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!
Disclaimer: In accordance with title 17 u.s.c. section 107, this material is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.
The Sir! No Sir! Blog has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is the Sir! No Sir! Blog endorsed or sponsored by the originator. Links are provided to allow for verification of authenticity.
This article, by Alice Embree, was published in the Rag Blog, August 16, 2009
In the second court martial in two weeks, another Fort Hood soldier was sentenced on August 14th for refusing to deploy to Afghanistan.
Sgt. Travis Bishop was brought before special court martial proceedings, found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison. His rank and pay were reduced. He is expected to be held in the Bell County Correctional Unit before serving his sentence in a military jail. His discharge status will be determined later. Because Sgt. Bishop has a prior honorable discharge, his GI benefits may not be reduced.
Sgt. Bishop faced four charges: willful disobedience of a Non-Commissioned Officer, absence without leave and two counts of missing movement. The charges were more serious than those faced by Spc. Victor Agosto on August 5th. Agosto's case was resolved in a summary court martial and he is serving a one month sentence in the Bell County Correctional Unit.
The courtroom resembled a civil courtroom with the judge in black robes. An Army defense attorney was seated with Bishop and his civilian defense attorney, James Branum. The panel, however, was hardly a peer panel. The jury seats were filled by eight Colonels, Lieutenant Colonels and Majors who had to be warned once not to fall asleep while the Judge read instructions.
A Fort Hood Public Affairs representative told Bishop supporters during a recess that Bishop was being tried in the same courtroom where Army Staff Sgt. Shane Werst had faced a court martial for shooting an unarmed Iraqi citizen. "Five privates turned a dime on him," he said. Despite testimony that soldiers were ordered to plant a gun on the Iraqi citizen to make the death appear to be self defense, Werst was acquitted May 26, 2005. Bishop's sentence for not deploying is a sobering contrast.
Bishop's court martial began on Thursday and Bishop's defense attorney and supporters had expected the arraignment, designation of a jury panel and testimony of one witness to be brief. Instead, the trial began in earnest and lasted five hours. At one point on Thursday, supporter Cynthia Thomas was asked by a Killeen police officer and an Army MP to leave the courtroom and explain her relationship with the defendant. Thomas asked if she were being detained and to speak to her attorney. She was not stopped from returning to the courtroom.
The prosecution brought Captain Chrisopher Hall in to testify that the absence of Travis Bishop from his unit had caused hardship to his unit. The defense presented four witnesses who testified to Travis Bishop's sincerity of beliefs. Bishop filed a request for Conscientious Objector status in late May and the request is still pending.
Charles Luther, a defense witness with a background as a lay Baptist minister, spoke of Bishop's religious beliefs. The defense attorney established that psychiatrist, Lt. Col. Adams, to whom Bishop had been referred, approved Bishop's Conscientious Objector claim and that it was one of only two claims in his ten years that Adams had approved.
In a surprise moment at the end of testimony, the Prosecution decided to call Lt. Colonel Ronald Leininger to the stand. Leininger was the Brigade Chaplain to whom Bishop was referred for pastoral counseling. Bishop has described his deep disappointment in speaking to someone he thought would be attentive to his religious beliefs. Bishop said the Chaplain reduced his interview time and interrupted the interview repeatedly by receiving phone calls.
In the statement issued by the Chaplain after his visit with Bishop, he focused almost no attention on Bishop's religious beliefs. Instead, he wrote that Bishop had been coached by Iraq Veterans Against the War and other antiwar activists. He went further to say that the affiliation that best described Bishop's religious heritage was "Conservative Evangelicals" who the Captain said are "generally pro-military service with no pacifist tendencies in doctrine or practice. In fact, they make good soldiers."\
Bishop has received letters of support from a number of pastors who cite their church's doctrine and practice supporting conscientious objection to war.
The court was recessed as the panel considered the verdict for about one hour. They found Sgt. Bishop guilty. In the sentencing phase, the civilian defense attorney, James Branum, asked for a three months sentence in light of Sgt. Bishop's sincerity and previous good conduct, including a fourteen month deployment in Iraq. In particular, Branum focused on the fact that soldiers are never given information about their rights to Conscientious Objection. Branum said that a soldier who changes his or her belief about war doesn't understand that there are options.
Maj. Matthew McDonald, who served as the judge, discounted the relevancy of whether Bishop was notified about his right to file for CO status. McDonald was quoted in the Killeen Daily Herald (8/14/09) as saying: "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."
