We speak with three U.S. soldiers who are refusing deployment to Iraq: Carl Webb, who is AWOL after refusing to report for duty when his term was extended under the military’s “stop-loss” policy, Kevin Benderman who has been charged with desertion and is facing a court martial after refusing to return to Iraq and another soldier who served in Iraq and is now AWOL after refusing to return when he has called up for a second tour off duty. [includes rush transcript]
As we continue to discuss American troops who are resisting deployment to Iraq, we wanted to take a look at some of the stories of soldiers who are speaking out against war.
We are joined in the studio by Carl Webb. He enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard in 2001. His three-year term of service was due to expire last August–but just two months before that, he was informed his term had been extended under the military’s stop-loss policy and he was to be deployed to Iraq in November. Carl Webb refused to report for duty and has been AWOL since then. He joins us in our firehouse studio today.
We are also joined on the line by another soldier who is AWOL. He was deployed to Iraq for a year. After returning home he refused to return to Iraq when he was called up for a second tour of duty. He has asked to remain anonymous.
And on the line from Georgia we are joined by Kevin Benderman, a sergeant in the 3rd Infantry Division. He is seeking conscientious objector status and has just been charged with desertion. His court martial trial is set to begin on May 11.
- Carl Webb
- Anonymous AWOL soldier
- Kevin Benderman
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about ”AWOL in America” and our guest is Kathy Dobie, who wrote the cover story for Harper’s magazine. We’re also joined in the studio by Carl Webb, a member of the Texas Army National Guard since 2001. We welcome you, as well. to Democracy Now!, Carl.
CARL WEBB: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: When did you join?
CARL WEBB: In August of 2001. Very bad timing.
AMY GOODMAN: A month before. A few weeks before.
CARL WEBB: Yes. About three or four weeks before 9/11.
AMY GOODMAN: September 11 attacks. Why did you join?
CARL WEBB: I was broke. I overspent my budget and behind on bills and heading towards an eviction notice, and I needed some quick cash, more than I could earn just by working immediately.
AMY GOODMAN: And so you joined, and what happened?
CARL WEBB: Well, I joined. I signed a contract for three years, which would have ended in August of 2004. So, by July, I was very, very happy. I was saying good-bye to everyone in my unit. On several occasions throughout the three years, I had been approached about reenlisting and I always had turned them down. So, in July, I was really happy, until I got a phone call from my sergeant.
AMY GOODMAN: This is, what, a month before?
CARL WEBB: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You were going to be done.
CARL WEBB: Yes. I had one more drill to complete. And my sergeant called and said she had bad news. And she said that you’re going to Iraq. And immediately I was confused. I said, well, did the unit get activated all of a sudden? She said no. The unit hasn’t been activated, we’re staying, but you are not going to be allowed to finish your contract. You’re being extended and loaned to a different unit, which is going to Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what did you do?
CARL WEBB: Well, first of all, I went into panic and denial. And I said maybe there’s been some mistake, because my whole unit, my whole chain of command, knew all along that I had no intentions of reenlisting, and so I just went to the next drill thinking maybe it was some, you know, paperwork that had gotten misplaced or some clerk hit the wrong stroke on the keyboard or something, and that it would be all solved, you know, when I got there.
But, no, when I got there, they told me, no, you are being held under what is called “stop-loss policy,” which is a policy that pretty much makes null and void any enlistment contract you have signed with the government. Typically when soldiers enlist in a military, for a specific amount of time — three years, four years, five years — and when that is complete, you are allowed to get out or reenlist if you choose. What stop-loss orders do is involuntarily extends everyone’s enlistment in the service. It’s been referred to as the “back-door draft” by somebody. It’s actually conscription, except in this case instead of recruiting or conscripting young soldiers, they keep — they keep the old soldiers in. They won’t let them out. So, I got orders saying that I was to report to Fort Hood one week prior to the date that I was supposed to get out of the service.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you think when you enlisted — I know that’s the standard question asked — Texas Army National Guard?
