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 Dahr Jamail, was posted to Truthout, September 28, 2009.
Afghanistan war resister Travis Bishop has been held largely “incommunicado” in the Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility at Fort Lewis, Washington.
Bishop, who is being held by the military as a “prisoner of conscience,” according to Amnesty International, was transported to Fort Lewis on September 9 to serve a 12-month sentence in the Regional Correctional Facility. He had refused orders to deploy to Afghanistan based on his religious beliefs, and had filed for Conscientious Objector (CO) status.
Bishop, who served a 13-month deployment to Iraq and was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, was court marshaled by the Army for his refusal to deploy to Afghanistan. Given that he had already filed for CO status, many local observers called his sentencing a “politically driven prosecution.”
By holding Bishop incommunicado, the military violated Bishop’s legal right to counsel, a violation of the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, according to his civil defense attorney James Branum.
The Sixth Amendment is the part of the Bill of Rights that sets forth rights related to criminal prosecutions in federal courts, and reads, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”
Attorney LeGrande Jones, who practices in Olympia and was designated by Branum as the local counsel for Bishop, was also denied access to Bishop, on the grounds that Jones was on an unnamed and unobtainable “watch-list,” which constitutes deprivation of counsel.
Jones was denied entry to Fort Lewis and told he would never be allowed to enter the base. Fort Lewis authorities never gave him a reason for his being denied access to the base and his client. To this, Branum told Truthout, “Fort Lewis authorities have a duty to tell LeGrande the reasons why he is being barred from Fort Lewis, and therefore [barred] from communicating with his client in the Fort Lewis brig.”
Until September 18, Bishop’s condition was unclear due to his having been completely cut off from the public.
Branum, who is the legal adviser to the Oklahoma GI Rights Hotline and co-chair of the Military Law Task Force, also represents Leo Church, another war resister being held at Fort Lewis.
Church, who was also stationed at Fort Hood, went AWOL (Absent Without Leave) to prevent his wife and children from becoming homeless. The fact that he was unable to financially support his family off his military pay alone dictated that Church seek other means to support them. With his pleas to the military for assistance going unheeded, he opted to go AWOL in order to support his dependents.
According to Branum, “Church received eight months jail time because he put the safety and welfare of his children over his obligation to the Army. Leo tried to get help from his unit, but was denied.”
Branum told Truthout that Church had been able to contact him while at Fort Lewis, but the call was monitored by a guard, violating his attorney-client privilege.
Gerry Condon, with Project Safe Haven (an advocacy group for GI resisters in Canada), and a veteran himself as a member of the Greater Seattle Veterans for Peace, told Truthout he believes Bishop and Church are being held in a way that is both “intolerable and unconstitutional.”
Condon, who is working to try to support both Bishop and Church, told Truthout, “They are denied all visitors, except for immediate family, clergy and legal counsel [legal counsel is limited at this time]. No friends or fiancés. This is not the normal practice at other brigs.”
Branum told Truthout he feels that how Bishop and Church are being treated at Fort Lewis is “part of a broader pattern the military has of just throwing people in jail and not letting them talk to their attorneys, not let visitors come, and this is outrageous. In the civilian world even murderers get visits from their friends.”
Speaking further of the conditions in which the military is holding Bishop and Church, Condon added, “Fort Lewis authorities have made it virtually impossible for Bishop and Church to make phone calls. They must first get money on their calling account. This must be done by money order and according to several other similarly prohibitive procedures. And the money may not be credited to the account until a month after it is received. Plus, officials at the Fort Lewis brig must approve the names of people that can be called.”
Condon told Truthout, “Travis Bishop is a leader in what has become an international GI resistance movement that is attempting to bring troops home from both occupations by following their consciences and international law. They deserve all the support we can give them, especially while they are in prison - they are owed their constitutional liberties.”
Branum told Truthout that as far as he knows, he may well be the only person on Bishop’s call list.
Both Bishop and Church have been prevented from adding any names to their respective “authorized contacts” lists (even for family members), which effectively cuts them off from almost all contact with the outside world. According to Branum, mail and commissary funds sent by friends and supporters will likely be “returned to sender” due to what he feels is “a cruel and inhumane policy.”
