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 article, by Mark Larabee, was originally published by The Oregonian, July 17, 2008
James Burmeister worked at Wal-Mart and in pizza joints in Eugene until he joined the U.S. Army 18 months ago because he wanted to make a difference.
His recruiter told him a tour in Iraq would give him the opportunity to build schools and support war-weary Iraqis, so against the advice of his parents, he signed up.
But once in Iraq, he was assigned to a "small kill" team that set traps for insurgents. They'd place a fake camera on a pole with a sign labeling it as U.S. property, giving the team the right to shoot anyone who messed with it. Burmeister, who provided perimeter security for the team, said he could never get over his distaste for the tactic.
After being wounded by a roadside bomb, he was sent to Germany to recover. In May, on the eve of being sent back to Iraq, Pfc. Burmeister went AWOL --absent without leave --taking his family to Ottawa.
The 22-year-old Oregon native is one of about three dozen U.S. soldiers who've applied to Canada for refugee status under the Geneva Conventions. Thousands have deserted since the war began, and many are believed to be living illegally in Canada, officials there said.
Desertion is a normal part of the military. Since it became an all-volunteer force after the Vietnam War, the Army's rate of desertion has remained relatively constant, at about 1 percent. That contrasts with a high of 3.4 percent in 1971, when more than 33,000 soldiers deserted to avoid combat in Vietnam.
Desertion is a felony. Burmeister's application gives him a legal way to stay in Canada and avoid prosecution. But it's not like the Vietnam era, when thousands of Americans --both deserters and draft dodgers --were allowed to become Canadian citizens after fleeing there.
Canada's immigration laws are much stricter now, and its courts have set the bar high for political refugees.
Refugees must prove that they would face persecution --not just prosecution --if sent back home. So far, Canadian judges have ruled against every soldier as cases wind their way through the courts.
Support for resisters
Burmeister has yet to have a hearing. But he is working with the War Resisters Support Campaign to publicize the issue and lobby Canada's Parliament for support for AWOL U.S. troops. The group helps them with places to live and sets them up with attorneys.
Public support for the deserters is growing, said Joel Harden, a spokesman for the group. He cites a recent poll in Ontario that found 54 percent of Conservative Party voters agreed with the group's objectives.
The number is not surprising to Harden, given that Canada refused to send troops to Iraq after the United Nations declared the conflict illegal. He said Vietnam-era deserters are looked upon favorably because they made significant contributions to Canadian society.
"Canadians are opening their hearts to these guys," Harden said.
Still, Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board has denied every application it's heard for refugee status. Two U.S. Army soldiers, Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey, lost their cases in both federal court and the federal appeals court and are seeking to appeal to the supreme court.
Hinzman served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne in a noncombat position after applying for conscientious objector status, which was eventually rejected. Facing deployment to Iraq, he sought asylum in Canada in January 2004. Hughey fled to Canada in March 2004 before his Army unit went to Iraq. He once told an interviewer that he believes it's a soldier's duty to refuse an order that he knows to be illegal and immoral.
Harden said he thinks things will end favorably for U.S. troops in Canada. "I'm pretty confident that we can find a political solution to this problem," he said. "If the decision of the military and the Bush-Cheney government is that they'll be prosecuted, then they ought to be welcome here."
Enlisted to help Iraqis
Ottawa is a long way from the halls of Junction City High School and music classes at Lane Community College. Burmeister wrestles with the thought he may never get to go home again.
He was born in Portland and grew up in Eugene. After high school, he played bass, saxophone and bass clarinet in bands and worked in dead-end jobs. But he wanted to do something "big in my life."
Army recruiters capitalized on that sentiment, he said.
"They drove it into my head that I would be doing so much to help, building power plants and schools and handing out school supplies to kids," he said.
After basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., his first assignment was with the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, a mechanized infantry battalion based in Schweinfurt, Germany. He met his wife, Angelique, there. They have a son, Cornell, 2.
Burmeister said he started having doubts about going to Iraq when his training focused on combat tactics, how to kill and how to raid buildings. By August 2006, he was a gunner atop a Humvee in Baghdad, about 15 miles south of the fortified Green Zone.
When the team wasn't setting traps, it patrolled areas hoping to draw out the enemy. Burmeister says he hated when they would set out the fake camera.