Prior to sentencing, Bishop's testimony was forceful and moving. He cited several articles that protect a soldiers rights and noted that soldiers often are not informed of their rights, but that doesn't relieve the Army of its responsibility to honor those rights. Bishop said that the right to pursue a claim of Conscientious Objection requires protection. He said that he was unaware that he could pursue a claim of Conscientious Objection until right before his deployment.
"The truth is, as soon as I discovered this process [C.O.] existed, I acted upon it. I left because I did not feel that I would have a sympathetic, understanding command structure to fully take my problems to, and also to give myself time to prepare for my C.O. application process, and the legal battle I'm currently fighting. These are not excuses. These are explanations. My hope is that you truly treat them as such during your sentencing deliberations."
After being sentenced to the maximum jail term allowable under a Special Court Martial, Bishop had time to handwrite a note:
"To everyone who still cares: I can not say that a year in prison doesn't scare me. I am terrified... But still, though I am terrified, it would be scarier still to know that my fellow soldiers who feel as we feel would never find out what we are trying to accomplish... Everyone who hears or reads this should know that I love you all, and my life is forever changed because of you. Victor and myself are starting something and it is now up to all of you to continue on. With all my heart. Travis."
As Bishop was escorted from the Justice Center to a waiting van, supporters who were active duty soldiers or veterans stood at attention and saluted. Hands cuffed together, Bishop flashed a peace sign in return.
This article, by Alice Embree, was posted to the Rag Blog, August 7, 2009
Three knocks on the door of the small conference room signaled the beginning of Specialist Victor Agosto’s summary court martial. Captain Santos said, “Enter.”
Victor saluted her and said, “Specialist Agosto reporting as ordered.”
A summary court martial is a scripted affair in which the presiding officer serves as judge, prosecutor and defense attorney. At this hearing Victor Agosto’s charge was his refusal to obey orders to deploy to Afghanistan and the tiny room was packed with civilian supporters. An Associated Press reporter would soon give the story a national audience.
Specialist Victor Agosto has been stationed with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, 69th Air Defense Artillery, Rear Detachment. He had served a thirteen-month deployment in Iraq. On the day of his court martial he had been in the Army four years and one day. His contract would have been up at the end of June, but the unpopular stop/loss clause was invoked, his termination date revised and he was told he would be deployed to Afghanistan.
Rather than going AWOL or trying to escape punishment, Agosto informed his command in April that he would not be deployed to Afghanistan. He reported for work, but refused all orders that directly supported the war that he found immoral and unjust.
In the court martial hearing on Wednesday, August 5, 2009, Cynthia Thomas testified to Victor Agosto’s character. She told those present that as an Army wife for seventeen years, she had met many soldiers, from privates to officers. “And in all that time I have not met a soldier with more integrity than Spc. Victor Agosto... He’s not impulsive or rash... he carefully considers the consequences of his actions... I have seen him struggle with the question that plagues many of our soldiers and family members. Whether the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just.”
Cynthia told the court that Victor Agosto “made the very hard decision to follow his conscience knowing that his peers and his command would ostracize him. That he would lose all the benefits he has earned after fulfilling his 4-year contract, and after serving thirteen months in the Iraq war... Victor feels so strongly in following his conscience that he is willing to give up his freedom. The very freedom that our country asks our soldiers to fight for..."
After Cynthia’s testimony, the hearing was moved to a larger hearing room in order to accommodate more supporters who had not been able to get in. Victor Agosto was allowed to present testimony at that time. He spoke of his good conduct medal, of the fact that he didn’t break rules other than those he could not follow in good conscience. He testified that he did not pursue a Conscientious Objector discharge because he believed that some wars were necessary. Agosto said that he believed that the war in Afghanistan was illegal under international law -- that the United Nations Charter prevents countries from engaging in wars unless they are in self-defense or authorized by a United Nations Security Council resolution.
Agosto went on to cite the letters of support he has received, including one from Noam Chomsky. He said that he has received over 2,000 online signatures on petitions of support and several hundred more petition signatures on paper.
After a short adjournment, Captain Santos read Agosto’s sentence -- loss of rank, loss of half a month’s pay, and thirty days confinement. He is then likely to receive an Other Than Honorable discharge that will cost him additional GI benefits.
In an unscripted emotional moment after the sentence was read, Victor Agosto ripped his rank off his uniform and put it in front of the Captain. Later, his attorney said, he received a guard’s help in removing the rank sewn on to his hat.