CARL WEBB: Well, when I enlisted, like I said before, I thought it was relatively peaceful at that time. We had invaded everybody we could possibly invade, and I thought, well, this will be — but I wasn’t disillusioned like some of the younger soldiers. I knew that it was a possibility that I could get activated within that three years. I did not think that these new orders, these stop-loss orders, would be implemented on a soldier one week before he was due to leave service.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you want to go to Iraq?
CARL WEBB: I believe it’s an unjust war on our part. I do not believe what the government has told us the war is intended for. I do not believe this government intends to spread democracy in the Middle East. It’s not in the interest of their security or our security. I believe it is all about oil and profits, or if not that, it’s about having a — controlling a strategic part of the land in the Middle East. And I don’t want to fight for that. That’s not a good cause to go to war. I’m not a pacifist. There are conflicts in which I would volunteer to fight, which is why I decided not to seek the C.O. status.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you be arrested at any time?
CARL WEBB: That’s kind of up in the air. My unit actually never reported me as a deserter. Typically when a soldier goes AWOL after a certain amount of time passes, the unit actually lists — drops him from rolls, that means he is off his unit’s roster, and they assume he is not coming back. And they report him as a deserter, and he can actually be picked up even by local police at that time. But for some reason, my unit never dropped me from its rolls and never reported me as a deserter.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone right now by an anonymous soldier, AWOL, in the army for three years, June 2002 signed up, sent to Iraq in March 2003. But let’s let him tell his own story. Welcome to Democracy Now!
ANONYMOUS AWOL SOLDIER: I’m glad to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about when you enlisted and why? And what happened in Iraq?
ANONYMOUS AWOL SOLDIER: Well, I enlisted my junior year of high school, summer of 2002, before September 11th ever happened or the summer of 2001, before September 11th. I graduated May 2002, and in June I was gone to basic training, 18 years old. I then went to my active duty unit at Fort Hood in January of 2003 and then I was in Iraq by March 2003. I was in Iraq from March 2003 to March 2004. A military policeman, I did typical work. I did checkpoints, we raided homes, gate security, things like that.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what you saw in Iraq, what you experienced.
ANONYMOUS AWOL SOLDIER: Well, when I first went to Iraq, I actually believed what the government was saying, that we were searching for weapons of mass destruction, we were making the country safe for democracy and things like that. But when we got there, I quickly found another story. I very quickly found that the Iraqis didn’t want us there and that the image they’re reporting in the news at home was that everything is — everything is going well. And I really think the media tried to make a face on that at the beginning. But we got there, the Iraqis, they’d throw stones at us, unless you gave them money. If you gave them money or food, they liked you for a little bit. But public opinion was not very good over there at all.
One thing that I saw that very much bothered me was as a military policeman some of our jobs. I was in Tikrit, Iraq. We would drive around town and our sergeants, our officers, would get bored so they’d tell us to go raid this whole block of homes, you know. And so we’d go into every home, and if we found anything as small as a knife or a pistol in any home, which I think you could go in any home in America and find a knife or a pistol, but if we found anything like that, we’d arrest all the males in the house, ages eight to 80 and leave all the females behind crying their eyes out, and that was never very fun to watch. Then what we’d go do is throw these men who maybe didn’t do anything in the same jails as the ones that we knew had set off I.E.D.s and had set off — and had tried to kill soldiers. So, you’re just throwing them all in with each other, and eventually it is going to change their minds. You know, you are going to make the distant relatives bitter, and you are going to — you are starting a whole new war with people who really don’t deserve it.
AMY GOODMAN: So, when did you come back?
ANONYMOUS AWOL SOLDIER: March 2004. Once I came back, I realized very quickly that my whole opinion had changed about the idea of war and why the United States gets involved in it. So, I applied for conscientious objector at that point. I didn’t know that civilian attorneys are supposed to help out with that. They can. But the military didn’t give me any idea of what is supposed to be in this conscientious objector application. They didn’t tell me there was an appendix for it, they didn’t tell me what the rules or standards were. So, that night I went home, and I typed up 10 pages of just complaints and rants and, you know, what I felt was wrong with the military and with our government, period. And I turned it in the very next day, and a week later I was in a chaplain’s office getting yelled at, and then a military psychiatrist’s office pretty much getting harassed.
AMY GOODMAN: Getting yelled at by the chaplain?
