Environmental Protection at JBLM

Artillery Impact Area sign near Muck Creek on JBLM (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).

Zoltán Grossman

An enormous military installation such as Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) is usually not thought of as a place of environmental protection and restoration. Militaries around the world are a primary contributor to toxic pollutants, greenhouse gasses, and natural habitat destruction. The U.S. Department of Defense, in particular, is one of the world’s largest polluters (Nazaryan 2014). The constant firing of artillery and small arms on JBLM’s impact areas has historically had a detrimental effect on the health of the land, water, fish and wildlife, and human beings.

But in Washington state, strong public environmental consciousness and tribal treaty rights have combined to pressure JBLM at to stand above other U.S. bases in protecting endangered species, prairies, and forests, and ecologically restoring natural habitats on its 87,000 acres. These gains are threatened by continuing problems connected to the munitions themselves, which release toxic compounds into the soil and groundwater.

This satellite photo shows Joint Base Lewis-McChord (formerly Fort Lewis) as an enclave of forest and prairie surrounded by urban areas (Credit: Google Earth).

Endangered Species

Military bases around the country have ironically become a haven for wildlife, as endangered species lose habitat to agriculture and urban development in civilian areas. JBLM conservation program director Jeff Foster observed that military bases “tend to be reservoirs for biodiversity – lots of rare plants and animals and plant communities – because they aren’t developed for other purposes, like cities and agriculture.…. But that can sometimes be a problem. Sometimes the needs of those species conflict with the needs of military training” (Price 2016).

JBLM’s Public Works – Environmental Division contains the Fish and Wildlife Program, whose mission is to protect, maintain, and enhance the various ecosystems on the installation to promote native biodiversity and support the military mission.To accomplish this mission “we monitor native and non-native species (plants and animals), conduct habitat restoration to help manage invasive species in order to improve habitat for native species as well as for military training purposes, and we de-conflict potential Endangered Species Act (ESA) violations by consulting with military units prior to training missions occurring in designated critical habitat.” (JBLM Fish and Wildlife). It partners with state and federal agencies, the Nisqually Indian Tribe, Nisqually River Foundation, Center for Natural Lands Management, Cascadia Prairie Oak Partnership, City of Roy, The Evergreen State College, and other entities.

Nisqually Prairie, or 31st Division Prairie (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).

One of the key reasons for the founding of Fort Lewis in 1917 is that its large prairie offered open space for artillery training (see Training and Testing). Much of the Program’s mission focuses on protecting and restoring the prairie lands, which were left by receding glaciers, and are rarely found in the heavily developed Puget Sound region. In springtime, large fields of blue camas bulb plants (which local tribes have long used a food source) blanket JBLM impact areas on the Nisqually Prairie, or 31st Division Prairie.

JBLM contains the largest remaining areas of historic glacial outwash prairies. Out of all of the glacial outwash prairie that previously existed there is only 5% remaining and of that, JBLM is home to ~95%. Along with this JBLM also has Garry oak (also known as Oregon White oak) woodlands which are Washington’s only native oaks, Ponderosa pine savannahs which are more commonly found east of the Cascade Mountains, and many wetlands some of which are kettle wetlands which were formed by receding glaciers. Each of these habitats are rare in western Washington and provide a very distinct ecosystem that contributes to wildlife diversity (JBLM Fish and Wildlife).

Blue Camas bloom on JBLM’s Nisqually Prairie impact area (Credit: South Sound Prairies).

These unique habitats harbor federally threatened or endangered species, which the Department of Defense is obligated to protect as a federal agency. Endangered species include the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, which was once commonly found on Pacific Northwest prairies, but now consist of only 14 scattered populations (WFWO). The artillery impact area at JBLM contains some of the few remaining natural populations of the butterflies, “due to limited access to the area and wildfires that are unintentionally started every year by training activities” (JBLM Fish and Wildlife).

Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly, Mazama Pocket Gopher, and Streaked Horned Lark (Credit: WA Fish & Wildlife Office).

The Mazama Pocket Gopher was once widespread on South Puget Sound prairies, but is now a threatened species (WFWO). It has become “increasingly rare as suitable habitat has been lost to development, degraded by invasive species such as Scotch Broom, and naturally converted to forests due to the absence of fires, which were once common on the landscape” (JBLM Fish and Wildlife).

