Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This was posted to Courage to Resist, October 21, 2009
Last week Army private Tony Anderson was released from the Ft. Sill stockade after serving a full year in prison for refusing to fight in Iraq. Tony, now 20-years-old, was court martialed last November and sentenced to 14 months of confinement and given a dishonorable discharge from the military for "desertion with intent to avoid hazardous duty" and "disobeying a lawful order." He was released two months early for good behavior. Tony refused to deploy to Iraq in July 2008 on the grounds of conscientious objection to war. Courage to Resist supporters contributed $2,200 to pay for Tony's civilian legal defense led by attorney James Branum of Oklahoma.
"I know in my heart that it is wrong to willfully hurt or kill another human being. I simply cannot do it. I don't regret following my conscience," he said at his trial as he struggled to compose himself. "I know there must be consequences for my actions and I must accept this fact."
The following announcement, was posted to the Free Leo Church Website, by (the Refusenik Attorney Extraordinaire), James Branum, August 27, 2009.
his website was launched on behalf of Leo Church, an imprisoned soldier from Fort Hood, who was convicted of going AWOL and related offenses. Leo went AWOL because of his serious family hardship, yet instead of helping him, Fort Hood threw Leo in prison for 8 months, took away his rank, and took away 2/3 of the pay his family so desperately needs.
Leo Church and his family have asked me to take on his post-trial case, to seek to gain some degree of clemency for his actions (either a reduction in his sentence and/or restoration of his pa). They also want to speak about what has happend to their family and to warn others about how Fort Hood and the U.S. Army treats families in crisis.
You can read more about Leo’s case (including how to write him) [click here to go to the website].
This article, by Jeremy Schwarz, was posted to the Austin American Statesman, August 15, 2009.
KILLEEN — Past the barber shops advertising $6 military cuts, weapons stores and used car lots, an anti-war coffeehouse occupies a small wooden house on a corner of Texas' biggest Army town. Six months after opening, the Under the Hood cafe has become home to a growing number of veterans and active-duty soldiers who are beginning to question America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Less than a mile from the gates of 53,000-troop Fort Hood, the cafe is a place where soldiers, many of them fresh off of multiple deployments, can swap stories and ideas without fear of retribution, its supporters say.
It has also become a refuge for soldiers who are refusing to deploy — or are thinking about it — including Spc. Victor Agosto, who last week was sentenced to 30 days in jail for refusing an order. Another Fort Hood soldier, Sgt. Travis Bishop, an Iraq veteran who has applied for conscientious objector status, was sentenced Friday to a year in federal prison for refusing to deploy with his unit to Afghanistan.
Not since the heyday of the Oleo Strut coffeehouse, the hub for the anti-war movement in Killeen during the Vietnam War, has such an enterprise thrived here. But unlike its predecessor, which closed in 1972, Under the Hood has for its driving force a newcomer to the peace movement, a 17-year Army wife with no history of activism.
The cafe is run by Cynthia Thomas, a former stay-at-home mom who didn't become politically active until 2007, when her husband, a Fort Hood soldier, was sent on his third deployment to Iraq. Thomas said she was furious about his deployment; she said her husband was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other maladies from a previous tour. When her stepson decided to join the Marines, she said she felt compelled to take a stand against the war.
At first she sought to connect to a group in Killeen. But finding no anti-war organizations in her adopted hometown, she stumbled on Code Pink, a group of anti-war activists from Austin. She became involved with the group and eventually crossed paths with former and current Fort Hood soldiers active in a local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
With help from an original staff member of the Oleo Strut, they hatched the idea of a coffeehouse near the Army post. But making it happen proved harder than Thomas imagined.
"We went through four Realtors and just got stonewalled," Thomas said. "At the end we just said we wanted to do an outreach center, which was true, because if you said a peace house they didn't want anything to do with it."
Despite the initial resistance, Thomas said the response has been positive at the cafe, a homey place lined with couches and a help-yourself coffee bar.
"We've had no negativity from the soldiers that come in," she said. "At first they come in and they're looking around and a little uncomfortable, but then they come back. They feel they can come and talk to the regulars and get that peer support."
Most of the soldiers at Under the Hood are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder; some are suicidal or self-medicating heavily with alcohol or drugs, Thomas said. The most extreme cases are referred to a counselor in Austin.
Others just need a place to curl up on the couch for a few hours or feel safe from the ridicule they say they would receive in their barracks for talking about their feelings and ideas.
"If you come home and you don't feel anything about (what you've gone through), then there's something wrong with you," said Malachi Muncy, who served two tours in Iraq with the Texas National Guard and is a regular visitor to Under the Hood. "It's helped me get over my issues, mainly by talking with people with the same issues. It's nice to be around other soldiers who aren't going be like, 'Suck it up.' "
Muncy drove a 42-wheel super heavy equipment transporter during his first tour of Iraq in 2004, as U.S. troops began seeing a surge in roadside bombings. "It was a really bad time to be driving a truck," he said.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and says he struggled to adjust when he returned. He eventually decided to volunteer for a second deployment.
