The Army’s long arm
GREENVILLE, Pennsylvania — Three years after he was honorably discharged from the Army, Frederick Pistorius was surprised to learn he was a deserter.
But there it was, on his doorstep: a letter from Barry W. Kimmons, Deputy Chief, Deserter Information Point Extension Office of the Army Reserve Personnel Command.
“On 12 July 2004 you were involuntarily mobilized to active duty in the United States Army,” the letter says. “To date you have not reported to your mobilization station as required by your orders.” Possibly Pistorius had not responded for two reasons. The Pistorius family had moved from the address in Sharon, Pa., to which the Army had sent its first letter. More saliently, having served honorably in not one but two branches of the U.S. military, with no additional obligation showing on his discharge papers, Pistorius would have had no reason to think he was subject to anything but his civilian job at a local steel plant.
Wendy Pistorius opened the letter and immediately telephoned an official at the Army reserve command in St. Louis.
“I told him there must be a mistake, because my husband had fulfilled his obligation,” she said. “He basically told me that the Army does not make mistakes and that the orders were valid and if he did not show up as per the orders he would be prosecuted and taken to jail.”
So began a two-month journey through the Army of Franz Kafka.
The paper trail is fairly straightforward on this one. Pistorius joined the Marine Corps in 1993. When he left the corps, he had a reserve obligation that expired June 25, 2000. The pool into which he would have gone is called the Individual Ready Reserve — essentially former military available for service in times of emergency. After a few months of knocking around for work, Pistorius decided to go back into the military, get more training in his specialty — cook — and complete his reserve obligation with full-time duty. The Marines weren’t taking back departed members who’d been out for a year, so, in 1998, he joined the Army, signing a three-year contract.
Pistorius was honorably discharged from the Army in July 20, 2001. His certificate of release attests to his accomplishments: Army Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Sharpshooter qualification. The upper corner is the spot in which the military lists a departing member’s reserve obligation, the amount of time discharged soldiers, sailors and Marines remain subject to recall. For Pistorius, the boxes contain a succession of zeroes.
Because he was discharged well after his prior reserve obligation had passed, the Army laid no further claim to him, until someone in St. Louis ignored those zeroes and went hunting for a fresh body to fill a manpower shortage that grows more painful with every Iraqi sunset.
“They basically told me that my Marine Corps time doesn’t count as military service,” Pistorius said. Faced with a threat of AWOL charges, and worried that a spotless military record was about to be stained, Pistorius headed last month to Camp McGrady in South Carolina.
“The first thing they did was thank us for showing up,” Pistorius said. “They had 150 that were supposed to show up and about 75 did. Of those 75 maybe only 40 or 50 are medically fit.”
Here, Pistorius’s Army recruitment contract comes into play. It was the one document he says he had not kept, figuring his military days were over. The Army public affairs office did not return phone calls asking about the matter so we have only Pistorius’ version. He said he asked for a copy, but was always told the thing was “in transit” from St. Louis. The contract would settle any questions about whether he might have, inadvertently, signed up for another round of reserve duty, but it seems implausible.
Equally implausible were the men who turned up at Camp McGrady last month.
When I first spoke to Pistorius, by telephone from the camp, he said nobody had been given a physical. He told his Army commanders that he had a permanent back injury from a car crash. They were unimpressed by a letter from his chiropractor. His pre-deployment health assessment lists him in this word: “Deployable.”
Pistorius spoke with his captain.
“He said everybody here’s going to Iraq,” Pistorius said. “It’s unbelievable some of the guys they’re bringing down there.”
One man arrived with a hospital identification band still on his wrist. He’d just had knee surgery. One 48-year-old from Alabama had a hip replacement and fused vertebrae in his back.
“He showed them the documents, but they still made him come down to be examined by their doctors,” Pistorius said. Pistorius spoke of a man called back from upstate New York.
“He had no teeth and he had arthritis in his leg,” he said.
Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and now a professor at Boston University, wasn’t surprised at the report.
“The Individual Ready Reserve — that title is a misnomer. They’re not ready,” Bacevich said. “It’s the equivalent of me walking out here on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, and taking the first 5,000 people I meet and saying ‘you’re now in the military.’ ”
At Camp McGrady, Pistorius kept up his campaign to convince the Army they had essentially drafted a civilian. Back home, Wendy Pistorius assembled a list of numbers: St. Louis, her senator’s office, the White House. One person would tell her that her husband shouldn’t have been called up. Another would tell Frederick Pistorius that it was simply his turn.
He said at one point an Army lawyer in South Carolina held out the receiver so he could hear the person on the other end explain that his big problem was showing up. So many people had either moved or ignored their orders to report that the Army was loath to part with a reasonably healthy one that had.
Suddenly, on Nov. 5, Pistorius was ordered to pack up. He was driven to the airport and told he was going home. At the last minute, he was handed a letter declaring: “You are released from active duty, by reason of physical disability.” He had already packed up the pre-deployment assessment that said precisely the opposite. The letter also says he’s subject to reserve obligation until Feb. 26, 2006.
The Pistorius family, with its three children, ages 6, 5 and 2, is now trying to figure out what to do without a month’s wages. “I just put everything off,” Wendy Pistorius said. “I paid only the bills I absolutely had to.”
The Army took back the family separation allowance he was given when called to Camp McGrady. Frederick Pistorius is working a swing shift at the local tube plant and trying to figure out if the Army still considers him a reservist and if he’s going to get another letter from St. Louis.
“I don’t want to get arrested in front of my kids,” he said.
(Dennis Roddy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1965.)