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A veteran with a voice

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Iraq war veteran 1st Lt. Pete Hegseth served in 2005-06 with the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. Now serving with the New York Army National Guard, Lt. Hegseth is executive director of Vets For Freedom, a nonpartisan group established by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to "educate Americans about the importance of achieving success in these conflicts."

Vets for Freedom recently began airing television ads urging senators to support continuing the U.S. mission in Iraq.

A graduate of Princeton University, Lt. Hegseth plans to pursue a master's degree at Princeton in the fall. The following are excerpts of a recent interview with Lt. Hegseth:

Question: For those that haven't heard of Vets for Freedom and the "Ten Weeks to Testimony" campaign, why don't you start off telling us a little bit about it?

Answer: Vets for Freedom started actually in early 2006 by combat veterans because we did not feel that voice, the vet voice, specifically the pro-mission vets' voice, was ... being heard and was not part of the debate, and those soldiers that have seen it firsthand and fought in combat, their voices were not being heard in the media and throughout the country. So Vets for Freedom was founded as a communication platform, a nonpartisan, apolitical communications platform to really get these guys out there talking about why it is important that we complete the mission. ...

It is important that we give [U.S. Iraq commander Army Gen. David] Petraeus the time, the troops and the resources necessary to see his counterinsurgency strategy through. So our "Ten Weeks to Testimony" is really a crystallization of our larger mission, and we are boiling it down to 10 weeks over the summer, leading up to and until Gen. Petraeus reports [to Congress on progress in Iraq] in the middle of September and really mobilizing our veterans to get active in the states and then in Washington, D.C.

We had vets on [Capitol] Hill in July, about 40 of them on very short notice, and in August we are ... empowering them locally to get involved in town hall meetings and writing to [newspaper] editors and really making sure these members [of Congress], while they're home in the August recess, are really hearing from veterans from their local area, who have been there recently and are telling them we need to complete the mission.

Then in September, that's the culminating event for the "Ten Weeks to Testimony" campaign, we'll be having what we hope to be hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans on the Hill, meeting with members of Congress in the days surrounding when they will be voting about what the future conduct is of the war and whether or not we should continue to fund Gen. Petraeus. It is really just injecting that veterans' voice that's the most credible and the most informed, and also the least represented, in the debate. ...

Q: I see that you were in Iraq, 2005-2006, during the [Iraqi] nationwide elections in October and December, right?

A: Yes.

Q: Well, for people that all you see in the news is "the Iraqis this," "the Iraqis that." You were there at a very important time. Could you give the Iraqis a face for people?

A: That's an important part that gets lost. Everybody talks about Iraq and the Iraqi people, and how they hate each other, and they're killing each other — the Sunni and the Shia and the violence — and my experience just does not reinforce that.

Yes, there is violence; yes, there is hatred on the fringes, but for the vast majority of Iraqis, they want stability, they want peace, they want the ability in their day-to-day lives to have normalcy. And when we can provide that, and when we do provide that, they do stand up. It's just that there are so many [areas of Iraq] that we have not had enough troops and have not had the right strategy.

I am not blaming it all on us, but there are times when they're still outnumbered, and the Iraq security forces are not sufficient. It is difficult to expect them to stand up, but what we are doing now is creating ... the kind of security environment where Iraqis do feel empowered to stand up, and they will because, like I said, they are human beings. We dehumanize them sometimes, and we shouldn't because they want the same freedom we do. It is just about setting them up to do it successfully.

Q: In your words, why do you see that it is important for America to see victory in Iraq?

A: I think the most compelling case is that it is important for America. Our strategic interests are directly linked to the outcome of what the Iraqi people do there and what we allow them to do, because if we don't, if we don't bring about a successful outcome, we will leave behind a haven for al Qaeda and those affiliated with them. We will leave behind a region that is unstable, where Iran thinks it can impose its will. Where outside state actors become involved in the outcome in Iraq because of the power void, and it is unstable.

Our interests are directly linked, and it is incredibly important, the largest, I think the more overarching argument to why it is important to America is victory or defeat in the eyes of al Qaeda. If al Qaeda thinks they have won in Iraq, that will be a propaganda bonanza for them and embolden them for years and years to come.

People tell me all the time, "American soldiers are creating more terrorists." In some ways, sure, our president aggravates a lot of insurgents in Iraq. But you don't think our defeat would embolden them even more and create even more of a problem?

So, that, for me, is the big prize in this. It is a war of perception, and how would this war be perceived by our enemies and by our public. Because ... history will judge us, not on when we leave, but on what we leave behind. ...

Q: Are you still in contact with the soldiers that are in Iraq right now?

A: Oh, absolutely, I am in touch with soldiers in Iraq and in touch with Iraqi interpreters ... that we had, and I get fairly regular updates and, actually, because of the position I am in now, I get a lot of unsolicited e-mails from troops over there, saying, "Thanks for what you guys are doing" and "Here is my experience that backs up what you are saying 100 percent." So I have heard more and more from the troops than I would have otherwise, and it has all been encouraging, and it all reinforces the principle that we have been talking about and shows that, in fact, things are improving. So we see our work as nothing but an extension of our service and nothing but our opportunity to have the backs of the guys that are still there. ...

What we want to do is set the conditions for a fair reception for what [Gen. Petraeus] reports, and that is what we are trying to do. And then beyond that, we are going to continue to make sure that our voice is heard in the debate.

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