US Army Private Jeremy Hinzman, who deserted because he opposed the war in Iraq, speaks at a rally in Toronto. Picture / Reuters 23.05.05
Sergeant Kevin Benderman cannot shake the images from his head.
There are bombed villages and desperate people. There are dogs eating corpses thrown into a mass grave. And most unremitting of all is the image of a young Iraqi girl, no more than eight or nine, all but one of her arms severely burned and blistered and the sound of her screams.
Last January these memories became too much for this veteran of the war in Iraq. Informed that his unit was about to return, he told his commanders he wanted out and applied to be considered a conscientious objector. The Army refused and instead charged him with desertion. His case – which carries a penalty of up to seven years’ imprisonment – has now started before a military judge at Fort Stewart in Georgia.
“If I have to go to prison because I don’t want to kill anybody, so be it,” said Sergeant Benderman.
The case of Benderman and that of others like him has focused attention on the thousands of US troops who have gone Awol (Absent Without Leave) since the start of President Bush’s war on terror. The most recent Pentagon figures suggest that 5133 troops remain missing from duty. Of these, 2376 are sought by the Army, 1410 by the Navy, 1297 by the Marines and 50 by the Air Force. Some have been missing for decades.
But campaigners say the true figure of those who have gone Awol could be much, much higher. Staff who run a volunteer hotline to help desperate soldiers and new recruits looking to get out or else having discovered at basic training that military life is not for them, say the number of calls has increased by 50 per cent since 9/11. Last year alone, the GI Rights Hotline received more than 30,000 calls. At the moment the hotline is receiving up to 3000 calls a month and the volunteers say that by the time a soldier or new recruit dials the help line he or she has almost always decided to get out by one means or another.
“People are calling us because there is a real problem,” said Robert Dove, a Quaker who works in the Boston office of the American Friends Service Committee, one of several volunteer groups that have operated the hotline since 1995. “We do not profess to be lawyers or therapists but we do provide both types of support.”
The people calling the hotline range from veterans such as Sergeant Benderman to new recruits such as Jeremiah Adler, an idealistic 18-year-old from Portland, Oregon, who signed to join the Army in the belief he could help change its culture. Within days of arriving for his basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he realised he had made a mistake and believed the Army wanted to do nothing more than turn him into a “ruthless, cold-blooded killer”.
Mr Adler begged to be sent home to his family and even pretended to be gay in order to be discharged. Eventually he and another recruit fled in the night and then rang the hotline, which advised him to turn himself in to avoid court-martial. He will now receive an “other than honourable discharge”.
Speaking from southern Germany where he is on holiday before starting college in the autumn, Mr Adler told The Independent: “It was obviously a horrible experience but now I’m glad I went through it. I was expecting to meet a whole lot of different types of people – some had noble reasons. I also met a lot of people who [wanted] to kill Arabs.”
He now provides advice to other new recruits who have decided that the military is not for them.
“When people contact me I tell them go Awol – it’s the quickest way to get out,” he said. “I was told I would be facing 20 years’ hard labour at Fort Leavenworth [military prison] because that is what the sergeant will tell you. I learned that was not the case.”
Jeremy Hinzman, 26, a reservist with the 82nd Airborne Division who served in Afghanistan, decided to go Awol after his unit was ordered to Iraq. He took his wife and child and fled to Canada, hoping to be welcomed like the 50,000 or so young Americans who sought refuge to avoid the Vietnam war.
In March, he was refused refugee status by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board. Private Hinzman, who is appealing the decision, told the hearing: “We were told that we would be going to Iraq to jack up some terrorists. We were told it was a new kind of war, that these were evil people and they had to be dealt with … We were told to consider all Arabs as potential terrorists … to foster an attitude of hatred that gets your blood boiling.”
Campaigners say that new recruits who decide they want to leave the military are the most vulnerable to pressure to force them to stay. Some are told they will go to jail, others are told they will never get a job if they receive a “less than honourable discharge”. They also face intense peer pressure and abuse – both as they try to get out and after they manage to do so.
Campaigners have also drawn attention to the tactics used by US military recruiters, who for the past three months have failed to meet their targets for new recruits. Following a series of cases in which it was revealed recruiters had illegally covered up recruits’ criminal and medical records, threatened one prospect with imprisonment for failing to meet an appointment and provided another with laxatives to help him lose weight and pass a military physical, the Pentagon halted all recruiting on Friday for a day of retraining.
Senior commanders have said the current recruiting environment – with the war in Iraq having cost the lives of more than 1600 soldiers and the economy able to offer other jobs – is the most difficult ever. Despite this, the Pentagon insists it is committed to finding recruits in a fair and transparent process. J.E. McNeil, who heads the Centre for Conscience and War in Washington DC, a Christian group whose members also staff the GI Rights Hotline, said recruiters had lied to many troops she spoke with.
“I had an 18-year-old who was told he did not have to serve in Iraq. ‘I was told I’d get a job where I would not be sent,’ he told me,” said Ms McNeill, a lawyer by training. “He was recruited to be an MP [Military Policeman]. They are the people they are sending to Iraq.”
She added: “People all the time are told [by recruiters]: ‘I can get you a job where you will not have to go to war’.”
Campaigners say that despite pressure and the insults, if a new recruit follows the correct legal procedure he or she can usually get out of the military.
One of the biggest hurdles for those who want to leave is obtaining the correct information.
Usually the advice to those on the run is to turn themselves in. After 30 days of being Awol, a soldier is considered to be a deserter and an arrest warrant is issued. At that point a soldier can be returned to his or unit unit, court-martialled or given jail time or – and this is more often than not the outcome for new recruits – given a non-judicial punishment and a less-than-honourable discharge.
Volunteers say that usually the military is more inclined to let go those who have received the least training and are the least specialised.
The Pentagon says it does not keep records of how many try to desert each year. A spokeswoman, Lieutenant-Colonel Ellen Krenke, said the tally had declined since 9/11 from 8396 to the current total of 5133. She said she could not say whether this was the result of more Awol soldiers giving themselves up or whether few were going Awol.
“The vast majority of those who desert do so because they have committed some criminal act – not for political or conscientious objector purposes.”