Deserting the Iraq War US Soldier Seeks Political Asylum in Germany

André Shepherd is the first American GI to have applied for political asylum in Germany. Shepherd, who deserted to avoid going back to fight in Iraq, argues that the war there is in violation of international law.

There are more pleasant places than the buildings used to house asylum applicants in Germany. Many were once military barracks or camps for refugees from the two world wars, built decades ago as detention facilities, complete with thick walls and steel doors.

Last Wednesday, André Shepherd, a Specialist in the US Army, who loves the onion-shaped towers on Russian Orthodox churches and German Leberkäs dumplings with Emmentaler cheese, was standing in front of the gate of a detention center in the central German city of Giessen, flanked by the barrier, his attorney and two suitcases. Shepherd would never have dreamed that his 19-month escape from being redeployed to Iraq would end in these barracks.

"It's crazy, but I believe that I've come full circle here today," says Shepherd, an African-American, after having had his fingerprints and picture taken for his official refugee identification card. "I haven't felt this safe in a camp in a long time."

Shepherd, born 31 years ago in Cleveland, Ohio, a mechanic who worked on Apache helicopters in the US Army, is the first American deserter to apply for political asylum in Germany. The case seems ideally suited to launching a new political discussion on the Iraq war. Last week representatives of the Green Party and Left Party in both the parliament, or Bundestag, and the European Parliament were quick to declare their support for Shepherd.

The reasons he gives for his petition are unambiguous. Shepherd "refuses, for reasons of conscience, to continue his military service, because he does not wish to take part in a war by the United States against Iraq that is in violation of international law and the prohibition of violence stated under Article 2, Number 4 of the Charter of the United Nations and, furthermore, does not wish to be involved in war crimes in connection with the deployment of his unit in Iraq." Shepherd says: "If I carried out my orders, it would make me a criminal. But I swore my oath on the American Constitution, which prohibits wars of aggression of any nature, such as the one in Iraq."

Shepherd's Frankfurt attorney Reinhard Marx, a specialist in refugee law, remains deliberately calm when discussing the matter. His client, says Marx, is currently under the protection of the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which precludes deportation to the United States. "We assume that the application will now be examined in a conscientious way." If it is denied, says Marx, or if no decision is reached within the next six months, the only advice he can give Shepherd is to "go to court and challenge a Grundsatzurteil (judgment establishing a principle)."

Dozens of American Deserters in Germany

Shepherd's chances of gaining a favorable judgment are not bad. In June 2005, the Federal Administrative Court in the eastern city of Leipzig invalidated the demotion of Florian Pfaff, an officer in the German military, who had refused to take part in the development of a computer program that could be used to support combat operations in Iraq. In their ruling, the judges wrote: "Serious legal reservations have existed and continue to exist, with respect to the prohibition of violence in the UN Charter and other applicable international law, against the war against Iraq, begun by the United States and the United Kingdom on March 20, 2003."

For this reason, the court continued, no professional soldier in the service of the Federal Republic of Germany could be required "to support actions by NATO partners that are in violation of the United Nations Charter and valid international law." In addition, under a European Union directive enacted in 2006, which applies in Germany, a person who refuses to participate in a war that violates international law must be recognized as a refugee.

For American soldiers who, like Pfaff, refuse to take part in a war of aggression, deserting is the only option. According to the US Army, 4,698 soldiers deserted last year alone, and the Pentagon has counted more than 25,000 career soldiers who have gone absent without leave (AWOL) since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. Any soldier who is AWOL for more than 30 days is considered a deserter, and those captured by the US military police usually end up behind bars for many months.

But the US military does not actively search for deserters. In Germany, for instance, more than a dozen American deserters have already gone underground. This is hardly surprising, because most of the roughly 130,000 American soldiers currently stationed in Iraq pass through the Ramstein Air Base before embarking on the "War on Terror."

To understand André Shepherd's story, it is helpful to know how the US military recruits its soldiers. Because there are far too few volunteers, recruiters target their efforts in schools in troubled neighborhoods, among the unemployed and in urban ghettoes. The recruiters' linguistic repertoire includes sentences like this: "You look like someone who likes to help other people." The ploy worked with Shepherd.

He was 26 at the time, and only one course shy of a college degree in computer science, but he needed several thousand dollars to complete the course. He tried everything he could to raise the necessary funds, from flipping hamburgers to selling vacuum cleaners, and he even slept in his car for a few weeks to avoid being a burden on his parent and siblings. But then Shepherd gave up on the idea of finishing college, knowing full well that without a degree his job prospects were slim, and that without a job he would be unable to afford a place to live.