Supporters waited for about forty minutes for Victor Agosto to be brought downstairs. Guards escorted him to a white van. He was undaunted, unshackled and without handcuffs, flashing a peace sign as supporters did the same and raised fists. Despite a guard’s repeated warnings of “no pictures,” cameras clicked and film rolled.
Victor Agosto’s civilian attorney, James Branum, returned reporters' phone calls all afternoon. He had acted as an occasional advisor, but did not represent his client. Under the strange rules of military
code, if Branum had represented Agosto, a guilty verdict would remain permanently on Agosto’s criminal record.
At 7:00, under a still unforgiving Texas sun, about sixty supporters gathered at the East Gate of Fort Hood. Active duty soldiers in Iraq Veterans Against the War were joined by people from Killeen, Belton, Austin, and as far away as Fort Worth. Protestors stood across from the sprawling military base -- the country’s largest base -- holding signs of support for Victor and chanting. Drivers passing by flashed peace signs, held thumbs up and honked, proving that there is more of a bond than most would suspect between the peace movement and the soldiers and military families ground down by multiple deployments in seemingly unending wars.
James Branum read a statement from Victor Agosto. “I have learned that nothing is more frightening to power than a direct and principled challenge to its authority. The truth is on our side and those who have incarcerated me know it.”
Victor Agosto will serve thirty days in a Bell County Correctional Facility. (His official inmate listing says "offense unknown.") Supporters have scheduled weekly protests 1-2:00 p.m. each Saturday while Agosto is incarcerated. Belton’s New Jail Facility, also known as Loop 121, is located at Loop 121 and Huey Drive.
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, by Forrrest Wilder, was published by the Texas Observer, August 17 2009.
In March, Michael Kern, 22, returned to Fort Hood after a year and a day in Iraq.
Shaken by his experience and disgusted with the war, Kern, a native of Riverside, Calif., tried to readjust by getting as hammered as possible. “Put it this way: For the first month, I was drunk at work, I was drunk 24/7.”
In Iraq the violence had been fast and furious. “We were going through all sorts of bad shit: mortars, IEDs, indirect fire. Anything you can think of we experienced the first day.”
On his second mission, Kern drew the short straw to drive the lead vehicle—a “mine resistant ambush protected” vehicle—in a convoy looking for a weapons cache near Baghdad. An IED exploded next to his vehicle, damaging his door. The platoon pulled back to base. The next day, April 7, on an identical mission, insurgents came after his unit with AK-47s, machine guns and IEDs. During the nine-hour firefight, a sniper killed Kern’s buddy, Sgt. Richard A. Vaughn. Two others, including Kern’s lieutenant, were seriously injured.
Kern tells me his story over two days in July at Under the Hood Café, a new GI coffeehouse and soldier-outreach center that opened in February. Since mid-May, when a drunken Kern first dropped in, Under the Hood has become his second home. While awaiting a medical discharge for PTSD and traumatic brain injury, he’s here almost every day, working out what happened to him in Iraq, planning anti-war events and helping other soldiers come to terms with their combat experiences. The coffeehouse provides a support network, friends who’ve helped him quit drinking, people he can call on day or night, and provides what Kern appreciated most about the military: a sense of camaraderie.
“If it wasn’t for this place, it’s sad to say, I feel like I would be dead. I feel like I would have killed myself,” Kern says.
Under the Hood is a rifle shot from the east gates of Fort Hood in a grim commercial zone of tattoo parlors, pawnshops, car lots, payday lenders, bars, strip clubs, and a place advertising “gold grillz” for teeth—establishments eager to drain young soldiers of their earnings. In this garrison town, the café has become a gathering place for dissident GIs, peace activists, veterans and active-duty soldiers who need help.
Inside, the walls are decorated with peace propaganda, including a map of the world pinpointing U.S. military interventions and a poster that reads, “You Can’t Be All that You Can Be if You’re Dead.” A bookcase is stocked with anti-war literature. For entertainment, there’s a dartboard, a foosball table and a big-screen TV with PlayStation. No alcohol is allowed, but there’s no shortage of cigarette smoke.
I came here to suss out efforts to build an anti-war movement within the Army. Fort Hood, the largest military installation in the country, has produced a smattering of war resisters in recent years. I met some of them at the coffeehouse, including Victor Agosto, an Iraq War veteran who refuses to deploy to Afghanistan, and Casey Porter, a mechanic who did two tours in Iraq. Porter, preparing to attend film school in Florida, recorded local life in Iraq, posting interviews with military personnel, battle footage and unvarnished street scenes.
