NEW YORK — U.S. military veterans are heeding the rallying cry of Occupy Wall Street, saying corporate contractors in Iraq made big money while the troops defending them came home — and can’t make a living now.
“For too long, our voices have been silenced, suppressed and ignored in favor of the voices of Wall Street and the banks and the corporations,” said Joseph Carter, a 27-year-old Iraq war veteran who marched Wednesday to Zuccotti Park, the epicenter of the movement that has spread worldwide.
The former Army sergeant from Seattle spoke to fellow Occupy protesters and passers-by on Broadway after joining about 100 veterans marching in uniform from the Vietnam Veterans Plaza through Manhattan’s financial district.
Their unemployment rate outstrips the national average and is expected to worsen. They worry about preservation of First Amendment rights. And they’re angry.
A week before Veterans Day, generations of former U.S. military men and women threw their considerable weight behind the Occupy movement born in mid-September when about 100 protesters also marched in the Wall Street area.
“For 10 years, we have been fighting wars that have enriched the wealthiest 1 percent, decimated our economy and left our nation with a generation of traumatized and wounded veterans that will require care for years to come,” said Carter, who leads the national Iraq Veterans Against the War group.
Requiring care now in California is a former Marine whose skull was fractured last week when he was injured by a projectile at an Occupy Oakland rally. Police there are now the subject of a formal investigation by the city’s Citizens’ Police Review Board.
In New York on Wednesday, police circled the veterans as they stood in formation in front of the New York Stock Exchange, chanting, “We are veterans! We are the 99 percent!” and “Corporate profits on the rise, soldiers have to bleed and die!”
By the stock exchange, Josh Shepherd, a former Navy petty officer 2nd class who was next to Olsen when he was injured, read the oath members of the armed forces take to defend the U.S. Constitution.
“We are here to support the Occupy Wall Street movement,” he then declared.
Police officers on scooters separated the veterans from the entrance to the stock exchange. On the other side of the marchers was a lineup of NYPD horses carrying officers with nightsticks.
“We are marching to express support for our brother, Scott Olsen, who was injured in Oakland,” former Army specialist Jerry Bordeleau said earlier.
At the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, they paused for a moment of silence for the Marine who served two Iraq tours and remains hospitalized.
Olsen was honored Wednesday by veterans and other activists at Occupy protests around the nation, from Boston and Philadelphia to Los Angeles and Chicago.
James McBride, 20, an Army Reserve veteran, said his military oath was the reason he traveled from Vermont to join the Occupy Boston encampment the day after 141 people were arrested on Oct. 11 trying to expand to an adjacent plot of land.
“I swore to defend their freedoms, and they were being taken away. It’s very unconstitutional,” said McBride, who said he was less than honorably discharged for medical reasons.
McBride said the Occupy Wall Street protest is exactly the kind of civil disobedience protected under U.S. law.
“They wanted to kick us out. This is a peaceful assembly,” he said Thursday. “In the Constitution, the people have the right to peacefully assemble. It’s plain and simple. That’s why I’m here, to defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Back in New York, Bordeleau blamed some financial institutions for U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Wall Street corporations have played a big role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Bordeleau, 24, who served several years in Iraq over two tours ending in 2009 and now attends college in New York.
He said private contractors have reaped big profits in those countries “in pursuit of corporate interests that have had a devastating effect on our economy and our country, benefiting only a small number of people.”
“The 99 percent have to take a stand,” Bordeleau said, to rectify the biggest income gap between rich and poor since the Great Depression, fueled by what protesters say is Wall Street’s overblown clout in Washington politics.
From the stock exchange, the veterans walked down Broadway to the bronze bull that symbolizes the stock market.
“Halliburton and Bechtel think these wars are swell,” they chanted, invoking the names of American companies that received federal contracts for work rebuilding Iraq.
They say those who risked their lives fighting for their country have the right to protest economic policies and business practices that give them a slimmer chance of finding jobs than most Americans.
From 2008 to 2011, veterans’ unemployment rose 5.1 percentage points, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And a Department of Labor report shows that unemployment tops 20 percent among 18-to-24-year-old veterans, compared with a national rate of about 9 percent.
Veteran unemployment is projected to worsen after 10,000 servicemen and servicewomen return from Afghanistan and 46,000 come home from Iraq by year’s end — many wounded or suffering from mental trauma.
Bordeleau, who served in the military police, said his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder has made it impossible to pursue a career in civilian law enforcement, and that he’s had a hard time finding jobs that pay more than $10 an hour. He has worked as a groundskeeper at a New York public park while living on disability benefits.
“I can’t really survive on that,” he said.
Wednesday’s protest comes two weeks after another veteran faced off with police in New York.
Shamar Thomas, a decorated former Marine sergeant from Roosevelt, N.Y., went nose-to-nose with officers policing activists in Times Square.
“This is not a war zone! These are not armed people!” he told police in a passionate, videotaped plea that has gone viral on YouTube.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he believes the protest, now in its seventh week, is “really hurting small businesses and families.”
He said the city has worked hard to preserve the protesters’ First Amendment rights, but is very concerned about the rights of others in the area. Bloomberg said the city will take action if and when it’s appropriate.
To ease access to small businesses on Wall Street, hundreds of police barricades were removed Wednesday, said Marc LaVorgna, a mayoral spokesman.