MANY RESERVISTS FEELING A ‘DRAFT’
By WILLIAM BUNCH
GENNARO PELLEGRINI JR., a 31-year-old Philadelphia police officer, was playing Sony Playstation video games with a nephew one night last April when a single phone call turned his world upside down.
He was just two weeks away from the end of a six-year hitch in the Pennsylvania National Guard, one of several signs that Pellegrini was hitting a new phase in life.
As he neared his third anniversary as a cop patrolling the streets around Fishtown, he was now also engaged to be married. And a highly successful amateur welterweight boxer, he was also training for his first professional fight at the legendary Blue Horizon arena on North Broad.
That’s when the commander from his National Guard armory called with some stunning news. The Pentagon, invoking the fine print in his enlistment papers, was not only extending his tour for up to 18 months, but was calling him up for active duty.
He was told to begin training to go to Iraq by year’s end.
“I was mad,” Pellegrini said last week, and his anger has only grown over the last six months of training in Texas and Louisiana. He said he’s too out of shape to fight, and his fiancee broke up with him. He called the conflict in Iraq “a so-called war” and sees U.S. troops as caught in an impossible situation.
But like it or not, he left yesterday to begin his service.
Pellegrini is one of several thousands reservists or ex-soldiers who are going to the bloody war in Iraq under what the Pentagon calls “a stop-loss” program – but critics are calling “a back-door draft.”
The Philly cop is hardly alone. Officials estimated that some 40,000 National Guard members have had their tours extended involuntarily, most for hazardous duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.
In recent weeks, the Pentagon has been digging deeper, calling on an additional 4,000 ex-soldiers – many of whom left the military years ago to start jobs or raise families – who are part of a pool called the Individual Ready Reserve, or IRR, to resume active duty because troops are stretched so thin.
The Pentagon moves are legal – some 110,000 former troops agreed to belong to the IRR when they left active duty before their eight-year commitment – and officials say there is considerable precedent. Nearly 15,000 IRR soldiers were called up for the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, although for much less than the one-year commitment sought for the new conflict.
Still, with no end to the insurgency in Iraq in sight, the call-ups are starting to exhibit increasing resistance in ways that – like some other aspects of the fighting in Gulf region – may remind some people of the Vietnam era.
The New York Times reported last week that roughly half of the 4,000 IRR call-ups are trying to avoid their service either through official channels or by simply not showing up.
Among the larger pool of National Guard call-ups – the category that Pellegrini belongs to — there are some looking to win conscientious objector status, and several have gone to court seeking legal protection.
In one Sacramento, Calif., case that’s been receiving publicity, a married father of two serving in the California Army National Guard went to court this month in a last-ditch effort to prevent his deployment to Iraq, supposed to happen this week. His lawyers have argued that President Bush lacks the authority to make these “stop-loss” call-ups, but the unnamed soldier has already lost one round, and legal experts doubt he will succeed.
In the meantime, an ad hoc network of military families and anti-war activists has been working closely with soldiers looking for ways to contest their recent call-ups. Officials here say they’re getting increasing calls for aid as the situation on the ground in Iraq seems to deteriorate.
“We get calls every day from people who are in the military reserves who are getting orders to go and who are saying, ‘This is something that I don’t want to do,’ ” said Bill Galvin, of the Center for Conscience and War, based in Washington, D.C.
Galvin said some of the most dire calls are from reservists who have already served one tour in Iraq and are getting orders to go back. “Some of them have said, ‘I’d go to jail before I’d go back there,’ ” he said. “They say they’ve witnessed things or participated in things that have caused them terrible trouble sleeping at night, and they don’t want to put themselves back in the middle of it.”
Meanwhile, many soldiers who could be called up – and their families – wait and worry that they’ll get a phone call like the one Pellegrini received.
“It’s just like a back-door draft,” said Ben Sears, a just-retired West Philadelphia High history teacher whose 28-year-old son is finishing a five-year Army enlistment in San Antonio. He said that Zachary Sears, a graduate of Philly’s Masterman High and of American University, will be placed on the IRR if he doesn’t re-enlist.
“Last week when he was home, he said he’s not going to Iraq,” Sears said. “He really hates the war – he’s always been against it.”
Most reservists and ex-soldiers are like Pellegrini – willing to obey their orders, but not particularly happy about it. Pellegrini said that he was just two weeks away from completing his National Guard obligation when he was called at his rowhouse in Port Richmond.
Yesterday, Pellegrini was slated to leave for a base in Louisiana, destined for an undisclosed location in Iraq. His unit A Company 1/111 from Northeast Philadelphia is slated to serve a year over there, possibly longer.
In the meantime, Pellegrini’s been watching some news on TV, and he doesn’t like what he sees. “This isn’t a war they’re giving us over there – this is policing stuff,” said Pellegrini, who knows a thing or two about law enforcement.
He also knows something about putting up a fight. With a 17-1 record as an amateur, Pellegrini sent James Andre Harris onto the canvas in the 4th round when he fought this May at the Blue Horizon, his one and only pro bout.
Preparing for Iraq may be tougher than anything he’s encountered in the ring. He said his fiancee left him rather than deal with his long absence, and hours of classroom training have left him in worse – not better – physical condition.
Now, he said, “I just want to get it done, come home, and continue my life.”