ANONYMOUS AWOL SOLDIER: Oh, I’ve been yelled at by chaplains many times, including basic training. Chaplains are not what they pretend to be, men of God in the army. They’re army all the way through. They are soldiers. They would bleed green before they would ever consider God, at least in — at least in my experience. But I didn’t know the process at all. And so my application got denied very quickly. And at that point, I had realized what the truth was. I had realized that if I really want to do this the right way, I need to speak with civilian attorneys. So I got in touch with the Veterans for Peace, and I also got in contact with the G.I. Rights Hotline, and they got me in touch with a civilian attorney who helped me to write a rebuttal to the original application. And all this took nine months to have happen. And then when I turned in my rebuttal, I found out that my unit would be leaving for Iraq again in January of 2005.
So, I had never wanted to consider going AWOL. It was always the last thing I wanted to do. I’d been brutally honest with these people that, yes, this war is wrong, but if soldiers had come into our country and had invaded us and had come into our homes, then I would have fought back, too. So, I was more seeing how the war felt from a lot of the Iraqis’ point of view. So, they said that doesn’t count as being a conscientious objector, that I’m not against the idea of war, that I would have fought in another war, and they just started lying, and that was part of what — when they had said no and turned in the paperwork for that, there was a lot of lies in it. And we proved that when I did the rebuttal. But army law says that while you are waiting for an application to be reviewed, and in this case it was my rebuttal being reviewed, it could take up to six months. So, that would have been June of this year. And my unit went back to Iraq in January. So when I went on leave at the end of December, I did the thing I never wanted to do, and I went AWOL.
AMY GOODMAN: Which is what you’re doing right now.
ANONYMOUS AWOL SOLDIER: Yes. I’ve been AWOL since January.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the military knows where you are?
ANONYMOUS AWOL SOLDIER: Well, they contacted my home of record, which is in Colorado and my family, they don’t know where I am. So, we’re staying with some friends of mine, and initially we stayed in a hotel under another name, and then we’ve moved twice in the two months. So, we’re just living here and there, just trying to give the slip. I am married. So, it is a little more difficult than if I was by myself. But my wife is working a job right now to try to support us right now.
I’ve been told not to get a job, not to apply for anything that requires a background check, not to even drive my motor vehicle. So, because I could be pulled over at any moment and arrested. And the other soldier is right. You are supposed to be dropped off the rolls, that means you stop getting paid, and then they’re supposed to put your name on the deserter list, which is — there is a deserter hotline that I call twice a week to find out if my name is on the deserter rolls, and then as soon as my name is on that, I will be turning myself in at Fort Sill, which is what I’ve been advised.
But the problem is, however, in my case, for some reason I was dropped from the payroll, but my name hasn’t been put on the deserter list yet. It has been almost two months, and my name is supposed to be on there after one month. So I’m kind of playing the waiting game right now. I just want to get this all over with. I want to be able to turn myself in. I know at Fort Sill, I suppose in lieu of a court-martial, you ask for another dishonorable discharge, and that looks pretty attractive to me because the war in Iraq is wrong, and I want to be able to move on with my life.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Sergeant Kevin Benderman. Can you talk about your refusal to return to Iraq?
KEVIN BENDERMAN: Well, my refusal to return to Iraq was not based on anything other than conscientious objection to war, period. I’ve gone through some of the process that I just heard the other soldier talking about, and the application you put in, D.A. Form 4187, to your immediate commander which, in turn, he is supposed to take that and have a chaplain interview and a mental health evaluation appointment set up for you. And the case that I had, my immediate commander, he just automatically refused to send it forward, and he had no knowledge of the army regulation which covered conscientious objector, and that’s AR600-43, conscientious objection.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you experienced in Iraq?
KEVIN BENDERMAN: Well, the things that I saw in Iraq was, that stick out in my mind the most, was number one, the young girl I saw on the side of the road as our convoy was passing on Highway 1. Her arm was burned, third degree burn all way up to her shoulder. She was standing there begging us for help, anyone to help her, and I was not allowed to do that. And then the other thing that I saw while I was there was mass grave sites full of just remains of old women, old men, you know, children, and it was just a gruesome site there in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: You say you are a conscientious objector. Were you before you first went to Iraq?