"I said, 'I don't have to adjust; I can just go back to Iraq,' " he said.
Bobby Whittenberg is another Iraq war veteran who often talks with active-duty soldiers at the coffee shop. A former Marine who now lives in Austin, Whittenberg was shot in Iraq in 2004 and said he faced harassment and ridicule when he sought help for his post-traumatic stress disorder from military officials.
"They were like, 'You're letting your brothers down; you're scared to go back,' " said Whittenberg, a Purple Heart recipient.
After leaving active duty in 2006, Whittenberg moved to San Antonio to be closer to the Veterans Affairs hospital there. He has become something of a mentor to younger soldiers.
"I personally try to challenge them to think for themselves," he said. "They're in a very authoritarian, hierarchical lifestyle where it becomes very difficult to challenge authority."
Several active-duty soldiers at Fort Hood who go to Under the Hood said that despite the Army's efforts to reduce the stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder, soldiers who seek help are still labeled bad apples by some superiors. One soldier, who would not give his name because he feared retribution, said the Army needs to do more to support soldiers when they return from war.
"When you get back, you're released, and it's like, drink as much as you can and party," he said. "No one tells you that just makes you feel more depressed."
In recent years, military officials have sought to place more attention on the mental health of returning soldiers. At Fort Hood, officials have opened a Spiritual Fitness Center, which seeks to help soldiers and their families deal with the stresses of multiple deployments. That's part of a larger Resiliency Campus, which Army officials say will help combat alarming numbers of soldier suicides. And Fort Hood's commander, Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, has also talked frequently of removing the stigma associated with soldiers seeking mental health help.
But some solders say places like Under the Hood play a vital role.
"I know soldiers who said, 'If I didn't have the coffeehouse, I would have killed myself,' " said James Branum, an attorney who has represented about 20 war resisters around the country.
Bishop, the sergeant who was court-martialed for refusing to deploy, said the coffee shop provided much-needed friendship.
"They support you whether your decision is to deploy or to resist," he said. "People think that it's an anti-military place. That's not true at all. It's incredibly pro-soldier. They are just against these wars."
Under the Hood is among a handful of what supporters hope is a growing number of GI coffeehouses around the country. Similar cafes have opened outside of Fort Lewis in Washington state and Fort Drum in New York.
It's still a far cry from the Vietnam era, when some 20 GI coffeehouses such as the Oleo Strut sprang up near military bases around the country and were credited with crystallizing the GI anti-war movement. The Killeen coffeehouse operated from 1968 to 1972, receiving visitors such as Jane Fonda and a young Stevie Ray Vaughan and producing an underground newspaper, according to Thomas Cleaver, a member of Oleo Strut's original staff who helped Under the Hood get on its feet.
Supporters at Under the Hood say the current conflicts are different: During Vietnam, many soldiers were draftees and more likely to be open in their opposition to the war.
"We know this is a different time and a different war," said Fran Hanlon, an Under the Hood board member from Austin. "We had trepidation (about opening the cafe), but we were also really excited about the potential."
This article was posted to the Houston Chronicle, August 14 2009.
FORT HOOD, Texas — A Fort Hood soldier who refused deployment to Afghanistan has been sentenced to a year confinement and received a bad-conduct discharge from the Army.
After a two-day court martial Friday, Sgt. David Travis Bishop was found guilty Friday of four counts, including going absent without leave and disobeying a lawful order.
Bishop, 26, from Louisville, Ky., has said that after serving 14 months in Iraq, he began studying his Bible and started believing that war is wrong.
His attorney James Branum said Bishop didn't know he could apply for conscientious objector status until three days before his unit deployed, so he went AWOL for a week while he prepared his application. But then he turned himself in.
Branum said if Bishop is granted conscientious objector, it can be used in his appeal.
This article, by Dahr Jamail, was posted to Truthout, August 12, 2009.
Sgt. Travis Bishop, who served 14 months in Baghdad with the 3rd Signal Brigade, faces a court-martial this Friday for refusing to deploy to Afghanistan.
Bishop is the second soldier from Fort Hood in as may weeks to be tried by the military for his stand against an occupation he believes is "illegal." He insists that it would be unethical for him to deploy to support an occupation he opposes on both moral and legal grounds and he has filed for conscientious objector (CO) status.
Spc. Victor Agosto was court-martialed last week for his refusal to deploy to Afghanistan. Agosto's lawyer, James Branum, who is also Bishop's lawyer, is the legal adviser to the GI Rights Hotline of Oklahoma and co-chair of the Military Law Task Force. Branum told Truthout during a phone interview on July 10 that, contrary to mainstream opinion that believes Afghanistan to be a "justified" war, the invasion and ongoing occupation are actually in violation of the US Constitution and international law.