"As soon as anyone would mess with it, you were supposed to lay waste to them," he said. "I completely disagreed with that tactic. I can't see how that's helping anyone whatsoever."
On Feb. 15, his Humvee hit a bomb, knocking Burmeister unconscious. He lost hearing in his right ear; shrapnel embedded in his face. He was sent to Germany to recover. On May 4, on the eve of being sent back to Iraq, he and his family boarded a plane for Canada.
"I kind of felt stuck," he said. "I thought people needed to be free there. But when I went there it was all about captures and kills and it felt like we messed things up over there.
"This felt like my last option."
Canada "a bad idea"
But experts say it's not a good option. Most deserters turn themselves in, said J.E. McNeil, director of the Center on Conscience and War, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., providing legal advice to U.S. troops.
"Going to Canada is a bad idea," McNeil said. "This is not Vietnam. At that time, you could walk in, set your bags down and stay."
She said a better option is to return to the military. Most who do are discharged under the "other than honorable" classification, she said. Few have been convicted of desertion, she said.
In July 2005, Army Sgt. Kevin Benderman was given a dishonorable discharge and sentenced to 15 months in prison for refusing to deploy, but he was acquitted on the more serious charge of desertion. The Army's court-martial of 1st Lt. Ehren Watada for refusing to deploy ended in a mistrial in February. He was the first officer to refuse to go to Iraq.
McNeil said the Army provides a safety valve for deserters, allowing them to surrender and be processed out of the service. She estimates about 5,000 are doing that each year, although she calls that a "lowball figure."
"People going AWOL from the Army is nothing new," McNeil said.
The Army said 19,390 soldiers have deserted between 2001 and 2006, an average of 3,231 a year, or about 1 percent of the entire force.
"The vast majority of the soldiers who desert have been on active duty for less than six months, and the reasons for deserting typically cited are personal problems, money problems, things like that," said Lt. Col. Robert Tallman, an Army spokesman .
Tallman said a soldier's commander determines the appropriate discipline, which is intended to not be punitive but corrective and rehabilitative. Those soldiers who do not turn themselves in must spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulder and live with the stigma of being a deserter, he said.
Burmeister's mother, Helen Burmeister of Cheshire, Ore., worries that her son will never be able to come home for a visit. But she's proud of his decision to leave the Army.
"I don't support the war," she said. "I don't know anybody who supports what's going on in Iraq."
She said representatives of the Army twice called her at work to tell her that her son was making a mistake and should turn himself in.
"It took guts for him to do what he did," she said. "I told them I hadn't heard from him."
This article, by Chris Kenning, was originally published un the Courier Journal, July 17, 2008
Pfc. James Burmeister said he was an Army scout in Iraq when he became disturbed by a tactic of planting equipment to lure Iraqis, presumably insurgents, who could then be shot by American snipers.
When complaining about the "small kill teams" to superiors failed, he said he went absent without leave in May 2007 while on leave in Germany -- fleeing to Canada in hopes of telling his story and getting the practice stopped, he said.
Yesterday, four months after turning himself in, Burmeister pleaded guilty to being AWOL at a court-martial at Fort Knox where a military judge sentenced him to six months in jail, a loss of pay, reduction to private and a bad-conduct discharge that will deny him Army benefits.
"Soldiers considering going AWOL … must know there are consequences for abandoning their comrades," Army prosecutor Capt. Christopher Cross said.
Burmeister originally was charged with "desertion with intent to shirk important service," which could have left him in jail for a year. Under a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge in hopes of a more lenient sentence.
But his parents had hoped he would be released so they could take him home to Oregon to heal his internal war wounds and have him around to help with family problems. His father crumpled his face into his hands as the sentence was read, and later said he was "devastated."
His mother has multiple sclerosis, his siblings have diabetes and schizophrenia, and the family doesn't earn enough to repair their 30-year-old manufactured home, which is in disrepair, his father said.
"I understand the need for some kind of punitive action … but the strain it's putting on the family is tremendous," Eric Burmeister said, calling the sentence "an outrage."
Burmeister's military defense attorney, Capt. Tyson McDonald, argued in court that the prosecution was pursuing the case only because Burmeister had spoken to multiple media outlets about the "small kill teams," which he said were later halted.
"They're not happy that dirty laundry was getting aired," said McDonald, who argued Burmeister did "the wrong thing for the right reason."