The Streaked Horned Lark is a small ground nesting bird, “which makes it especially vulnerable to recreation and military training impacts. These birds prefer open areas with few shrubs and sparse vegetation, like road edges and airfields which are mowed often resulting in nests being destroyed.” The Western Bluebird is a regional species of concern, which has been “negatively impacted by the introduction of competing invasive species and the removal of snags from the landscape. Nest boxes have been distributed throughout JBLM to support the species across the installation and to promote dispersal to other areas within its range” (JBLM Fish and Wildlife).

One of the tools that JBLM uses to extend prairie habitat is to acquire off-based parcels to offset the damage to prairie habitat on base. The Army Compatible Use Buffer (ACUB) program began in 2006 “to reduce environmental encroachment (restrictions on training) on JBLM associated with the listing or potential listing of prairie species under the Endangered Species Act by supporting the conservation of these species on lands off the installation.” The ACUB program aims to acquire an interest in parcels with existing or restorable prairie, and “manage these parcels, jointly with currently protected (public or private ownership) prairie lands, for recovery of prairie species,” often through partnerships. The program also upgrades prairie habitat on base by removing invasive species, planting native plant species, reintroducing animal species, and carrying out prescribed prairie burnings (JBLM ACUB).

Army trainees on JBLM, with Seibert stakes delineating “no-go” areas that contain protected species or habitat, and signs to prevent trainees’ access to delicate prairie areas containing endangered species (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).


Part of the mission of JBLM’s Fish and Wildlife program is to protect and restore runs of salmon (Chinook, Chum, Coho, and Pink) and threatened steelhead in the tributaries of the Nisqually River, notably Muck Creek. The base makes up 12 percent of the Nisqually River Watershed, which originates on federal land at Mount Rainier National Park, and ends at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The Army has often partnered with the Nisqually Tribe, the signatory to the treaty that upholds tribal fishing rights, to conduct fish surveys and habitat restoration plans. The Army also allowed a tribal fish hatchery to be built on base (see Nisqually Tribe).

Spring on the “weeping bluff” near the Nisqually Tribe’s Clear Creek Hatchery inside JBLM (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).

Before the 1980s, the Army would drive tanks and other armored vehicles through the streambeds, severely damaging fish habitat, so the Tribe pressured the base to install bridges. Fragile habitat areas rich in springs were sometimes shelled in artillery trainings, or logged for timber, so the Tribe negotiated with the Army for new regulations and procedures (Wilkinson 2000, 66-85).

Bridge over Muck Creek with vehicle weight sign (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).

Nisqually treaty rights leader Billy Frank Jr. commented, “You can say that the Army was our enemy when they took our land on the other side of the river…. These are different times. It has to do with the survival of a people….The Army is a much better land manager than the Forest Service…..The commanding general is the boss….when I go across the river to Fort Lewis, I know who’s in charge. When he tells the soldiers ‘Don’t drive any more tanks across Muck Creek’–that’s what going to happen. Boy, that is powerful, when you’ve gotten a handshake with the General…” (Wilkinson 2000, 80).

Reed canary grass in Muck Creek (Yll-whaltz) (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).

The Army and Tribe have joined in habitat restoration of the Muck Creek system, removing invasive species such as reed canary grass, that “clog up the stream channel making migration difficult for steelhead and other salmon and eliminates open gravely areas needed for spawning” (JBLM Fish and Wildlife). They shore up the riparian zones along streams with native vegetation, so the streambanks do not erode sediments that cover redds (fish egg nests) with silt, and so the water is cooled by shade. For background, see the Nisqually Watershed Podcast on Fort Lewis from Evergreen’s Conceptualizing Native Place program (Bean Mortinson, Duerr-Miller, & Vieau 2009).

Forestry and Ecological Restoration

Forest management is a major concern in Washington state, partly because of the negative impacts of clearcutting and erosion on fish habitat. JBLM practices selective timber harvesting on base, but does not harvest the old-growth stands along the 20-mile stretch of the Nisqually River that it within the base. JBLM has 61,000 acres of “forest, woodland, and savanna, most of which are actively managed for military training and for commercial and non-commercial uses.” The mission of its Forestry Branch is to “provide good stewardship of the forested training lands of JBLM by ensuring the continued existence of a healthy forest that supports military training, sustains native plants and animals, and benefits local communities” (JBLM Forestry Branch).

Basal area per acre in 2012, describing the average amount of an acre occupied by tree stems, with higher numbers identifying more tree cover (Credit: JBLM Forestry Branch).

