Un-Volunteering: Troops Improvise to Find Way Out
The night before his Army unit was to meet to fly to Iraq, Pvt. Brandon Hughey, 19, simply left. He drove all night from Texas to Indiana, and on from there, with help from a Vietnam veteran he had met on the Internet, to disappear in Canada.
In Georgia, Sgt. Kevin Benderman, 40, whose family ties to military service stretch back to the American Revolution, filed for conscientious-objector status and learned that he will face a court-martial in May for failing to report to his unit when it left for a second stint in Iraq.
One by one, a trickle of soldiers and marines – some just back from duty in Iraq, others facing a trip there soon – are seeking ways out.
Soldiers, their advocates and lawyers who specialize in military law say they have watched a few service members try ever more unlikely and desperate routes: taking drugs in the hope that they will be kept home after positive urine tests, for example; or seeking psychological or medical reasons to be declared nondeployable, including last-minute pregnancies. Specialist Marquise J. Roberts is accused of asking a relative in Philadelphia to shoot him in the leg so he would not have to return to war.
A bullet to the leg, Specialist Roberts, of Hinesville, Ga., told the police, seemed his best chance. “I was scared,” he said, according to a police report on the December shooting. “I didn’t want to go back to Iraq and leave my family. I felt that my chain of command didn’t care about the safety of the troops. I just know that I wasn’t going to make it back.”
Department of Defense officials say they have seen no increase in those counted as deserters since the war in Iraq began. Since October 2002, about 6,000 soldiers have abandoned their posts for at least 30 days and been counted as deserters. (A soldier who eventually returns to his unit is still counted as a deserter for the year.) The Marine Corps, which takes a snapshot of how many marines are missing at a given point in time, reported about 1,300 deserters in December, some of whom disappeared last year and others years earlier. The figures, Pentagon officials said, suggest that the deserter ranks have actually shrunk since the years just before Sept. 11, 2001. Of course, many things have changed since then, including the seriousness of deserting during a time of war.
Many of the tactics also defy simple categories like official desertion.
“There are a lot of people, many more than normal, who are trying to get out now,” said Sgt. First Class Tom Ogden, just before he left for a second trip to Iraq with his Army aviation unit from Fort Carson, Colo. He said he had seen fellow soldiers in recent months who seemed intent on failing drug tests because they believed they would be held back if only their tests “came back hot,” while others claimed bad backs and necks, with the same hope.
“I’ll tell you what,” Sergeant Ogden said, “they’re coming up with what they consider some creative ways to do it now.”
In the fall of 2003, Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia of Miami, in the Florida National Guard, was among the first to announce he was refusing to return to Iraq and filing for conscientious-objector status. A year ago, Pfc. Jeremy Hinzman, a South Dakotan, vanished from his post only to reappear in Canada, his family in tow.
Word of such cases spread among soldiers. Some reacted with disgust, accusing their colleagues of cowardice: how could they let down other soldiers in a time of war, when, unlike the draftees of the Vietnam War, they had all volunteered? Others, though, say the cases made them think more about their ambivalence.
“What I’ve seen is that soldiers are more afraid to make a stand for themselves than they are to go into combat,” said Sergeant Mejia, who was released in February after nearly nine months of confinement at Fort Sill, Okla., for desertion. “Until I took a stand, I was really going against my own conscience. I was so afraid to be called a coward.”
In the months since his case, more organized efforts have arisen.
A group of former soldiers who succeeded in achieving conscientious-objector status has created a Web site, www.peace-out.com, showing people how to apply. The site reported 3,000 hits the first day.
In Canada, residents banded together to help American soldiers who arrive there, supplying money, food and rooms. Michelle Robidoux, a leader of the War Resisters Support Campaign, said members were lobbying Canadian officials to grant the soldiers refugee status.
These soldiers come from all different towns, all over the country, but their reasons for wanting out echo one another. Some described grisly scenes from their first deployments to Iraq. One soldier said he saw a wounded, weeping Iraqi child whom no one would help; another said he watched as another soldier set fire to wild dogs just to pass time. Others said they had simply realized that they did not believe in war, or at least not in this war.
“It wasn’t what I thought it would be,” Private Hughey said. He said he enlisted at 17 from his home in San Angelo, Tex., because a recruiter promised that the military would buy him the education his father could not afford. He said he had tried to push aside little doubts he had, even back in basic training, but realized as his unit prepared to leave Fort Hood, Tex., for Iraq last March that he could not go.
“There are people who would want to hang me for this,” he said in a telephone interview from Toronto. “The thing is, yes, I did sign up for this. And, when I did, I had this vision that I’d be a good guy and defend my country. But killing people for something I don’t believe in just to fulfill a contract just didn’t seem right to me either.”
At a base in Germany, Specialist Blake Lemoine, 23, who served in Iraq last year, sent his chain of command a letter this year, announcing all the reasons he should be allowed to quit: the Army conflicts with his religious beliefs and rituals; he and his wife are not monogamous, counter to military policy; he is bisexual. In February, Army officials brought court-martial charges, accusing him of refusing to perform his assigned duties.
Army officials have said the number of people searching for escape routes is relatively small and no different from that of the past.
“There will always be some people who do this sort of thing, but I haven’t seen any evidence at all of a trend,” said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman. “There are more people that we hear about volunteering to be deployed, who want to go and serve. Remember, these are all volunteers.”
Although available Pentagon records date back only a few years, they show a rise in applications for conscientious-objector status. In 2002, 31 soldiers and marines applied, compared with 92 in 2003. As of November, the latest month for which records were available, 75 soldiers and marines had applied in 2004. Of the 75 applications, 34 were approved, 41 turned down.
That path, though, can be slow and complex. Military rules require that a service member show that he has developed a true moral, ethical or religious opposition to all war.
Sergeant Benderman applied in December, days before his unit shipped to Iraq without him.
His conscientious-objector application is being processed, but so far, one military official has recommended against its approval, he said. He faces a general court-martial on charges of desertion and missing his unit’s deployment. He could face penalties as severe as seven years in confinement, forfeiture of all pay, reduction in rank and a dishonorable discharge.
“Everybody wants to put you in a little box, wants you to have some grand epiphany and bolts in the sky when it comes to this,” Sergeant Benderman said recently. “But it’s not that way. Here’s what happened: I spent six months over there, and I came back and thought about it. What I know is that it’s inhumane. It’s turning 18-year-old men and women into soulless people.”
Among some desperate soldiers, the process of applying for conscientious objector may seem as remote a possibility as leaving for Canada.
In his interview with the police, Specialist Roberts said that his wife, worried about his imminent return to Iraq, had suggested a shooting: “She said, ‘Why don’t you do what everyone else is doing?’ She meant for me to try to find some way out of it.”
A hearing is scheduled for next week. The rest of his unit, meanwhile, is in Iraq. Autor: MONICA DAVEY