Over the past four years, I’ve come into contact with scores of military personnel through my involvement with the Austin GI Rights Hotline, a group of volunteers trained to counsel service members about their rights.
Once a week, I sit on my couch and talk on the phone to soldiers, Marines and airmen who call with a dizzying array of issues, from the mundane to the impossibly complex. Many are stationed at Fort Hood. We get AWOL cases, people with untreated PTSD, 18-year-old enlistees who’ve found out their recruiter lied to them, middle-aged soldiers who’ve been stop-lossed, moms and dads calling on behalf of their kids, gay officers who’ve been outed—you name it. Some have made poor decisions; others are victims of a sometimes capricious, even cruel military system.
I got into it through my girlfriend. Katherine was in the news some years ago for being the first female conscientious objector to emerge from the war in Afghanistan. The military refused to recognize her as a conscientious objector, and after a long and painful process she was court-martialed and sentenced to 120 days in the brig. She ate lunch every day with Lynndie England, the young West Virginia woman best known for holding the leash in the infamous Abu Ghraib photos.
Joeie Michaels, Michael Kern’s roommate and an Under the Hood regular, used to dance at Babes, a Killeen strip club popular with GIs. Performing there, she made sure the troops left with a flier for the coffeehouse.
Under the Hood’s signal event was a Memorial Day peace march in the streets of Killeen, the city’s first since Vietnam. The Killeen newspaper reported about 70 participants. Cindy Thomas, the military spouse who manages the coffeehouse and plays den mother to the young, often-raucous soldiers, estimates about 10 to 15 were locals, including veterans and active-duty soldiers.
“It’s like a mother with a child,” Thomas says. “It’s unconditional love, and we help them any way we can.”
The building housing Under the Hood’s local antecedent, the Killeen coffeehouse Oleo Strut, is a few blocks away; it now houses an office complex. The Oleo Strut had a four-year run from 1968 to 1972, according to a history on Under the Hood’s Web site. Run by civilians and veterans, the Oleo Strut plugged Fort Hood soldiers into the Vietnam anti-war movement and spread their ideas in the barracks. An underground newspaper circulated from the coffeehouse, and the crowd there organized demonstrations and teach-ins. Musicians passed through, purportedly including a young Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“The tinder was very dry,” says Tom Cleaver, an Oleo Strut alum, Vietnam veteran and Hollywood screenwriter who helped raise money to start Under the Hood. “They ended up in ’69 and ’70 having big demonstrations there, a thousand guys marching in Killeen against the war.”
Fort Hood at that time was a holding station for soldiers returning from Vietnam with less than six months left on their enlistments. Before being discharged, many were deployed to suppress domestic riots and protests, including those at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
“Here they come back to America, and what does the Army want them to do?” Cleaver asks. “Fight a war in America. That radicalized a lot of guys. They came back with bad feelings about the war, and now they were supposed to go defend the war.”
There’s no draft now, nor is there a broader social counterculture, to tap into. Given that, Thomas says, one of Under the Hood’s primary functions is giving soldiers a place to speak openly.
“The military, they don’t want you to think for yourself,” Thomas says. “They don’t want you to be informed; they don’t want you to know that you have support because they function by fear and intimidation over these soldiers. So when you have a space where you can talk freely and find out what your rights are, you have that support, you have that kindness. It is a threat to them.”
One coffeehouse regular, Spc. Ben Fugate, told me that after his commander spotted his name in a Killeen Daily Herald article about the Memorial Day peace march, his unit was lectured for two hours on the dangers of protesting.
Fugate, who describes himself as “very conservative,” had been quoted in the paper saying, “I lost three buddies in my platoon in Iraq, and for what? Why lose more when we don’t have to?”
Kern, seated on a couch in a cozy back room at Under the Hood, explains how he became a coffeehouse fixture. It’s a Thursday in July, and he’s wearing a T-shirt that asks, “Got Rights?” He’s pale and swallowing tranquilizers to suppress panic attacks.
“I’m fucked up,” he says. “I know it.” Later, he says, “You know how they say a teenage boy thinks about sex every eight seconds. Every eight seconds I think about Iraq.”
Kern, a tanker, says his unit averaged about two and a half missions per day.
At first, Kern says, he was gung ho: “I was an excellent soldier. I took joy out of killing people in Iraq. It was such an adrenaline rush. I craved it.”
