Former G.I.’s, Ordered to War, Fight Not to Go
The Army has encountered resistance from more than 2,000 former soldiers it has ordered back to military work, complicating its efforts to fill gaps in the regular troops.
Many of these former soldiers – some of whom say they have not trained, held a gun, worn a uniform or even gone for a jog in years – object to being sent to Iraq and Afghanistan now, after they thought they were through with life on active duty.
They are seeking exemptions, filing court cases or simply failing to report for duty, moves that will be watched closely by approximately 110,000 other members of the Individual Ready Reserve, a corps of soldiers who are no longer on active duty but still are eligible for call-up.
In the last few months, the Army has sent notices to more than 4,000 former soldiers informing them that they must return to active duty, but more than 1,800 of them have already requested exemptions or delays, many of which are still being considered.
And, of about 2,500 who were due to arrive on military bases for refresher training by Nov. 7, 733 had not shown up.
Army officials say the call-up is proceeding at rates they anticipated, and they are trying to fill needed jobs with former soldiers as they did in the Persian Gulf war of 1991.
Still, the resistance puts further strain on a military that has summoned reserve troops in numbers not seen since World War II and forced thousands of soldiers in Iraq to postpone their departures when their enlistment obligations ended.
Tensions are flaring between the Army and some of its veterans, who say they are surprised and confused about their obligations and unsure where to turn.
“I consider myself a civilian,” said Rick Howell, a major from Tuscaloosa, Ala., who said he thought he had left the Army behind in 1997 after more than a decade flying helicopters. “I’ve done my time. I’ve got a brand new baby and a wife, and I haven’t touched the controls of an aircraft in seven years. I’m 47 years old. How could they be calling me? How could they even want me?”
Some former soldiers acknowledge that the Army has every right to call them back, but argue that their personal circumstances – illness, single parenthood, financial woes – make going overseas impossible now.
Others say they do not believe they are eligible to be returned to active duty because, they contend, they already finished the obligations they signed up for when they joined the military. A handful of such former soldiers, scattered across the country, have filed lawsuits making that claim in federal courts.
These former soldiers are not among the part-time soldiers – reservists and National Guard members – who receive paychecks and train on weekends, and who have been called up in large numbers over the last three years.
Instead, these are members of the Individual Ready Reserve, a pool of former soldiers seldom ordered back to work. Ordinarily, these former soldiers do not get military pay, nor do they train. They receive points toward a military retirement and an address form to update once a year.
When soldiers enlist, they typically agree to an eight-year commitment to the Army but often are allowed to end active duty sooner. Some of them join the Reserves or National Guard to complete their commitment; others finish their time in the Individual Ready Reserve.
For officers, the commitment does not expire unless they formally resign their commissions in writing, a detail some insist they did not know and were not told when they signed their contracts, although Army officials strongly dispute that.
Lt. Col. Pamela Hart, a spokeswoman for the Army, said people in the service are well aware of the provision. “We all know about it,” Colonel Hart said.
She said problems with the call-ups of former soldiers have involved a relatively small number of people, are being worked out, and are hardly unique to this conflict. In the first gulf war, she said, more than 20,000 former soldiers were called up. With medical problems and no-shows, only about 14,400 were actually deployed, she said.
Most of the deployments in the first gulf war lasted 120 days, the Army said. The current call-ups are more likely to last a year.
Of those seeking exemptions now, the Army is studying each person’s case individually, Colonel Hart said, and has no set rule on what allows a person to avoid deployment. Army officials are still weighing more than half of the requests. So far, only 3 percent of requests for exemptions have been turned down, while 45 percent have been approved.
As for the former soldiers who failed to appear at bases by their assigned dates, the Army is trying to reach them, one by one, to discuss their circumstances, Colonel Hart said. In late September, some Army officials suggested that they would pursue harsher punishments – declaring people AWOL and possibly pursuing military charges – but the Army has since taken a quieter, more conciliatory approach.
“These are challenging times in their lives,” Colonel Hart said, adding that some former soldiers who failed to report might have moved and not received the Army’s notice. “We’re contacting them as best as possible.”
For the rest, though, some questions linger over who really qualifies for the callback.
Colette Parrish said she burst into tears the evening that her husband, Todd, walked into their house in Cary, N.C., with a letter from the Army calling him back to service. “We had no idea this could happen,” she said. “We hadn’t been preparing for any of it because we thought it wasn’t possible.”
At first, Mr. Parrish, 31, said he was convinced that the letter was just an administrative error because he believed that his time in the Individual Ready Reserve had ended.
He had gone to college on an R.O.T.C. scholarship, then served four years as a field artillery officer. He said he resigned his commission after that, became an engineer, and still owed the Army four years in the Individual Ready Reserve to complete his total obligation.