KEVIN BENDERMAN: Well, that’s — war is — it’s hard to explain in a few short sentences what war is. And when you see it firsthand, it’s a whole lot different than talking about it in your living room without everyone experiencing it, if you understand what I’m trying to say. And no one in their right mind, I believe, wants to go to war. That’s the last thing any sane person really wants to do, but you cannot have a full understanding of what it is until you’ve been there and you’ve experienced it for yourself. And so, I mean, I have over nine years in the service right now. And my family has a history, dating back to the American revolution, of military service. So, you see all those things, and you know what your family has done, and you have all those things pushing on you, and you say, ok, military service is an honorable thing. But once you get right down to it, and you experience war firsthand, you realize that we should not be doing this in this day and age with all the knowledge — advancements in knowledge that we have and technological advances that we have. We should be able to figure out how to live in this world with everyone without war. Because we can provide enough stuff for everyone on this planet with the knowledge that we have. We don’t need war. It is just an outdated, obsolete institution. We need to leave it behind us.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re coming up on the second anniversary of the invasion. Will you be speaking out? There are protests all over the country.
KEVIN BENDERMAN: Well, I don’t plan on speaking out against just this Iraqi war. What I plan to talk about to people is war in general. We need to leave it behind us. We don’t need to be participating in this war or any other wars ever again. Because it robs — it robs a people that are fighting the wars of their humanity, it robs the noncombatants of their humanity, and it just destroys everyone’s soul in the entire process because it is the most brutal thing that any human being can be involved in. It’s kill or be killed, period. That’s all that war is for.
AMY GOODMAN: Carl Webb, will you be speaking out on this anniversary in one of the protests?
CARL WEBB: Yes, I will. I was invited to New York from Tennessee by an organization called Troops Out Now. And their website is www.troopsout.org, and this Saturday, starting at 10:00 from Marcus Garvey Park heading to Central Park at noon and then on to Mayor Bloomberg’s house at 3:00, there will be hopefully a big turnout for this, and I will be speaking out against the war.
AMY GOODMAN: And on this second anniversary of the invasion to the anonymous soldier on the phone, what will you be doing?
ANONYMOUS AWOL SOLDIER: I have spoken out twice before, once in Austin — I went to a protest down there at the Capitol building — and once in College Station. So, right now I’m in a situation where I can’t really do much. I’m kind of isolated from the world. But as soon as this is all done, I plan on turning myself in as soon as I get a chance to. And all these veteran groups I’m working with, I plan on protesting very loudly.
AMY GOODMAN: We don’t, Kathy Dobie, hear very much about this number. It may have surprised a lot of people listening and watching right now, 5,500, what, near 6,000. The Pentagon doesn’t talk about it very much. Why not? And we don’t see a lot of people being rounded up, Carl. We don’t see the military coming for you, at least at this moment.
KATHY DOBIE: Well, the military doesn’t have the manpower to go after deserters. But I also think they do not want other soldiers to know that this number of people leave and that also when they leave that they — it is often possible after going AWOL, once you drop from the rolls, to get out, to be processed out with an other than an honorable discharge. They are trying the best they can. It’s — recruiting is down, that’s why they put in stop-loss orders. They’re trying to keep this military intact, and if they let soldiers know that people do leave and they do manage to get out and get on with their lives, I think they’re afraid that there’s going to be droves of soldiers leaving at that point.
AMY GOODMAN: And as you listen to these men speak, your final thoughts.
KATHY DOBIE: Well, my final thoughts are that they need to straighten out the recruiting process, the military does. If the only way you can keep the end strength, the troop strength we need is to lie to kids and their parents, then maybe what you have to say is that we have to have a smaller military. And if you have a smaller military, then you have to look carefully at the countries we invade and where we go to war.
AMY GOODMAN: On that note, Kathy Dobie has the cover story of Harper’s magazine called ”AWOL in America.” Kevin Benderman, I want to thank you for joining us, sergeant who has applied for conscientious objector status. Carl Webb in the studio with us here in New York, planning to speak out at the protest on the anniversary of the invasion and to the anonymous soldier on the phone, thank you very much for joining us, as well.