By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Nearly 50 U.S. military veterans at an anti-NATO rally in Chicago threw their service medals into the street on Sunday, an action they said symbolized their rejection of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some of the veterans, many wearing military uniform shirts over black anti-war t-shirts, choked back tears as they explained their actions. Others folded an American flag while a bugle played "Taps," which is typically performed at U.S. military funerals.
"The medals are supposed to be for acts of heroism. I don't feel like a hero. I don't feel like I deserve them," said Zach LaPorte, who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006.
LaPorte, a 28-year-old mechanical engineer from Milwaukee, said he enlisted in the Army at 19 because he felt there were few other options. At the time, he could not afford to stay in college.
"I witnessed civilian casualties and civilians being arrested in what I consider an illegal occupation of a sovereign nation," LaPorte said.
He said he was glad the United States had withdrawn its combat troops from Iraq, but said he did not believe the NATO military alliance was going to leave Afghanistan.
On Sunday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen opened the two-day summit of the 26-member alliance saying there would be no hasty exit from Afghanistan.
A veteran from New York who only gave his name as Jerry said: "I don't want any part of this anymore. I chose human life over war, militarism and imperialism."
The veterans had hoped to present their medals to a NATO representative. The closest they could get was the fence ringing the McCormick Place convention center about a block from where U.S. President Barack Obama and other leaders were meeting. The veterans threw their medals toward the convention center.
Matt Howard, 29, who served in the Marines from 2001 to 2006, said the rate of suicides among veterans returning from the wars is high.
"These medals are not worth the cloth and steel they're printed on. They're representative of failed policies," said Howard, a spokesman for Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Former U.S. Army Sergeant Alejandro Villatoro, 29, of Chicago, served during the Iraq 2003 invasion and in Afghanistan in 2011.
He said he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression and gave back three medals - one "War on Terrorism" medal, one for participating in the Iraq war and a NATO medal from the Afghanistan war. He said he wants the war in Afghanistan to end.
"There's no honor in these wars," said Villatoro, before he threw away his medals. "There's just shame."
(Editing by Greg McCune and Stacey Joyce)