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AWOL in America: Why Over 5,500 U.S. Soldiers Discharged Themselves

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The Pentagon has estimated that since the start of the current conflict in Iraq, more than 5,500 U.S. military personnel have deserted. We speak with journalist Kathy Dobie who wrote the cover story for this month’s issue of Harper’s magazine titled ”AWOL in America: When Desertion is the Only Option.” Dobie says, “Some of them leave because they’re unwilling to kill, some because of family and personal problems and some because of the unjust recruiting process.” [includes rush transcript]

AWOL, French Leave, the Grand Bounce, jumping ship, going over the hill-in every country, in every age, whenever and wherever there has been a military, there have been soldiers discharging themselves from the ranks. The Pentagon has estimated that since the start of the current conflict in Iraq, more than 5,500 U.S. military personnel have deserted, and yet we know the stories of only a unique handful, all whom have publicly stated their opposition to the war in Iraq, and some of whom have fled to Canada. The Vietnam war casts a long shadow, distorting our image of the deserter; four soldiers have gone over the Canadian border, looking for the safe haven of the Vietnam years, which no longer exists: there are no open arms for such refugees and almost no possibility of obtaining legal status. We imagine 5,500 conscientious objectors to a bloody quagmire, soldiers like Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia, who strongly and eloquently protested the Iraq war, having actually served there and witnessed civilians killed and prisoners abused, and who was subsequently court-martialed, found guilty of desertion, and given a year in prison. But deserters rarely leave for purely political reasons. They usually just quietly return home and hope no one notices.”

That is from the cover story of this month’s issue of Harper’s magazine titled ”AWOL in America: When Desertion is the Only Option.” It is written by journalist and author Kathy Dobie–she joins us today in our firehouse studio

  • Kathy Dobie, she wrote the cover story for Harper’s magazine titled ”AWOL in America: When Desertion is the Only Option.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: It is called ”AWOL in America: When Desertion is the Only Option.” It is written by journalist and author Kathy Dobie. She joins us today in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Kathy.

KATHY DOBIE: Good to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: A very interesting piece that you’ve done in Harper’s. Can you talk about the reason that you started to look into this? What started the story? And then some of the people you talked to.

KATHY DOBIE: Well, what I had done is seen two news clips. One of them was in a New Jersey paper, and that clip talked about a 21-year-old actually sneaking through a window of a house, being stopped by the cops, and when they found out that it was the window of his own house, and they also found out that he had deserted from the army. And the second story was a 17-year-old who had had a car accident in a small town in Massachusetts, and the police showed up again. They ran his driver’s license and found out he had deserted from basic training in Fort Benning. So, those two stories suggested to me that there were people leaving that nobody was coming after, and that they were simply leaving and going home. So, at that point, I wanted to know why they were leaving. The stories of the conscientious objectors seem to be a handful if 5,500 people were leaving. So, that’s how it started. It started with those two news clips, and then to the G.I. Rights Hotline. They began slowly to connect me to soldiers who had left, and the vast majority do not leave because they have problems with this war, in particular. The vast majority leave well before they even get to combat, and I don’t even think they’re thinking about combat. What they’re thinking about is the training, or they’re thinking about their families. And I think I interviewed probably about a dozen soldiers and their families and then, of course, the G.I. Rights Hotline has talked to hundreds and hundreds at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Jeremiah Adler.

KATHY DOBIE: Jeremiah grew up in a vegetarian, pacifist household in Portland, Oregon. And his — he decided that he wanted to join the military for a couple of reasons. One, he really wanted a kind of ritual into manhood. He wanted to prove his toughness. He also thought if he got into the military as a pacifist, as a thinker, that he could change it from the inside. He took a year convincing his family and his community there that this was the right thing for him to do. He gets to Fort Benning and within three days, he is writing letters home saying you have to get me out of here. Jeremiah is a really interesting case. In some ways he is like a lot of the soldiers that I have met. It’s that they have no idea what basic training is like. They’re joining and thinking that it is going to be a physical challenge, a mental challenge. They actually do not think much about the fact that they’re going to be trained to be killed; and that was Jeremiah — Jeremiah was shocked when he got there, the amount of talk about the joys of killing, the pleasures of killing, which is part of the whole process that they use to desensitize these guys. And Jeremiah went through many things, including pretending he was gay, to get out and finally he just escaped through the woods one night.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what his — what the officials in charge, his superiors at the base, said from when he first started. What were they telling these grunts?

