Going AWOL vs. Going to Iraq

Editor's Note:

American and British soldiers are increasingly taking drastic action to avoid deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. As recently reported in the press, the Pentagon has "revised" the number of military desertions in 2006 upward to 3,196 active-duty soldiers -- 853 more than the Pentagon previously announced. And in a article released today, the British Independent newspaper reports that the UK Ministry of Defense "estimates there have been 10,000 AWOL incidents since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and 1,100 servicemen are currently 'on the run' from the Army." The article excerpted below, from the German magazine Der Spiegel, illustrates the difficult alternatives that soldiers who don't want to be deployed are facing.

US Soldiers Against Iraq War Seeking Way Out
Casualties of Conscience
by Mary Wiltenburg

When he goes underground, he won't tell his mom. "John," a rangy young soldier with arresting eyebrows, has planned each step carefully. He will spend his leave from an Army base in Germany at home in the northeastern United States, snowboarding, visiting friends, and hanging out with his teenage siblings. Then he'll disappear. When the military police call his mother and stepfather, the hard-line Bush supporters will be able to say honestly that they don't know where their son is.

Shortly before his return to the States, John let Der Spiegel in on his plan over cocoa and ham sandwiches in a Berlin cafe. He is one of a growing number of American service members now going AWOL (absent without leave) from units stationed overseas. Though the US Department of Defense does not keep figures on such cases, a strong indication of their frequency is the number who receive "Chapter 11" discharges through Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Fort Knox, Kentucky, the main processing centers for those who go missing overseas and turn themselves in, or are arrested, back home.

Between October 2002 and September 2005, the two made an annual average of 1,546 such discharges. Last year the number grew to 1,988, or more than five per day. John didn't start out a quitter. When he joined the military, he loved the idea of seeing the world. Family members were thrilled by his choice. His stepfather works for an oil company, his uncle for a weapons manufacturer. In training, though, he had serious qualms. From inside, the Army struck John as brutal, controlling, "like a slavery contract."

Iraq, his first war zone, did nothing to quiet his doubts. The communications specialist was sent to a base near Baghdad to repair a phone and Internet hookup that allowed communication between US facilities. John found himself holding a faulty fiberoptic cable labeled "Abu Ghraib." "I really felt like part of something bad at that point," he says. "I didn't directly have blood on my hands, but I was part of it."

Officially, punishment for military desertion can range from an "other than honorable" discharge -- a bureaucratic slap on the wrist that may involve a cut in benefits -- to death by firing squad. In practice, many soldiers who go AWOL overseas follow the advice of the Army's deserter hotline and quietly turn themselves in to Ft. Sill or Ft. Knox. Ft. Knox spokeswoman Gini Sinclair says most of the 14,000-plus troops who have been processed through the two centers since the invasion of Afghanistan were discharged within two weeks.

Court-martial in Germany

But there are no guarantees. Deserters can also fare like Agustin Aguayo. For three years the Army medic has struggled to be recognized as a "conscientious objector" (CO), someone whose beliefs prevent him from taking part in war. In the meantime, the Mexican American spent a year treating broken comrades and bloody civilians in Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit -- without a loaded weapon, even on dangerous patrols. Now Aguayo, 35, sits in a military prison; on March 6 he will stand before a court-martial in Würzburg. His case comes at a time when American public opinion has turned sharply against the war. President George W. Bush's call to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq is not only providing ammunition to his political opponents; it is fueling doubts among those doing the fighting.

"Since Bush's speech, we've been swamped with new calls," says Michael Sharp, director of the Military Counseling Network, a non-profit organisation near Heidelberg that helps American soldiers who are considering leaving the service. Last month the group took on 30 new clients, three times its previous average. Service members say it stands to reason that many people desert overseas. A foreign posting -- 65,000 troops are now stationed in Germany -- is often a major reality-check for soldiers. Many are abroad for the first time, and being far from family, in a country that opposes the war, and halfway to the battlefield "forces you to think about things a lot closer," says former Army Sgt. DeShawn Reed.

In the US, too, groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace are growing. Nearly 1,600 enlisted soldiers have signed an appeal to the US Congress that reads: "Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price." And in Seattle, Lt. Ehren Watada, 29, is now grabbing headlines as the first American officer to be court-martialed for refusing to serve in Iraq. The Japanese American has called the conflict "an illegal and unjust war ... for profit and imperialistic domination."

There are other ways to break a military contract. Some enlistments end in felonies: drunk driving, illegal drugs. Other service members are discharged for illness, injury, or homosexuality. (Gays and lesbians may not legally disclose their sexual orientation if they wish to serve in the US military.) Still others go the way Aguayo did, against the laws of the country for which they once volunteered to fight. ...

Germany an education

... On or off the battlefield, soldiers can be casualties. DeShawn Reed knows. For the California native, Germany was more than a posting; it was an education. After high school, Reed, now 27, served the Army in Kaiserslautern for five years as a human resources specialist. In his spare time he studied the language, moved downtown, made good German friends, and traveled with them throughout Europe. The soft spoken African American started taking college courses, and in European History it hit him: every war leads to another. Reed began to see fighting as senseless, and contrary to the teachings of a God who bade him respect his fellow man.

So without ever seeing combat, Reed began the process of applying for a conscientious objector discharge. He wrote essays and letters. A chaplain evaluated the sincerity of his faith, a psychiatrist judged his sanity, an investigator rummaged through his past. One interviewer asked Reed if he would really have refused to fight against Adolf Hitler's Germany. Reed argued that America's entry into World War II wasn't a selfless act to "spread democracy" or free the Jews; it was a response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

"American history is just as cynical as German history," he says -- just look at Iraq. Reed's application was narrowly approved, and he returned to Reno, Nevada, where he now works for a local school district. He was married last fall. These days, Reed's main contact with the Iraq war is through news reports. Watching the destruction, he says, he is sorry he didn't become a CO sooner. But "it means the world to me that I stood against the war. I'm proud of that." For Agustin Aguayo, it is too soon to talk about pride.

The future is uncertain; the past year, a blur. In September the self-described pacifist escaped orders to return to Iraq by leaping out the back window of his Schweinfurt home. He left behind his wife and 11-year old twin daughters, hopped a train to Munich, hid there with a family, secured a Mexican passport and a plane ticket to Guadalajara, flew by way of Spain, crossed the US border, caught a ride home to Los Angeles, and turned himself in to a local Army base -- all in 24 days.

He was returned to Germany in handcuffs, charged with "missing movement" for not going to Iraq with his unit and "short-form desertion" for his time on the run. ...

To read the full Der Spiegel article, click here.

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