"Victor is approaching this from the standpoint of law and ethics," Branum explained, "It's his own personal ethics and principles of the Nuremberg Principles, that the war in Afghanistan does not meet the criteria for lawful war under the UN Charter, which says that member nations who joined the UN, as did the US, should give up war forever, aside from two exceptions: that the war is in self-defense and that the use of force was authorized by the UN Security Council. The nation of Afghanistan did not attack the United States. The Taliban may have, but the nation and people of Afghanistan did not. And under US law, the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution, any treaty enacted by the US is now the 'supreme law of the land.' So when the United States signed the UN Charter, we made that our law as well."
Bishop told Truthout he was inspired by Agosto's stand and had chosen to follow Specialist Agosto's example of refusal. Both his time in Iraq, the illegality of the occupation and a moral awakening led to his decision to refuse to deploy.
"I started to see a big difference between our reality there and what was in the news," Bishop explained to Truthout about his experience in Iraq, but went on to add that morality and religion played a role as well.
When he received orders to deploy to Afghanistan, Bishop said, "I started reading my Bible to get right with my creator before going. Through my reading I realized all this goes against what Jesus taught and what all true Christians should believe. I had a religious transformation, and realized that all war is wrong."
Bishop received his orders to deploy to Afghanistan in February, but at the time "didn't know there was a support network or a way out at all. I thought GI resistance was something archaic from Vietnam."
As his deployment date approached, he met with other soldiers at a GI resistance cafe, "Under the Hood", in Killeen, Texas.
"They told me not only do I have a choice, but I have a support network backing me up," Bishop explained, "I told them my thinking, and they said that I sounded like a CO. They put me in touch with (James) Branum and when I learned from him what a CO was, I knew I couldn't go."
Bishop went absent without leave (AWOL) for one week the day his unit deployed, "because I didn't have time to prepare to file for CO status. So while AWOL I prepared a statement and filled out my application for CO (status). Then I went back (to Fort Hood) with Branum and turned myself in. I never planned on staying AWOL. They gave me a barracks room and assigned me to a platoon and told me to show up to work the next day. That was it. They started the CO process, but they also started the Uniform Code of Military Justice process, and that's where it gets shifty."
Shortly thereafter, the military charged him with two counts of missing movement and disobeying a direct order.
Bishop, Agosto, and other resisters are not alone. In November 2007, the Pentagon revealed that between 2003 and 2007 there had been an 80 percent increase in overall desertion rates in the Army (desertion refers to soldiers who go AWOL and never intend to return to service), and Army AWOL rates from 2003 to 2006 were the highest since 1980. Between 2000 and 2006, more than 40,000 troops from all branches of the military deserted, more than half from the Army. Army desertion rates jumped by 42 percent from 2006 to 2007 alone.
Bishop informed Truthout that morale is low among his peers in the military, whether they are pro-war or opposed to the occupations.
"Hard Corps folks, as soon as they hear about my sentence being capped at a year, they are changing their minds already," he said, "There's a lot of soldiers that go just because they feel they have to go. They are driven by money and legal obligation, not patriotism. They go because they don't want to lose their job and get in trouble. A lot of the people I talk to that are in, they feel as I do, but they say things like 'I only have four more months, so I'll ride it out and hope not to get stop-lossed.'"
Spc. Michael Kern, an active duty veteran of the occupation of Iraq (where he served from March 2007 to March 2008), is also based at Fort Hood. He is currently getting treatment for traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Kern turned against both occupations, as he told Truthout, "Once I realized it wasn't a war and was an occupation, and once I realized I was a terrorist to people in Iraq. It wasn't a hard decision. My whole unit feels as I do, but are afraid to speak out because they don't know there is support for those of us who speak out against the war."
Kern, like Bishop, says that troop morale is very low.
"I'd say it's at an all-time low - mostly because of Afghanistan now. Nobody knows why we are at either place, and I believe the troops need to know why they are there, or we should pull out, and this is a unanimous feeling, even for folks who are pro-war."
Kern feels that the decisions of Agosto and Bishop to refuse to deploy to Afghanistan is worthy of admiration and support.
"I admire these guys," he told Truthout, "They are truly amazing. I wish I would have done that, but when I deployed I didn't know what I was getting into, or my options. I look up to these guys. They are standing up for what they believe in, and that's the greatest thing any of us can do, and they are doing it despite what the Army is doing to them."
Kern suggests that soldiers "do your research before you willingly follow orders, because this is an unjust war, and according to Army regulations, you are entitled to question an illegal order, such as deploying to an illegal war not sanctioned by the UN. And that there is a large community of support for those who are standing up. And it's all over the world, not just the US, wherever you are, there are people who feel the same way you do."
In England, Lance Cpl. Joe Glenton, from the Royal Logistics Corps, has become the first British soldier to speak out publicly against the war in Afghanistan.
Glenton delivered a letter to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on 30 July stating why he is refusing to return to Afghanistan.
Glenton wrote: "The war in Afghanistan is not reducing the terrorist risk, far from improving Afghan lives it is bringing death and devastation to their country. Britain has no business there. I do not believe that our cause in Afghanistan is just or right. I implore you, Sir, to bring our soldiers home."
Glenton, like Agosto, and soon for Bishop, began his court-martial proceedings on 3 August.