In addition, there are no work programs at the Fort Lewis brig, nor any classes available for soldiers to take while they are incarcerated. Generally, work programs and/or classes are available for incarcerated soldiers.
“By participating in work programs and school classes, soldiers being held in brigs can get time cut off their sentences,” Branum explained to Truthout, “But these don’t exist at Fort Lewis, so that means Travis and Leo can’t get time taken off their sentences. Travis will do a minimum of 10 months, and could have theoretically worked an additional month off his sentence if Fort Lewis had these programs.”
Branum, who is the lead attorney for both Bishop and Church, told Truthout the actions of officials at Fort Lewis violate his clients’ constitutional rights.
“Bishop and Church’s defense team and supporters are in the process of negotiating with Fort Lewis officials to ensure transparency and that Bishop and Church’s legal rights are being met,” Branum stated in a press release on the matter that was published on September 17. “The unusual circumstances of isolation of these soldiers is unquestionably illegal. If Fort Lewis doesn’t change its ways, we will be forced to go to court and demand justice.”
On September 18, officials at Fort Lewis finally allowed Branum to speak with Bishop on the telephone, but not privately.
Bishop was accompanied by two guards, who monitored his conversation with Branum. In addition, Fort Lewis authorities claimed that the recently rebuilt/remodeled brig does not yet have proper facilities to facilitate a private telephone conversation.
Speaking further about the conversation he was finally allowed to have with Bishop, Branum added, “In the phone call we did get to do, they still refused to let Travis talk to me privately. He actually had two guards in the room with him the entire time, which obviously negates any compliance with attorney-client privilege. And presumably the phone call was taped (all of the other brigs have special rooms for attorney calls, that have phone lines to the outside that are not taped) which is completely unconstitutional. The brig of course will say, “well we won’t listen to that tape” but that is bullshit, and it is illegal.”
“The only reason they [Fort Lewis authorities] let me talk to Travis on Friday [September 18] was that he was finally “medically cleared,” Branum told Truthout, “This took 10 days in this case, and it looks like this is their standard operating procedure, which is completely wrong.”
When Truthout questioned the public affairs office at Fort Lewis about Bishop’s situation, we were told all matters were being handled “legally, and according to standard operating procedure,” and “any wrongdoing would be investigated.”
Branum added, “They are giving the excuse that “we don’t have the secure room for attorney phone calls set up yet,” but can’t tell me when they are going to have the room set up.”
Branum and Jones are planning to file a lawsuit against Fort Lewis in the near future, specifically targeting the denial of attorney-client privilege.
Both soldiers are being supported by two GI resistance cafes: Under the Hood cafe (in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood) and Coffee Strong (in Tacoma, Washington, near Fort Lewis).
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."
This article, by Dahr Jamail, was posted toTruthOut, July 14, 2009.
US Army Specialist Victor Agosto served a 13-month deployment in Iraq with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion. "What I did there, I know I contributed to death and human suffering," Agosto told Truthout from Fort Hood, in Killeen, Texas, in May, "It's hard to quantify how much I caused, but I know I contributed to it."
His experience in Iraq, coupled with educating himself about US foreign policy and international law, has led Agosto to refuse to deploy to Afghanistan. "It's a matter of what I'm willing to live with," he said of his recent decision, "I'm not willing to participate in this occupation, knowing it is completely wrong."
Agosto's lawyer, James Branum, who is also the legal adviser to the GI Rights Hotline and co-chair of the Military Law Task Fore, 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 Nuremburg 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.
This was also the basis for the stand taken by Lt. Ehren Watada of the US Army, who in 2006 was the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse a combat deployment to Iraq.
In an article for Truthout published August 14, 2006, I posted the text of a speech given by Watada at a National Convention of Veterans for Peace in Seattle, Washington, where I was present.
Watada outlined the principled stand he took, which applies to that of Victor Agosto today:
"The oath we take swears allegiance not to one man but to a document of principles and laws designed to protect the people. Enlisting in the military does not relinquish one's right to seek the truth - neither does it excuse one from rational thought nor the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. "I was only following orders" is never an excuse.
