Soldiers Who Oppose Second Tour of Duty in Iraq and Afghanistan
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PHONE BANK VOLUNTEER: You can turn yourself in anywhere in between 31 and 180 days of being absent, but in most cases in the Marines you’ll be sent back to your original unit.
SPENCER MICHELS: Since the war in Iraq began, volunteers at the GI Rights Hotline in Oakland, California, have fielded an increasing numbers of calls from soldiers, Marines, and their relatives from around the country, most asking how to leave the military. Last year, this office got 35,000 calls and e-mails, double the number it did in 2001. And the calls are now averaging 3,000 a month.
The Pentagon says that since the war began, about 5,000 military personnel have deserted, by going absent without leave or AWOL for more than 30 days. Activists say the numbers are much higher, but the Army says the desertion numbers are actually lower than is usual in peacetime, and make up fewer than 1 percent of current enlistees.
Even though there is no draft, since 2002, about 250 servicemen and women have claimed that since joining up, they have become conscientious objectors: Persons who, for religious or moral reasons, cannot participate in any war. Some of the cases have received widespread news coverage.
In May, Navy Petty Officer Pablo Parades was sentenced to three months hard labor, for having refused to board his ship as it left for the Persian Gulf.
PABLO PARADES: I’d rather do a year in a prison in the military than do six months of dirty work for a war I don’t believe in and not many people believe in.
SPENCER MICHELS: Also this year, eight-year veteran Army Sgt. Kevin Benderman, who served a stint in Iraq, was denied conscientious objector status, and was court-martialed for desertion. And Marine Reservist Stephen Funk, who also claimed to be a CO, turned himself in 2003, and spent five months in the brig.
CHAPLIN: We ask your blessing, oh God, on Stephen today. Stay with him give him courage.
SPENCER MICHELS: Funk says he had joined to learn leadership skills, but became disillusioned during training.
STEPHEN FUNK: You’re going around shouting, “Kill, kill, kill,” all the time and, you know, stabbing human shaped dummies. And I realized that I couldn’t be a part of that no matter how much training I went through.
SPENCER MICHELS: Funk and other deserters make up an insignificant fraction of the military, says Army spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, who adds that most desertions are not political.
LT. COL. BRIAN HILFERTY: Every army in the history of the world has always had some deserters, usually much greater than we have today, because once again every soldier who’s joined the Army since 1973 is a volunteer, and the numbers are very small and they are almost completely for — people desert almost completely for personal or financial reasons.
SPENCER MICHELS: Hilferty says the Army tries to get most AWOL soldiers back into their units. He says they are rarely pursued or prosecuted. However, a few have taken a page from the Vietnam War and decided to flee to Canada, especially those with strong anti-war views who have become fearful of arrest.
PEACE ACTIVIST: So I just put “war resisters welcome” and then I put the thing on the back, right? Perfect.
SPENCER MICHELS: This Toronto peace group is helping about ten American military who have fled to Canada, with food, shelter and legal aid. Activists estimate there may be up to 100 American servicemen in Canada today, most blending into the population or hiding in remote areas.
Among those speaking out: 22-year-old skateboarder Darrell Anderson from Kentucky who left the Army, and 20-year-old Ivan Brobeck of Virginia, who deserted the Marines, both after serving in Iraq. Anderson says he joined because he was promised healthcare and college tuition, but in Iraq he says he was ordered to do things he never anticipated, including attacking civilians.
DARRELL ANDERSON: They set up a roadblock with, in Arabic writing that says, “Stop or you’ll be shot.” This is a third world country. How many people can read? And I was in that situation: The family didn’t stop, stopped in front of me. I was ordered to fire. I refused and said, “The window’s rolled down.” And I said, “Look there’s children in the back.” There’s a family. I did the right thing. They said, “No you didn’t. Next time you will open fire or you’ll be punished.” I’m a 22-year-old kid. Should I go to prison because I can’t kill women and children?
SPENCER MICHELS: That argument doesn’t get much sympathy from other personnel back in the states who served in Iraq and may have to return.
FIRST SGT. JOE MORALES: The history of warfare, there’s always civilians involved in urban terrain, urban combat. We take great steps out there to make sure that we’re fighting only enemy combatants.
SPENCER MICHELS: First Sgt. Joe Morales and Corporal Bill Hatch are assigned to a Marine reserve unit in San Jose, California.
FIRST SGT. JOE MORALES: So I don’t believe that they would say, “Well, I never thought I would have to do this, that there was only going to be military targets out there and that’s all I had to do.” And no, I don’t believe that.
CPL. BILL HATCH: You don’t sign up for the military expecting never to go to war. You sign up because you know one day you may have to make that ultimate sacrifice.
SPENCER MICHELS: But, says deserter Ivan Brobeck, who spent seven months in Iraq, this war is different.