Over time, bravado faded into depression, guilt and a strong feeling that the war was wrong. When Kern deployed to Iraq he took a small handheld digital video camera and a laptop with editing software. He fixed the camera to his vehicle’s turret and captured hours of patrol footage.
Some of that raw video has been distilled to a 10-minute film called Fire Mission that’s available online.
In the film’s last minutes, Spc. Steven Pesicka, a soldier in Kern’s unit, narrates what he calls a “mortar mission for shock and awe” near an Iraqi village. The first mortar lands near a house, and the forward observer calls for the next one to be targeted 200 meters farther from the village. The mortar team thought that was too far away, Pesicka says. The film shows the second mortar hitting the town. “Oh fuck,” the forward observer is heard to say. “They did not drop 200 [meters], over. They hit the town.”
Minutes after the explosion, the soldier describes dead bodies being loaded into the back of trucks.
Such experiences led Kern to a radical form of empathy.
“If you just take a step back and you think, I mean, I’d be doing the same thing if Iraqis were in the United States,” Kern, dressed in battle fatigues, says in Fire Mission. “I’d be the dude trying to plant a bomb under the road. I’d be trying to kill them. Oh, hell yeah, get the fuck out of my country.”
Beginning in May or June, Kern started having nightmares, sometimes while he was awake. On several occasions he hallucinated an Iraqi child with half his skull missing, as real to him as the desert heat. His psychiatrist says the child might represent guilt, but all Kern knows is that it scared the shit out of him. In January, on his birthday, while his unit was on patrol, he told a commander—in confidence—that he was going to see a mental health specialist. The doctor prescribed Zoloft and sent him on his way. Back with his platoon, Kern discovered that the commander had ratted him out to his platoon sergeant.
“I was called out in front of the entire platoon, was made an example of, saying why are you going to mental health. This isn’t a war. This isn’t bad.” The next day, on a mission, Kern talked openly of suicide. “Still to this day, my buddy doesn’t know he talked me down, but I really wanted to kill myself on that mission. I had three loaded weapons sitting right next to me. I could have done it real easy.”
Back home, Kern avoided his demons, drowning them in drink. Thomas and Michaels encouraged Kern to open up.
“They’d be like, ‘How was Iraq?’ I’d say ‘Oh, it was just Iraq.’ I kept brushing it aside and stuff. They kept telling me, ‘You’re gonna break, you’re gonna break. You need to get help.’ ” Kern relented.
Michaels found a psychiatrist in Austin whom Kern has been seeing twice a week for free. In May he visited Fort Hood’s mental health services office, but was told he’d have to wait six weeks to see a doctor.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi child had followed Kern back to Texas. On the first of June, Kern was in the bathroom at Under the Hood when the child made an appearance. Afterward, Thomas and Michaels found Kern sitting outside under a tree. “The look on his face was just empty. His eyes were hollow,” Thomas says. Kern entered the 12-bed psychiatric ward at Fort Hood’s military hospital. He spent the next week there, emerging with a diagnosis of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Doctors put him on five medications, including tranquilizers, antidepressants and antipsychotics, which he carries in a small orange pillbox.
A week after being released, Kern started a blog, “Expendable Soldier.” In his first post he wrote, “I still hate myself and everything I do. No matter what I am doing any day of the week I some how am still reminded of the things I did while I was in Iraq, and sometimes it gets so bad that I believe I am still in Iraq. ... Sometimes I wish I never came back.”
Still, Kern reports for duty at the coffeehouse every day. He’s working on restarting an Iraq Veterans Against the War chapter in Killeen and talking to other soldiers about the coffeehouse. Does he feel like he’s become part of an anti-war movement? “I am part of an anti-war movement,” he says. “There’s no ‘feeling’ about it.”
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 interview with Victor Agosto, by Sarah Lazare, was published by Courage to Resist , May 21, 2009.
“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.” The words were scrawled in black ink on the bottom of a military counseling statement, a routine piece of paperwork turned in May 1st to the commander of a Ft. Hood, Texas Army unit headed for Afghanistan. It was signed Victor Agosto, U.S. Army.
Agosto is publicly refusing orders to deploy to Afghanistan. Having served in the Army since 2005, including a tour in Iraq, Agosto can no longer bear to serve and says that he is, “ready for the consequences, whatever they are.” Since May 11th, he has been refusing all orders directly connected to his unit's deployment to Afghanistan, including an order to track the serial numbers of trucks headed for Afghanistan. He has since been assigned to non-deployment tasks such as sweeping the motor pool and "company area beautification" as he waits to see what the military will do to him.
