base and stay on active duty to be treated, because there's no medical care for National Guard members once they're not on active duty. They don't have anything.

So, here she is. She's injured, and they have a number of injured National Guard troops with her, from various units. And they're all on this base in Colorado. And so they line them up and they tell them, "Hey, you know what? You guys have to stay on active duty to be treated. If you don't sign this waiver absolving us of any duty to treat you past 90 days, we're not going to send you home."

Well, a number of them signed the waiver, because they wanted to go home. They didn't want to be stuck away from home for another, you know, year or however long. I mean, they just came back from war. But my daughter, she was smart. She refused to sign the waiver, because she was severely injured, and she said, "What am I going to do? How am I going to be treated?" They said, "Well, you're going to have to stay on active duty."

Well, the months roll by and the months roll by, and I'm flying over there all of the time, and pretty soon the baby's due. And it's August, and the baby's born, and I'm there for a couple of months. And I'm in school, you know. I was an undergraduate at the time. And I'm going, "How am I going to handle this? How can I keep doing this?"

And here she is, she's totally freaking out. I mean, here's a woman with severe posttraumatic stress, a severe injury, and a brand new baby. And my friends would go and fly out there and be with her for a while, but, you know, we're running out of people to take care of them.

And so I saw my congressman, Peter DeFazio, on campus, and I went up to him and I said, "I really, really need your help." I said, "My daughter's stuck in Colorado. They don't want to operate on her, they're not treating her, but they're keeping her on active duty. And I said, "We've got to get this kid home. She needs to be with her mother. She needs some help."

So he said, "Okay." He said, "Write a letter and tell me what you want." So I wrote a letter explaining all of the things that have happened, and explaining that this is happening to National Guard troops all over the country.

So, Peter DeFazio read it on the Congressional floor. And Congress, they issued a literal act of Congress, and sent it to the Secretary of the Army, to have all of the things that I asked for happen. They sent my daughter home, she was seen by civilian doctors, she got to keep her job pay until they decided if she was too disabled to work, and they started addressing her disability.

So it worked. And then Congress became aware of what was happening with the National Guard troops, because they just never thought about it. Nobody had told them. So that's what the organization really does, is our voices get heard, where they may have never been heard before in our entire lives. And, all of a sudden, we have some way to be heard, and we have some way to do something that we feel is constructive. It's something that's actually working, because now, I read our talking points coming out of the mouth of the media—so I know that we've been successful.

So how many other people know what it's like for us? It is a volunteer Army. Not everybody's sacrificing. It's easy for everybody to say, "Oh, yeah, let's go off to war," but, hey, they're not enlisting. They're not giving up their sons and daughters. So I think that they need to hear from us, or else our loved ones will just be forgotten when they come back. Nobody will tend to them. Nobody will take care of them. Nobody will care about them if we don't speak up.

And, also, I think it's important for the public to hear voices like my voice, because that way, they understand that military families come in all different types, and that this is real, what's happening to our kids. When I go to speak, I want people to understand what it's like—bring them a little insight into something that they will hopefully never, ever have to go through. And then, all of a sudden, our soldiers become somebody real—not just some stupid yellow ribbon on the back of a car.

I speak to high schools, because I try to head them off at the pass. I want to take that glorification of war away, you know, and get them to thinking more like, "Yeah, well I might be twenty-seven and never be able to walk around the block again or do any of the things I like," you know? I mean, they need to realize there are realities.

And I speak to everybody who'll listen. I think that it's just really important to talk to everybody and let them know where I stand, because either it surprises them, or they go on to tell somebody else, or at the very least, it gets them to think.

As adults—and voting adults, and people who are supposed to be in charge of our country—it's up to us. We have to understand what drives young men and young women. For instance, people always said, "Well, why are you protesting the war? Why are you protesting what's happening to your daughter? She signed up."

But for one, she signed up in the National Guard in a time of peace. But even for all of the soldiers and the troops, they don't really know. I mean, they're not adults. They think they want to do this. They think that this is good, that it's wonderful, that it's exciting. And it's up to us, as the adults, to make sure that they don't get misused. To make sure that we don't send them somewhere and turn them into killers for no good reason.