US commanders recently announced that US and NATO troop deaths from Afghan bombings spiked six-fold in July, compared to the same month last year. In July, resistance fighters detonated the highest number of bombs against occupation forces in the eight-year occupation, according to figures released Tuesday. More US troops were killed in July in Afghanistan than any other month of the entire occupation, and violence continues.
Meanwhile, Anthony Cordesman, a senior adviser to the US military commander in charge of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, told The Times of London that an additional 45,000 US troops are needed in Afghanistan.
Bishop hopes his refusal to deploy will inspire soldiers to search their consciences.
"My hope is that people who feel like me, that they don't have a voice and are having doubts, I hope that this shows them that not only can you talk to someone about this, but that you actually have a choice," he said.
"Choice is the first thing they take away from you in the military," Bishop added, "You're taught that you don't have a choice. That's not true. And not wanting to kill someone or get killed does not make you a coward. I hope my actions show this to more people."
Travis' legal defense is going to cost about $2,000 -- which is a very, very low rate for a civilian lawyer arguing in a military courts martial. This is because Travis' attorney James Branum (who also defended Victor Agosto last week) is working for little more than his own expenses. So far we have raised $1,400 of that $2,000. Let's make sure that Travis doesn't have to worry about these expenses. Please help chip in the remaining $600 needed at http://couragetoresist.org/travis
This article, by Rebecca LaFlure, was published in the Killeen Daily Herald, August 14, 2009
A Fort Hood soldier who says fighting in a war violates his religious views faces up to a year in jail for refusing orders to deploy to Afghanistan.
Sgt. Travis Bishop, with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, pleaded not guilty at a special court-martial Thursday to two counts of missing movement, disobeying a lawful order and going absent without leave (AWOL). If he's found guilty, Bishop also could be demoted to the lowest Army rank and given a bad-conduct discharge.
His court-martial will continue today at 9:30 a.m. at Fort Hood. He's the second Fort Hood soldier in as many weeks to be tried by a military court for his refusal to participate in a war that he believes to be immoral and illegal.
"I'm objecting to the U.S.'s current occupation in the Middle East, and I'm objecting on religious grounds," Bishop said during an interview in June.
"I started reading the Bible more when I knew I was going to Afghanistan. The more I read about loving thy enemy and turning the other cheek, the more I realized that there's nothing holy about this. … It was a moment of clarity."
Bishop, 25, who previously served a year in Iraq, was initially scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan on May 18, but did not because of an alleged back injury he sustained when he fell down a flight of stairs carrying his luggage. He was sent to an emergency room where he received pain medication.
Bishop's defense claimed he was physically unable to deploy that day because of his injury. He missed his flight because he was in the emergency room. However, Capt. Sharon Denson, a physician assistant who examined him that day, testified that she did not see any physical injuries.
"In my professional opinion, he was fit to deploy," she said at Thursday's court-martial.
Bishop was then rescheduled to deploy on May 20, but instead went AWOL. He turned himself in to his unit a week later.
James Branum, Bishop's defense attorney, said Bishop had serious doubts about his views on war for a long time, but was unaware of his right to file for conscientious objector status until just days before he was scheduled to deploy. A conscientious objector is someone who refuses to participate in combat based on religious or ethical grounds, and can be given an honorable discharge by the military.
"Never was he told about his option of conscientious objector status. … If an enlisted soldier isn't informed that he has a right, then he effectively does not have that right," Branum said during the nearly five-hour military hearing Thursday.
"Just one to two days before he was set to deploy, in the midst of moral questions, he heard about CO status."
Branum said CO status is difficult to file, and often takes weeks to do. Bishop decided to leave his unit to draft an application. A week later, he filed for CO status, which is still pending.
Bishop's defense called two witnesses to the stand. Both are active-duty Fort Hood soldiers who claim they too were never informed that filing for CO status was an option.
Pfc. Anthony Sadoski, who's been in the Army for eight years, said he'd never heard of conscientious objectors until Bishop told him.
Bishop did not take the stand in his own defense.
"Ignorance of the law is no excuse," Capt. Matt Kuskie, the prosecuting attorney, argued after the defense made its case.
Maj. Matthew McDonald, who served as the judge, said whether or not Bishop was notified about his right to file for CO status is not relevant to this case.
"If every soldier in the Army who disobeyed an order could claim it was because they weren't notified of conscientious objector status, we probably wouldn't have a military any more," he said.
Both sides will give their closing statements this morning, and if found guilty, Bishop's sentencing would begin.
Protesters from all over Texas are expected to rally in support of Bishop outside Fort Hood's East Gate tonight if he's sent to jail.
On Aug. 5, Victor Agosto, also in the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, was sentenced to a month in jail and stripped of his Army rank for refusing orders to prepare to deploy.
Agosto said the wars in the Middle East are "immoral and unjust," and a violation of international law. Agosto did not file for CO status because he only objects to certain wars. He's now serving his sentence at Bell County Jail.
