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Broadcast Exclusive…AWOL Army Sgt. On the Run for a Year Speaks Out for the First Time

StoryAugust 11, 2006
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In a Democracy Now! broadcast exclusive, we speak with Sgt. Ricky Clousing, an Army interrogator who served in Iraq from December 2004 until April 2005. He became a war resister after witnessing how the war was being fought. Within months after returning home, he went AWOL and remained in hiding for a year. We speak with Sgt. Clousing just hours before he plans to go to Fort Lewis to turn himself in to military officials. [includes rush transcript]

The Pentagon is now estimating that as many as 40,000 troops have deserted the U.S. Armed Forces over the past six years. Many have refused to fight in Iraq.

Today, we are joined by an Army sergeant, who chose to serve in Iraq as an army interrogator with the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg. But he became a war resister after witnessing how the war was being fought.

His name is Sgt. Ricky Clousing. He is a 24-year-old from Sumner, Washington. He served in Iraq from December 2004 until April 2005. Within months after returning home, he went AWOL.

In June 2005, Sgt. Clousing sneaked out of Fort Bragg in the middle of the night. He left behind a quote from Martin Luther King. It read, “Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” But conscience asks the question, “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.”

Today Sgt. Ricky Clousing plans to go to Fort Lewis to turn himself in to military officials. But first he joins us live from Seattle.

  • Sgt. Ricky Clousing, Iraq combat vet and U.S. Army Interrogator.

Related Link:

The Seattle Draft and Military Couseling Center’s website dedicated to Sgt. Ricky Clousing

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

AMY GOODMAN: Today, Sgt. Ricky Clousing plans to go to Fort Lewis in Washington to turn himself in to military officials. But first, in this first national live broadcast after going AWOL, he joins us in a studio in Seattle. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Sgt. Ricky Clousing.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Why did you go AWOL?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: I chose to leave after experiencing the brutalities of war in this war in Iraq, and it was a process that I considered long and hard upon my return to Fort Bragg. Those two-and-a-half months of my integration back into the military and back into society really questioned and really forced me to reevaluate my beliefs and my own personal feelings and convictions, politically and spiritually, about my involvement in the war in Iraq and also the organization of the military in general.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk to us about some of your specific experiences while you were there? My understanding is you actually witnessed some killings of innocent civilians that really affected you deeply?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: Yes, I was assigned to a tactical infantry unit, which meant basically that I was out on patrols with infantry units. The particular incident you’re referring to, I was in Mosul on a convoy en route, and we stopped to assist another convoy that had been struck by an IED. And during that time, I was ordered to pull rear security on the convoy, where I proceeded to go behind the rear Humvee and guard the road, basically to ensure that nobody turned down and posed a threat to U.S. forces assisting soldiers in their personal crisis, what was going on with the IED.

As I was doing that, I had seen a vehicle turn down our road going approximately 15 miles an hour. I saw directly in the window. It was a young boy, or a young man, I should say, and as soon as he saw U.S. troops, he was terrified, took his hands off the wheel. It was evident that he was scared that U.S. troops were there, weapons drawn. He didn’t know what was going on. He was making an effort to brake the vehicle and to turn around immediately, when a soldier in the turret of the Humvee behind me proceeded to open up fire and fired four to five rounds inside of the vehicle.

I went over to the vehicle with a medic and broke the window out and dragged the civilian into the road, which is common to provide first aid upon injured civilians, and even insurgents, but I look downed at him as the medic was performing first aid. And the situation, obviously, was really — I was in shock. I didn’t know what was going on. It was really fast. But as I looked down in the eyes of the boy, I could tell that he was just scared. He was frightened. And I don’t speak Arabic, and obviously there was no words exchanged, but I could look into his eyes and see that he was confused and hurt and didn’t know what was going on. You know, I could sense that from the soul he was crying out, you know, “Why is this happening to me? What’s going on? What did I do? I was turning my car around.”

