Scott Olsen, the 24-year-old two-tour Iraq veteran whose skull was fractured by a rubber bullet or tear gas cannister fired by police during an Occupy Oakland protest, has become a symbol for the Oakland, Calif., protests and put a spotlight on veterans' solidarity with the Occupy movement.
Olsen had joined joined the Occupy Oakland protest after work Tuesday, before clashes broke out between demonstrators and police trying to evict them from a city plaza. Videos of Olsen posted on YouTube show him standing still in a space between police a protesters when he was hit in the head by something and fell to the ground.
When fellow demonstrators tried to come to Olsen's aid, a tear gas cannister exploded in their midst, driving them away from the injured man.
"He joined the military to fight for people's rights, and that's not what he found himself doing in Iraq. And so he came home and started fighting for people's rights here and for his brothers and sisters who were still deployed," said Iraq veteran Aaron Hughes, the central and team leader of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
"There is a massive disconnect between the larger society and U.S. service members. Right now we have high unemployment, homeless and suicide rates among veterans. Scott is just one example of hundreds and thousands of service members who are tired of the rhetoric and want real substantive change," said Hughes, who said he returned to Iraq as a civilian after his tour to fight for peace.
Chapters of Iraq Veterans Against the War have engaged in Occupy movements across the nation as representatives of the organization. They say they are part of the 99 percent and share the sentiments of the movement.
"There's a lot of solidarity with the Occupy movement," said Matt Howard, who was a Marine from 2001 to 2006 and served two tours in Iraq. "A lot of the same issues that the veteran population is contending with is linked with the Occupy protests in terms of economic equality and a disappearing middle class."
Howard, who has marched with the protesters in San Francisco, says he links the issues the demonstrators are protesting to the heavy costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the cost of repairing the mental and physical wounds of vets through the Department of Veteran Affairs.
"The 1 percent have profited during times of war," Hughes said. "If you're profiting during a time of war, what does that make you? Everyone else is losing, everyone else is struggling financially, service members and vets are just one part of that struggle for survival while the one percent is profiting. We call those war profiteers and I don't know when in our country that's been OK. That's one reason while Scott was out there."
But Hughes insisted that the policemen who attacked Olsen are not to blame. Instead, he said, it is the system that provided the policemen with weapons that is to blame.
"As military, we know best how a system can put us in a situation that we don't necessarily want to be in," he said. "Why in the United States on an Oakland street do police officers need concussion grenades? Why do those officers have those ammunitions and weapons? You don't give them to police and expect them not to use them. That's what you're trained to do.
"The police in Oakland are part of the 99 percent too, but they're pitted against other workers," he said. "That's not serving and protecting the community."
Howard helped organize a vigil Thursday night for Olsen, which more than 1000 people attended. The Iraq Veterans Against the War has set up a fund to support Olsen's recovery.
"The irony that he has served twice in Iraq and escaped unscathed, to be injured exercising his First Amendment freedoms is too overwhelming to ignore," Howard said.