Former US soldier speaks

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Broadcast: 29/04/2010

Reporter: Tony Jones

US soldier Ethan McCord speaks to Lateline about the fourteen months he served in Iraq and the ‘destructive policies’ of the US Government.


TONY JONES: Well as we just heard, two former US Army soldiers have written an open letter to the people of Iraq. In it Josh Stieber and Ethan McCord apologise for the attack on the van and more broadly for the war in Iraq and what they call the destructive policies of the US Government.

The letter says, quote “The Wikileaks video only begins to depict the suffering we have created.” They accuse the US Government of ignoring the Iraqi people in favour of its public image.

Well, the two served in Iraq for 14 months and as we’ve seen, Ethan McCord was at the scene on the attack on the van. I spoke to him earlier today.

TONY JONES: Ethan McCord, thanks for joining us.

ETHAN MCCORD, FORMER US SOLDIER: Thank you for having me.

TONY JONES: Now can I start by asking you, what went through your mind when you first saw the Wikileaks video?

ETHAN MCCORD: Well I, I, I didn’t know that the ahh, there was actually a video, umm, until the day that it was released and I, ahh, I dropped my children off at school, went home, grabbed a cup of coffee, sat on the couch and turned on the news and, ahem, saw myself running across the television screen carrying a child, umm.

My initial reaction was shock and, umm, anger. Anger that this scene, that had been playing over in my head, was now in front of my face.

TONY JONES: What you finally saw on the video was what happened before you got there; starting with the helicopter gunners looking down on that group of men that, as we now know, included the two Reuters journalists.

Now, tell me what you thought about that first attack. Was it reasonable, from your perspective, to have attacked those men on the ground?

ETHAN MCCORD: From being in the perspective of the Apache helicopter crew, umm I can see where a group of men gathering, um, when there’s a fire fight just a few blocks away, which I was involved in, um, and they’re carrying weapons, one of which is an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade.)

Umm, their overall mission that day was to protect us, to provide support for us. Ahh, so I can see where, where the initial attack on the, on the group of men was warranted.

Umm, however, personally, I don’t feel that the attack on the van was warranted. It, it, it seemed more, it, I think that the people could have been deterred from doing what they were doing in the van by simply firing a few warning shots versus, um, completely obliterating the van and its occupants.

TONY JONES: Ethan we know that soldiers in war are expected to kill, but one of the things people find disturbing about this video is the matter-of-fact way the gunners go about their business and that they’re very pleased when they see the bodies lying on the ground.

Now, did you find that disturbing at all as a former soldier?

ETHAN MCCORD: Well, you know, I, I think that instead of, the, the way that the Apache crew members were talking isn’t unusual. It’s kinda the way that we’re trained to deal with our own personal emotions and feelings about the situations that we’re placed in. Um, it’s almost like a coping mechanism.

Um, you use humour and, ahh, say callous things to kind of dehumanise what, had, had, the people that you’re fighting against and you use that push your emotions down.

TONY JONES: In the first attack the Reuters journalists were killed carrying a camera and a tripod that were identified as being a weapon and the second part, as you say, the helicopter shot up a van and the people who were simply trying to help carry away the wounded. You clearly feel differently about that second attack.

ETHAN MCCORD: Yeah, yeah, um, the second attack, which was on the van, again I felt was, was, was not warranted. Now, in, in war time you’re not supposed to go pick up the wounded but how is every Iraqi citizens supposed to know that if you see somebody laying on the ground wounded that you’re not supposed to pick them up. Um, ah, I think it’s a problem, um, definitely that we engaged this van, um, with children inside it as well, um, simply for the fact of picking up a wounded person.

TONY JONES: Did you see that particular attack on the van as a breach of the rules of engagement?

ETHAN MCCORD: Mmm, you know, when I was in Iraq, the rules of engagement were changing on, ah, almost a constant basis. There was never any actual, like, rules of engagement that you, um, stuck to, um, the entire time you were there. Ah, there was, there was, many times that they changed, almost for a case for case, you know, situation.