I spoke with the leaders afterwards and told them that basically they needed to instruct their soldiers to assess and analyze a situation properly, as the proper procedures were neglected. The escalation of force by waving of the arms and firing a warning shot and then proceeding to try to disengage the vehicle by shooting the tires, and then actually if the vehicle doesn’t stop and it poses a threat still, you’re authorized to engage into the vehicle and engage the civilian. All of those procedures were ignored, and it was directly — basically the civilian was fired on immediately.

And I thought that this Iraqi died innocently, and I was really disturbed by it, really shook my foundation of why I thought we were there. And I had skepticism before, but that particular incident, along with some other ones, really just made me second guess what we were doing there and what really is happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you raise it with your superiors?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: I did raise it to the superiors that were in charge of the convoy. I did.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did they say?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: I brought it up to them. And it was hard for me to do that, because I was never deployed before, because I wasn’t an infantry soldier. I was a military intelligence soldier attached to these infantry guys. But when I did, I spoke what I felt I needed to say and bring up issues that needed to be questioned and concern. And when I did, I was really shot down by the superiors, basically that I didn’t know how convoy operations worked, and I had never been deployed before and I didn’t understand that this happens and that that’s just something that’s a reality of war, and that I apparently didn’t know what I was talking about.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how prevalent, in your experience, were these kinds of incidents of innocent civilians being needlessly killed?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: I, myself, only witnessed this particular incident where an innocent civilian was killed, although because I was an interrogator, my security clearance granted me access to the S-2 room, which is the intelligence briefing room. It’s where they have all the intelligence updates. There is a board called the daily intelligence summary, and that holds information on how many times in our area of operation that soldiers have received small arms fire, how many IEDs have gone off and also the number of local nationals or noncombatant Iraqi civilians that are killed. And as I said, I only saw this personally one time, but the number of innocent Iraqis killed on the bleeder board, or on the intelligence board, definitely climbed the whole time I was in Iraq. The number never — it gradually increased day by day that we were there in the sector.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s called the “bleeder board”?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: It’s an intelligence summary board, basically of all the updates in the area of operation that we conduct in, all of the significant events.

AMY GOODMAN: Sgt. Ricky Clousing, can you go back to the beginning and tell us when and why you joined the military, the Army?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: I joined in 2002. I was actually taking some time off school, and I was doing some mission work in Thailand in an orphanage. And I ended up coming back from that trip and not knowing whether to pursue school or not. So I moved to Europe to live with my father for a little while, and I was there for about four months, backpacking around. I was traveling, and I encountered soldiers coming back from Afghanistan, which was fairly after 9/11, fairly short after that. And I really just started considering the possibility of serving in the military in this new era of these all new ideas that had been thrown out there. So I started contemplating. I went and spoke with a recruiter, and the job title that seemed appealing to me was an interrogator, partly because of the nature of the job and also because of the possibility to learn a foreign language and just the new experiences that I would have.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you decided to go AWOL, could you take us through some of your thoughts then, and why you decided you had to do this?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: Well, as I said, the particular incident that I saw definitely disturbed me. There’s a number of other incidents that happened that really added to my confusion and my conflict of conscience, you could say. And it really — although some might call these incidents isolated, and even in the media, you watch on the news the events that happened in Haditha, you read about the 14-year-old girl that was raped and killed by soldiers or even the abuses of Abu Ghraib. Every month or every couple months, there is always a headline issue, it seems to be, that there’s some sort of abuse of power that’s going on in Iraq.

But what’s not really covered by the media and what really isn’t spoken about are the daily injustices that happened. And my experiences over there were daily injustices, which included that innocent civilian that was killed, but as I said, there was also a number of other incidents where I — to sum it up, I really saw the physical, psychological and emotional harassment of civilians. The abuse of power that goes on in Iraq each day really was just not — I believe should not be tolerated. And these events aren’t covered by the media.

