Iraq War veteran is fighting to bring troops home
By Joy Wiltermuth
At 18, Fabian Bouthillette joined the Navy. In his words, he wanted to “do something good and decent.” He served for several years, but then as the Iraq War began and raged on, he found what he was doing was for all the wrong reasons.
Bouthillette, now 27, found the antiwar group Iraq Veterans Against the War through an Internet search for “Veterans for Peace.” He connected with the mission of the group, as part of which he is now fighting to end military support for the war and to broaden outreach to local veterans.
For the past three years, Bouthillette, who lives on the Lower East Side, has studied the antiwar movement and Vietnam-era activism.
“I went from a very innocent, young Navy officer to becoming a veteran in the antiwar movement, instead of a veteran of the Navy,” he reflected recently during an interview at the Bluestockings Bookstore and Cafe on Allen St., near his home.
Now, Bouthillette is the secretary and outreach coordinator for Iraq Veterans Against the War’s New York chapter, which shares space with the War Resisters’ League in Noho, at 339 Lafayette St.
I.V.A.W. was founded in 2004, by a group of Iraq War soldiers who were united in their opposition to the conflict. They were no longer willing to remain silent about their experiences or their desire to see the war end.
The group’s second-floor office is reached by climbing a dark, cramped staircase. The narrow hall is littered with tacked-up fliers and old posters. It opens to a cluttered, sunlit space.
“You walk in there and you feel like you’re in the ’60s protesting Vietnam,” Bouthillette said.
I.V.A.W. offers support to fellow soldiers and provides a forum to those willing to talk about their experiences.
“It’s not about being anti-military. It’s just about being anti-occupation,” he explained.
Army Captain Luis Carlos Montalván served two combat tours in Iraq. He joined I.V.A.W. because he said no other organization was as genuine in its commitment to extricating the United States from Iraq.
“Too many irresponsible acts by utterly loathsome politicians and military leaders have caused our national woes for the past eight years,” Montalván said. He said I.V.A.W. veterans have a shared understanding that foreign policy changes need to be made.
The organization sponsors Winter Soldiers, a speakers panel of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, in which Montalván has been a participant. The group collects testimony and talks to the public about day-to-day life on the ground, for soldiers and civilians, in these war zones.
Once a month, I.V.A.W. heads out to local armories. Bouthillette said their presence lets soldiers know there is an active antiwar movement led by veterans. They hand out fliers and try to talk about the war.
“Our troops need to feel that America has their back if they want to resist,” he said. “We are the ones that really understand where they come from.”
I.V.A.W. has built up a network of local therapists offering free mental health services.
“The guys that really are emotionally struggling come really motivated,” he said, but added that they risk burnout from opening up about their feelings. “They talk about their experiences a lot. They want to get if off their chests.”
Bouthillette grew up in Arlington, Va., about a mile from the Pentagon. He graduated high school in the late 1990s and promptly enrolled in the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., to get a good education.
“I’m a guy who grew up poor. It was just that simple,” he said of his joining the military.
He graduated from the Naval Academy in 2003, with a five-year commitment. But in a strange twist of fate, the Navy commissioned too many officers, and in November 2004, it requested volunteers to waive their active-duty requirement.
“I was quick to jump on it,” Bouthillette said of his decision to leave the service. “I was not going to work hard to support the war machine anymore. Once I came to that realization, I could no longer do it.”
Still, there are elements of the military that Bouthillette misses.
“You’re just part of a huge community that works really hard together,” he said. He remembers navigating the U.S.S. Curtis Wilbur, a guided-missile destroyer, in the Sea of Japan. “Just looking at that alone not why we were doing it or the political reasons was awesome,” he said. “And, I will never do that again. I’ll never be the officer on deck on a warship.
“One second I am an officer in the Navy and next second I am just an unemployed guy,” he said, recalling his retirement from active duty. He walked off the base, took off his uniform and got into a friend’s car. “That was it. I was happy, but it was weird.
“You just feel betrayed,” he said about the toll the Iraq War is taking on the military. “I think a lot of guys feel that way, in whatever they were doing.”
The best thing that could happen is that the war just ends, Bouthillette said.
“Then we are all left without a job. I’m dying for that day to come,” he said. “But until that day comes, we are pushing forward.”