Some Soldiers Trying to Get Out of Army
Some Soldiers Trying to Get Out of Army
By MARTHA MENDOZA
The Associated Press
Saturday, December 31, 2005; 12:28 PM
-- Kevin Benderman spends his days sitting in a plastic chair in the
stockade at Fort Lewis, Wash., completing a 15-month sentence for "missing
movement" with his unit. Jeremy Hinzman is raising his baby boy in Toronto,
awaiting a court date when he hopes the Canadian government will grant him
political asylum. Aidan Delgado is back in school, studying religion at the
New College of Florida and practicing Buddhism.
All three are among a small but growing number of soldiers who have become
disillusioned with the war in Iraq and are trying to get out of their
Increasing numbers of men and women in uniform are seeking honorable
discharges as conscientious objectors. Others are suing the military,
claiming their obligation has been wrongfully extended. Many have simply
deserted, refusing to appear for duty.
Some are more desperate: Last December, Army Spc. Marquise J. Roberts of
Hinesville, Ga., persuaded a cousin to shoot him in the leg. The cousin was
sent to jail, Roberts to the stockade.
"You sign a contract and you're required to serve for whatever time period
you've agreed to," said a Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke.
"There are certain standards the enlistment contracts oblige soldiers to,
and they are required to fulfill them."
But Pentagon policies do have exceptions, and soldiers are increasingly
challenging their mandatory service.
Requests for conscientious objector status, which can qualify someone for
an honorable discharge, have steadily increased since 2000 _ about 110
soldiers filed the complex paperwork in 2004, about four times the number
in 2000. Of those, about half were approved. Those who were rejected either
went back to the war or refused to serve. Some are now on the lam. Others
have been court-martialed and done time.
Former Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, 30, of Miami Beach, Fla., says he had
change of heart while on a two-week leave last year after spending a year
"Going home gave me the opportunity to put my thoughts in order and to
listen to what my conscience had to say. People would ask me about my war
experiences and answering them took me back to all the horrors, the
firefights, the ambushes, the time I saw a young Iraqi dragged by his
shoulders through a pool of his own blood or an innocent man was
decapitated by our machine gun fire," he said.
When it was time to ship out, Mejia went into hiding. For the next five
months he didn't use his cell phone or his computer. He stayed away from
his family and friends.
Eventually, with the help of anti-war advocates, he found a lawyer and
turned himself in. But his request to be a conscientious objector _ which
he filed after he went on the lam _ was denied. Mejia spent nine months in
military prison and was dishonorably discharged in February.
Mejia was among the first from Iraq to request to be a conscientious
objector, and he now speaks at antiwar rallies and conferences, counseling
other would-be resisters.
"As this war continues, we're going to see more refusals, disobeying of
orders, stop-loss lawsuits," said Marti Hiken, who co-chairs the National
Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force. "There's going to be more and more
Conscientious objection, as defined by the military, is a "firm, fixed and
sincere objection to war in any form or the bearing of arms" because of
deeply-held moral, ethical, or religious beliefs.
A soldier cannot be a conscientious objector just because of opposition to
a particular war.
To apply as a conscientious objector is a labyrinthine process that
includes a written application and interviews with a psychiatrist, a
military chaplain, and an investigating officer.
"Being a conscientious objector is not an easy way to get out of the
military and not a fast way to get out of the military," said JE McNeil,
executive director of The Center on Conscience & War, a 65-year-old
Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization that supports the rights of
The organization runs the GI Rights Hotline, and McNeil said it received
more than 36,000 calls this year from soldiers interested in how to get out
of their required service. That's up from fewer than 1,000 a year before
the war in Iraq, she said.
McNeil said her counselors usually get calls from soldiers who are already
considered AWOL (absent without leave) or even deserters. She said they
often counsel soldiers away from trying to be conscientious objectors,
pointing them instead toward other types of discharge requests: hardship,
parenthood, health problems, drug or alcohol use.
These are usually more appropriate reasons, she said. Military studies show
the main reason deserters cite for leaving the service are "dissatisfaction
with Army life, family problems and homesickness."