"The Nuremburg Trials showed America and the World that citizenry as well as soldiers have the unrelinquishable obligation to refuse complicity in war crimes perpetrated by their government. Widespread torture and inhumane treatment of detainees is a war crime. A war of aggression born through an unofficial policy of prevention is a crime against the peace. An occupation violating the very essence of international humanitarian law and sovereignty is a crime against humanity. These crimes are funded by our tax dollars. Should citizens choose to remain silent through self-imposed ignorance or choice, it makes them as culpable as the Soldier in these crimes.
"Aside from the reality of indentured servitude, the American Soldier in theory is much nobler. Soldier or officer - when we swear our oath - it is first and foremost to the Constitution and its protectorate, the people. If soldiers realized this war is contrary to what the Constitution extols - if they stood up and threw their weapons down - no president could ever initiate a war of choice again. When we say, "... Against all enemies foreign and domestic" - what if elected leaders became the enemy? Whose orders do we follow? The answer is the conscience that lies in each soldier, each American, and each human being. Our duty to the Constitution is an obligation, not a choice."
In a victory for Lieutenant Watada, the Justice Department decided in May to drop any further attempts to retry the officer for his refusal to deploy to Iraq.
Having served three years and nine months in the US Army, Agosto was to complete his contract and be discharged on August 3, but due to his excellent record of service and accrued leave, he was to be released at the end of June. Nevertheless, due to the stop-loss program (a program used to keep soldiers enlisted beyond the terms of their contracts which has affected over 185,000 soldiers since September 11, 2001) the Army decided to deploy him to Afghanistan anyway.
When Agosto refused, 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.
In words prophetic of Agosto's ethical and lawful refusal to deploy to Afghanistan, Watada said:
"I have broken no law but the code of silence and unquestioning loyalty. If I am guilty of any crime, it is that I learned too much and cared too deeply for the meaningless loss of my fellow soldiers and my fellow human beings. If I am to be punished it should be for following the rule of law over the immoral orders of one man. If I am to be punished it should be for not acting sooner."
Agosto continues to show up for duty at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, where he is currently stationed, but refused to take part in any duties that supported either the occupations of Iraq or Afghanistan. He told Truthout during a recent telephone interview he was "cleaning the motor pool" and "pulling weeds," and that the Army was being careful not to order him to do anything that would cause him to refuse to comply.
Meanwhile, Branum 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 this recent 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 believes he has no choice now 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."
The most significant factor in Agosto's case is that he has taken a principled stand against the occupation of Afghanistan long before the "point of crisis," according to Branum. The "point of crisis" to which he refers is generally an ethical crisis a soldier experiences when he or she is getting on the plane to deploy.
"He connected the dots long before that point of crisis," Branum explained, "To me, this is a very morally developed point of view. Most resisters don't reach that point until much later on."
It is a similar point reached by Watada, who in the aforementioned speech precisely articulated this experience:
"Now it is not an easy task for the Soldier. For he or she must be aware that they are being used for ill-gain. They must hold themselves responsible for individual action. They must remember duty to the Constitution and the People supersedes the ideologies of their leadership. The Soldier must be willing to face ostracism by their peers, worry over the survival of their families, and of course the loss of personal freedom. They must know that resisting an authoritarian government at home is equally important to fighting a foreign aggressor on the battlefield. Finally, those wearing the uniform must know beyond any shadow of a doubt that by refusing immoral and illegal orders they will be supported by the people not with mere words but by action."
Agosto spoke with Truthout on July 8, immediately after receiving the news of his "special" court-martial. "I was escorted over to the headquarters of Fort Hood and was handed a folder with the paperwork that said he (Commanding General Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch) approved this kind of court-martial. We were in the middle of negotiating a deal where I would have taken a summary court-martial, where the maximum penalty is 30 days in prison and an Other Than Honorable discharge. But somehow during this process someone submitted the case over to the general's discretion, and that' s not something that is supposed to happen in this negotiation phase. I'm surprised, because I thought this deal was going to go down last week and it didn't. I was with my military lawyer, and we were talking about the case, and during that discussion she got the call from the prosecuting attorney that the case had been referred to the general, and then we knew it wasn't likely we would get the deal I'd sign ed off on. So yesterday I went to the III Corps building and got the news."