So those events that I witnessed and I was exposed to really forced me to second guess my ability to perform daily functions as a soldier, to train my soldiers that I was in charge of and to be trained. I was basically kind of — I felt stuck in my situation, where I really felt like — as I got home, I really dug into information leading up to the war in Iraq and also through foreign policy in general, and I just really was —- I felt stuck, that I’m in an organization right now that I’m discovering, based on my experiences and the knowledge that I’m reading, that I really do not believe that I can honorably serve and be a part of at this time, so -—

AMY GOODMAN: Sergeant Clousing, we have to break for 60 seconds. We’re going to come back. We want to talk to you about that process that night when you left Fort Bragg and also what you’ve done over this past year. It has been difficult. You’ve gone AWOL. Today, you’ll be holding a news conference in Washington State and turning yourself in. We would like to talk about that, as well. We are talking to Sgt. Ricky Clousing, speaking out nationally for the first time. Today, he will turn himself in in Fort Lewis. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest in Seattle today is speaking out nationally for the first time. His name is Sergeant Ricky Clousing, served as an army interrogator in Iraq from December 2004 to April 2005. This is more than a year later. Ricky Clousing, what did you do the night you left Fort Bragg, and did others there know that you were leaving, placing that quote of Dr. Martin Luther King, leaving it behind you and walking out of the base?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: Well, I didn’t actually plan a day that I was going to depart from my unit. Like I mentioned a little bit before, it was a process of when I integrated back home of my feelings really intensifying over time, and it intensified to the point in June, where I really felt like the only decision that I had in obeying my conscience and living honorably was to separate myself from the military in that way. So nobody else in my unit knew that I was going to be leaving. It wasn’t — I didn’t talk to anybody about it. I basically — I knew this was a time I had to move and I had to separate myself. So, as you mentioned, I left a note on my door explaining my feelings, which my unit was well aware of. My superiors already understood my conflict, and I left a quote by Martin Luther King, which you read earlier, which I feel kind of explained in a summary of how I felt in the whole matter.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about your fellow soldiers? Did any of them share your frustration and your disillusionment with what was going on there, or were you pretty much a loner on this issue?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: When I was in Iraq, I was primarily attached to infantry units, so I was around a different mentality of soldiers. When I returned home and spoke to some of the people that I had trained with and stuff in my intelligence unit, there’s definitely, even among the infantry soldiers, there was absolutely a feeling of confusion, a feeling of questioning whether or not we’re actually in Iraq for the reasons we were told, because men and women are dying each day, you know. Even these infantry guys are losing their friends each day in roadside bombs, losing their friends in gunfire attacks, and absolutely, the — I mean, people are wondering, “Why am I here? I mean, I was sent here for a reason.” And people still, soldiers in particular, they definitely feel this question of “What is really going on?” It’s not so much spoken about on a big platform, because it’s kind of like this inner question that I had before I went to Iraq, as well. It’s just that the experiences that I had really kind of forced me to deal with these questions on the forefront, kind of like compelled me to answer them.

AMY GOODMAN: Sergeant Clousing, last November we interviewed a former U.S. Army interrogator specialist. His name is Tony Lagouranis. He, too, served in Iraq. He was at Abu Ghraib beginning in April 2004. He was in other places, as well, began to speak out about what he witnessed there. During the interview, he talked about the methods of interrogation he used.

TONY LAGOURANIS: We were using dogs in the Mosul detention facility, which was at the Mosul airport. We would put the prisoner in a shipping container. We would keep him up all night with music and strobe lights, stress positions. And then, we would bring in dogs, and the prisoner was blindfolded, so he didn’t really understand what was going on, but we had the dog controlled. He was being held by a military police dog handler on a leash, and the dog was muzzled so he couldn’t hurt the prisoner. That was the only time I ever saw dogs used in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Did the prisoner know that there was a muzzle on the dog?

TONY LAGOURANIS: No, because he was blindfolded, so the dog would be barking and jumping on the prisoner, and the prisoner wouldn’t really understand what was going on.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you think of this practice that you were engaging in?

