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Utah War Veteran Seeks Peace

Veteran Andy Figorski will do anything to bring American troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Even stand-up comedy.

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SELLING SECRETS

Trip tickets, Figorski says, are the most sensitive part of any infantry operation. They detail troop numbers, armaments, passengers and convoy routes—in short, everything you don’t want the enemy to know.

One afternoon in March 2007, Figorski learned the real value of these tickets. He and his platoon were in the small northern Iraq town of Mujama to conduct breaches, which involves holding people at gunpoint while their homes are searched for weapons. A captured insurgent-turned-informant identified homes he thought belonged to Baathist sympathizers. Figorski started to ask their informant how the insurgent attacks had recently become more precise.

The informant told his translator that he recognized Figorski as a soldier who had taken a bullet to his helmet while rescuing another soldier. Figorski went momentarily ice cold, then finished his question.

“You know trip tickets?” the informant, who was wearing a black ski mask, said. “After you submit them to your commander, he submits them to the police,” and the Iraqi police, the former-insurgent said, sell them to the fighters.

Figorski was in a state of shock. “Is this how I am going to die?” he thought.

When he asked superior officers why they would not prepare false trip tickets, he says they told him that it was “too much work.”

The final blow to his crumbling will came on a breach led by Iraqi soldiers of a suspected Baathist supporter’s house. Figorski found a clip-on badge that showed the man was a Saddam sympathizer. The man was on his knees, handcuffed, along with his two teenage sons. The wife and daughters stared at Figorski as if the soldier were a savage animal.

A little girl who had been napping appeared out of a room the Iraqi army had failed to search. She smiled sleepily at Figorski in a way that reminded him intensely of his best friend’s daughter, Andriana, who was named after him. He took off his helmet, held out a finger for her to take and led her to her family, then went into the bathroom and wept.

Although he knew his superiors wanted the man arrested, he released the man and his sons. He told the father if he went back to politics, he would kill him.

The weeping mother and daughters kneeled before Figorski and kissed his bloodstained boots. He started crying again. “The minute I encountered something loving out there, it broke me in half,” he says.

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BRING US HOME

After an MRI revealed bruising to the front and back of his brain, Figorski was medevaced out of Iraq on April 24, 2007. He took a year to recover from his brain injuries, which have left him partially disabled. He was honorably discharged on May 6, 2008.

Once settled in Salt Lake City, he contacted then- Veterans for Peace Utah chapter leader and bus driver Aaron Davis, who informed the veteran community another infantryman was in town. Vietnam veterans inundated him with calls, telling him to get involved with the Veterans Affairs office and warning him that no one outside the military cared about him. He had to stay close to guys who understood what he’d survived or “I’d get left in the dust,” Figorski says.

Davis also introduced Figorski to Wasatch Coalition for Peace and Justice’s [WCPJ] Dayne Goodwin, a longtime peace activist who had left college in the late 1960s, where he was majoring in international relations, to pursue antiwar activism. For the past 33 years, the bachelor has worked as a janitor at the University of Utah to pay his bills so he could fight for peace.

Goodwin asked Figorski to speak on a panel at the Salt Lake City Main Library. His war stories riveted the 100-strong audience, although some were displeased by his activism. One naysayer wrote on the window of his Nissan SUV, “Keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll pay with your life.”

If Figorski’s activism was growing, his employment prospects were not. He applied unsuccessfully for almost 40 vacancies. His attempts to get a loan to start a bakery or a cheesesteak restaurant went nowhere because without collateral, even being a veteran didn’t help him.

“I felt so alone, so helpless, so abandoned,” he says.

Battling depression, he hiked up a winding path above Silver Lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Mountain pines climbed adjacent hills like green sentinels. In the last place he expected, he found the mountain peaks cradling a stretch of shimmering, dark blue water called Twin Lake. “It was like being in the womb,” he says.

He sat on a stone outcrop, trying to pull the pieces of his life together. He was struggling with memory loss, anxiety over his unemployment and his lack of marketable skills. “I kept looking to see if rage, temper and anger were marketable,” he says. “They weren’t.”

He could almost feel the dirt and the stench of war-torn Iraq, with its mix of gasoline, body odor and trash, being flushed out of him by the lake’s tranquil beauty.

