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US Soldiers Against Iraq War Seeking Way Out: Casualties of Conscience

By Mary Wiltenburg

As criticism of the Iraq war grows at home, some US soldiers abroad are rejecting Bush's mission. On military bases across Germany, many are now seeking a way out through desertion or early discharge.

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.

Last weekend, 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.

"A soldier's duty ends"

Increasingly, soldiers with distinguished records, some a few years from retirement, are seeking discharge or choosing not to re-enlist, forfeiting the opportunity for generous pensions. These career military men and women say neither money nor pride can justify continuing to fight such a war. "I knew when I came back that I couldn't do this anymore. I couldn't be the tool to enforce policy that I thought was fundamentally wrong, if not a little evil," says Sgt. Bob Evers, a 14-year Army and Navy veteran now living in the Bavarian hamlet of Schnackenwerth. "It is absolutely devastating to me to see what we're doing and what we have become."

Evers, 37, is a thoughtful Nebraskan with the manner and historical insights of a political science professor. This was his second Iraq War. As a recent high school graduate, he spent 1991 on a battleship in the Persian Gulf. A decade later, in Kosovo, he saw how people welcomed American troops. "It was what I thought being in the military was all about," he says; one home he visited had photos of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair on the wall.

The Sunni Triangle was an ugly contrast. No one wanted Evers's men there, and he could see why. Escorting oil trucks up and down roads where families lack electricity and water, "you're doing more harm than good," he says, "and to me that stings."

The son and grandson of military men, Evers joined up to defend his Constitution. Initially, he supported the invasion of Iraq. Before the United Nations, US Secretary of State Colin Powell had staked his reputation on the claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Evers admired the statesman, "and I thought, if Colin Powell said it, it's good enough for me."

But on the ground, where he was responsible for the lives of eight men, where he zipped his best friend up in a body bag and saw things that made him wake up screaming at night, it ceased to be enough. There were no WMDs, just scared and angry Iraqis. By the time Evers was wounded on a raid in November 2004 and sent to a military hospital in Landstuhl, he felt the terrible futility of what he had been sent to do.

A US soldier in Iraq prepares to go on patrol.
REUTERS

A US soldier in Iraq prepares to go on patrol.

In the hospital he picked up a biography of Gen. Ludwig Beck. The former chief of staff of the German Armed Forces publicly resigned five years after the Nazi takeover; he was put to death after an attempt on Hitler's life. Evers read Beck's words -- "A soldier's duty ends where his knowledge, conscience, and responsibility forbid him to follow a command" -- and thought: Yes it does.

He began to criticize the war to trusted friends. Sympathetic superiors pushed through his medical discharge. Today Evers can walk again, but painfully; his right leg lags behind. He has started to speak publicly about his experiences. "I believe in all the hokey stuff we tell ourselves about what it means to be American," he told a crowd of expats, activists, and high school students at the German-American Institute in Tübingen recently, "and a democracy doesn't work, and a republic doesn't last, if the public doesn't inform itself."

Germany an education

But information has its own dangers. 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. Next week, a military judge in Würzburg is expected to sentence Aguayo to between two and seven years. Legal experts say that ultimately the case could force a long-awaited revision of American military law.

A painful choice

But Aguayo did not jump hoping to become a legal example. Unlike Officer Watada, who has used interviews, rallies, and online multimedia campaigns to spread his message of protest, the medic has rarely spoken publicly about his beliefs. Still, in Germany, groups like Connection e.V. and American Voices Abroad are rallying support for his case. Anti-war activists call Aguayo a "reluctant hero."

But soldiers looking for a way out rarely feel heroic. More often, they say, it is a painful choice: the kind you wrestle with alone, in the dead of night, when people who have never had to cut off a friend's legs to get him out of an exploded Humvee are sound asleep.

Chris lies awake most nights. "I just don't know how I'm going to get past this, my whole life, " he says, six months back from Iraq. The young California medic lost a great deal in this war. His wife, who got tired of waiting for him to come home; friends who died before his eyes; an untormented mind.

In what feels like a former life, he voted for President Bush. He wouldn't do it again. "I don't think we've done anything to improve Iraq," he says, "we've just wasted a lot of human lives." Psychologically, Chris says, he won't make it through another tour in Iraq. Right now he is in a holding pattern, working on and off at his Rhineland base, waiting for his contract to end in March. Hoping to go home, finish school, and get his paramedic's license.

Fearing he will be "stop-lossed," one of the tens of thousands who have completed their service but now must stay another year or more.

If that happens, he doesn't yet know what he'll do.

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