In 2002, the base became the first federally owned property to be certified as a sustainable forestry operation by the Forest Stewardship Council, and has been recertified twice since then. Forest managers use variable-density thinning, which “creates more structurally diverse forests over time,” and replant areas with biodiverse plant species. Local loggers and sawmills bid on the logging work, and 40 percent of net revenue supports schools and roads in Pierce and Thurston counties (JBLM Forestry Branch).

JBLM fire crews light a prescribed prairie burn (Credit: JBLM Wildland Fire).

In summertime, JBLM conducts prescribed burns to “reduce the fuel load that can cause devastating wildfires, improve training lands for service members and enhance fire-dependent habitats, and at the same time suppresses unplanned wildfires started by exploding munitions” (JBLM Wildland Fire). Although these fires sometimes mimic natural fire management, they also occur in the wrong ecosystems and during the wrong seasons, making them harmful to plant and animal species.

Burnt trees from fires ignited by munitions on a JBLM impact range (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).

The Environmental Division’s Ecology Program carries out ecological restoration of white oak and native ponderosa pine woodlands and savannas, which (together with native prairie) provides habitat for many wildlife species. Oak woodlands “are a declining habitat in southern Puget Sound that many wildlife species depend upon. The pine is native, and, where the understory is native prairie, forms a globally unique plant community found only on and adjacent to JBLM. The purpose of restoration is to move these woodlands/ savannas back towards their pre-European condition, reintroduce fire as a natural process, and improve habitat for wildlife” (JBLM Forestry Branch).

Munitions Compounds in Soil and Water: RDX, HMX, TNT, NG

Despite JBLM’s successes in protecting and restoring plant, fish, and wildlife habitat on the surface, the use of munitions on base has created a largely unseen problem beneath the surface. Toxic compounds in explosive material, and the propellant used to project shells, can seep into the soil and groundwater. Munitions compounds of concern at JBLM include the explosives hexahydro-1,3,5-trinitro-1,3,5-triazine (RDX), octahydro-1,3,5,7-tetranitro-1,3,5,7-tetrazocine (HMX), and 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene (TNT), and the propellant ingredient nitroglycerin (NG).

Soil scientist John Pichtel documented, “Energetic materials comprise both explosives and propellants. When released to the biosphere, energetics are…contaminants which pose toxic hazards to ecosystems, humans, and other biota. Soils worldwide are contaminated by energetic materials from manufacturing operations; military conflict; military training activities at firing and impact ranges; and open burning/open detonation of obsolete munitions” (Pichtel 2012).

Pichtel added, “In the US alone, thousands of military sites are listed as contaminated by energetic compounds. 50 million acres are affected by bombing and other training activities…. Significant public health emergencies resulting from soil contamination have launched demands by local citizenry for remediation measures” (Pichtel 2012).

In humans TNT is associated with abnormal liver function and anemia, and both TNT and RDX have been classified as potential human carcinogens….The effects of RDX on mammals are generally characterized by convulsions. Deaths in rats were associated with congestion in the gastrointestinal tract and lungs. Factory employees in Europe and the US have suffered convulsions, unconsciousness, vertigo, and vomiting after RDX exposure. Information is limited concerning health effects of HMX. The USEPA has established lifetime exposure drinking water health advisory limits for TNT, RDX, and HMX… Acute exposure to NG can cause headaches, nausea, convulsions, cyanosis, circulatory collapse, or death. Chronic exposure may result in severe headaches, hallucinations, and skin rashes. (Pichtel 2012).

The Army has estimated that “over 1.2 million tons of soil across its various facilities is currently contaminated due to explosives….TNT and other explosives are known Group C carcinogens dangerous to both humans and the environment, thus justifying the necessity to remediate these contaminated sites before they create a greater hazard…. The majority of TNT and RDX contamination found on training ranges today is lying on and near the surface (less than 1 foot underground) and is the primary source of soil, ground, and surface water contamination” (Anderson & Ventola 2015) .

Exploded munitions (Credit: USEPA).

JBLM “is one of the world’s largest military complexes with an almost 100-year history…Currently, JBLM has 115 live fire ranges. Perhaps more unsettling than this is that JBLM also has 16 housing communities on the base, which, in regards to groundwater contamination caused by the firing ranges, are dangerously nearby” (Anderson & Ventola 2015).

