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2008-12-12

EXCLUSIVE...AWOL US Soldier Seeks Asylum in Germany Over Returning to "Illegal" War in Iraq

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A US soldier who went absent without leave a year and a half ago to avoid returning to Iraq has applied for asylum in Germany. Specialist Andre Shepherd served in Iraq between September 2004 and February 2005 as an Apache helicopter mechanic. When his unit was called up to return to Iraq in early 2007, he went AWOL to avoid redeployment, calling the war "illegal." He lived underground in Germany for a year and a half before applying for asylum two weeks ago. We speak with Shepherd in his first international broadcast interview. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Berlin, East Berlin, to be exact, East Berlin, Germany. Soldier underground. Today, a Democracy Now! international broadcast exclusive. A US soldier who went absent without leave a year and a half ago to avoid returning to Iraq has applied for asylum in Germany.

Specialist Andre Shepherd served in Iraq between September 2004 and February 2005 as an Apache helicopter mechanic. After his tour of duty, he returned to Germany, where he’s based. When his unit was called up to return to Iraq in early 2007, he went AWOL to avoid redeployment, calling the war "illegal." He lived underground in Germany for a year and a half before applying for asylum two weeks ago. Andre Shepherd may become the first American soldier to test German laws that could grant asylum to war resisters.

Andre Shepherd joins us now on the phone now from southern Germany in his first national broadcast interview.

Andre Shepherd, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you tell us why you’re applying for asylum in Germany?

ANDRE SHEPHERD: Hi, Amy. It’s great to be here.

It’s for several reasons, actually, as to why. First of all, since I went AWOL, you know, in early 2007, there was no other recourse, you know, in order to return back to the United States or travel to another country. So, I was here in Germany and everything, so this would be the most logical place to be.

The second reason is because of the stand of, you know, the German government and the German people against the war. There is overwhelming support for the antiwar movement that has been going on since the beginning of the Iraq war. So it would also be, you know, a logical reason for that.

And third of all, because of the — you know, the Nuremberg trials were based here in Germany in 1948, about sixty years ago, where they say that everybody, including soldiers, would — you know, must take responsibility for all of their actions. So, that would mean that if you’re in an illegal war, that means the soldier also is doing something illegal. So I think that it would be best for me to apply for asylum in Germany, as well, because of the actual stance and the historical precedents that have been set, you know, in this land.

AMY GOODMAN: Andre, talk about why you joined the military, where you were born, where you grew up.

ANDRE SHEPHERD: OK. I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. I lived in that [inaudible] my entire life. I went to — graduated from Lakewood High School in 1995, and then I attended Kent State University, about twenty, twenty-five miles south of Cleveland, until about spring of 2000.

After I left college, I ended up working several jobs to try to make ends meet, because I couldn’t get, you know, a job in the field of study that I was in, which was computer science, because at that time the dotcom bubble had burst. So I was — end up working the line of low-paying jobs, you know, like being a courier, vacuum cleaner salesman, even working for, you know, work-today-pay-today kind of jobs. And it was not really an easy existence. I ended up being homeless twice, and things like that.

And what happened was, was that in the summer of 2003, you know, right after the invasion and everything, I was walking past the recruiter’s office, and he spoke to me about, you know, wanting to help people and everything, so I went in. You know, we had a cup of coffee and everything, and he was explaining to me about, you know, what the military — what the military’s role in the world, you know, as of this time was, you know, speaking about basically all the dictators in the world, like Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il, you know, the usual suspects from the Axis of Evil. And he was mentioning about September 11th and about the war on terror and everything and talking about how America stands for freedom and democracy and how we should — you know, they needed people like me to be part of the frontline in this war against, you know, tyranny and oppression and everything. So that sounded pretty good to me. I was a little taken aback by it, because it’s not every day someone, you know, asks you to help save the world or anything like that. But at the same time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to join the military right away because of, you know, being in a military structure and giving your life over for a number of years and everything, because I’m a very independent-minded person.

But then he started talking about the benefits, you know, about the steady pay, the free housing, the free medical care, the paid tuition for school, you know, everything like that. And for me, being down on my luck and everything and being homeless twice and everything, that actually sounded like a really good idea, because I, you know, wanted to put my life on the right path, where I could actually get my life straight, you know, finish my degree and, you know, going about my life, reaching the goals in my life.

But I still wasn’t really convinced, because I didn’t want to sign my life away for eight years, you know, like as I have said before. But that’s when they told me about, you didn’t have to sign up for eight years, because they had a new program at that time about signing up for the Army for a few months — in my case, it was fifteen months — where you could try out the Army and then you could leave. At that time, I didn’t know about, you know, the stop-loss or about the Individual Ready Reserve, where even after you leave the military service for up to eight years, you are subject to be called back from the military for additional deployments or whatever they need you for.