Protesters plan to be outside the Bell County Criminal Justice Complex, at Loop 121 and Huey Drive in Belton, from 1 to 2 p.m. every Saturday while Agosto is incarcerated.
This article, by Dahr Jamail and Sarah Lazare, was posted to TomDispatch, August 9, 2009
Echo Platoon is part of the 82nd Replacement Detachment of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Soldiers in the platoon are relegated to living quarters in a set of dimly lit concrete rooms. Pipes peep out of missing ceiling tiles and a musty smell permeates beds placed on cracked linoleum floors.
For soldiers who have gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave) and then voluntarily turned themselves in or were forcibly returned, the detention conditions here in Echo Platoon only serve to reinforce the inescapability of their situation. They remain suspended in a legal limbo of forced uncertainty that can extend from several months to a year or more, while the military takes its time deciding their fate. Some of them, however, are offered a free pass out of this military half-life -- but only if they agree to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq.
Specialist Kevin McCormick, 21, who was held in Echo Platoon for more than seven months on AWOL and desertion charges, was typically offered release, subject to accepting deployment to Iraq, despite being suicidal. "Echo is like jail," he says, "with some privileges. [You are] just stuck there with horrible living conditions. There's black mold on the building [and] when I first got there, there were five or six people to a room, which is like a cell block with cement brick walls. The piping and electricals are above the tiles, so if anything leaks or bursts, it goes right down into the room. "
Specialist Michael St. Clair went AWOL because he could not obtain treatment from the military for his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On turning himself in, he ended up consigned to Echo Platoon. As he recalls it, "The number fluctuates all the time, but on an average you have 50 people sharing two functioning toilets and a single shower… Except for a couple of rooms none have doors, and there is minimal privacy with four or more people to a room. It's stressful not knowing what's going to happen to you."
Former military recruiter Staff Sargeant Jeffrey Nelbach went AWOL in 2004 in hopes of salvaging his family life. (It is not uncommon for soldiers to remain AWOL for years at a time.) Now, he's paying for it with a stint in Echo. He confirms the awful conditions. "It is an old, moldy building with bad ventilation. Fifty-plus people use the same latrine. And more and more people are going there."
Nelbach, who is quick to say that he's "not really for the war and not really against it," has lost his house and is struggling to support his children with no income during his first few months in Echo, a limbo-land where even military pay can be suspended. His experience has convinced him that "military justice is arbitrary and if your chain of command is bad, it means everything up is bad." "Not Many Have This Opportunity." According to Major Virginia McCabe, spokesperson for the 82nd Airborne Division, AWOL soldiers are confined to the holdover section at the 82nd Replacement Detachment at Fort Bragg if they are deemed a flight risk. She offered no criteria, however, for just how that is determined. "Each AWOL soldier has his or her own special circumstances," she said. "They stay in a holding platoon until a legal decision is taken. Or they might say they made a mistake and return to serve."
Normally, soldiers on a legal "hold" of some kind end up in platoons like Echo. It may be because he or she is seeking a medical discharge, switching assignments, or waiting for a court martial to be convened.
Echo Platoon, however, seems to be made up of a contingent of wayward soldiers the military does not know what to do with. Captain Kevin Thaxton, commander of the 82nd Replacement Detachment, of which Echo Platoon is a part, offers this explanation:
"While the entire replacement detachment contains 500 soldiers, there are 40 AWOLs in Echo and about 20 in for holdovers/personnel issues and post-UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] Punishment, totaling about 60 people.
"Some are given the opportunity to go back with their unit and deploy. Those who accept do not exactly have their records cleared, but they do get to start over, keeping in mind we know this person has had problems before. We don't advertise that they went AWOL, but the commanders and the NCOs know about it. Not many have this opportunity. It depends on how long they've been AWOL. You have to say OK, would I trust a person who decided they didn't want to serve at one time, someone who is always on the fence?"
"Having a Head Full of Insanity"
One soldier in Echo Platoon, Specialist Dustin Stevens, had gone AWOL before the invasion of Iraq, and did so because he was opposed to all wars. On turning himself in, he's been in the holdover section for six months now awaiting AWOL and desertion charges. He may not be halfway through his purgatory. Others in the platoon have been held for more than a year in a no man's land of small-scale arbitrary punishment in which, according to soldiers in Echo Platoon, officers in charge regularly verbally abuse them as well as make physical threats
Kevin McCormick describes his experience this way: "You're less than human to the commanders. [They act as if] you don't deserve to be alive. A sergeant told us he wanted to take us out and shoot us in the back of the head. We get threatened all the time there."
On being questioned about such threats, Captain Thaxton played it safe. "I can't confirm or deny verbal abuse," he responded. "It depends on if a person is angry after something has been done."
On average, two new soldiers are assigned to Echo Platoon every week, according to Stevens. Resigned to a long wait, Stevens sums up life in the platoon this way:
"I've been here almost seven months, and only a few people have gotten out during that time. There was a Purple Heart veteran who was here and is now serving a 15-month jail sentence. One guy, gone for 10 years, got two years in prison without pay, although he had a newborn daughter. It doesn't make sense. Unfortunately, our sentence does not take into account the time served here. Some of us get paid, albeit the E1 or entry level wages, but I'd gladly give them the money back if I could go home...