Hand grenade ranges are of particular concern, given the presence of RDX, TNT, and HMX in the explosive charge. A 2001 study of soil samples from grenade ranges at Fort Lewis and Alaska’s Fort Richardson “were found to have detectable concentrations of RDX. TNT… and HMX were often detected as well.” The concentrations in the Fort Lewis samples were an order of magnitude higher than at Fort Richardson (Jenkins, Pennington, & Ranney et al 2001).

Hand grenade range at JBLM, with soil sample pits (Credit: USEPA).
Table of contaminants on hand grenade ranges shows Fort Lewis / JBLM with serious concentrations (Credit: USEPA).

A 2012 Environmental Protection Agency report studied nitroglycerin around active anti-tank rocket ranges at JBLM and seven other bases, and found high concentrations near firing points (USEPA 2012). A 2013 study of soils collected at JBLM and two other bases showed that soils rich in organic carbon slow the transport of nitrogen-rich munitions compounds more than clay soils (Sharma, Mayes, & Tang 2013).

Target vehicles destroyed during live-fire training (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).

A 2017 investigative report by ProPublica documented the health risks of RDX, and Pentagon attempts to sidetrack federal regulations on the toxic compound:

From the first reports of RDX contamination on American soil, the Pentagon has either ignored or actively sought to discount RDX’s threat to public health and the environment, according to ProPublica’s review of thousands of pages of EPA and Pentagon documents and the accounts of more than 23 current and former officials and lawmakers. When confronted with evidence of the risk posed by RDX, the Pentagon tried to get its bases exempted from almost any kind of environmental oversight… When that failed, the Department of Defense financed an array of studies that minimize evidence of RDX’s potential to cause cancer and other health problems, and then pressed the EPA to relax its classification of RDX’s cancer threat — and the environmental cleanup standards that are recommended along with it, Pentagon and EPA records show…. The Pentagon’s existing obligations to address thousands of contaminated installations are already daunting, with costs that could top $70 billion. If EPA officials were to decide that RDX ‘likely’ causes cancer, it could lead to new regulations and demands for more thorough cleanups, adding significant costs (Lustgarten 2017).

Other munitions concerns at JBLM include noise pollution from artillery firing (see Noise Issues), radiation potentially lingering from the possible use of Depleted Uranium shells on the firing range in the 1960s (see Training and Testing), the Superfund site at the Logistical Center (see Mapping JBLM), and the release of toxins from Unexploded Ordnance.

Unexploded Ordnance (UXO)

Exploding munitions are an obvious threat to human health and safety. For example, until the late 1970s, the Army launched shells from the Pierce County part of Fort Lewis, over the Nisqually Reservation, to an impact area in Thurston County. Some of the shells fell short, causing fires, including one near a tribal fireworks stand (Wilkinson 2000, 84).

But less obvious is that shells and bombs are a risk to health and safety even if they do not explode on impact. The Department of Defense Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program found in 2004 that “millions of acres of range sites are potentially contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO), including bombs, missiles, and landmines. Depending on site conditions and UXO characteristics, the time to perforation (i.e., corrosion breakthrough of the UXO metallic casing) can vary from roughly 10 years to several thousand years. The potential movement of energetic materials out of perforated UXO and into groundwater has become a primary environmental concern” (Packer 2004).

JBLM has an active program to remove Unexploded Ordnance, marking and controlling areas know to contain UXO, but a large amount of JBLM property “has been used to conduct and support live-fire training in the past. This has resulted in the possibility of encountering UXO in areas that are not marked and may not appear hazardous” (JBLM UXO Awareness).

Mortar exercises at JBLM impact area (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).


Stories of environmental protection at JBLM are rich in ironies. If an endangered plant or animal survives artillery shell explosions on an impact range, it actually has a better chance of survival than it would outside the base. Clean springwater feeds a fish hatchery on base, but toxic compounds from munitions could potentially bioaccumulate in the fish. Military operations with the mission of protecting citizens may expose those same citizens to unhealthy contamination.

The very presence of the base, though its operations have caused harm to natural species and groundwater, also prevents other harms. If the base ever closed—an unlikely prospect given continuing tensions in East Asia and the Middle East—the federal property could be privatized and opened up to condo development and urban sprawl. As Billy Frank Jr. asked, “Who do you want there—the army, or a bunch of subdivisions?” (Wilkinson 2000, 81).