So — and then he also mentioned about the $5,000 bonus. And that really caught my eye, because I thought, you know, having at least a little nest egg to begin with, I can actually build my life up, you know, from there. So after a few months of thinking about it and everything, I decided to join the military in January of 2004.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you joined, and you trained to be an Apache helicopter mechanic?

ANDRE SHEPHERD: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: And where, then, did you originally go in Iraq? How did you end up joining your unit?

ANDRE SHEPHERD: What happened was, was after I graduated from the Advanced Individual Training in Fort Eustis, I was sent to Katterbach, Germany to join the 601st Aviation Support Battalion. At the time, when I joined basic training in February, that was when the unit had deployed to Iraq, so they were already six months in theater. So when I arrived there, I was sent on to join the unit in Camp Speicher, which is outside of Tikrit in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about your days in Iraq, what exactly you did. Did you meet Iraqis? Did you kill Iraqis?

ANDRE SHEPHERD: OK, I have to explain this, because my experiences weren’t like it was with the infantry, where the infantry was out every single day going on patrols, you know, kicking down doors and everything like that, because as an Apache mechanic, our primary job was to make sure that the helicopters stay in the air. All the time, we were always mission-ready. So we work twelve-hour days, six days a week, you know, every single week, because we had to keep the Apaches in the air. We had to do, you know, phases, where we would do like complete maintenance on the helicopters and everything like that.

Sometimes there would be duties where you would go for guard duty, you know, to watch a group of Iraqis who were coming onto the base so they could, you know, build the fences, like, sand the fences or, you know, painting or different things like that. So we would actually give them money, where they could, you know, actually feed their families or take care of themselves and things like that. So the extent of my interactions with the Iraqis were very minimal. It was either by, you know, passing by them while they’re working or, you know, when they’re waiting for the trucks and everything, saying hello and things like that, but not out on the streets or anything like that. It was a completely different experience than what it would have been had I been working for the infantry or any of the, you know, the tank commanders or the cavalry or anything like that.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about fixing the Apache helicopters. What about the air war in Iraq?

ANDRE SHEPHERD: Now, this one is a serious point of contention, because in the research that I have done over several years, the extent of damage that has happened in Iraq — you know, with the infrastructure being totally destroyed, you know, their not having enough power, there’s no water, some photos of bullet holes from 30mm chain guns going through buildings and everything — all of this cannot have been done by the infantry. This is true.

To get concrete evidence on the air war, it’s very, very, very difficult. There are several articles that I have read, where journalists are very — you know, even journalists are frustrated as to trying to get accurate numbers, you know, how much munitions that were done, how many sorties were flown, what kind of ammunition was used. So, you know, they keep getting stonewalled by the military. I asked the pilots about their missions and everything, and I was told that their missions are — you know, for operational security, they’re not allowed to talk about them. So what I would have to rely on was basically what was being reported, you know, with what little information the journalists can dig up.

But I’m sure it was quite extensive, because many units are flying like, you know, several thousand missions a year, you know, doing patrols in Iraq, used in support for the infantry, just doing patrols throughout the cities and everything. And, you know, with the constant refueling and rearming, you know they’re using the ammunition for something. They’re just not just using them only for test fire. So we know that they’re being done. But like I was saying in the beginning, the extent of the damage, you know, with what is going on is the masses of civilians that have been killed as a result of, you know, of the air war, which is too big to just pin onto the infantry. I know that, you know, especially the Apache has played a significant part in the Iraq war, especially in the last five years.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Andre Shepherd, how did you do this research? You say you got more and more information as you were researching while you were in Iraq, what led you to believe you couldn’t be a part of this any longer. How did you do research in Iraq?

ANDRE SHEPHERD: OK, now, in Iraq, there was actually a limited opportunity to do so. It was more so once I redeployed back to Germany. What we had for our breaks and everything, they had a little place where you could go and use the internet, you know, mainly to chat with families or check email and things like that. So that’s where I would spend one hour a day, starting to look up the causes for the Iraq war, as to, you know, what exactly are we doing there, and what kind of impact that I had being an Apache mechanic, you know, and keeping the Apaches in the air, figuring out how my contribution to the war affects the daily life of the Iraqi people.