Such prosecutions of Army deserters are relatively uncommon, despite a slight increase since the 1990s because of the Iraq War, according to Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon.
Of the 4,698 soldiers who deserted in 2007, which the Army defines as being absent without leave for more than a month, only 108 were convicted. An additional 395 were convicted of being AWOL.
Overall, desertions have risen 92 percent from 2004, but Army officials say they still represent less than 1 percent of its overall fighting force, and fall short of the Vietnam War-era draft. In 1971, for example, 33,000 soldiers deserted.
Consequences can be as light as a reprimand and return to the soldier's unit, but most often the person gets an "other than honorable" administrative discharge. For some, a court-martial resulting in a bad-conduct or dishonorable discharge can result in up to five years in jail.
The last high-profile case at Fort Knox -- one of only two Army deserter processing centers and which deals with about 2,400 deserters each year -- was that of Darrell Anderson of Lexington, who went AWOL in 2005 after deciding he couldn't continue to fight without inadvertently killing innocent civilians.
In 2006, after 20 months in Canada, he turned himself in at Fort Knox. Anderson was given a less-than-honorable discharge with a loss of benefits.
In court yesterday , soldiers, reporters, anti-war activists and Burmeister's parents gathered for the four-hour trial. Testimony included discussion about Burmeister's media interviews while in Canada.
Burmeister told The (Portland) Oregonian newspaper last year that he had participated in a team that put out cameras labeled as U.S. property, giving the team the right to shoot whoever tried to take it. He also spoke with Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and other news outlets.
I know going AWOL was wrong, but I thought it was the best way to stop the small kill teams," said Burmeister, who left his wife and child in Germany to spend nearly 10 months in Canada.
Although the Army has declined to discuss specific methods of combat, including the "small kill teams" or "bait and kill," as the practice was known, their existence has been detailed in several national newspaper articles. Yesterday, Burmeister said wire, AK-47s or other objects were placed in the open as soldiers laid in wait.
Burmeister's attorney said that e-mails from his unit indicate that the practice was stopped earlier this year.
Burmeister's mother said he surprised her by joining the Army in 2005, hoping to help rebuild Iraq. Instead, he found himself with the 18th Infantry Regiment manning a machine gun atop a Humvee. In February 2007, his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb, the third such attack on it. In Germany on leave, he was suffering from anxiety and an inability to sleep and was taking heavy medication.
In Canada, a doctor diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, from which he said he still is suffering.
This article, by Camilla Mortensen, was originally published in the Eugene Weekly, May 22, 2008
PFC James Burmeister enlisted in the military because he thought he would be doing "humanitarian work" in Iraq. But he was manning a machine gun, using ammunition so large his targets — humans — would "literally explode," the day in Baghdad that his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb. He was knocked unconscious, and bits of shrapnel were embedded in his face.
Burmeister went AWOL (absent without leave) and fled to Canada just months after the incident, no longer able to deal with the aftereffects of the bomb and his experiences allegedly setting up "small kill teams" and baiting Iraqis into approaching fake U.S. military devices like cameras, luring them in to be shot by snipers.
Now the 23-year-old soldier from Eugene waits at Fort Knox, Ky., to discover whether the Army will prosecute him, release him without access to medical care for his injuries or try yet again to send him back to a war he doesn't want to fight. His father fears the Army wants to keep Burmeister quiet about the "bait-and-kill" teams that he alleges have been used to kill Iraqi civilians. While James Burmeister awaits the Army's decision, his father is fighting to bring him home.
A soldier who deserts faces court martial, imprisonment and less-than-honorable discharge as a consequence. Many soldiers who have gone AWOL have chosen to return to Iraq rather than face a long stint in a military prison. Others, like Burmeister, say they are simply not psychologically able to return to a war zone.
If he is convicted of desertion and given a dishonorable discharge, Burmeister faces time in prison. And the soldier, who says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a brain injury as a result of the roadside bomb, fears he might not have access to veterans' medical benefits. The Hippie from Oregon
Burmeister's father Eric, who works in food service at LCC, says his son James is "just a typical Eugene kid," so typical that other soldiers in his unit called him the "hippie from Oregon."
Born in Portland and raised in Eugene, the son of a white father and an African-American mother, James Burmeister found himself working dead-end jobs after graduating from high school. While on a trip to Germany to visit an old friend who had enlisted in the military, Burmeister began to consider the Army as a possible career. "My friend described the Iraq war as a humanitarian effort, and I believed him," Burmeister writes in a deposition to Canadian authorities while seeking asylum.