Many critics of the base agree that JBLM has done a better job than other military bases in prioritizing environmental protection, and commend it for doing so. But that is a low bar, so the garrison command could set higher standards and confront difficult issues such as munitions compounds, artillery noise, and harmful fires. The scale of JBLM’s military operations around the world can also be factored into assessing its actual effect on the Earth and its inhabitants.


Anderson, Aaron, and Andrea Ventola. (2015). Investigating Soil Remediation Techniques for Military Explosive and Weapons Contaminated Sites . Geoengineer.

Bean-Mortinson, Jason, Annalise Duerr-Miller, Julia Vieau. (2009, April 21). Nisqually and Fort Lewis. Nisqually Watershed Podcasts, Conceptualizing Native Place program, The Evergreen State College, Olympia WA.

Jenkins, T. F., J. C. Pennington, T. A. Ranney et al. (2001). Characterization of explosives contamination at military firing ranges. US Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) TR-01-05. Hanover, NH: US Army Engineer Research and Development Center.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). (n.d.). Army Compatible Use Buffer (ACUB). Army.mil.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). (n.d.). Fish and Wildlife. Public Works – Environmental Division. Army.mil.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). (n.d.). Forestry Branch. Army.mil.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). (n.d.). Public Works – Environmental Division. Army.mil.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). (n.d.). UXO Awareness. Army.mil.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). (n.d.). Wildland Fire. Army.mil.

Lustgarten, Abrahm. (2017, December 18). The Bomb That Went Off Twice: The explosive compound RDX helped make America a superpower. Now, it’s poisoning the nation’s water and soil. ProPublica.

Nazaryan, Alexander. (2014, July 17). The U.S. Department of Defense Is One of the World’s Biggest Polluters. Newsweek.

Packer, Bonnie. (2004, April). UXO Corrosion – Potential Contamination Source. Final Report, U.S. Army Environmental Command ER-1226. Department of Defense Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP)

Pichtel, John. (2012). Distribution and Fate of Military Explosives and Propellants in Soil: A Review. Applied and Environmental Soil Science. Article ID 617236.

Price, Jay. (2016, September 15). Military Bases Serve As Safe Haven For Endangered Species. National Public Radio.

Sharma P, Mayes MA, Tang G. (2013, August). Role of soil organic carbon and colloids in sorption and transport of TNT, RDX and HMX in training range soils. Chemosphere 92(8): 993-1000.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). (2012, January). Site Characterization for Munitions Constituents. Solid Waste and Emergency Response. EPA Federal Facilities Forum Issue Paper 505-S-11-001.

Washington Fish and Wildlife Office (WFWO). (n.d.). Federally Protected Subspecies of Mazama Pocket Gopher in Washington. FWS.gov.

Washington Fish and Wildlife Office (WFWO). (n.d.). Streaked Horned Lark. FWS.gov.

Washington Fish and Wildlife Office (WFWO). (n.d.). Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly. FWS.gov

Wilkinson, Charles. (2000). Messages from Frank’s Landing: A Story of Salmon, Treaties, and the Indian Way. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Military Dissent at Fort Lewis during the Iraq War

Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) rally at the Fort Lewis gate (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).

Zoltán Grossman

The early morning scene could have been at any one of the innumerable coffeehouses in the Pacific Northwest. Two baristas served steaming mugs of espresso, while their co-worker produces graphics on a computer. Another employee played Rachmaninoff on the piano. Customers sipped their coffee as they read the morning newspaper.

Yet at second glance, both baristas were Iraq War veterans wearing t-shirts against the war. One served in Iraq as an Army machine gunner, and the other as Marine machine gunner. The guy on the computer was an Army counterintelligence agent in Mosul, and the guy playing the piano was a private first class in the Army National Guard. Most of the customers were wearing khaki fatigues, and reading about their imminent deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Coffee Strong G.I. resource center near Fort Lewis in Lakewood, Washington (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).

G.I. Voice and Coffee Strong

This was Coffee Strong, a G.I. coffeehouse and resource center outside the gates of Fort Lewis, renamed Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) in 2010. It was located in Lakewood, Washington, between Olympia and Tacoma. The coffeehouse—whose name spoofed the recruitment slogan “Army Strong”—was opened on Election Day 2008 by G.I. Voice, a local veteran-led nonprofit project, and closed in 2015.

