July 2, 2010

Double duty: Soldier, activist

Chris Rushlau protested the Iraq war, but served and was wounded. Two from Maine died that day - five others, like Sgt. Rushlau, were wounded in the attack.

By KEVIN WACK Staff Writer

Originally published in the Portland Press Herald on Friday, December 21, 2007

click image to enlarge

Chris Rushlau, of Portland, holds up newspaper pages as he discusses his conflicting emotions about serving in Iraq as a sergeant with the Maine Army National Guard, 133rd Engineer Battalion.

People always ask Chris Rushlau the same question. How did an outspoken anti-war activist nearing his 50th birthday end up serving in Iraq?

Rushlau, a sergeant in the Maine Army National Guard's 133rd Engineer Battalion, hears it so often that he's come up with a standard response: ''Because I didn't have the courage to object. Because I'm a coward.''

Three years ago today, Rushlau was wounded in a suicide bomb attack on a U.S. military base near Mosul, in northern Iraq. Twenty-two people were killed, including two Maine soldiers. Another 66 people were injured. It remains the deadliest attack on a U.S. base since the start of the war.

A newspaper photograph of Rushlau, resting shirtless on a gurney after the bombing, made him the picture of GI valor. But there was more to Rushlau's story than met the eye.

Before the United States invaded Iraq, he marched against the war. He then served honorably in Iraq for nearly a year. Today, he remains deeply conflicted about his service there.

During a series of interviews over the past year, Rushlau grappled with the question of why he went to Iraq, even though he was eligible for retirement.

Rushlau, now 52, said he takes seriously the oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, yet he also believes that the military is now fighting an unjust war.

Rushlau is a lifelong student - he holds three post-secondary degrees - and said he approached his tour of duty in much the same way a graduate student might view research work in a foreign country.

''I saw this as an opportunity, '' he said.

Earlier this year, Rushlau sat inside the Al-Amin Halaal Market, a Somali restaurant near Maine Medical Center in Portland, which he had suggested as the place for an interview.

''We invaded Iraq because we were suicidal, '' he said. ''The mood in 2001 was feverish.''

TRAUMA AND OPTIMISM

Rushlau, a Brunswick native who lives in Portland, is a wiry man with thinning, graying hair. As he talked, he used his fingers to scoop rice off his plate, a technique that he learned during his younger days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya.

He spoke in long, complex paragraphs, drawing from a vast reservoir of academic knowledge. At times he grew so intense that his forehead became rutted with creases.

Rushlau didn't agree with the Bush administration's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But like many Americans, he was deeply affected by that traumatic day.

At the time, he had been serving in the National Guard for more than 20 years, and he had recently graduated from the University of Maine School of Law.

Rushlau was already a close follower of Middle East politics, and the terrorist attacks led him to begin studying the region more closely. He decided not to take the bar exam, and he began spending a good deal of time studying Arabic on the Internet.

When the 133rd was called up for active duty in 2003, Rushlau remained idealistic enough to think that his presence could be beneficial in building a post-Saddam Iraq.

''He always has been a student ... he's always felt there's more to learn, '' said his brother, Geoff, who is the district attorney for four coastal Maine counties. ''So I'm sure that he would have approached going to a foreign country with as much interest in learning about what was going on there.''

As Rushlau got ready to deploy, he optimistically packed his Arabic study materials. But he never got a chance to use them.

(Continued on page 2)

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