Uncovering the Plight of AWOL Soldiers Stuck in Legal Limbo
Echo Platoon is part of the 82nd Replacement Detachment of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Soldiers in the platoon are relegated to living quarters in a set of dimly lit concrete rooms. Pipes peep out of missing ceiling tiles and a musty smell permeates beds placed on cracked linoleum floors.
For soldiers who have gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave) and then voluntarily turned themselves in or were forcibly returned, the detention conditions here in Echo Platoon only serve to reinforce the inescapability of their situation. They remain suspended in a legal limbo of forced uncertainty that can extend from several months to a year or more, while the military takes its time deciding their fate. Some of them, however, are offered a free pass out of this military half-life -- but only if they agree to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq.
Specialist Kevin McCormick, 21, who was held in Echo Platoon for more than seven months on AWOL and desertion charges, was typically offered release, subject to accepting deployment to Iraq, despite being suicidal. "Echo is like jail," he says, "with some privileges. [You are] just stuck there with horrible living conditions. There's black mold on the building [and] when I first got there, there were five or six people to a room, which is like a cell block with cement brick walls. The piping and electricals are above the tiles, so if anything leaks or bursts, it goes right down into the room. "
Specialist Michael St. Clair went AWOL because he could not obtain treatment from the military for his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On turning himself in, he ended up consigned to Echo Platoon. As he recalls it, "The number fluctuates all the time, but on an average you have 50 people sharing two functioning toilets and a single shower… Except for a couple of rooms none have doors, and there is minimal privacy with four or more people to a room. It's stressful not knowing what's going to happen to you."
Former military recruiter Staff Sargeant Jeffrey Nelbach went AWOL in 2004 in hopes of salvaging his family life. (It is not uncommon for soldiers to remain AWOL for years at a time.) Now, he's paying for it with a stint in Echo. He confirms the awful conditions. "It is an old, moldy building with bad ventilation. Fifty-plus people use the same latrine. And more and more people are going there."
Nelbach, who is quick to say that he's "not really for the war and not really against it," has lost his house and is struggling to support his children with no income during his first few months in Echo, a limbo-land where even military pay can be suspended. His experience has convinced him that "military justice is arbitrary and if your chain of command is bad, it means everything up is bad."
"Not Many Have This Opportunity."
According to Major Virginia McCabe, spokesperson for the 82nd Airborne Division, AWOL soldiers are confined to the holdover section at the 82nd Replacement Detachment at Fort Bragg if they are deemed a flight risk. She offered no criteria, however, for just how that is determined. "Each AWOL soldier has his or her own special circumstances," she said. "They stay in a holding platoon until a legal decision is taken. Or they might say they made a mistake and return to serve."
Normally, soldiers on a legal "hold" of some kind end up in platoons like Echo. It may be because he or she is seeking a medical discharge, switching assignments, or waiting for a court martial to be convened.
Echo Platoon, however, seems to be made up of a contingent of wayward soldiers the military does not know what to do with. Captain Kevin Thaxton, commander of the 82nd Replacement Detachment, of which Echo Platoon is a part, offers this explanation:
"While the entire replacement detachment contains 500 soldiers, there are 40 AWOLs in Echo and about 20 in for holdovers/personnel issues and post-UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] Punishment, totaling about 60 people.
"Some are given the opportunity to go back with their unit and deploy. Those who accept do not exactly have their records cleared, but they do get to start over, keeping in mind we know this person has had problems before. We don't advertise that they went AWOL, but the commanders and the NCOs know about it. Not many have this opportunity. It depends on how long they've been AWOL. You have to say OK, would I trust a person who decided they didn't want to serve at one time, someone who is always on the fence?"
"Having a Head Full of Insanity"
One soldier in Echo Platoon, Specialist Dustin Stevens, had gone AWOL before the invasion of Iraq, and did so because he was opposed to all wars. On turning himself in, he's been in the holdover section for six months now awaiting AWOL and desertion charges. He may not be halfway through his purgatory. Others in the platoon have been held for more than a year in a no man's land of small-scale arbitrary punishment in which, according to soldiers in Echo Platoon, officers in charge regularly verbally abuse them as well as make physical threats.
Kevin McCormick describes his experience this way: "You're less than human to the commanders. [They act as if] you don't deserve to be alive. A sergeant told us he wanted to take us out and shoot us in the back of the head. We get threatened all the time there."
