U.S. Army veteran Jose Vasquez shares about growing up on welfare, seeing military service as an escape from violence and police brutality, and finally leaving the military as a conscientious objector. He now works with fellow veterans who want to share their stories and their passion for social change.
In October CUSLAR hosted Jose Vasquez, a U.S. Army veteran and former Executive Director of Iraq Veterans Against the War, now known as About Face. Vasquez is currently a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and the Training Director of the Veterans Organizing Institute, a program of Beyond the Choir. He is also part of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. CUSLAR Coordinator Tim Shenk spoke with Vasquez during his visit to Cornell University.
Tim Shenk: You served in the U.S. Army for 14 years. How important is the military in American life?
Jose Vasquez: I’m one of 22 million living veterans in this country, 3 million of whom have served since 9/11. Then you have our families. In addition you have private military contractors, and manufacturing for military equipment is distributed throughout all 50 states. The F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, for example, is produced in 98 places around the country. That’s a lot of people touched by the military.
Soldiers are a quintessential part of the American story, back to the Minutemen and the Revolutionary War. General George Washington was this country’s first president, and the idea that military leaders make good political leaders has been used ever since. The military shapes our economy and our foreign policy. Militarism, which is the dominance of war values, is deeply institutionalized.
TS: Did you grow up around the military?
JV: My dad is a Vietnam vet, so I’ve been around vets’ issues all my life.
I was born in 1974 in the South Bronx. This was in the midst of industrialization and the “Bronx is Burning” period where landlords were burning down buildings to get people out and make money on the insurance.
My dad did two tours in Vietnam, and he was not all together when he got home. We dealt with domestic violence, and my dad drank a lot.
My mom decided to move with four kids to California and raise us. I experienced the Bronx in the late ’70s early ’80s and then LA where the Rodney King riots happened while I was in high school.
TS: What drew you to enlist yourself?
JV: I wanted to get away from gang violence, police brutality and a lack of access to jobs. On career day at my high school, all of the branches of the military showed up. They rolled a tank onto the basketball court, and people were rappelling off of the gym.
I grew up on welfare. I knew my parents weren’t going to be able to pay for college, so the military was a way out. It was an escape hatch from the craziness of the early ’90s in LA.
TS: Can you say some about your years of service?
JV: I shipped off for basic training in 1992, and my first duty station was Fort Benning in Georgia. I was there for a year in the 24th Infantry Division. Then I got stationed in Hawaii for three years. I was with the 25th Infantry. My first job was combat oriented. It was called “reconnaissance specialist.”
Basically, you’re behind enemy lines, which I didn’t fully realize as a high school student when I signed up, but my dad immediately recognized what that job was and how dangerous it was.
At my first duty station everybody from the lowest private to the commander of the unit were combat vets, because they had just gotten back from the Gulf War. That instilled a seriousness in me about this profession. A lot of them had photo albums of their experiences in war, including dead bodies, blown-up tanks, Iraqi children — all of the bad stuff.
I had those images in my head as I was training and doing active duty.
Fast-forward to September 11, 2001.
I was in New York and in the Army Reserve. I had a lot of questions about what we were about to embark on. The way politicians were talking was concerning to me.
I wasn’t political at all. I had never voted prior to September 11, which I’m not proud to say, but I was completely disconnected from political life. All I cared about was pursuing college and using my G.I. Bill.
The military was my second career with the caveat that I could get deployed at any point.
My political consciousness is a long story, but ultimately I left the military as a conscientious objector in May of 2007.
TS: When did you get involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War?
JV: I was doing organizing work for at least two years as a reservist. In 2007 my ties to the military were severed, and I was honorably discharged as a conscientious objector. In the meantime I started grad school.
TS: Your current research is about “the veteran mystique.” Are there certain things people expect of you because you’ve been a soldier?
JV: Certainly. Vets are featured in a narrative about patriotism and sacrifice. We’re held up as those who have been willing to risk our lives for the greater good. We have to reject a blanket adoration of vets, because that has a tendency to shut down the conversation about what’s really going on. Vets come home hurting in so many ways, and those experiences tend to be left out of the larger narrative.
TS: You’re now Training Director at the Veterans Organizing Institute, which works to develop the leadership and organizing skills of veterans who are working for progressive social change. What skills do vets bring to social change work?
JV: The Institute helps vets to understand their position and how to use that powerful part of their identity and experience to speak up. There’s a set of skills that is assumed every soldier or veteran has. “Team player” and “works well under pressure” are supposed to be part of what soldiers do.
These skills translate to social change work. World War II vets like Medgar Evers and Cesar Chavez had an ability to be leaders and a willingness to put themselves in harm’s way.
Vets have skills in logistics and planning, strategy and tactics. One thing that has been missing from the U.S. anti-war movement has been the lack of a larger strategy.
Mobilization, or protest, is only a small part of the work. You have to be able to respond to the strategy of the opposition. What do you do, for example, at Standing Rock, when you start seeing the direct transfer of equipment from the military to the police? How do you respond? You have to develop leadership, which includes knowing history.