What I had been finding out from there, you know, looking at several sources and everything, is that — you know, about the lies that the Bush administration has told, that they have continued to perpetuate, especially in the last ABC interview that Mr. Bush has given, talking about the — none of the WMDs have been found in Iraq or anything, about the widespread damage that has been going on, about the sentiments of the Iraqi people, the sentiments of different soldiers, depending on which site you would go to, and things like this. And I’ve pretty much been building a massive database on things that I have been collecting over the years, including the laws, you know, of the United States, international law, things like that referring to the legality of the war, and especially with the public opposition that’s been going on, you know, particularly in Germany. You know, there’s huge sections of the United States that were opposing it. Pretty much all over the world.

So, this began in Iraq, you know, like I said, for one hour a day, but once I came back to Germany, when I bought a computer and actually had a constant internet connection, I could actually do intensive research, you know, for like two, maybe three, four hours a day, you know, after work, just seeing what was going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Andre, we’re going to break, and then we’re going to come back to this conversation. And we’ll also be joined by Elsa Rassbach, and we’re going to talk about US military bases in Germany. There are more bases here than anywhere in the world. Finally, we’re going to be joined by a German lawyer who has sued Donald Rumsfeld, and we’re going to talk about the Senate report that just came out on the former Secretary of Defense.

This is Democracy Now! We’re broadcasting from Berlin. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Berlin, actually from East Berlin, here in Germany, as Democracy Now! goes on the road and wraps up our European trip. We’re joined on the telephone from another part of Germany by Andre Shepherd. He could be the first US soldier to apply for political asylum here in Germany, refusing to return to Iraq. He’s gone underground. He’s gone AWOL.

We’re also joined here in Berlin by Elsa Rassbach. She is a US citizen and activist who’s lived in Germany for the past eighteen years. She’s a member of American Voices Abroad Military Project and of the German affiliate of the War Resisters’ International.

Before we go to Elsa, I wanted to go back to Andre and ask — so, you came back here to Germany. Where were you? And what does it mean to go AWOL? What did you do? You left the base?

ANDRE SHEPHERD: Yes, that is correct. I left the military base in Katterbach in April 2007 and never returned. This is AWOL. It’s slightly different than desertions, because with AWOL you always have the intent to return, you know, back to your post after a certain amount of time, and with desertion, that means you permanently quit the military. And as of right now, I’m still currently considered as AWOL, but, you know, given the circumstances [inaudible], I’m quite sure that that status has changed to desertion.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how did you actually apply? Have you applied in any way to the US government?

ANDRE SHEPHERD: For AWOL or for...?

AMY GOODMAN: No, to apply for asylum in Germany.

ANDRE SHEPHERD: Oh, OK, OK. Now I understand. OK, well, basically what you had to do was go through the reception center, which I went to in Giessen a few weeks ago, and formally declare myself as an asylum seeker. And then, you know, they take care of the paperwork and everything. And then you are designated as an asylum seeker, upon which you are enjoyed limited rights, you know, for living in Germany until such time as the hearing comes and they make a decision on whether or not they will grant you full rights to asylum.

AMY GOODMAN: Why didn’t you apply, Andre Shepherd, for conscientious objector status?

ANDRE SHEPHERD: It’s for several reasons, but the main overall reason is because in the US, conscientious objector only pertains to individuals that are against every single war of every form. It doesn’t matter if it’s offensive, defensive, limited action. It doesn’t matter. The problem is, for me to actually go and apply for conscientious objection, I would actually have had to lie, because my belief is that the armed forces are there for defense of the nation, like let’s say an example like someone decides to invade California, you know, and the military is called up to go and repel whatever forces invaded the land. Of course I would take up arms and go and defend my land, because they breached our borders. This is OK. But as soon as I would use that as an argument in my conscientious objector application, it would be automatically rejected, because it goes against the first tenet of the rules of objection.

The second thing on there is that you have to, you know, live the lifestyle. From what I’m reading, you know, in AR600-43, you have to live the lifestyle that supports your beliefs. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how that would work, because the way it’s written, I’m assuming that even if you, like, do things like, you know, play videogames or watch war movies, you know, anything that advocates war, that wouldn’t support your lifestyle, you know, of your beliefs. And it’s up to the soldier to prove that these beliefs are sincere. So it’s like next to impossible.

The other and most compelling reason is the case of Augustin Aguayo. At the same time that my unit was scheduled for the second deployment, Augustin Aguayo’s case was big in the media, particularly in the Stars and Stripes magazine. This guy was the most pacifist soldier I have ever seen, you know, and he applied for conscientious objector status. I mean, the guy had never even loaded his weapon in a war zone. And the way the military treated him and, you know, summarily rejected his application and saying that he wasn’t sincere about his beliefs and everything, and they wanted to put him in handcuffs to send him back to Iraq. And he ended up, you know, serving time, because he finally went AWOL, because normal channels of conscientious objection were closed to him, and there’s like no other alternative to not going to combat duty. So this told me right away that this was not the way to go in terms of solving this problem, because I knew that, one, the CO would be rejected, and two, that it would cause too many problems, not for myself, but also for the unit, as well, especially if word got out that this was going on.