Simple desertion has been decreasing in the military in recent years _
about 2,500 troops last year simply didn't show up for work, down from
almost 5,000 in 2001, according to the Pentagon public affairs office. Some
of these men and women are in hiding in Canada, where about 20 have applied
for refugee status.
Army paratrooper Jeremy Hinzman, who fled from Fort Bragg, N.C., in January
2004, weeks before his 82nd Airborne Division was due to go to Iraq, is
awaiting a February hearing in Toronto.
"Perhaps I made a mistake by enlisting in the Army, but the U.S. is putting
the lives of its soldiers in jeopardy in order to the line the pockets of
big money," he said.
Hinzman said he vowed to his wife that he wouldn't go to Iraq, and then had
to decide whether he would face a court martial or flee. He said he didn't
want to miss out on his son's formative years, so he chose Canada.
Hinzman's attorney said as many as 200 American war resisters are hiding in
Canada, waiting to see how Hinzman's case plays out before coming forward.
Hinzman said he and his wife plan to use every legal channel they can to
stay where they are.
"We simply want to be granted some sort of status here and then sink into
an a life of obscurity where we can be decent, hard-working, tax-paying
citizens," he said.
About a dozen reservists have filed "stop loss" lawsuits, arguing that it
is illegal to make them stay in the military once their required term of
service is complete. The Bush Administration has argued with success so far
that under federal law the Pentagon can involuntarily extend the deployment
of any reserve officer who's on active duty, if the president believes it's
essential to national security.
Several of these objectors, like Army Spc. David W. Qualls, signed up for a
so-called "Try One" program with Army National Guard which the Army says
"allows a veteran to serve for only one year on a trial basis before
committing to a full enlistment."
Just a few months into his service last year, the Army told Qualls he was
recalled to active duty and his "expiration of term of service" had been
extended for an undetermined number of years.
"What this boils down to in my opinion is a question of fairness," said Qualls.
He filed a lawsuit, and even though he later accepted a $15,000 bonus and
re-enlisted for six years, the suit has not been dropped, said his
attorney, Staughton Lynd of Niles, Ohio.
"He felt that his family was on the verge of bankruptcy and he had no
economic alternative but to re-enlist," Lynd said.
Many resisters complain that they were misled by recruiters. Others say
their beliefs have changed.
"When I enlisted I believed that killing was immoral, but also that war was
an inevitable part of life and therefore, an exception to the rule," said
Texas Army National Guard Spc. Katherine Jashinski, 22, who in November
asked a federal judge to order her release from service.
After joining the military, Jashinski said she "started to reevaluate
everything that I had been taught about war as a child. I developed the
belief that taking human life was wrong and war was no exception. I was
then able to clarify who I am and what it is that I stand for."
Jashinski, a cook, learned in October that her 2004 conscientious objector
discharge application was denied. Now awaiting a hearing, she says she will
not deploy with her unit.
Although there have always been soldiers who refuse to fight on moral
grounds, the U.S. government made conscientious objector status official in
1962. Four years later, during the Vietnam War, requests began to pour in.
Desertion rates also hit historical highs, and thousands of soldiers who
refused to deploy were court-martialed. In 1971, requests peaked when 4,381
members of the military applied to be conscientious objectors.
Twenty years later, during the Gulf War, conscientious objector
applications rose to 441 in 1991. At that time, about 500,000 soldiers were
deployed in the Persian Gulf.
Aidan Delgado decided he was a conscientious objector last year, after
spending a year in Iraq where he was stationed at Abu Ghraib prison. His
application was approved and he was honorably discharged last January.
"When I met Iraqi prisoners firsthand, I saw the people who were supposed
to be our enemies but I didn't hate them. They were young, poor guys
without an education, like us. They were supposed to fight us and we were
supposed to fight them. It didn't make sense," said Delgado, who speaks
Arabic and lived for a while as a child in Egypt. "I told my commander that
I wouldn't kill anyone. I turned in my rifle."
© 2005 The Associated Press