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.

Increasingly, there was a conflict between Rushlau's sense of adventure, which had been a factor in his decision to join the National Guard in 1979, and his intellectual side, which deplored the Iraq war as an unprovoked attack.

By the time the 133rd arrived in northern Iraq, Rushlau's anti-war views were well-known within his battalion. And they annoyed some of his fellow soldiers, said Charlie Amborn, who was Rushlau's roommate in Iraq.

''A lot of guys would say, 'Chris got a lot of college, but he ain't got no common sense, ''' Amborn said.

Sgt. Wayne King, Rushlau's commander for the last 15 years, said some soldiers didn't appreciate that Rushlau had attended an anti-war rally in Portland in 2002. But he added that Rushlau is entitled to his views.

''Yeah, we have our moments, '' King said, ''but he's a good soldier.''

'THAT GUY'S DEAD'

Salad dressing was on Rushlau's mind as he ate lunch in the military base's dining hall on Dec. 21, 2004. Rushlau is a cook in the National Guard, and before sitting down to eat he had delivered 20 hot lunches to soldiers who were working at the base's security gates. He'd forgotten to bring salad dressing, and the oversight was bothering him.

After finishing his meal, Rushlau reached down to pick up his rifle. Then the horror began.

A suicide bomber who had managed to sneak inside the dining tent detonated his explosives.

Seconds of unconsciousness followed, and when Rushlau came to his senses, he was kneeling on the floor. Dust hung in the air. Tables were strewn. A grayish light shone through a massive hole in the fabric tent that housed the dining hall.

Earlier in his Guard career, Rushlau had trained as a paramedic. Those instincts took over. He got to his feet and began assessing the victims, who included Sgt. Lynn Poulin Sr. and Spc. Thomas Dostie, both of Maine.

To this day, stomach-turning memories of the carnage are frozen in Rushlau's mind. One man's head was split open. Another's was twisted off.

''I didn't recognize any of these people, '' he recalled, ''but a second before they had been living people.''

Soon, a medic arrived. Rushlau saw an officer leaning over a fallen body, saying, ''You're not going to quit on me.''

''I said, 'Well, major, that guy's dead, ' '' he said.

Rushlau was luckier. He had a collapsed lung, a partially torn eardrum and many shrapnel wounds, but he had survived.

Later that day, Rushlau was receiving care at the 67th Combat Support Hospital in Mosul when Gregory Rec, a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram photographer who was embedded with the troops, captured his image.

In the published photograph, Rushlau's side is heavily bandaged but his face appears to be full of good cheer. In reality, Rushlau said, he felt like punching someone.

He was flown to Germany for more medical care, then taken back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

A few months later he was part of a group of wounded soldiers invited to a star-studded concert at the Kennedy Center for the Arts. While Aretha Franklin and Dwight Yoakam performed on stage, Rushlau sat fourth-row center. Suddenly, he was a hero in a war that he opposed.

A SENSE OF DUTY

The bombing stays with Rushlau - in vivid detail. But its impact on his life is not obvious. He is not disabled. He opposes the war now, just as he did before. And he plans to spend the bombing's third anniversary just like any other day.

''Not a bit different, '' he said his week.

Earlier this year, Rushlau brought up the legal case of Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused orders to go to Iraq, arguing that the war is illegal, and was subsequently court-martialed.

While not in complete agreement with Watada's actions, Rushlau expressed admiration for his willingness to make a principled stand against the war. Rushlau never suggested that he agonized over whether to take a similar position.

''I never got the sense that he hesitated about going, '' said Dan Hunter, a friend from the State Street Congregational Church in Portland. ''He didn't agree with the cause, but he went anyway, because that's what he was supposed to do.

''There was always this inconsistency between my sense of his world view and his joining the military, '' Hunter said. ''That's one of the big paradoxes about Chris.''

There were practical reasons for Rushlau to stay in the National Guard. He does not have a full-time job, and he said that he earned about $70,000 during his year overseas.

There might have also been social and emotional considerations.

Rushlau is single, and he lives alone in a small apartment in Parkside. Guard duty provides opportunities to socialize. It also provides some structure in Rushlau's life.

But he remains divided about his role in the U.S. armed forces.

At one point, he recounted an encounter with a fellow guardsman in which the two citizen-soldiers exchanged smirks.

He interpreted the colleague's expression to mean, ''How's your quest to save the Army and the Constitution going?''

''Oh, fine, '' was Rushlau's unspoken response.

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