AMY GOODMAN: We will link on our website, democracynow.org, to our interviews with Augustin Aguayo, who joined us right before he turned himself in in the US military in Los Angeles and then went back to Germany — well, had been back in Germany, where he had gone AWOL and ultimately was freed, after being imprisoned. And we’ve talked to him extensively about his reasons for applying for CO status.

I wanted to turn from Andre Shepherd, who — I hope you’ll stay on the line with us — to Elsa Rassbach, who has been here in Germany for some eighteen years, moved from the United States. Elsa, can you give us the lay of the land? You’ve been a longtime antiwar activist here in Germany, Germany having more US military bases outside the United States than any place in the world.

ELSA RASSBACH: Yes. Actually, I’ve been here in two stints. One was during the Vietnam War, and one has been since 1996. And in the Vietnam War, when there were a lot of GI newspapers in Europe and Germany and many soldiers deserting to Sweden and so forth, the German peace movement was critical in that effort reaching soldiers.

And now what has happened is that, you know, Germany is still occupied, really, more than sixty years. Germans are very grateful for the liberation of Germany by the US, but on the whole, the majority do not approve of how the US are using the bases here for these wars. And there are more bases here than any other country outside the US. There’s 68,000 soldiers stationed here. The US is consolidating in Europe to sort of six mega-bases. Five of them are to be in Germany, and one is in Vicenza. Ansbach area, where Andre was stationed, is supposed to be one of them, is supposed to be the big fighter-helicopter base. In addition to that, there are two Central Commands in Germany. Germany is the only country with the Central Commands, you know, reporting directly to the Pentagon, like we know CENTCOM is in the US, and so forth, but the EUCOM, which covers all of Europe, Soviet Union, Turkey, that’s in Stuttgart, used to include Africa, but now they’ve created AFRICOM. That’s also in Stuttgart.

AMY GOODMAN: Because no African country would accept them.

ELSA RASSBACH: Exactly. But why — and the Germans — you know, it’s a difficult situation for them. They do not want to be ungrateful. They also are — but they have — for years now, there has been a strong opposition building also to the use of the bases here. You haven’t seen demonstrations like you have in Vicenza, where they were trying to enlarge that base in a middle-class area. You do see in Ansbach, where Andre was, one of the liveliest movements also against the base there, because US wanted to expand that base, and they had a petition in which they said — it was sent throughout Germany — that German soil should not be used for aggressive war. And many Germans feel that that should apply to the US also.

AMY GOODMAN: We went to Ireland and to Britain and learned — met the Shannon antiwar activists, because most soldiers went through Shannon airport before going to Iraq. But that’s changed?

ELSA RASSBACH: Well, yes. I understand there’s still some going there, but I believe, partly as a result of protest in Ireland, they shifted that. That’s mainly going through a commercial airport in Germany, in Leipzig, in the former East Germany. And that also is becoming the focus, the Leipzig airport, of activity here in Germany. And there are activists who go and watch how many soldiers go off through there.

But in addition to the soldiers routed through Germany to Iraq and Afghanistan via Ramstein Air Base or Leipzig or also the commercial airport Hahn near Frankfurt, there are soldiers, you know, as you know, permanently based here. It’s considered their home, within US military law. In Schweinfurt, for example, where Augustin was, that was considered his permanent base. They have had the — Schweinfurt had the largest death rate of any soldiers. They have — also, they’re creating — all of these bases create environmental damage in the German community. The Germans are paying also for a portion of the costs of the bases. And the citizens’ action against the expansion of the Ansbach base, where Andre was —-

AMY GOODMAN: Explain where that is in Germany for viewers and listeners who don’t know.

ELSA RASSBACH: OK. That is in Bavaria. It’s about -— it’s a bit north of Nuremberg. And one of the things they’ve done, actually, is they’ve made these huge bases in very outlying areas. I don’t know if it’s deliberate. It’s harder for activists to get to them. Grafenwohr is the biggest training base. It’s about an hour and a half from Ansbach also, and it has, you know, less — you know, just about a thousand Germans in the area.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of Nuremberg, the German constitution says Germany cannot engage in any offensive war.