In June of 2005 he approached a recruiter and he writes he was again told "about the humanitarian efforts that the military undertook on behalf of the Iraqi people." He enlisted and was stationed in Germany, where he married a woman named Angelique, whom he had met on the earlier trip.
His father was against Burmeister's choice to join the military, "I'm an old Don Quixote tilting at windmills from way back," Eric Burmeister says. "But he bought the recruiter's line. He couldn't get a good job. I had to let him go."
After a year of training in Germany, James Burmeister began to question why he was only learning how to raid houses and secure buildings and not how to distribute food or develop "civilian infrastructure." He says he approached his commander and asked to become a conscientious objector, but he says the request was ignored.
Burmeister was sent to Iraq in September of 2006 as part of Unit 118 First Infantry Division and immediately deployed in Baghdad. His main duty was as a gunner. He manned the machine guns that sit on top of the Humvees used on patrol. "I was largely asked to provide protection for other soldiers" he writes of his duty.
But soon, he says, he realized his duties were less about protecting others and more about luring Iraqis to their deaths: "In many cases our platoon was required to engage in exercises that were designed to attract fire from insurgents." Army gunners would then return fire with 7.62 millimeter rounds that would "literally tear the limbs and appendages off the intended targets" or .50 caliber explosive rounds that when used against "human targets" would cause them to "literally explode or evaporate."
"Our unit's job seemed to be more about targeting a largely innocent civilian population or deliberately attracting confrontation with insurgents," he writes. Small Kill Teams
Burmeister was also disturbed by the "small kill teams" for which he was asked to provide cover. On Sept. 24, 2007, the Washington Post investigated the story of the classified program of using "bait and kill" tactics in which sniper teams would scatter "bait" such as ammunition and detonation cords to attract Iraqi insurgents who would then be shot by snipers.
But Burmeister, who had deserted from the Army five months before the story broke, had been telling that story to the media for months.
In a July 2007 article in The Oregonian, Burmeister said he had participated in a team that placed fake cameras on poles and labeled them U.S. property to give the team the right to shoot anyone who to tried to move or take the equipment.
Burmeister writes in his deposition, "These citizens were almost always unarmed. In some cases the Iraqi victims looked to me like they were children, perhaps teenagers."
He told the same story to Canada's CBC news in June 2007, and allegedly to PBS's NOW, but that statement was not used in the portions of his interview used on air.
Ray Parrish, a counselor for Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) says that it's not uncommon for a soldier's story of war atrocities to go uninvestigated. "It's part of the Winter Soldier phenomenon," says Parrish, referring to the January 1971 testimony of veterans exposing war crimes and atrocities during the Vietnam War. In March 2008, Iraq Veterans Against the War organized a similar gathering in which veterans and Iraqi and Afghan civilians gave testimony about their experiences.
"When people hear about that [bait and kill teams] they say 'that would never happen,'" says Parrish. "The GIs are simply not believed." PTSD
Burmeister was involved in firefights only a month after arriving in Iraq. In his deposition he tells of the first time he killed an Iraqi. "I tried to fire warning shots," he writes, "but the sergeant in my Humvee began yelling at me to shoot to kill." One of the insurgents he shot died, and the other was wounded. In the same fight he says that he remembers watching another gunner use .50 caliber rounds against two unarmed civilians, "which literally made them explode."
Parrish says such experiences are what are contributing to the PTSD he sees in the troops. "The most severe part of PTSD has do with a guilty conscience," he says. "They are repeatedly put in the position of doing things that they know in their gut are wrong."
Soldiers like Burmeister "are at a loss as to what they can do to stop their personal slide into hell," says Parrish, who fought in Vietnam and has been counseling veterans since 1976.
Burmeister's convoy was hit by roadside bombs on three different occasions, he writes. On the third he was briefly knocked unconscious, had ringing in his ears and got two pieces of shrapnel buried in his face. But when the platoon leader asked if everyone was OK, "I responded that I was OK. I believe I was in shock at this time."
When he later reported the injury to his sergeant, he writes, he was told it was too late to report, and he would be declared healthy. He was ordered back to his Humvee.