On Jan. 27, 2004, Shepherd enlisted in the army. Joining the military got him training, a well-paid job as a helicopter mechanic, health insurance and his father's approval. He wanted to see the world beyond Cleveland. And he dreamed of a day when, instead of digging the sand out of the engines of Apache helicopters, he would be flying them. The friendly recruiter assured him that becoming a pilot was certainly "an option."

In September 2004, after completing Basic Training, Private Shepherd was transferred to the 412th Aviation Support Battalion, stationed at the Katterbach Barracks near the southern German city of Nuremberg. From there he was sent directly to Iraq.

Shepherd served for six months at Camp Speicher, a US base near Tikrit. His job consisted of servicing the engines of the AH-64A Apache helicopter -- for 12 hours a day, six days a week. The combat helicopters are equipped with up to 16 Hellfire missiles, Hydra rockets and a machine gun capable of firing 625 shots a minute.

'No Longer Help America Murder Innocent People'

Shepherd soon began having doubts about the war. He noticed that no one, "not even the guys who were out on patrol every day, the pilots who risked their lives with each mission, had an answer to the question of what exactly we were doing in this foreign country," says Shepherd, "not to mention for what and whom we were fighting."

Back in Germany, in February 2005, he searched the Internet for the information that hardly any American newspapers were reporting at the time: about the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the numbers of Iraqi civilians that were victims of the war, and Guantanamo. Watching YouTube videos, he witnessed for the first time the bloody nature of the so-called collateral damage considered par for the course during Apache missions. "What was a puzzle at first became an increasingly clear picture," says Shepherd. "That was when I realized that I didn't want to have anything to do with this war anymore."

When he received his orders to redeploy to Iraq, in the spring of 2007, Shepherd knew that he could "no longer help America murder innocent people." On the evening of April 21, 2007, he withdrew all of his savings from his bank account and cleared out his apartment on Philipp Zorn Street in the Bavarian town of Ansbach: two plastic bags full of clothing, a dartboard, a television and a new video console. A German friend helped Shepherd load his few belongings into a waiting car.

US soldiers in Iraq.

US soldiers in Iraq.

While Shepherd chose to go into hiding in a Bavarian village, most US deserters seek refuge in Canada. More than 200 soldiers have deserted across the US' northern border since 2003. But the Canadian government struggles to cope with the issue of the US deserters, who some see as shirkers and others treat as freedom fighters.

Canada was once a promised land for draft dodgers. In the 1960s and 70s, tens of thousands of American men went northward to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. But today the Conservatives are in power in Ottawa. In July, Canada deported a US deserter for the first time. The soldier was sentenced to 15 months in a US military prison. Generously recognizing deserters as refugees would be tantamount to insulting the United States, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper is reluctant to do. For that reason, only about 50 deserters have applied for refugee status in Canada to date. The first of them, infantryman Jeremy Hinzman, fled to Canada in January 2004, shortly before his unit was sent to Iraq. He has been suing his way through the Canadian courts ever since.

'I'm Not a Criminal'

The pacifists have been relatively unsuccessful in Canada's courts until now. And yet, says Hinzman's lawyer Jeffry House, "we have triggered a political debate." In early June, the Canadian parliament even adopted a resolution to accept all US deserters in Canada who refuse to go to war for conscientious reasons. But Prime Minister Harper has ignored the resolution, even though opinion polls show that two-thirds of all Canadians support it.

Shepherd experienced similar sympathy from within the civilian population here. German friends gave him a place to stay, and activists, like Tim Huber of the Military Counseling Network, have given him legal advice. Huber's group supports US soldiers stationed in Germany, including conscientious objectors. "If Shepherd stands a chance of gaining political asylum anywhere, it's in Germany," says Huber. "After all, it was concluded during the Nuremberg trials that no one, including a soldier, can abdicate personal responsibility for his actions solely by claiming to have followed orders."

Shepherd is sitting on a hand-made chair in the kitchen of a farmhouse, holding a cup of mulled wine from a Christmas market. He has been living in this old, drafty building for 19 months, a house so off the beaten track that hardly anyone but the mailman knows where it is. At first he spent much of his time hiding in his room, hardly even venturing out to the local supermarket. The German police stopped him twice, probably because they thought, as Shepherd says, "I was an illegal dishwasher from Africa." He says that he showed them his army identification card and was waved on when the Germans assumed that he was a tourist. "It doesn't hit you until later," says Shepherd, "when you're sitting at home again and you realize that everything could have been over, from one second to the next. It gets nerve-wracking after a while."

After Shepherd's disappearance, the army questioned his parents and fellow soldiers. Even though his attorney believes that Shepherd has the law on his side, not even Marx can predict what would happen if Shepherd ran into a US military police patrol.

Shepherd seems sad. He knows that the break with his country is permanent. "But I don't want to go to prison for listening to my conscience. I'm not the criminal. The people responsible for this are sitting in Washington."

Translated by Christopher Sultan


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