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War Vets To Protest, Return Medals At NATO Summit


A small group of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans and their supporters gathered in Chicago today. They were there to denounce America's role in those wars and this weekend's upcoming NATO Summit.

GRAHAM CLUMPNER: We come to this city in non-violence to stand with our brothers and sisters around the world and say that we have had enough. We are done. These wars need to end yesterday.

SIEGEL: That's Afghanistan War veteran Graham Clumpner, one of may expected to return his service medals Sunday, during an anti-NATO.

NPR's Cheryl Corley profiles the vet who planned the medal giveback.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Walk into Aaron Hughes' apartment and it's impossible to miss the huge, slightly tattered American flag on a wall in his living room.

AARON HUGHES: It came from Vietnam Veterans Against the War. It's actually a very old flag. It only has 48 stars.

CORLEY: On his bookshelf, books about war and, around the room, paintings of military vehicles. He joined the Illinois National Guard while he was in college in 2000.

HUGHES: Yeah. I just wanted to serve.

CORLEY: And, in 2003, his unit was deployed to Iraq.

HUGHES: And I was motivated. I was like, hoo-hah. I'm going to provide humanitarian relief. We're going to help rebuild this country. It's been under sanctions for the last 10 years. It's been under a terrible dictator. We're going to fix some roads, provide some food and water and go home and be heroes.

CORLEY: Hughes, who is 30 years old, says that sentiment slowly eroded as the six month tour he was supposed to serve in Iraq stretched into 15 months.

HUGHES: I was not an infantry soldier. I was not knocking down people's doors. I was not in any firefights. What I was was a truck driver that had to wait every day to get blown up.

CORLEY: Hughes and his crew hauled supplies from the ports of Kuwait to military posts in Iraq.

HUGHES: That really had nothing to do with the people of Iraq and had a lot more to do with establishing an occupation.

CORLEY: Now, Hughes is a field organizer for Iraq Veterans Against the War and he says his job is to try to create a space for veterans to have a voice and be heard. He cites statistics showing service members with increasing rates of suicide, drug usage and other problems and he says NATO generals aren't paying attention.

HUGHES: These generals know that service members under their command are already diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and yet, they're deploying them to Afghanistan.

CORLEY: As he talks, Hughes walks over to his desk and picks up a book called "Dust Memories."

HUGHES: I'll show you my whole war experience.

CORLEY: Hughes is an artist. The book, a collection of drawings and collages and reconstructed photographs of his tour in Iraq. The first drawings are gray charcoal etchings of children or lone military vehicles on long stretches of empty desert.

He says, when NATO leaders meet to talk about withdrawing from Afghanistan, that's a good first step, but not good enough because he believes the alliance has helped create a moral crisis.

HUGHES: Because we're fighting wars that we're told we can build democracies and fight for freedom, but occupations are never about freedom and democracy.

CORLEY: And that, says Hughes, is why Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans will step forward with their medals when the NATO Summit begins on Sunday.

HUGHES: It's like one step to healing. Acknowledging the wrong is one step and that's all we're asking from NATO is to acknowledge that there was a mistake.

CORLEY: Aaron Hughes will return three of his military medals and, while he doesn't expect a NATO general to come out and receive them, he says NATO does need to recognize the voices of dissent from those who served.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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