"[Soldiers in Echo Platoon] don't... get the benefits others get. You are pretty much a prisoner. You can't do anything. They say you are not confined, but you can't go more than 50 miles off post. It's almost impossible to get leave unless in dire emergency, so we're just sitting here, day by day."
Downplaying the punitive nature of the platoon, Captain Thaxton admits only that "people who get in trouble are restricted to post. It keeps them from getting in fights with other soldiers. However, they are allowed access to Post Exchange [shopping], the chapel and dining facilities along with a 50-mile radius for travel."
Thaxton repeated several times that soldiers in Echo Platoon "can go to behavioral health [care]." While the soldiers themselves admit this is true and that they do have access to mental-health care, they say it is of very poor quality. Doctors, they claim, just focus on "drugging them up," rather than giving them adequate therapy in order to help them deal with their specific problems. The platoon's soldiers regularly confide suicidal urges to each other.
In Echo Platoon the deleterious effects the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are having on ordinary soldiers are clearly visible. By December 2006, it was already estimated that that 38% of all Army personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan had served multiple tours of duty. By October 2007, the Army reported that approximately 12% of all combat troops in Iraq were coping by taking antidepressants and/or sleeping pills.
In April 2008, the Rand Corporation, a military-affiliated think-tank, released a study stating: "Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan -- 300,000 in all -- report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression."
Like others who have turned against America's wars after multiple deployments to Iraq, Michael St. Clair has his regrets:
"I had always idealized the military, like we were going out to fight the Nazis, and had real moral high ground. When I got over [to Iraq], I was shocked by the brutality. My whole first tour, I can honestly say I never saw an Iraqi guy who deserved to die, who had weapons or was attacking us or anything. In many instances American soldiers took really bad decisions that killed innocent Iraqis. I had a hard time reconciling that with what I had thought I would be doing. By the time my second tour was over, I had morphed into a killer. A lot of people don't understand what war actually is. I don't know what's worse: being charged with felony or having a head full of insanity."
On St. Clair's return from his second tour, the military did a post-deployment health assessment, and six months later a reassessment. That is when his PTSD symptoms began to appear, and he was prescribed medication for depression. According to St. Clair, when he reported a panic attack, he was told he would not be sent to sniper school, and that he would not be given any further training because he was considered too unstable, which made him a danger to the country. Nevertheless, his military psychiatrist was, he claimed, pressured by higher ups to declare that he had a pre-Army personality disorder and was not suffering from PTSD. In despair, he went AWOL for 10 months before turning himself in.
His story is one more instance of the troop-unfriendly and skewed practices of the military machine. Diagnosed with PTSD, he was finally given a medical discharge for a personality disorder in an effort by the military to continue their systematic denial of the psychologically destructive effects of war. Staying AWOL After his deployment to Iraq, Kevin McCormick went AWOL because he felt suicidal and wasn't getting the help he needed. While in Iraq, he says, "I had a lot of problems back home. My mom had recently passed away. When I asked for help it got pushed back in my face. Even the Inspector General denied me treatment." (Essentially, the Inspector General represents a soldier's last recourse in attempting to correct a problem. If the IG refuses to help, there are few alternatives available.)
When, after four-and-a-half-months AWOL, McCormick turned himself in, he was offered absolution if he agreed to serve again, an absurdity not lost on him. "They offered me that deal," he exclaims, "when it was a known fact that I had issues with my mental care. They offered me a chance to go back to the unit!" His refusal to do so left him languishing in Echo Platoon for eight months until he finally received a medical discharge.
Even though his decision to go AWOL was in no way a protest against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, he is now opposed to it. "I personally don't feel we need to be in Iraq and I've been there and seen it firsthand. I think the U.S. being there is pointless."
His blunt advice to soldiers who go AWOL and intend to turn themselves in is, "If you're AWOL, fuck going back."
Staff Sergeant Nelbach will have spent over nine months in Echo Platoon by the time he is tried in October. His court martial will in all likelihood bring further punishment. Due to his higher rank and the fact that he was a platoon leader, Nelbach is in charge of making sure that soldiers in the platoon follow through on their work assignments. He also accompanies people to medical appointments and does necessary paperwork. He is thus seen by other platoon soldiers as the one who runs the place. Yet he is aware that none of this will help him when he comes to trial. "It's inhuman," he insists. "There's no fairness to it. It's always been mass punishment there." Warehousing Soldiers Assigned to Echo Platoon in January 2009, Dustin Stevens continues to bide his time awaiting charges that might still be months away. "[It's] horrible here. We are treated like animals. We're all so lost and wanting to go home. Some of us are going crazy, some are sick. And the way I see it, I did nothing wrong. By reading or talking to people all of the time I try to stay out of this place in my mind… There are people here who should be in mental hospitals."
