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Italy Is Getting Fed Up with American Soldiers

The impact of the US military bases on the Italian city of Vicenza is not just financial or environmental — it’s also social.

by Leonardo Bianchi
Aug 3 2014, 6:10pm

Image via Flickr

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

After Germany, Italy is the European country with the highest number of American military bases. According to David Vine, assistant professor of Anthropology at the American University in Washington, DC, “the Pentagon has spent the last two decades throwing hundreds of millions of tax dollars into military bases in Italy, turning the country into an increasingly important center for US military power.” Obviously, many Italians aren't that excited about parts of their country becoming the US military's Magaluf.

In 2007, the construction of the new Dal Molin military base began in Vicenza — a city in the North of Italy where the US army already had troops stationed (in the historical Camp Ederle). The plan, carried on by the still-classified Bilateral Infrastructure Agreement signed in 1954, called for the construction of 25 new buildings with lodging for 1,200 soldiers, aiming to include all elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team and the Africom (US Africa Command).

Right from the start, the movement opposed the construction of the new post, highlighting that the base did not come with any financial advantage to the area but with serious environmental issues: It would pollute a very important groundwater source, which supplies Vicenza and the nearby Padova and can be found underneath the base.

But the complains didn't stop the construction of the base annex, and Vicenza automatically became a city locked between two American bases — bases that count over 12,000 American citizens, among a total of 113,000 city inhabitants. When you walk in the Vicenza city center, the presence of such an extended American community is practically invisible. Every now and then, however, a news report casts a dark shadow on the behavior of some American soldiers.

One such incident took place earlier this month, on the night of July 14, 2014. Two American paratroopers based in the Ederle and Dal Molin barracks reportedly abducted a pregnant Romanian prostitute and held her hostage for longer than two hours. According to the Italian press, they heavily beat, raped, and robbed the woman and finally abandoned her in the middle of a forest in a semi-unconscious state.

The two soldiers were quickly identified after the victim reported the license plate number of the car they were driving. One of them — who later tried to commit suicide — was already under investigation for sexual violence and abduction towards an underage girl from Vicenza.

That episode dates back to November 2013. The girl had met the accused in a club near the Caserma Ederle post. According to her deposition, once she got out of the club, the soldier, who was drunk, started following her and "took me to a nearby alley and attacked me. He covered my mouth and brutally raped me.”

Despite the requests, the soldier was not held in detention because he was supposed to be quickly transferred from Vicenza.

He wasn't so lucky this time. As the Italian Minister of Justice, Andrea Orlando, tweeted a day after their arrest, on the 25th of July, “the two American soldiers will be tried in Italy. There will be no waiver of jurisdiction.”

The decision to exercise jurisdiction in the case wasn't easy for Italy. According to Article 7 of the 1951 London Convention, NATO soldiers accused of crimes in foreign countries have a right to be tried in their own country — if requested — rather than in the receiving State. According to an investigative report by the Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper, Italy in the last year and a half has given up its right to exercise its jurisdiction in the majority of its cases — 91 over 113.

To mention the most recent ones that involve military men in Vicenza, in August 2013, the Italian State avoided to proceed against three American soldiers, that had run over and injured a group of pedestrians in the city center. Last February, after eight years of hesitation, Italian authorities decided not to exercise jurisdiction over the soldiers Louis Carrasquillo and David Michael Simon, who in 2006 decided to start a car race in the city center, putting other people's life at risk.

Another infamous case was the one involving paratrooper James Michael Brown. In 2004, after returning to Vicenza from Iraq, the American soldier beat up, handcuffed and raped a Nigerian prostitute. In 2006, the Court of Vicenza – the trial having been exceptionally held in Italy — sentenced him to five years and eight months and 100,000 € in compensation. The crime would have earned him a longer sentence, but the court reduced the penalty explaining that his time in Iraq had made him “less sensitive to the suffering for others.” In the end, Brown only served a year of precautionary custody, before being sent off to Germany and finally back to the States.

If anything, these events show that the impact of the bases on the city of Vicenza is not just financial or environmental, it’s also social. The reasons are many, and not necessarily linked to the psychological condition of the soldiers returning from war.

According to Martina Vultaggio, member of “We Want Sex” (the committee behind the sit-in protest held in front of the base on July 22, 2014), Italy is facing “un-integrated foreigners,” in the sense that "life [for the soldiers] in the bases is very detached from the society they’re in.”

Unless they decide to stay in Italy on a permanent basis, the soldiers "are stationed for a maximum of five years." In addition, "contact with the local population is minimal. The Americans have their own bars and hang-outs. There is no real contact." Hence, according to Vultaggio, they can develop" “the idea of being able to act as tourists, taking advantage of the situation."

A demonstration against the opening of the Dal Molin base. Image via Flickr.

The SETAF (Southern European Task Force), explains Vultaggio, is well aware of the risky behavior of soldiers in Vicenza and — in addition to psychological support programs — its officials do not hesitate to "intervene strongly through the Military Police, because they want to prove they’re able to quell the unrest.” But at the same time, “a military base can by no means promote impunity.”

The question is: how common are these behaviors? And how far do they get? What happened on July 3, 2013, offers a pretty significant example.

Col. David Buckingham, garrison commander of the Dal Molin base, threw a fit during a traffic jam caused by an Independence Day celebration at Caserme Ederle. Buckingham was frustrated that a garrison gate had not been opened as was planned to let traffic flow freely. According to the Giornale di Vicenza, "the commander had a few too many [such circumstances were never confirmed by the Military Command] and when told he couldn’t drive due to his condition, he tried to force the roadblock." Following an investigation, the Colonel was then relieved of duty.

But similar news rarely catch the attention of the Italian public opinion. According to Cristiana Catapano, member of the 'No Dal Molin' movement and one of the writers of the book Wars on Demand, "cases of violence outside the base are hidden as much as possible."

Despite the protests that have been staged in recent years, both against the construction of the base as well as crimes like these, Catapano believes there still is "a part of the population that would have reacted differently if the rape and violence were committed by another kind of foreigner. The American citizen is still seen as a someone who does good and enhances the security of the city."

The lack of importance given to this kind of news can also arise from the fact that many victims are foreigners, prostitutes or people who are already marginalized. "It makes a great deal of effort to report such cases," said Catapano. “And among those who actually decide to do that, few have been compensated, and others never learn the outcome of the trials because they have been transferred to the United States.”

The picture is further complicated by the attitude of the Italian institutions, which “willingly disentangle from these trials,” often as an act of political expediency.

With the trial of the two American soldiers threatening to turn into a diplomatic row, it is now more obvious than ever that the relationship between the city of Vicenza and the US military bases is very far from being idyllic.

Follow Leonardo Bianchi on Twitter: @captblicero