Coffee Strong was modeled after the G.I. coffeehouse movement from the 1960s, including the Shelter Half coffeehouse near Fort Lewis (see Vietnam Era). The G.I. movement against the Vietnam War is  described in the book Soldiers in Revolt (Cortright 2005), and the documentary Sir! No Sir! (Zeiger 2005). But G.I. Voice used 21st-century outreach tools to connect with soldiers and their families, such as computers for soldiers to access the Internet without Army interference. Coffee Strong was only the second G.I. rights coffeehouse to open in the country since the Vietnam War; others were opened during the Iraq War in New York, Texas, and Virginia.

Coffee Strong G.I. resource center near Fort Lewis in Lakewood, Washington (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).

The goal of Coffee Strong was to provide soldiers, their families and recent veterans a place away from the base where they can learn about resources available to them, meet with G.I. rights counselors, veterans’ health care advocates, and access alternative information (Murphy 2009). It held hosted films and speakers, hiphop, punk, and folk concerts, art workshops, and other events.

G.I. Voice described its mission as “pro-soldier, anti-war.” The group was independent of any other organizations or political parties, as an autonomous expression of the community of soldiers, veterans and their families affected by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Antiwar veterans often felt unrepresented both by mainstream veterans’ groups that support the wars, and peace groups that do not understand the experiences and grievances of soldiers. Through G.I. Voice, and other groups such as Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and Military Families Speak Out, they organized among themselves to speak for themselves, and to provide servicemembers and their families with a place to freely express themselves.

Washington Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) rally in Tacoma (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).

Fort Lewis spokesman Joe Kubistek said the Army was aware of the coffeehouse, but acknowledges that since it is a legal business, the Army would not restrict soldiers from going there. But at times, soldiers reported, commanders told them privately not to go to Coffee Strong.

G.I. Voice addressed issues of concern to soldiers during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—such as repeated “Stop-Loss” deployments to war zones, command abuse, repression of constitutional rights, Military Sexual Trauma (harassment and rape), health and safety conditions, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The group maintains that once servicemembers are actively struggling with their command around issues of working conditions, they can start to see the connections between the occupation of other countries and their own situation in the U.S.

Former G.I. Voice Director Seth Manzel spent a year deployed in Iraq in 2004, assigned to the 1st Stryker Brigade from Fort Lewis. He wrote in the local newspaper Works in Progress, “For soldiers and their families to engage in resistance requires them to stand up for soldiers’ rights. The mere act of standing up for one’s rights in the Army is enough to slow down a unit’s deployment times. The Army could not function if it delivered on all its promises to soldiers and their families. In this way a moderate message (stand up for G.I. rights) could have a radical effect on the military. We don’t need to indoctrinate people in the military. If we inform them of their rights, they will come to anti-war conclusions on their own” (Manzel 2008).

Soldiers and civilians

Perhaps nowhere else in the country is there such a stark juxtaposition between a large military base community and large progressive antiwar communities, in nearby Olympia and Tacoma. Civilian residents of the area see and hear Middle East wars almost every day. It is impossible to miss hearing the howitzer fire booming on the artillery range (see Noise Issues), seeing the giant C-17 transport planes from Baghdad or Bagram landing at McChord Field, or overlooking the often-untreated PTSD exhibited in local car accidents, robberies, bar brawls, domestic abuse, and sexual assaults (see Social Crises).

The Iraq War increased the polarization between the military and antiwar communities, but also increased opportunities to work together—since both communities actually care when there’s a war going on, when the rest of civilian society casually ignores the war.

Veteran Cesario Larios said he was involved with Coffee Strong “so we can encourage soldiers who have huge moral reservations about what the military is doing. Some of them are choosing alcohol and drugs to avoid the reality of feeling trapped within their military contract and a future that includes more deployments that they don’t wish to take part in—that’s why we’re seeing more suicides. I think that if we can show them that there is a broad base of support from vets and civilians, they will begin to see there is another way” (Paton 2011).

In 2006-08, large direct actions at the Ports of Olympia and Tacoma protested the movement of Stryker armored vehicles to and from Iraq (see Civilian Dissent). Port protesters noticed some Stryker soldiers flashing peace signs when their officers were not watching (even if a smaller number of soldiers instead flashed “half a peace sign”). Pro-war and anti-war demonstrators clashed on the Interstate-5 overpass at Exit 122, which the Lakewood City Council renamed “Freedom Bridge” to honor the pro-war group’s presence. The G.I. coffeehouse was only a few hundred yards from the overpass and the base gates.