On being questioned about such threats, Captain Thaxton played it safe. "I can't confirm or deny verbal abuse," he responded. "It depends on if a person is angry after something has been done."
On average, two new soldiers are assigned to Echo Platoon every week, according to Stevens. Resigned to a long wait, Stevens sums up life in the platoon this way:
"I've been here almost seven months, and only a few people have gotten out during that time. There was a Purple Heart veteran who was here and is now serving a 15-month jail sentence. One guy, gone for 10 years, got two years in prison without pay, although he had a newborn daughter. It doesn't make sense. Unfortunately, our sentence does not take into account the time served here. Some of us get paid, albeit the E1 or entry level wages, but I'd gladly give them the money back if I could go home...
"[Soldiers in Echo Platoon] don't... get the benefits others get. You are pretty much a prisoner. You can't do anything. They say you are not confined, but you can't go more than 50 miles off post. It's almost impossible to get leave unless in dire emergency, so we're just sitting here, day by day."
Downplaying the punitive nature of the platoon, Captain Thaxton admits only that "people who get in trouble are restricted to post. It keeps them from getting in fights with other soldiers. However, they are allowed access to Post Exchange [shopping], the chapel and dining facilities along with a 50-mile radius for travel."
Thaxton repeated several times that soldiers in Echo Platoon "can go to behavioral health [care]." While the soldiers themselves admit this is true and that they do have access to mental-health care, they say it is of very poor quality. Doctors, they claim, just focus on "drugging them up," rather than giving them adequate therapy in order to help them deal with their specific problems. The platoon's soldiers regularly confide suicidal urges to each other.
In Echo Platoon the deleterious effects the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are having on ordinary soldiers are clearly visible. By December 2006, it was already estimated that that 38% of all Army personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan had served multiple tours of duty. By October 2007, the Army reported that approximately 12% of all combat troops in Iraq were coping by taking antidepressants and/or sleeping pills.
In April 2008, the Rand Corporation, a military-affiliated think-tank, released a study stating: "Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan -- 300,000 in all -- report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression."
Like others who have turned against America's wars after multiple deployments to Iraq, Michael St. Clair has his regrets:
"I had always idealized the military, like we were going out to fight the Nazis, and had real moral high ground. When I got over [to Iraq], I was shocked by the brutality. My whole first tour, I can honestly say I never saw an Iraqi guy who deserved to die, who had weapons or was attacking us or anything. In many instances American soldiers took really bad decisions that killed innocent Iraqis. I had a hard time reconciling that with what I had thought I would be doing. By the time my second tour was over, I had morphed into a killer. A lot of people don't understand what war actually is. I don't know what's worse: being charged with felony or having a head full of insanity."
On St. Clair's return from his second tour, the military did a post-deployment health assessment, and six months later a reassessment. That is when his PTSD symptoms began to appear, and he was prescribed medication for depression. According to St. Clair, when he reported a panic attack, he was told he would not be sent to sniper school, and that he would not be given any further training because he was considered too unstable, which made him a danger to the country. Nevertheless, his military psychiatrist was, he claimed, pressured by higher ups to declare that he had a pre-Army personality disorder and was not suffering from PTSD. In despair, he went AWOL for 10 months before turning himself in.
His story is one more instance of the troop-unfriendly and skewed practices of the military machine. Diagnosed with PTSD, he was finally given a medical discharge for a personality disorder in an effort by the military to continue their systematic denial of the psychologically destructive effects of war.
After his deployment to Iraq, Kevin McCormick went AWOL because he felt suicidal and wasn't getting the help he needed. While in Iraq, he says, "I had a lot of problems back home. My mom had recently passed away. When I asked for help it got pushed back in my face. Even the Inspector General denied me treatment." (Essentially, the Inspector General represents a soldier's last recourse in attempting to correct a problem. If the IG refuses to help, there are few alternatives available.)
When, after four-and-a-half-months AWOL, McCormick turned himself in, he was offered absolution if he agreed to serve again, an absurdity not lost on him. "They offered me that deal," he exclaims, "when it was a known fact that I had issues with my mental care. They offered me a chance to go back to the unit!" His refusal to do so left him languishing in Echo Platoon for eight months until he finally received a medical discharge.
Even though his decision to go AWOL was in no way a protest against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, he is now opposed to it. "I personally don't feel we need to be in Iraq and I've been there and seen it firsthand. I think the U.S. being there is pointless."