Agosto said he has "gotten the indication" that he will be leaving the company he is currently in to be moved to the Battalion's rear-detachment company "because that's the one that will stay here. I think they want to avoid a Jeff Paterson moment, I guess that's their thinking. They won't try to deploy me, they just want to punish me for my intentions and for what I've done so far."
Jeff Paterson was a US Marine during the US attack against Iraq in 1991. Paterson opted to apply for conscientious objector status. When that was denied, he refused to board the plane that was heading to Saudi Arabia during the build-up to the war by literally sitting down on the tarmac and refusing to move. Eventually his unit left without him. Paterson told his story to Truthout last summer in Oakland, California.
"Leaving without me is what I thought they were going to do. I was a sort of liability. Also I had been on a hunger strike the previous week, and had at that point become a medical issue for them. So they left me behind, and I was taken instead to the Pearl Harbor brig, where I did the next two months in pre-trial confinement. I was court-martialed for a number of offenses. Ultimately they chose to cut their losses and give me a quiet discharge even before the court-martial ended."
Agosto's stand has already inspired another member of his unit to refuse to deploy to Afghanistan as well. Sgt. Travis Bishop, who served 14 months in Baghdad with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion - the same battalion as Agosto, who served north of the Iraqi capital - recently went AWOL from his station at Fort Hood, Texas, when his unit deployed to Afghanistan. He insists that it would be unethical for him to deploy to support an occupation he opposes on moral grounds.
On his blog, he writes about his position:
"I love my country, but I believe that this particular war is unjust, unconstitutional and a total abuse of our nation's power and influence. And so, in the next few days, I will be speaking with my lawyer, and taking actions that will more than likely result in my discharge from the military, and possible jail time ... and I am prepared to live with that."
Truthout spoke with him briefly after he turned himself in at his base in early June. He said he'd chosen to follow Specialist Agosto's example of refusal, which had inspired him, and wanted to be present at his post to accept the consequences of his actions. Like Agosto, he, too, hoped others might follow his lead.
Agosto and Bishop 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.
Branum, who has defended over a dozen war resisters, told Truthout, "As far as I know, this is the first time since Vietnam that we've had two resisters in the same unit."
Adam Szyper-Seibert, a counselor and administrative associate at Courage to Resist, an organization that supports war resisters, recently told Truthout that "in recent months there has been a dramatic rise of nearly 200 percent in the number of soldiers that have contacted Courage to Resist." Szyper-Seibert suspects this may reflect the decision of the Obama administration to dramatically increase efforts, troop strength and resources in Afghanistan. "We are actively supporting over 50 military resisters like Victor Agosto," Szyper-Seibert says. "They are all over the world, including André Shepherd in Germany and several people in Canada. We are getting five or six calls a week just about the IRR [Individual Ready Reserve] recall alone."
The IRR is composed of troops who have finished their active duty service but still have time remaining on their contracts. The typical military contract mandates four years of active duty followed by four years in the IRR, though variations on this pattern exist. Ready Reserve members live civilian lives and are not paid by the military, but they are required to show up for periodic musters. Many have moved on from military life and are enrolled in college, working civilian jobs, and building families.
Agosto told Truthout he stands willing to face the consequences of his actions.
"Yes, I'm fully prepared for this. I have concluded that the wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] are not going to be ended by politicians or people at the top. They're not responsive to people, they're responsive to corporate America. The only way to make them responsive to the needs of the people is for soldiers to not fight their wars. If soldiers won't fight their wars, the wars won't happen. I hope I'm setting an example for other soldiers."
"One who breaks an unjust law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law," Dr. Martin Luther King Junior said, words that concisely explain the ramifications of Agosto's position.
As evidenced by the stand being taken by Sergeant Bishop, Agosto's hope has already been realized. However, with 19,000 US soldiers recently added to the occupation of Afghanistan (bringing the total to 68,000) and violence continuing to escalate, there is an increasing likelihood for more to follow Agosto's lead.