To Mr. Parrish, who has filed a lawsuit against the Army in federal court in North Carolina, that obligation ended on Dec. 19, 2003. But the Army apparently does not agree, and says that it never accepted Mr. Parrish’s resignation as an officer.
As the court fight has continued, Mr. Parrish’s date to report to Fort Sill, Okla., has been pushed back, again and again, one month at a time. Instead of thinking about long-term plans, for his wife and their future family, he is living in 30-day increments.
He said he always looked back on his service years fondly, and with a deep sense of patriotism.
“I guess I feel disillusioned now,” he said. “This isn’t about being for or against the war. It’s not about Democrats or Republicans. It’s just a contract, and I don’t think this is right. If they need more people, shouldn’t they get them the right way? How many more like me are there?”
Mark Waple, Mr. Parrish’s lawyer, said he had received calls from 30 other former soldiers in recent months, all of whom had heard of Mr. Parrish’s case and had similar stories.
At least two other former soldiers have filed suit over the question.
In Hawaii, David Miyasato, a former enlisted soldier who served in the first gulf war, said he would never go AWOL; he would have gone to Iraq, he said, if need be.
But Mr. Miyasato also said that his eight-year commitment ended nearly a decade ago. After he received his letter calling him back to service, he said, he called the Army repeatedly to argue that he was not eligible. Finally, he said, with his date to report to a base in South Carolina just days away, he contacted a lawyer and filed suit on Nov. 5.
“This was actually my last resort,” said Mr. Miyasato, a former truck driver and fuel hauler who said that, at 34, he led an entirely different life, with an 8-month-old daughter and a window-tinting company to run. “I had been calling around everywhere for help.”
On Nov. 10, Mr. Miyasato said, he learned that the Army had rescinded his orders.
In New York, Jay Ferriola, a former captain in the Army, filed a suit saying he had resigned his officer’s commission in June and no longer qualified for call-up in the Individual Ready Reserve. On Nov. 5, the Army rescinded his orders and honorably discharged him.
“This shows that the system works,” Colonel Hart said. “If the soldiers bring their situations to our attention, we’re going to do what’s right.”
Barry Slotnick, Mr. Ferriola’s lawyer, said he wondered how many other soldiers might be in similar positions, but without the money, the contacts or the certainty to sue. Mr. Slotnick said he had received numerous calls from others since he filed Mr. Ferriola’s case in late October.
“We might as well add another phone bank,” Mr. Slotnick said. “What I can see is that there are many, many cases of people being called up that shouldn’t have been. This is a backdoor draft. I also have to wonder how many are already in Iraq who shouldn’t be there, who just didn’t think to question it.”
The Army’s current plan is to fill 4,400 jobs through March from among 5,600 former soldiers ordered to duty. But an Army official said last month that more former soldiers, perhaps in similar numbers, might be called on later next year, as well.
For now, those being sent to Iraq and Afghanistan are being asked to handle a variety of support positions, including truck drivers and fuel and food suppliers.
Months ago, the Army said some of the former soldiers would be needed to play the French horn, the clarinet, the euphonium, the saxophone and the electric bass as part of the military’s bands, but the notion drew criticism from members of Congress who questioned the need to order people to give up their civilian lives to play instruments. Colonel Hart said the Army has since filled the musician jobs with volunteers.
Before going to Iraq, former soldiers are receiving as many days of training as they need, an Army spokesman said. Some of the soldiers said they were worried, though, about the prospect and safety of trying to get up to speed in a few months.
“These guys like me are basically untrained civilians now,” said Mr. Howell, the former helicopter test pilot. Mr. Howell said he left the Army years ago with an injured back, knee and elbow, leaving him wondering about his own physical condition.
“I don’t even have a uniform anymore,” he said. “But they don’t have any more reserves left, so we’re it. All they want is some bodies to go to Iraq, just someone to be there, to sit on the ground.”
When he left the military in 1997 as part of a reduction in forces, Mr. Howell said, he saw a note in the “little print” in his annuity agreement about a future commitment. But he said he was told that his obligation to the Individual Ready Reserve would be brief and meant little anyway. “They said it was just a way of having me on the books,” he said.
After that, Mr. Howell said, he jumped into the civilian world. He got married. He and his new wife began building a house. They struggled to have children.
In September, his first child, Clayton, was born. Just before that, his orders arrived.
“It does rip my heart out that these young men and women are over there, and there is part of me that wants to be with them,” he said recently. “But I have responsibilities here now.”
Mr. Howell said he had applied to the Army for an exemption but was recently turned down. If he loses his appeal, he will be given a new reporting date. His best hope, he said, is that his appeal is buried somewhere at the very bottom of a big stack of them.