Out in the Open

She was ready to deploy to Iraq, but doubts about WMDs made her leave the military instead

Shawna Foster was excited to serve her country in the Iraq War as a weapons specialist. But her unit never deployed. After she learned the war had been started on the false pretense that weapons of mass destruction were in Iraq, she left the military, feeling shaken and ashamed.
Shawna Foster during her basic training in February, 2003. (Courtesy of Shawna Foster)

Shawna Foster was a nuclear, chemical and biological weapons specialist with the United States Army during the early years of the Iraq War. But before she could be deployed, she decided to quit.

Up to that point, Foster had been immersed in military life and culture.

Her parents met in the Air Force. She grew up on bases and lived by the Strategic Air Command's motto: "Peace is our profession."

"The military was never questioned or anything complicated. It was just what you did for your country," says Foster. 

Shawna Foster with About Face, then known as Iraq Veterans Against the War, at an event in Chicago in 2011. (Courtesy of Shawna Foster)

Foster was 16 years old and living in Nebraska on Sept. 11, 2001. She remembers watching the second World Trade Center tower falling on television.

"It felt like not only am I serving in the military, but I would be doing something great for my country, something they actually really needed," says Foster. 

"There was a very clear bad guy. His name was Osama bin Laden, and he was a stateless actor that was frightening people everywhere. It seemed like a very ennobling time, where everybody's afraid, but the United States government has a plan for what we can do to keep everybody safe, and I can be a part of that plan." 

The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 on the basis that Saddam Hussein and his government were hiding weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, Foster and her unit were stuck at home.

"I went to basic training in 2003 and I was in my barracks watching the first days of 'shock and awe' during the Iraq invasion. My unit was already getting re-trained up so they could go out ... and then my unit trained for a few months, came back, and we waited."

'I wasn't a patriot'

By 2006, Foster's unit had still not deployed. Suspicions had been raised by that time about the intelligence on which then-U.S. President George W. Bush and his administration had based their assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

It was Thomas Ricks' book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq that opened Foster's eyes to what was really going on.

"I was devastated, but suddenly it made a lot more sense ... that we were not deploying as chemical soldiers, that they wanted us to be truck drivers instead. It was an awful realization," says Foster.

Why do I want to kill people again? What am I going to die for?- Shawna Foster

Gradually, she started wondering if what she would be fighting for was worth her life, or the lives of others.

Foster reached out to a group called Iraq Veterans Against The War, which helped her to leave the military. 

And with that decision came shame.

"I just pretended it happened to somebody else — that there was some other young, dumb person who did this and that happened to her."

Foster says her parents were glad their daughter wasn't going to die in Iraq, but they thought it would be best for her keep quiet about her "dishonourable" reason for leaving. 

"I agreed. I should just quietly suffer this dishonour that I've brought against myself. I wasn't a patriot. I said I would be, but when it turned out ot be a lie, I didn't want to do it. So what honourable position am I in?"

Telling her story

It took four years and another conversation with Iraq Veterans Against the War for Foster to feel encouraged to tell her story.

Shawna Foster demonstrating at the Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015. (Courtesy of Shawna Foster)

"It was the first time that I felt I had any sort of purpose or redemption to my story of being in the military," says Foster. "It finally released a lot of the fear that I didn't even realize I had been carrying during those four years that I had said nothing to anyone."

Foster found that people were thankful to hear her story. She felt she had a role in holding Congress accountable.

After being caught up in a lie much bigger than herself, Foster learned an important life lesson.

"It taught me that you always have to speak the truth no matter how difficult it is. And that's the advice I give to anyone in any struggle. That if you have a truth you just have to keep whispering that truth to yourself ... because you don't want people to suffer the way that you have suffered."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Untruth Be Told".