His blunt advice to soldiers who go AWOL and intend to turn themselves in is, "If you're AWOL, fuck going back."
Staff Sergeant Nelbach will have spent over nine months in Echo Platoon by the time he is tried in October. His court martial will in all likelihood bring further punishment. Due to his higher rank and the fact that he was a platoon leader, Nelbach is in charge of making sure that soldiers in the platoon follow through on their work assignments. He also accompanies people to medical appointments and does necessary paperwork. He is thus seen by other platoon soldiers as the one who runs the place. Yet he is aware that none of this will help him when he comes to trial. "It's inhuman," he insists. "There's no fairness to it. It's always been mass punishment there."
Assigned to Echo Platoon in January 2009, Dustin Stevens continues to bide his time awaiting charges that might still be months away. "[It's] horrible here. We are treated like animals. We're all so lost and wanting to go home. Some of us are going crazy, some are sick. And the way I see it, I did nothing wrong. By reading or talking to people all of the time I try to stay out of this place in my mind… There are people here who should be in mental hospitals."
James Branum, Stevens' civilian lawyer, is also the legal adviser to the G.I. Rights Hotline of Oklahoma and co-chair of the Military Law Task Force (MLTF) which offers training to the legal community and information about G.I. Rights and military law to service members and their families. He says AWOL troops make up three-quarters of Echo platoon and that medical cases are the bulk of the remainder. Accustomed to inordinate delays from the military, he says, "People are in this unit for months and months. The [authorities] take forever to do anything. You are going to be there six months if you're lucky, twelve if you're not."
On the legality of such detention without trial, Branum comments:
"I think there are some illegal elements about how they are running the place, but the general concept is not illegal. You have people there with legitimate medical and psychological issues, but instead of proactively helping them, the military shuffles them off to this replacement [detachment] to be treated like dirt. They are told they have no rights when they do have a right to talk to their commander, to have an attorney, and to talk to Congress. Echo, if run properly, would be a good thing. Not so when people are being warehoused and told repeatedly they have no rights. That is illegal."
As for the military's goal in running Echo Platoon and other similar units at military bases around the country:
"To me it doesn't seem productive. Oftentimes, the military doesn't know what it is doing. There isn't a logical explanation for this. Maybe deterrence is one. Other soldiers see these guys being ill treated and don't want to resist. They also want to break and wear people down so they'll deploy rather than keep resisting. The Army isn't true to its own processes at times. If their goal is to get folks deployable, this isn't the way. You don't want guys with physical or psychological issues to deploy."
In 2008, USA Today revealed that more than 43,000 troops listed as medically unfit had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan anyway.
A Yardstick of Desperation
In a discussion of her group's role in dealing with the legal holding of soldiers, MLTF co-chair Kathleen Gilberd commented:
"Fort Bragg is not an isolated situation. Placement in legal-hold [detachments] where soldiers languish for months is common to all the services. What we're seeing is the command not making up their minds. Their indecision has severe consequences for those with open-ended medical issues because they cannot avail themselves of help until their legal situation is resolved."
Chuck Fager, the director of the Fayetteville Quaker House (the town of Fayetteville adjoins Fort Bragg) claims that the military is primarily focused on "making numbers" for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Orders from the Pentagon say you have to send X [number of] troops," he points out. "The military does not have them and is constantly looking around for where to get them. One potential pool is the mass of soldiers gone AWOL. Eventually they either go back or get picked up... We are guessing [military officials] think they can persuade a significant number of these AWOL soldiers to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. "
The U.S. still maintains more than 130,000 soldiers in Iraq and, by year's end, will have at least 68,000 in Afghanistan, a figure likely to rise in the years to come.
Think of Echo and other platoons like it as grim yardsticks for measuring the desperation in which a military under immense strain is now operating. Looking up at that military from Echo's airless limbo, from a world of soldiers who have fallen through the cracks of a system under great stress, you can see just how devastating America's two ongoing wars have been for the military itself. The walking wounded, the troubled, and the broken are now being pressured to reenter the fray.
If Chuck Fager is right, the future is bleak for the members of Echo Platoon who endure deplorable conditions with little idea about whether their future involves charges, trial, deployment, or medical release. It is a painful irony that some of those who volunteered to serve and defend our nation are now left particularly defenseless and vulnerable as a direct consequence of its ill advised foreign adventures.