James Branum, Stevens' civilian lawyer, is also the legal adviser to the G.I. Rights Hotline of Oklahoma and co-chair of the Military Law Task Force (MLTF) which offers training to the legal community and information about G.I. Rights and military law to service members and their families. He says AWOL troops make up three-quarters of Echo platoon and that medical cases are the bulk of the remainder. Accustomed to inordinate delays from the military, he says, "People are in this unit for months and months. The [authorities] take forever to do anything. You are going to be there six months if you're lucky, twelve if you're not."
On the legality of such detention without trial, Branum comments:
"I think there are some illegal elements about how they are running the place, but the general concept is not illegal. You have people there with legitimate medical and psychological issues, but instead of proactively helping them, the military shuffles them off to this replacement [detachment] to be treated like dirt. They are told they have no rights when they do have a right to talk to their commander, to have an attorney, and to talk to Congress. Echo, if run properly, would be a good thing. Not so when people are being warehoused and told repeatedly they have no rights. That is illegal."
As for the military's goal in running Echo Platoon and other similar units at military bases around the country:
"To me it doesn't seem productive. Oftentimes, the military doesn't know what it is doing. There isn't a logical explanation for this. Maybe deterrence is one. Other soldiers see these guys being ill treated and don't want to resist. They also want to break and wear people down so they'll deploy rather than keep resisting. The Army isn't true to its own processes at times. If their goal is to get folks deployable, this isn't the way. You don't want guys with physical or psychological issues to deploy."
In 2008, USA Today revealed that more than 43,000 troops listed as medically unfit had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan anyway. A Yardstick of Desperation In a discussion of her group's role in dealing with the legal holding of soldiers, MLTF co-chair Kathleen Gilberd commented:
"Fort Bragg is not an isolated situation. Placement in legal-hold [detachments] where soldiers languish for months is common to all the services. What we're seeing is the command not making up their minds. Their indecision has severe consequences for those with open-ended medical issues because they cannot avail themselves of help until their legal situation is resolved."
Chuck Fager, the director of the Fayetteville Quaker House (the town of Fayetteville adjoins Fort Bragg) claims that the military is primarily focused on "making numbers" for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Orders from the Pentagon say you have to send X [number of] troops," he points out. "The military does not have them and is constantly looking around for where to get them. One potential pool is the mass of soldiers gone AWOL. Eventually they either go back or get picked up... We are guessing [military officials] think they can persuade a significant number of these AWOL soldiers to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. "
The U.S. still maintains more than 130,000 soldiers in Iraq and, by year's end, will have at least 68,000 in Afghanistan, a figure likely to rise in the years to come.
Think of Echo and other platoons like it as grim yardsticks for measuring the desperation in which a military under immense strain is now operating. Looking up at that military from Echo's airless limbo, from a world of soldiers who have fallen through the cracks of a system under great stress, you can see just how devastating America's two ongoing wars have been for the military itself. The walking wounded, the troubled, and the broken are now being pressured to reenter the fray.
If Chuck Fager is right, the future is bleak for the members of Echo Platoon who endure deplorable conditions with little idea about whether their future involves charges, trial, deployment, or medical release. It is a painful irony that some of those who volunteered to serve and defend our nation are now left particularly defenseless and vulnerable as a direct consequence of its ill advised foreign adventures.
This article, by Dahr Jamail, was posted to Truthout, July 21, 2009.
US Army Specialist Victor Agosto, who publicly refused to deploy with his unit to Afghanistan, was to receive the harshest court-martial possible for his decision - one that would land him in jail for up to one year, followed by a dishonorable discharge. However, within hours of the publication of a Truthout report about his story, Agosto received word from the military that his court-martial had been reduced.
The military had at first agreed to a less punitive court-martial for Agosto, but then, in a move that surprised both he and his lawyer, opted to push for a more stringent court-martial.
Agosto’s lawyer, James Branum, who is also the legal adviser to the GI Rights Hotline and co-chair of the Military Law Task Force, was in negotiations with the Army in efforts to seek a lower-level court-martial, so that Agosto would suffer the minimum penalties possible.
“We were working with the Army’s Trial Defense Services (TDS), and Victor has a military lawyer on his side as well, which I recommended he have,” Branum told Truthout during a July 10 phone interview.
“TDS had communicated to the prosecution for me that we were willing to accept an Article 15 and do a month of extra duty, then if he [Agosto] got a summary court-martial we’d take it - which would mean Victor would serve a maximum of 30 days in jail, and receive an Other Than Honorable discharge,” Branum explained, “So TDS said they took this offer to the CG [Commanding General] who was to sign off on it, but they said he made a mistake and wrote ’special’ rather than ’summary’ on the court-martial and sent it back down.”
Branum explained that “a summary court martial is little more than an Article 15. Supposedly there was an ‘honest’ mistake made by them handing down this special court martial, but I think they are playing games with us.”
Branum, angered by the turn of events, explained the difference between the types of court martial, “They [the Army] are not acting in good faith here. What this still means is the cap went from 30 days [of possible jail time for Agosto with a summary court martial] to a year [with a special court martial], so a pretty big jump I would say, and a leap from an Other Than Honorable discharge [summary court martial] to a bad conduct discharge [special court martial], which means once he is convicted his pay would stop.”