KATHY DOBIE: Well, I think it was on the second day. This is orientation week, you have to realize. They are not even in basic training yet, and they’re being told this. On the second day, a sergeant addressed the 110 recruits and said that “a lot of people asked me why I joined the Army ten years ago. Did I join it for the money? Did I join it for the women? Did I join it for the educational benefits?” And he said, “No, I joined it to shoot mother [beep].” At that point, everybody started screaming and yelling, you know, and cheering in that room, and Jeremiah at that point felt, “I can’t be here.” And then when he actually went to leave, he went to his commanding officer. Now an interesting thing I have to say here is most guys before they go AWOL ask for help. I think that is very important. They go to the military chaplain, they go to their C.O., they go to their military psychiatrist, and they ask to —they ask for help with their family problems, personal problems, financial problems. And Jeremiah went to his C.O. and said, “I can’t do this. I cannot kill.” And his C.O. actually said to him that he wished it were 100 years ago, because he could shoot him right then and there.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what did he do?

KATHY DOBIE: Jeremiah, at that point, he pretended he was — he decided to pretend he was gay. He and another recruit got together and went to the drill sergeants and said that they had been caught kissing. And they acted very panicky about the whole thing. He said it was the best acting job of his life. The drill sergeants believed them, but they still wouldn’t release them.


KATHY DOBIE: Jeremiah escaped. He waited, 11:00 at night, he got another recruit to not sound the alarm for an hour, and he and two recruits went out through the woods. They were lost in those woods for about five hours, because they have no idea where they are. They bring you into recruiting 11:00, 12:00 at night, so you are completely disoriented and cut off from the world. So he had no idea how to get out. But they did get out. And then he flew home to Portland, Oregon, and then after he was dropped from the rolls, he turned himself in to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and he was given an other than honorable discharge.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Kathy Dobie. She wrote the cover story of Harper’s magazine, ”AWOL in America: When Desertion is the Only Option.” Where is Jeremiah today?

KATHY DOBIE: He is in Germany. He is actually working for a group over there that’s counseling soldiers who are going AWOL. And then he is going to do some traveling, and then he is coming back, and he’s going to attend the University of Oregon.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it work? Can you talk about the recruiting process?

KATHY DOBIE: The recruiters completely integrate themselves into a life of a high school and a community. They will volunteer color guards for home — you know, for team games. They remember Secretaries’ Day. They get close to the Boy Scouts leader. They are there in your life day in and day out. Now, recruiters work tremendously long hours and they have a quota. The G.I. Rights Hotline has heard many stories of recruiters misrepresenting the military and telling lies. I would say that half of the guys I talked to, there was a lie a recruiter told them that led them later to deserting. I’m going to give you an example. There was a kid called Jared in Georgia, a senior in high school. He is recruited. The recruiter meets his family, has dinner with his family, goes to his graduation. He becomes close to them. He tells this kid and his mother and stepfather that Jared will not be sent to Iraq, not to worry about it, that he is going to be stationed close to home, in fact, Kentucky. They believed him. Even though we were at war in Iraq, they believed him. They believed him because he was in uniform. They believed him because they’d had him over for dinner. They didn’t see any reason why this representative of the military and the U.S. government would lie to them. Jared goes into — he was a Marine. He goes into boot camp, makes it through that. He goes to infantry school. When he gets to his M.O.S. school, military occupational specialty, he finds out that his unit is being sent to Fallujah. So, not only has he been lied to, but at that point, he gets an injury, and he is told to take aspirin for it. And a good friend of his, who had fallen into a deep depression and tried to get help, was put into — they put them into these orange traffic vests, and they have to wear those day in and day out, and they are always accompanied by two marines or two soldiers, and they’re often harassed by the drill sergeants. You know, “Uh-oh, here comes a crazy person. Watch out, watch out.” So, when his mother and sister said to him, “Jared, you have got to talk to somebody. Talk to somebody there,” his reply to that was, “Nobody’s interested. Nobody cares here.” So, when he was home on leave, he never went back. And that’s just one of the lies. And the betrayal they feel when they finally get into what is very tough training and that they may go to combat, and the unit that they’re fighting with and for and may die with is actually part of this unit that has lied to them, is very intense. I don’t think anything in civilian life can compare to it.

AMY GOODMAN:AWOL in America: When Desertion is the Only Option.” Kathy Dobie is our guest. She wrote the piece for Harper’s magazine. When we come back, we’ll also be joined by two people who are AWOL. One is willing to be identified. One is not.

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