So, at that time, I’d, um, in 2007, I don’t think that they broke the rules of engagement per se but, I feel on a more moral and human level, um, instead of engaging the van the way that they did by simply firing a warning shot, being that this person was a citizen and not a combatant. Um, if you were to fire a warning shot, say, in the general direction, into the wall or something, they would have definitely dropped what they were doing and left.

TONY JONES: The Wikileaks site refers to the footage they’ve shown as ‘Collateral Murder.’ Do you think that’s going too far?


I, I, I personally feel that the, um, the way Wikileaks released this video was more of a, a shock factor to try to, to, ah, it was more of a political way of releasing this. Um, I feel that they could have been more responsible in the release of this video.

Um, I do know that when I, when I watched the video they made sure to point out the cameras that the journalists were holding, but failed to point out the weapons that the other people were holding as well.

Collateral murder I think, is, is going a little far, um, as far as saying that soldiers intentionally murder civilians.

TONY JONES: Ethan let me take you back to what happened when you actually arrived on the scene. You’d heard the helicopters, you’d heard the shooting, but when you arrived there, yourself, on foot. What did you actually see? Describe that for us if you can.

ETHAN MCCORD: Yes, ahh … When I got to the scene I was one of the first six soldiers who were dismounted that day to arrive actually on the scene of where the Apaches, um, open fire.

Ah the first thing I saw was about four men, um, laying on the ground and ah, they were pretty much completely destroyed. I’d never seen anybody who had been shot by a 30 millimetre round before and, ah, I don’t want to see that again. It was, it almost didn’t, it didn’t seem real, um, in a sense that it looked more like I was looking at something that would be in a bad horror movie.

Um, I did also notice a couple of RPGs as well as AK47s when I got to the scene. Um, I could hear a small child crying and, ah, the crying was coming from the van that was shot up. I, I I ran over to the van and got to the passenger door and there, it was me and another soldier who was in my unit, and you can see in the video where we both get up to the van, and um, the soldier that I was with turns around and started vomiting at the sight of the children, turned around and ran off not wanting to deal with that situation or, or even look at that.

Um, looking inside of the van I saw a little girl about three or four years old. She had a belly wound, um, as well as glass in her eyes and her hair, pretty much all over the place. Ah, laying next to her, half on the floorboard with his head resting on the bench seat of the van, was a boy approximately seven or eight years old. He had a wound to the right side of his head, um, and next to him, in the driver’s seat was a man who I assumed to be the father at the time.

He was slumped over, almost in a protective nature, over his children, um, and it looked like he had taken one of those 30 millimetre rounds to the chest. So, I, I immediately, ah, assumed he, he was deceased, also the boy wasn’t moving, so I focused my attention on the girl who was sitting there and she was alert and crying.

I picked her up yelled for a medic, ah, the medic and I went into the houses that were behind the van, where the van had crashed and, ah, started tending to the child. Um, we dressed her wounds, I, I picked out as much glass as I could from her eyes, and um, you can hear in the video where the medic states “there’s nothing else I can do here” ah “we need, she needs to be evaced.” Um, and that’s where you can see him running the girl, um, to the Bradley.

Ah, in turn I went back outside to the van, um, looked in and I saw the boy take what appeared to be a laboured breath. I started screaming out “the boys alive, the boy’s alive” and, ah, I picked him up and cradled him in my eyes and told him “don’t die, don’t die”, um and started running towards the Bradley with him.

In doing so he opened his eyes, looked up at me, I told him “it’s OK I’ve got you” and, ah, his eyes rolled back into the back of his head and that’s when I got to the Bradley and placed him inside the Bradley.

TONY JONES: So, what effect did it have on you, seeing children so badly wounded in that way?

ETHAN MCCORD: Well, one of the first things that I thought about when looking in the van was of my own children. I had a son who was born, um, just one month prior to this incident while I was in Iraq. So I had, I hadn’t seen him yet but I had another child and, you know, you’re first thoughts go to, go to children, um your children back home. I was, I was heartbroken seeing this.