Agosto’s refusal comes as the first waves of troops are being shipped to Afghanistan under the Obama Administration’s recent escalation. President Obama has ordered 21,000 more troops to deploy to Afghanistan this summer, seeking to more than double the 32,000 deployed to 68,000 in the next few months.
There is scant evidence about how the troops themselves feel about this escalation. The most recent study, a 2006 Zogby poll for Iraq, found that 72% of all U.S. troops there thought the U.S. should immediately withdraw. Many of those same troops are now being asked to fight in Afghanistan.
Calling from the Ft. Hood Army barracks, the 24 year-old Miami, Florida native spoke in a deliberate, measured voice. He explained that his own opposition to the Afghanistan war developed gradually. Having initially joined the military to, “see the world and do something with his life” he began to doubt the initial justifications for that war before being deployed to Iraq, yet was convinced that the U.S. should stay in that country to “clean up its mess.” While in Iraq, Agosto worked in communications at the tech control facility and did not see any violence or “ever feel the slightest bit of danger.” Nevertheless, during the last few months of his deployment, his doubts about both Iraq and Afghanistan began to grow. “I came to oppose it the way a lot of people did. I thought about it, read some books. Then I began seeing the role I played in the imperialist framework.” When he returned to Ft. Hood Texas, Agosto began attending meetings of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), an organization comprised of people who have served in the U.S. military since September 11th, 2001. He also became a regular at Under the Hood, an anti-war GI coffeehouse just outside of Ft. Hood, Texas. The coffeehouse, fashioned after the anti-Vietnam War coffeehouse movement of the 60’s and 70’s, provides a space for troops to speak freely, seek help and support, and explore the possibilities of resistance.
“I came to realize that the wars really don’t do what the stated reasons are, which is to make us safer,” said Agosto. “Both occupations fuel the insurgencies in those countries. We are creating “terrorists” and we are killing so many innocent people.” He argues that the wars are both “power plays” whose real intent is to, “establish more control and spread U.S. hegemony.” A few months ago, he decided he wouldn’t go back.
“I’ve worked with Victor for almost a year, and he’s been here at the coffee house since the first day,” said Cynthia Thomas, manager and board member of Under the Hood. “When he decided to resist, I completely backed him, knowing the consequences. I completely respect his decision.”
While the military is not forthcoming with information about the number of troops refusing deployment to Afghanistan, statistics suggest military resistance overall is on the rise. Since 2002, the Army has court-martialed twice as many soldiers for desertion and other unauthorized absences per year than for each year between 1997 and 2001. AWOL rates in the Army are at their highest since 1980, with the desertion rate having jumped 80 percent since the start of the Iraq War, according to the Associated Press.
Several individuals have publicly refused deployment to Afghanistan. Blake Ivey, who went AWOL last fall rather than deploy to Afghanistan, has been publicly spoken out against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Benjamin Lewis, a former marine who was recalled from the Individual Ready Reserves, declared that he would not go to Afghanistan or Iraq if asked. He was quietly discharged from the marines last month. Many Afghanistan war resisters have made their way to Canada, where an estimated 250 currently reside.
Victor is taking considerable risk in publicly refusing to deploy. “The worst-case scenario for Victor is a general court martial and years in jail,” says Jeff Paterson, Project Director for Courage to Resist, an organization that supports troops who refuse to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The harshest sentence given to a public resister since the beginning of the Iraq War was 15 months and dishonorable discharge. However, Paterson says that, “many other resisters that no one ever hears about are given considerably longer sentences. If people rally to his defense and support him with a competent civilian legal attorney, we can minimize that punishment.”
Agosto admits he has been scared of what might happen to him at each step along the way, from writing his refusal on his counseling form to refusing an order on base. Yet, he is determined not to fight this war.
“Overwhelming support from the central Texas peace community has made things easier,” says Agosto. “People at Under the Hood and in the greater peace community have been there for me every step of the way.” He has also been met with a flurry of international support since going public with his refusal and says that he hopes his actions “help other soldiers see that there is a lot of support for war resisters.”
Agosto has also received support from fellow soldiers at Ft. Hood. “Some of the people in my unit will flash me peace signs when they walk by me,” he says. “The other day when I was coming back from the shop, this soldier stopped me and said he wanted to shake my hand. He told me he looked up to me for not going to fight a war I don’t believe in.”