Vigil for Sgt. Kevin Benderman on the I-5 Exit 122 overpass (Credit: Kevin Benderman Defense Committee).

Center of dissent

During the Iraq War, Fort Lewis became a national center of G.I. dissent against the Iraq War, as it was during the Vietnam War. The G.I. movement both contested space, by holding rallies and protests at the base gates, and reclaimed space, by providing a resource center that offered a haven and services to soldiers. Dahr Jamail’s book The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan (Jamail 2009), and Lisa Gilman’s documentary Grounds for Resistance (Gilman 2011), detail some of stories of dissenting soldiers at the base.

Army refusers were jailed for a time in the harsh Fort Lewis jail, also called the stockade or brig. They included Sgt. Kevin Benderman, who had applied for Conscientious Objector (C.O.) status and was jailed in the brig (Benderman 2007).  Spc. Suzanne Swift went Absent Without Leave (AWOL) from her military police unit after being raped (Barber 2006).

Army Specialist Suzanne Swift, who was convicted for going AWOL after reporting being sexually assaulted (Credit: Suzanne Swift).

Army interrogator Ricky Clousing went AWOL after witnessing abuses of power in Iraq, and turned himself in at Fort Lewis (Clousing 2006). Sgt. Travis Bishop, who had served served 14 months in Baghdad, was sentenced to a 12 months for refusing to deploy to Afghanistan, as he was seeking a C.O. discharge based on his Christian beliefs (Amnesty International 2009).

Ricky Clousing speaks at national convention of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and Veterans for Peace (VfP) in Seattle in 2006 (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).

Lieutenant Ehren Watada was tried in February 2007 for being the first commissioned officer to refuse to deploy to Iraq (Yardley 2007). Peace activists staged support rallies, and a “Citizens’ Hearing” tribunal to present Lt. Watada’s case that the Iraq War was illegal (Citizens Hearing 2007).

Vietnam War whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg with Lt. Ehren Watada at Citizens’ Hearing on the Legality of the War in Iraq (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).
Tribunal hearing panel members, half of whom were military veterans, at the Citizens’ Hearing on the Legality of the War in Iraq, held in Tacoma in January 2007 (Credit: Zoltán Grossman).

Lt. Watada’s February 2007 court martial at Fort Lewis ended in a mistrial, and he was later discharged from the Army (Associated Press 2009).

Navy veteran Wally Cuddeford and Army veteran Tina Bean march in support of Lt. Ehren Watada near the entrance of Fort Lewis, during the February 2007 court martial (Credit: Scott Eklund/Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

G.I. Voice hosted trainings of active-duty IVAW members who organized within the armed forces rather than seeking to leave the military, and assisted with the G.I Rights Hotline. It also played a role in staging the May 2008 Northwest Regional Winter Soldier Hearings in Seattle, where veterans testified about the atrocities they perpetrated or witnessed in Iraq (TalkingStickTV 2008).

G.I. Voice participated in the IVAW’s Operation Recovery, to support soldiers’ “right to heal” by halting the redeployment of soldiers affected by PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, or Military Sexual Trauma (Operation Recovery 2011). The group has since affiliated with About Face, the successor to IVAW.

G.I. Voice pointed to a different relationship between the G.I. movement and the civilian anti-war movement. Peace groups can support and do outreach to GIs, working with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who best understand best how to communicate with the younger military generation. Peace activists could also educate themselves about issues of concern to soldiers, to open respectful dialogue with G.I.s and their families, as a step to working together. Local residents who are concerned about the effects of wars on civilians and military families can also advocate for stronger rights and services for active-duty military and veterans.


About Face. (2019). Veterans Against the War.

Amnesty International. (2009, August 24). USA: Solider Imprisoned as Conscientious Objector: Travis Bishop. Amnesty.org.

Associated Press. (2009, September 26). Army Officer Who Refused Iraq Duty Is Allowed to Resign. New York Times.

Barber, Mike (2006, December 13). Soldier gets 30 days for going AWOL. Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Benderman, Kevin. (2007). Letters from Fort Lewis Brig: A Matter of Conscience. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press. 

Citizens’ Hearing on the Legality of the Iraq War. (2007). Report of the Citizens’ Hearing on the Legality of the Iraq War: The Case of Lt. Ehren Watada. Tacoma, WA.

Indymedia Presents. (2007, March 2). Citizens’ Hearing on the Legality of the Iraq War: Part 1 & Part 2. YouTube.

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