Due to the perceived breach of good faith by the Army during the negotiating process, Branum felt he had no choice but to up the stakes in Agosto’s upcoming court-martial. “Now we’re going to put the war on trial with their special court-martial,” Branum said, “They had their chance to keep this quiet and move on, but now we’re going to pull out all the stops and put the war on trial, and show how the whole thing is illegal.”
Truthout published Agosto’s story on July 14. Agosto, speaking to Truthout on July 18, explained what happened: “A couple of hours after the article was published, I got a phone call from my team chief, and he told me I needed to go to TDS because my attorney needed to speak to me. She [Capt. Jocelyn Stuart] told me the government wants the original deal, and that basically General Lynch was going to recommend the summary plea deal, so a few days later that was confirmed and I signed off on the last piece of paperwork that I needed to sign off on Friday [July 17].”
When asked what he thought about the military’s decision, Agosto told Truthout, “I think it’s great. It shows what a determined group of people can do. The power of the alternative media is evident. In a way I have mixed feelings about it - it would have been nice to put the war on trial.”
When Agosto refused to deploy to Afghanistan, the Army issued him a Counseling Statement (a punitive US Army memo) on May 1, which outlined actions taken by the Army to discipline Agosto for his refusal to obey a direct order from his company commander, Michael J. Pederson. Agosto wrote on the form, “There is no way I will deploy to Afghanistan. The occupation is immoral and unjust. It does not make the American people any safer. It has the opposite effect,” and posted it on his FaceBook page.
On another Counseling Statement dated May 18, Agosto wrote, “I will not obey any order I deem to be immoral or illegal.”
On May 27, rejecting an Article 15 - a nonjudicial punishment imposed by a commanding officer who believes a member of his command has committed an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice - Agosto demanded to be court-martialed instead.
Agosto’s lawyer, Branum, told Truthout during a phone interview on July 10 that, contrary to mainstream opinion that believes Afghanistan to be a “justified” war, the invasion and ongoing occupation are actually in violation of the US Constitution and international law.
“Victor is approaching this from the standpoint of law and ethics,” Branum explained, “It’s his own personal ethics and principles of the Nuremberg principles, that the war in Afghanistan does not meet the criteria for lawful war under the UN Charter, which says that member nations who joined the UN, as did the US, should give up war forever, aside from two exceptions: that the war is in self-defense, and that the use of force was authorized by the UN Security Council. The nation of Afghanistan did not attack the United States. The Taliban may have, but the nation and people of Afghanistan did not. And under US Law, the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution, any treaty enacted by the US is now the ’supreme law of the land.’ So when the United States signed the UN Charter, we made that our law as well.”
The Supremacy Clause is a clause in the United States Constitution, Article VI, Paragraph 2. The clause establishes the Constitution, Federal Statutes and US treaties as “the supreme law of the land.” The text establishes these as the highest form of law in the American legal system, mandating that state judges uphold them, even if state laws or constitutions conflict.
Branum is now pleased with the Army’s decision. He told Truthout on July 20, “I think the Army did the right thing. I’d have preferred Victor get no jail time at all, but it could have been far worse. I would have loved a not-guilty plea, but as far as the potential punishment, I am pleased with how this has turned out. It was clear the Army screwed up. Since they decided to do a special court-martial, we were going to put the war on trial. They saying they made a mistake - there is no way of knowing whether that is true or not. When we went public and said it was their mistake and we’re going to put the war on trial, at that point they realized they made a really big mistake and agreed to re-submit a summary court martial.”
Agosto told Truthout that his TDS lawyer told him she had “never heard of General Lynch signing off on a summary court-martial before” and “I think it was in response to your article.”
Agosto believes he will be put through a summary court-martial this week, then expects to be placed in a rear-detachment company after he serves his sentence, which will be a maximum of 30 days in a County Detention Center in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood where he is currently stationed.
“I thank everyone who has supported me through this, particularly the folks at the Under the Hood GI resistance cafe,” Agosto said, “If it wasn’t for their support for my resistance, the consequences would have been much greater.”
Branum explained that the defense “is allowed to present other matters within a short time after the trial to the general. Then the general has the power to approve the sentence as it is, or lower it. So we’re going to ask him to lower it, and present the 1,000 plus signatures from Victor’s petition, and letters from experts about the illegality of the war … this is our chance to continue to make it clear that we think it should be no days in jail, and this is our chance to have this information on the record.”
Branum told Truthout that he feels Agosto’s victory sends a clear message to other soldiers who are considering resistance.
“It sends a message to be bold,” he said. “There is a high likelihood that by being bold, it helps your own case. Be smart, of course, but the Army screws people over by keeping it ‘in house.’ My challenge is to be bold, shine the light. When the military is confronted with it, they are sometimes stunned by their own injustice. Appeal to their humanity and conscience, and if that doesn’t work, scare them.”