His peace didn’t last long. Struggling financially, he and Cara went to Costco on the market’s sample days. “I’m a fucking veteran, and we’re trying to fill ourselves up on Costco samples,” Figorski fumes.

Just when he thought he’d hit rock bottom, a helping hand appeared. The VA offered him a clerical position in a mental-health clinic on Sept. 29, 2008. His voice still chokes when he talks about how much the VA helped him.

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BREACHED

The antiwar movement, WCPJ’s Goodwin says, “has never been at a lower ebb than it is now.” As if to prove Goodwin’s point, one Saturday morning in late July, Figorski ran up and down different levels of the Main Library searching for their meeting room. “That’s the trouble with the antiwar movement,” Figorski laughs, “you can’t find it.”

The WCPJ has 17 groups affiliated to it, including the Mormon Worker and the Veterans Peace Coalition. But when Figorski found the meeting, there was only Goodwin and fellow activist Warren Brodhead passing a series of resolutions. When the two men reviewed the coalition’s bank account, Brodhead pulled a $20 bill out of his pocket and tossed it to Goodwin, boosting the group’s balance to $466.

Diana Lee Hirschi, a longtime Utah activist, says Figorski’s innocence and vulnerability moved her to tears when she moderated a panel that included him. She understands Figorski’s frustrations with groups, which often “haven’t been able to focus on organizing” because of personal conflicts and in-fighting.

Usually, activist organizations, Vietnam vet Chadwick says, “want [veterans] to get up and speak but want us to be short so they can get to the people who m a t t e r,” especially politicians.

Figorski was also increasingly frustrated by dwindling numbers at peace rallies. When Key and Figorski talked to peace supporters in a University of Utah classroom in May 2009, some of that frustration spilled over.

Figorski wanted to demonstrate a breach to a group Key describes as “elderly women and flower girls.” Upset with Figorski for wanting to do it, Key left the room instead of witnessing the mock breach.

Figorski put on his fatigues, psyched himself up and stormed into the classroom. “Shut up, get on the fucking floor!” he bellowed in people’s faces. “Don’t move!” He held his hands as if pointing a rifle at them, moving through the classroom, terrifying some of the activists to the point of tears.

It was around then, he recalls, that he made another trip up to Twin Lake. He decided to “write about the shit that was keeping me awake.” He wrote about the little girl who broke his will to fight, how abandoned he felt by the people who sent him to war. Then he wrote about things he did in Iraq he can’t bring himself to say out loud. He wedged the sheaf of papers between some rocks. Since then, he says, his sleep has improved. But still, those memories “never leave, they never go away.”

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BURIED PAST

On June 10, 2009, veteran activist Aaron Davis e-mailed other activists. “Just got a call from [Rocky Anderson] wanting $1,000 sponsor fee and wants us to show up in force.” He was referring to former Salt Lake City Mayor Anderson’s plan to stage a rally against torture on June 25 through his organization, High Roads for Human Rights. Figorski was furious. He´d heard of getting paid to speak, but having to pay to speak? Could peace really have a price tag?

Anderson says that Davis’ e-mail is a “mischaracterization” of the sponsor fee. While they were looking for co-sponsors, the most they received was $500. “Nobody told anybody they had to pay $1,000 to speak,” Anderson says. And the speaking slots “were not for sale.”

In a June 16 e-mail to other antiwar activists, Figorski wrote, “I’m kind of fucking sick and tired of other movements requesting our presence, then putting our necessity on the back burner or not even on the stove.”

Nevertheless, he believed several peace activists were negotiating with High Road for a speaking slot for Veterans for Peace. He volunteered to give a speech, and he attended the rally of about 200 people. But when Figorski got there, his name wasn’t on the line-up.

Bitter and confused, the Saturday after High Road’s rally he hiked the serpentine path through the wafts of peppermint and sage to the glimmering dark-blue waters of Twin Lake.

The lake shone brighter than he’d ever seen it. Figorski reflected on his successes as an activist, such as the waiter who told him he had decided against joining the Army after hearing Figorski and others speak. It was a victory, Figorski says. “One to us, millions more to go.”

Then he thought about Anderson, how much he admired him and supported his causes. And yet every time he and other vets tried to get Anderson to attend a rally, he was busy.

When Figorski came down the mountain, he had changed. He would put the people he loved first. He would go to school to be a social worker and work steadfastly on behalf of veterans. No more screaming until his vocal cords gave out. He would pace himself.

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