TONY LAGOURANIS: Well, I knew that we were really walking the line, and I was going through the interrogation rules of engagement that was given to me by the unit that we were working with up there, trying to figure out what was legal, what wasn’t legal. And according to this interrogation rules of engagement, that was legal. So when they ordered me to do it, I had to do it. And, you know, as far as whether, you know, I thought it was a good interrogation practice, I didn’t think so at all, actually. It didn’t — we never produced any intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Army interrogator, Tony Lagouranis, talking about his experiences. You, too, were in Mosul, Sgt. Ricky Clousing, as well as Baghdad. Did you have experiences like this, you, too, an Army interrogator?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: I actually was never exposed to the mistreatment of prisoners. It could have been because of the differences between the specific unit I was working with. There’s two separate possibilities basically for an interrogator. You’re basically assigned to a strategic unit, which are — a lot of those units are — they’re basically not attached to infantry units. They’re not an infantry support unit. Those are the interrogators that were at Abu Ghraib. Those are the interrogators that are at Guantanamo Bay and a lot of the larger interrogation facilities. Those are strategic unit interrogators.

It just happened to be, primarily because of my airborne qualification, that I was stationed with the 82nd Airborne, which happens to be a tactical infantry unit. So, because of that, my interrogation experiences were tactical questioning out in the city after raids, after searches and whatnot, but also in the interrogation facilities. But during my time in the interrogation facility, I never witnessed, like I said, mistreatment of prisoners. My unit back at Fort Bragg was very adamant and was very particular about the treatment and the proper handling of prisoners.

But, however, I did hear stories from other interrogators in Iraq that things went on. I heard stories from Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities of methods used, and using dogs is one of them, using some of the interrogation practices now that are deemed inhumane, I guess. I’ve heard of stories like that. The common idea in a lot of the mentality in the military is “out of sight, out of mind,” and that definitely prevails in that instance with interrogations being held in Iraq.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sergeant, next Thursday U.S. Army First Lieutenant Ehren Watada is going to face a pretrial hearing for refusing to deploy to Iraq. Two months ago, he became the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse deployment. This is an excerpt of a video recording he issued at the time, explaining why he’s refusing to fight.

EHREN WATADA: The war in Iraq violates our democratic system of checks and balances. It usurps international treaties and conventions that, by virtue of the Constitution, become American law. The wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of Iraqis is not only a terrible moral injustice, but it is a contradiction to the Army’s own law of land warfare. My participation would make me party to war crimes. Normally, those in the military have allowed others to speak for them and act on their behalf. I believe that time has come to an end.

AMY GOODMAN: First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, he’s in Washington State. Suzanne Swift, who also went AWOL and was confined to the Fort Lewis base, from Eugene in Washington. Also, James Yee, the chaplain who was arrested from Guantanamo, comes from Olympia, Washington. And now, you today, here in Seattle, you’re going to Fort Lewis. Can you talk about the atmosphere in Washington State? Why do you think there are so many of you? Or are we just hearing people going public in Washington State? After all, we hear there are tens of thousands of people who have left the military, according to the Pentagon’s figures.

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: I think that there is definitely a wide amount of people that feel the same feelings I have, the same questions that Lieutenant Watada had, as many — just like a lot of other war resisters that are standing up. Going public is something that is basically an individual choice that has to be made that — I know other soldiers who have left AWOL and other soldiers who even would like to leave AWOL. I don’t think it’s necessarily that the Northwest is particular to those people. It does so happen to be that Suzanne Swift is from the Northwest, I myself am from the Northwest. Lieutenant Watada is from Hawaii. He’s stationed here in the Northwest.

But I would definitely say that there is a progressive idea of involvement and of collective consciousness here about questioning politics and questioning what’s going on in Iraq, which really needs to involve our whole society. I think that that’s the kind of the lack of civil responsibility, I maybe could say, that people in this nation have kind of stepped back from and not understood that not only are soldiers really responsible for, you know, certain situations they find themselves in in Iraq, I think as a whole our society really needs to step back and realize what’s going on in Iraq and that we are directly and indirectly responsible for the injustices happening over there, whether you’re military or not.

