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Iraq War combat veteran espouses Middle East peace

The military experience has a profound effect on those who serve, affecting everyone differently.

Matt Southworth is an Iraqi War veteran who has channeled his experiences into a quest for peace. He spoke Wednesday evening to a group of civilians and veterans at the Trinity Lutheran Church community building in Freeland at an event sponsored by the Whidbey Island Friends Meeting (Quakers).

Southworth, who grew up in Florida, had dreams of being the first member of his family to go to college. A high school wrestler, he earned a half-scholarship to a school in Iowa, but his family couldn’t afford the other half of the tuition. Friends talked him into enlisting in the Army in 2002.

Southworth became an Intelligence Analyst. He was deployed to Iraq in January, 2004, at age 19.

“I went to Iraq under the idea we were helping to liberate and free the Iraqi people,” Southworth said, admitting he wasn’t knowledgeable about the Middle East nor the political climate there.

On Valentine’s Day, 2004, Southworth was part of a convoy struck by an improvised explosive device (IED). A piece of shrapnel from the blast sliced the back of a 26-year-old soldier’s head. Southworth and his fellow soldiers watched him bleed to death in the arms of a comrade.

“That’s when things started to change for a lot of us,” he said. “It became less about wanting to help. I wanted to get the bad guys.”

Southworth said his duties included taking intelligence and determining who the IED-makers were. That, in turn, culminated in night raids in Iraqi villages. Soldiers would break down doors in the middle of the night, he said, detaining men and boys thought old enough to fight, covering their heads with cloth bags and taking them to a holding area. The detainees would be held up to 72 hours for interrogation, often deprived of sleep and given limited food. Southworth’s views began to evolve.

“The main problem I identified with this, besides the complicated morality, is that we were casting the net too wide,” Southworth said. “To me, all it seemed to do was to take people who were, up until that point, either neutral or pro-United States, and turn them against us. We were unwittingly radicalizing people.”

After being honorably discharged in 2004, Southworth went to college, earning a double major in political science and history. While in college, he began to get involved in the peace movement, speaking to groups of college students and classes about his experiences in Iraq because he felt people didn’t understand what was really happening there. Now he continues his mission, working for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker peace lobby based in Washington, D.C.

“I’m working primarily to end the war in Afghanistan,” he said, saying the effects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are immeasurable. “We don’t know how it will affect society in the years to come.”

Southworth said his goal was to open a dialogue among those who attended.

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