Um, I’m still heartbroken to this day I have, that day I felt, um, it was, it was very hard for me to justify after that day what I was doing in Iraq because I felt that in going to Iraq I was going to be doing the Iraqi’s this great justice of helping of them and, ah, ah, protecting them from the so-called insurgents when, after that day, I couldn’t justify, ’cause it seem that we were doing more harm to the citizens of Iraq than good.

TONY JONES: Can you tell us what happened when you got back to your base, after this, because as I understand it, your sergeant was not at all sympathetic, to say the least, to the way that you were feeling?

ETHAN MCCORD: Right, um well, when we went back to the Fob later that evening I was in my room and I was cleaning the blood from the children off of my uniform, off of my IBA (Individual Body Armour), my protective gear and, um, you know, the flood of emotions that I was havin’ it was very hard for me to deal with and to cope and understand exactly what had happened that day.

So I went to the staff sergeant who, um, was in my chain of command and asked him if I could go see mental health there on the Fob. Um, he kind of chuckled and told me to get the sand out of my vagina and to suck it up and to be a soldier and told me that there would be repercussions if I was to go to mental health, um, and said that it’s viewed upon as malingerer in the Army, um, that you’re not doing your job.

A malingerer in the Army is actually a crime. So, I, I, not wanting to have anything to do with that and, um not wanting to have to deal with the, the added pressure of somebody else looking down on me I, ah chose not to go to the mental health and, um, to bottle up as much emotions as I can and move on with my job.

TONY JONES: Was it bad for you doing that, bottling it up and what effect did that ultimately have on you?

ETHAN MCCORD: Um, I think it did because, ah, I, I started becoming very, very angry with the people around me. I would blow up at people, um, and yell and scream at them. I would be angry with everybody and even be angry with myself.

I started, um, watching a lot of movies and listening to music to try to basically escape the realities of what was going on in my own head. So, um, I was escaping into movies and not dealing with my emotions and the realities of what I had seen,

TONY JONES: Did you have the impression, Ethan, that this was unusual or did you see the same sorts of things happening to other soldiers around you?

ETHAN MCCORD: Yeah, the, ah, a lot of, a lot of the same things were happening to the other soldiers that I was serving with. Um, we, you could tell people losing some more of their sense of humour, their ah, their smiles fading, getting upset at the smallest things. Screaming and lashing out at other soldiers if the line at the phones to call home were too long. Um, it just got to the point where everybody, I think, I was kinda breaking in a sense.

TONY JONES: So, why did you actually write this letter? Because reading it you get the impression that, ah, that you started to feel personally responsible for civilian deaths and other terrible things that happened in Iraq.

ETHAN MCCORD: Well the personal responsibility goes as far as, we are a part of the system that injured this Iraqis. That have injured thousands of Iraqis, you know, we want everybody to see that, that this one video is not just an isolated incident, that these things are war. There is, there is no difference between that day or any other day in Iraq other than that one was caught on video and the world got to see it.

TONY JONES: It does seem to me that, that the power of what you’ve done here is because you actually served in the conflict and it’s similar in a way to what happened during the Vietnam War when veterans came home and started speaking about their experiences and turning against the war. I mean, do you see that this has happened before in American history and this is a sort of continuum of that?

ETHAN MCCORD: Ahh, I, I think so. I think that the, ah, you know, veterans who see wars know firsthand what wars um and, come back, and, and want to let people know that war is not, you know, some glorified thing that you watch on television.

Um, you know, you grow up watching John Wayne movies and you start to glorify war in your own head but, in all actuality war is a dirty, ugly, disgusting thing and, ah, if we can speak out any way to help shorten this war and get our troops home where they belong. Um, then we’re going to do anything possible that we can.

TONY JONES: Ethan McCord, we’ll have to leave you there. We thank you very much for taking the time to come and talk to us tonight on Lateline.

ETHAN MCCORD: Thank you for having me.

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