If you’re a civilian and you don’t speak out against what’s going on and don’t make an attempt to understand it and then do something about it, I think we all share that same responsibility. So, like I say, going public is one way I chose that I felt like I wanted to share my experiences in Iraq and shed light on a window of reality that I think has kind of been absent from the media, which is, like I said, the daily abuse of power that goes without accountability.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you, you have been in hiding now for over a year. Could you talk about that experience? Were you aware of any attempts by the Army to track you down or to detain you? What’s been the reaction of your family and your friends to your situation?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: I’ve been very grateful that my family has been very supportive of me. They’ve loved on me this whole time I’ve been gone. They’ve been really supportive of me. My friends, as well. I’ve had friends in different parts of the country that are standing by me. Even friends that don’t necessarily agree with my politics of my decision, they still know that I’m a person of conviction and they still support my decision.

The last year has been obviously an interesting year, where I was really trying to piece together a lot of ideas, where as a 24 year-old man trying to recalculate my world view and my perception of not only the military, but of our government and my association in it and my involvement and my responsibilities — these are all questions that I’ve pondered and thought about the last year — I spent a lot of the year in reflection and a lot of it really trying to just be centered and, yeah, like I said, come to grips with a lot of these questions and answers.

AMY GOODMAN: Sgt. Clousing, today you’re going to hold a news conference. And then, well, tell us how the day will proceed. You’re turning yourself in after a year.

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: Yes, there’s a news conference planned today at 9:00 Pacific time, where it’s actually in coordination with the Vets for Peace conference with the Iraq Veterans Against the War. I’m going to be kind of speaking out not only for myself, but also just in support of the war resisters. But that’s going to happen at 9:00 Pacific time for approximately an hour, and then at the conclusion, as you mentioned, I’m going to drive down to Fort Lewis and surrender myself to military custody.

AMY GOODMAN: And what will happen to you then?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: It’s basically dependent upon the military’s reaction of what will happen. I can’t — I don’t know what to expect, or I can’t make speculations at this time. I have no idea.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, during the year that you have been in hiding, obviously you’ve had a chance to see news coverage on the 6:00 news or in the newspapers here in this country of the war in Iraq and the reported death tolls now of a hundred people a day being killed. What do you think, given your experience, what are the American people missing in what they’re getting from the reporting from our own media here about the war?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: As I mentioned before, I really think there’s just an indifference, and also really these incidences that keep being thrown into the media — they are these huge, tragic events — seem to be discovered. I mean, they’re not brought up by media, and they’re not brought into the light of the population because of a moral issue: is this right? They’re not questioning the basis of the war in general. They’re just saying, this event was discovered so we have the responsibility to report that to our people.

AMY GOODMAN: Haditha, Mahmoudiya, did these surprise you?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: They actually didn’t. I mean, my experience, especially working with infantry soldiers and seeing their reaction in circumstances that they’re put in, it didn’t surprise me, because I think that these events that you’re talking about and the experiences that I saw are basically a larger picture of the daily devastation in Iraq and a symptom of the dehumanization of the Iraqi people and the dehumanization that happens as a soldier, naturally, of being able to take another person’s life for whatever reason.

It’s just these are just symptoms of the larger problem that really America has neglected to face in the last three years and that need to be talked about. They need to be brought up in the media, these daily —- like you mentioned, the hundred people that are dying a day in Iraq, these issues need to be brought up. The mistreatment of prisoners, the mistreatment of civilians, whether or not they are detained or not, these are all -—

AMY GOODMAN: Sgt. Clousing, we just have ten seconds, but you are now turning yourself in. Are you willing to go to jail for going AWOL, absent without leave?

SGT. RICKY CLOUSING: I knew when I made my decision that there would be consequences, and I felt like I needed to be true to my conscience, so whatever the result is, I feel at peace, and I feel calm and collected that this is destiny and that I am standing up for what I really believe in.

AMY GOODMAN: Sgt. Ricky Clousing, I want to thank you for joining us. We will certainly follow this case in a Monday report to our listeners and viewers about what has taken place, speaking to us from Seattle, turning himself in at the base at Fort Lewis.

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