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Veterans Burn Uniforms in Solidarity with Airman Who Died After Setting Himself on Fire to Protest Gaza War

Veterans Burn Uniforms in Solidarity with Airman Who Died After Setting Himself on Fire to Protest Gaza War

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March 2, 2024
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Veteran protesters in Portland, Oregon, set their military uniforms on fire Wednesday in memoriam of Senior Airman Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation on the steps of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 25 in protest of the war in Gaza.

A video that was widely shared on social media Feb. 28 showed a number of protesters in front of a sign that read, “Veterans Say: Free Palestine! Remember Aaron Bushnell” as they put their uniforms in a metal drum and set them on fire.

“Aaron wore his uniform as he took that act, that ultimate sacrifice,” Matt Howard, a Marine Corps veteran and board member with About Face, the group behind the vigil, told Military.com. “There’s obviously an intentional decision that he made, and I think similarly, folks, our members and other veterans that participated, felt really strongly that that symbolism is important.”

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In the minutes leading up to his protest, Bushnell donned his uniform and walked toward the embassy, recording his last moments before setting himself ablaze, screaming “Free Palestine!” as he burned. The 25-year-old airman from Whitman, Massachusetts, said he was making an “extreme” protest in response to the more than 30,000 Palestinians killed in the last five months.

Israel declared war in response to Hamas’ unprecedented cross-border attack Oct. 7, in which the Islamic militant group killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 250 others hostage. The country launched a brutal, ongoing ground offensive in the weeks following the attack, and the destruction in Gaza has been likened by some experts as akin to genocide.

About Face: Veterans Against the War, originally founded as Iraq Veterans Against War, held the vigil for Bushnell in effort to ensure the sacrifice they said he made was not in vain. “Some of us are burning our medals. The rest of us are burning the last pieces of the military we had, to tell Aaron that he’s not alone, and to show him that he’s not alone,” one of the protesters said in the video.

The group has seen a serious uptick in the number of veterans reaching out, Howard said, since Bushnell’s passing last Sunday. The now-widely reported event is just one of a growing number of public protests since his death specifically aimed at the U.S. military’s leadership and the organization’s role in the war.

“The war on Gaza wouldn’t be able to happen if it wasn’t for U.S. munitions, diplomatic cover, U.S. support,” Howard said. “We [feel veterans] need to reject the idea that we all just need to kind of follow this particular line that the administration is pushing, and that the military is obviously very supportive of as well.”

The U.S. has not put any military boots on the ground in Gaza, and President Joe Biden has vehemently denied that it will. In support of Israel, however, the U.S. has sent a number of munitions such as Iron Dome rockets, in addition to a small number of special operations forces to help Israel with intelligence operations. The Navy has deployed ships to police the Red Sea and fend off attacks by Houthi rebels, who have targeted merchant shipping in opposition to Israel.

Speaking Wednesday at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C., Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin was interrupted by a number of activists who were escorted out of the room as they shouted their remarks. “Say his name, Aaron Bushnell!” one activist shouted. “Cease-fire now,” another yelled, according to footage provided to Military.com from someone involved in the protest.

The Air Force is treating Bushnell’s death as one of the 100 or so suicides it faces every year, Allvin said. The service and the other military branches have been struggling to reduce the number of troops who die by suicide, as well as increase access to mental health resources.

“Right now, where we are in that case is, understanding that has a lot of political fervor attached to it, this is just one of our airmen that we lost,” Allvin said at the think tank event.

The service is offering other airmen and Guardians mental health care and guidance on how to move forward following Bushnell’s death and as they conduct an investigation into it.

In addition to the burning of uniforms, more than 300 veterans attended a virtual vigil held for Bushnell this week, sponsored by About Face, Howard said. Other veterans, like Shaniyat Chowdhury, a Marine Corps veteran in New York City, have been attending local protests against the war and candlelight vigils both for Bushnell and for the lives lost in Gaza.

Chowdhury was among a number of veterans arrested in the days leading into Veterans’ Day weekend in 2023, after conducting a sit-in at the office of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., demanding her support in calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. Gillibrand is a senior member of the Armed Services Committee.

“He was one of us. You know, so it’s like even in those final moments, we just understood,” Chowdhury said of Bushnell in an interview with Military.com. “There is a sense of just that camaraderie that is forever-lasting, especially now that we’re on the other side of things and are trying to use our experience in a way that will be more helpful to the world.”

While veterans are no longer subjected to the restrictions of military regulations, active-duty, reserve and Guard service members still must adhere to a number of guidelines from their individual branches and the Defense Department as a whole.

Under DoD Directives 1344.10 and 1325.06, active-duty service members are allowed to participate in various forms of protest, including joining political organizations and attending events as spectators as long as they remain out of uniform. But they are not allowed to actively participate in protests as organizers or to speak at such events, nor are they allowed to pen political sentiments outside of letters to editors, for example.

Although the burning of flags and uniforms is a historically protected form of First Amendment speech, they still have to adhere to Defense Department guidelines, Rose Riley, an Air Force spokesperson, told Military.com in an email.

— Thomas Novelly contributed to this story.

— Rachel Nostrant is a Marine Corps veteran and freelance journalist, with work published in Reuters, New York Magazine, Military Times and more.

Related: Air Force Identifies 25-Year-Old Cyber Specialist as Airman Who Set Himself on Fire in Front of DC Embassy

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