IVAN BROBECK: Let’s pretend we’re back in World War II. I’d have no problem killing a Nazi. I wouldn’t hesitate on pulling the trigger. I wouldn’t hesitate on running into a machine gun bunker where I might die, I might not. I don’t know. But this isn’t that situation.
SPENCER MICHELS: He, like Anderson, chose to flee after deciding the war was wrong.
IVAN BROBECK: It was either, you know, stay on the run in the U.S, not being able to get a job, you know, in fear for my life, and going back to the military, getting sent to jail or go to Canada and start up a new life.
CPL. BILL HATCH: I get angry, because they made a commitment and they failed to follow through with that commitment, and your word is everything. And when they’re saying that they won’t defend your life when you defend theirs, then obviously there is a strong sense of betrayal.
SPENCER MICHELS: In Canada, Darrell Anderson is well aware that some Americans regard deserters like him as cowards, even though he was wounded in action.
DARRELL ANDERSON: I take shrapnel in my side, it’s kind of like being in the eye of a tornado, just can’t hear, you can’t see, and I pull a piece of burning metal out of my side and I drop it in the street cause it’s hot. I throw my gear back up; I go back up there. I fight the battle. This was all in one day, and people in America call me a coward. Freaking, I’m a war hero, man. I did crazy stuff in battle. No one else, these guys sitting on the couch saying, “He’s a coward” — okay, you go fight the war.
SPENCER MICHELS: Jeremy Hinzman of South Dakota was the first American GI to arrive in Canada, with his wife and child. He was an Army paratrooper who served in Afghanistan in a non-combat role, after he had declared himself a conscientious objector.
JEREMY HINZMAN: And the more I went through the training, the more I was desensitized, the more I was indoctrinated, the more I was told that it’s not enough just to kill. You have to do it with a smile on your face and yell “Hooray.” You know, the more revolted I became. Call me weak, call me a woosie, but I can’t kill anybody.
SPENCER MICHELS: Hinzman’s CO application was denied. And rather than be deployed to Iraq, he drove to Canada. During the Vietnam era, Canadians were welcoming to Americans trying to avoid the war, and in fact fifty to fifty-five thousand Americans came here. But Canadian immigration law has become more stringent, and so American military deserters trying to avoid Iraq have found it very difficult to get permission to stay.
Hinzman applied to Canada for political asylum, claiming the war in Iraq was illegal, and if he went back to the U.S., he would be jailed. But he was turned down in the only decision rendered thus far because Canadian law insists a refugee must have a well-founded fear of persecution if he returns home.
MARINA JIMENEZ: What American can truly claim he’ll be subjected to persecution and cruel and unusual punishment in the U.S., particularly a U.S. soldier that volunteered to fight a war?
SPENCER MICHELS: Marina Jimenez covered the Hinzman case for the Globe and Mail newspaper.
MARINA JIMENEZ: They may not like that war, but the truth is nobody forced them to go there.
SPENCER MICHELS: Hinzman, who wanted to avoid Iraq, is still appealing the decision denying him asylum, and is still asserting he is a conscientious objector. At the University of San Francisco, politics and peace studies Professor Stephen Zunes says the all-volunteer military has made conscientious objector claims difficult to sustain.
STEPHEN ZUNES: It’s much harder to reclassify yourself once you’re in the system, particularly in the case of an all volunteer Army, where you volunteered to join and presumably thought about these kinds of implications before.
SPENCER MICHELS: Zunes says the nature of the war in Iraq changed that.
STEPHEN ZUNES: You find people that while they may not oppose all wars find that the particular war is something that morally they cannot continence. But legally they’re in limbo there because the military can’t give license to people who say, “Oh, this war is okay,” or “this is not.” It would break down the discipline.
SPENCER MICHELS: For many Americans who fled to Canada like Oklahoman Josh Key and his wife Brandy who have four children, the consequences are just beginning to sink in. They had originally supported the war.
BRANDY KEY: I am proud of him and I just always — seems like when he talks, what’s always going through my mind is, “How is he doing as well as he is?” You know, like, if I were to have saw a lot of things that he’s seen, I think I’d be crazy.
JOSH KEY: My therapist helps out with that a lot though.
SPENCER MICHELS: Can you ever go back home, do you think?
JOSH KEY: No, no.
BRANDY KEY: We can’t right now, but I hope eventually we can, you know, someday.
SPENCER MICHELS: And what are you? What do you consider yourself?
JOSH KEY: Oh, I’m a deserter because I mean, I went to war. I can’t say I didn’t go.
SPENCER MICHELS: Is that hard to say, “I’m a deserter?”
JOSH KEY: Very hard. I mean, it’s not easy to say, don’t you know.
SPENCER MICHELS: While the Pentagon asserts that the number of deserters is insignificant, those already in Canada say they expect their numbers to swell, if the Iraq War continues.