ELSA RASSBACH: It doesn’t just say Germany. It says there shall be no preparation of aggressive war from German soil. And there have been several citizen petitions also with related to Ramstein Air Base, that it doesn’t say that only the Germans may not do it. It says there shall be no preparation of aggressive war from German soil.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you travel to US bases?

ELSA RASSBACH: Oh, yes. I go to US bases often, and we have a whole — both the American Voices Military Project and also the War Resisters’ International, and in Germany we have the networks of people near all the bases, and there’s also other anti-base networks. We’re all working together on this.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you do there?

ELSA RASSBACH: Well, among other things, we are organizing — and we’ve had for some time — that information be distributed to soldiers. We have these GI Rights Hotline cards. They’re just the same, really, as they are in the States. They have a hotline phone number on here, where soldiers can get information. This is the number here. I don’t know if you can see it. But this is — anyway, but many people in the States will have seen — oh, excuse me. Many people in the States will have seen these cards. Here we have also links to different organizations, like Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out. But basically, most people, if they would call the US, they would also be routed to Military Counseling Network in Germany, which is the Mennonite counseling organization that is part of the GI Rights Hotline Network. And so, that’s one thing we do, among other things.

We do demonstrations in front. We’ve invited Iraq veterans right to Ansbach in May. There were four US Iraq Veterans Against the War who did a week-long campaign there, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Coming up is the sixtieth anniversary of NATO, and I know there are major antiwar plans. Barack Obama will then be the official president. I expect that he would be going there. Where is all this taking place?

ELSA RASSBACH: Yes, this is taking place on the border between France and Germany, in Strasbourg on the French side and Kehl on the German side, and the whole province of Baden-Baden. And Strasbourg is where the European Parliament is. In fact, Strasbourg is where we even had a resolution for asylum in 2006 heard by — the Green and the left parties helped organize that. We were involved, and all of the organizations we’ve mentioned here were involved in that.

And there is a plan — this is the whole focus, really, of the German peace movement, to a large extent, as far as they know, to the European peace movement this spring, which is to say that no — the slogan is “no war, no NATO.” There is no reason for NATO to continue. NATO was an alliance against the Soviet bloc and the Warsaw Pact. It’s in the NATO statutes that they are — NATO is only defensive. It’s not supposed to be going elsewhere. And since the end of the Cold War, it has been used now to justify the Afghanistan war, the aggressive stance, the missile defense shield in East Europe and the kind of aggressiveness developing to the Soviet Union — or the former Soviet Union, to Russia and so forth. And it’s also used to justify — it’s the only justification why Germany allows these bases to be used for the Iraq war. Germany didn’t agree with the Iraq war. It’s because of the NATO alliance. So this is being challenged now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with Andre Shepherd.

ELSA RASSBACH: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: Andre, how much contact did you have with the antiwar movement, both German and US? Is this a support to you now? Were you able to get access to their information? Or, as you said, did most of your information come from your own research on US military bases in Germany?

ANDRE SHEPHERD: Well, I got into extensive contact with the antiwar movement through the Military Counseling Network, who I’ve been in contact with for the last year and half, actually the entire time I’ve been AWOL. As of right now, I am a proud member of Iraq Veterans Against the War for the last month or so. I have connections with — you know, connections with Connection e.V. I’ve spoken with Courage to Resist. And there’s a whole myriad of other peace organizations, like the Tübingen Progressive Americans for Peace and, you know, many others such as that. So there’s a really huge support network that we’re working together with to try to —

AMY GOODMAN: Are you afraid of being picked up, as Augustin Aguayo was? Now, of course, he was on a US military base in Germany, but ultimately, well, you know, picked up by US military when he was first taken. Then he went AWOL. Are you concerned about this?

ANDRE SHEPHERD: As of right now, there’s a little bit of concern, but I am hoping that the Americans will respect the Geneva Conventions and will not, you know, create a possible international incident by trying to pick me up and bring them under their jurisdiction while this process is ongoing.

AMY GOODMAN: And the next step in your application process for asylum here in Germany?

ANDRE SHEPHERD: Currently, I am waiting for a hearing so I can argue my case with my lawyer, Dr. Reinhard Marx. And we will present our case in the most comprehensive fashion that we can. And then we will see what the initial decision will be.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Andre Shepherd, speaking out for the first time internationally about his application for political asylum here in Germany. And thank you to Elsa Rassbach. Your website, if people want to get in touch with it.

ELSA RASSBACH: We don’t actually have a website, but you could go to the Munich American Peace Committee, that’s part of the American Voices Abroad Military website. Sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you both for being with us. The US Senate has come out with a report on the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Next segment, we’ll be joined by a German attorney who’s sued Donald Rumsfeld for torture.

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