It was after this that Burmeister began to have nightmares and feel faint. After passing out in his room, he was sent to Germany for rest, where it was discovered he was suffering from chronic high blood pressure. He was also diagnosed with PTSD and a possible traumatic brain injury, and he was given sleeping pills and anti-depressants, he writes. By May of 2007 he was told to return to Baghdad despite his PTSD.
"Mental injury is just so hard to document," says Parrish. "People who are literally unfit for deployment get deployed anyway. Doesn't matter if it's a broken pelvis and you're in a body cast because there is a desk for you to sit at in Iraq."
Eric Burmeister agrees. "They need the bodies." AWOL
As of May 20, 4,079 American soldiers have died since the beginning of "Operation Enduring Freedom" and the war in Iraq. Estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties range to over 90,000, according to Iraqbodycount.org (EW updates the numbers in our paper each week). More than 100 of the soldiers who have died are from Oregon, according to statistics kept by Gov. Ted Kulongoski's office. Burmeister's father, Eric, chokes up when he talks about his fears that his son would be one of those statistics, "I knew for sure he was going to die over there," he says.
But Burmeister is still a statistic: He is one of 4,968 Army soldiers who deserted in fiscal year 2007, according to Army figures. After a soldier has been AWOL for 30 days, he or she is considered a deserter. Like Suzanne Swift, a soldier from Eugene who was "command raped" in Iraq, and Ehren Watada, an officer who refused to deploy to Iraq, Burmeister is fighting the military to allow him to leave the war.
Army desertion rates have risen 80 percent since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, an Associated Press investigation said last November. It used to be that most deserters listed dissatisfaction with Army life or family troubles as their reason for going AWOL, but now PTSD has become a reason to leave the military for soldiers like James Burmeister.
Burmeister went AWOL in May 2007, fleeing from Germany to Canada in hopes of getting refugee status. He remained there for almost a year with his pregnant wife and son, who have since gone back to Germany. But in November 2007 the Canadian Supreme Court refused to hear the case of two American deserters, opening the way for the deportation of American AWOL troops. On March 4 of this year, homesick and struggling with PTSD, James Burmeister turned himself in to the Army. Bring Him Home
Burmeister is now at Fort Knox waiting for the military to decide what to do with him. One of his original cellmates, who had also gone AWOL, has already been sent back to Iraq.
The Army has prescribed what Eric Burmeister calls a "drug-induced lobotomy" for his son. According to an emailed evaluation from Jon Bjornson, a retired psychiatrist and former major in the Army Medical Corps consulted by the VVAW, the drugs prescribed for James Burmeister are not for PTSD but for "bipolar disorder, mixed, type 1."
The combination of the prescribed medications, which include Desyrel, "a sedating antidepressant," as well as Seroquel, Celexa and a drug for hypertension, "will restrict an individual from driving, working with machinery, performing any activities requiring hand-eye coordination," writes Bjornson.
"Any physician clearing this individual taking the pharmaceutical regimen above, for military duty, much less combat, should be liable for malpractice," says the email.
But Parrish of the VVAW says drug prescriptions for troubled soldiers are not uncommon. "They are given a pill to go to sleep, speed to wake them up." Other troops and veterans, he says, are self-medicating with alcohol to try to sleep. The inability to sleep, he says, is common to veterans with PTSD.
Politicians don't want to talk about PTSD, says Parrish, or about suicide. "There's never been a situation where just as many veterans are committing suicide as are dying [in combat] in Iraq and Afghanistan," he says. "The numbers have hit 4,000," he alleges.
All Eric and Helen Burmeister want is for their son to come home. The Burmeisters asked Congressman Peter DeFazio's office to launch a congressional inquiry into James Burmeister's case, but so far they have heard nothing from the military. They hope their son will simply be discharged "in lieu of court martial."
Burmeister still faces possible redeployment to Iraq. If court martialed and given a less-than-honorable discharge, Burmeister will not be able to access to medical care for his injuries unless the Veterans Administration grants him an exception.
For now, Burmeister is "unable to heal," says his father. His wife has returned to Germany, and Burmeister has not seen his newborn child. And because Fort Knox is an armor training school with soldiers firing from tanks day and night, he can hear the sounds of gunfire from his room as he awaits his fate, worsening his PTSD, says his father.
It's not just about his own son, says Eric Burmeister. It's about all of the young soldiers in Iraq, "I can never be quiet until they all come home. It seems like they are all my children now."