This article by Sarah Lazare, was originally posted to Truthout, 16 June, 2009
At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, AWOL soldiers find themselves detained for months under difficult conditions in an extended legal limbo they cannot escape.
Dustin Stevens is one of about 50 soldiers being held at Fort Bragg awaiting likely AWOL and desertion charges that seem like they will never arrive, he says.
A former soldier who refused to continue military service seven years ago because he did not want to fight a war, Stevens says that he and his colleagues are being held in legal limbo - a no man's land of poor living standards and arbitrary punishments - while awaiting charges and possible court-martial. Stevens has been in a holdover unit for five months without charges, and he says that others have been held for up to a year in conditions he describes as harrowing.
The unit is overcrowded and filthy, he says, with four people to a room. The command verbally abuses the soldiers, with one commanding officer proclaiming, "We should just shoot you all," according to Stevens. Troops are not receiving the medical and mental health care they need. "People around me are literally going crazy. I hear people threaten suicide on a daily basis," says Stevens. "They won't give us leave passes unless it's a dire emergency, so we're just sitting here, day by day."
The command offered the soldiers a free pass if they agreed to deploy to Afghanistan, according to Stevens. About ten people took up the offer, he says. Those who decline must find a way to endure.
At least 50 AWOL troops are being held right now in the holdover unit at the 82nd Replacement Company, constituting about three-quarters of its population, with the rest medical holdovers, says Stevens, who is corroborated by his civilian lawyer, James Branum. A holdover unit is a special unit for people who are on a legal hold of some kind, whether it is because they are seeking medical discharge, switching assignments or, as in Stevens's case, waiting for charges.
Branum says that at this particular holdover unit, AWOL soldiers are being held for long stretches of time before receiving charges. "People are in this unit for months and months. They take forever to do anything," says Branum. "You are going to be there six months if you're lucky, 12 if you're not."
Maj. Virginia McCabe, 82nd Airborne Division spokesperson, confirmed that AWOL soldiers are in the Holdover unit at the 82nd Replacement Company at Fort Bragg, but could not say how many are there, how long they are being held, or what their conditions are like. She acknowledged that soldiers are confined to the unit if they are deemed a flight risk, but could not provide details on how that is determined. "Each AWOL soldier has his or her own special circumstances," she says. "They stay in a holding platoon until a legal decision is made. Or they might say they made a mistake and are ready to serve."
Kathy Gilbert, head of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild, says that holdover units can be very unpleasant. "In reality, a lot of times these units are run by senior enlisted personnel who are obnoxious and give people a hard time," she says.
Gilbert also says that legal hold makes it structurally difficult to make complaints. "People on restriction would have to request to see a commanding officer, the person officially in charge of restriction, if they wanted to make a complaint. There is not an official way to do that," says Gilbert. "Most people who are on restriction don't even know whose authority places them on restriction and don't know that senior enlisted personnel don't have the authority they often claim to have. Command doesn't have an open door policy or encourage people to speak up."
In a military where desertion is still technically punishable by death, Stevens says he has found military "justice" to be cruel and arbitrary.
In May 2002, after five months in the Army, Stevens refused to stand in formation at his Airborne graduation and declared that he no longer wanted to serve. Stevens had joined the army to escape a broken home, thinking he had few other options. Yet, since day one, he had been having panic and anxiety attacks, finding himself morally opposed to his service, and to the prospect of deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan sometime in the future. "I knew in my heart and in my mind, I couldn't kill anybody and couldn't be a part of an organization that did so," he says. Upon his refusal, Stevens's command told him to simply go home and wait for his discharge papers, he says. The papers never showed up, but he didn't think anything of it, he says.
Seven years later, during a routine traffic stop, Stevens was told that there was a warrant for his arrest and he was whisked off to military custody, torn away from his girlfriend and his job. "This whole time, I've been living my life. I've been working, paying taxes, had a car and apartment," he says. Since January 15, 2009, he has been in a holdover unit, biding his time while he awaits charges that might be months away. These months of detention will not count toward his sentence.
Stevens says that the people being held in the 82nd Holdover Unit went AWOL for various reasons, some because they were opposed to the war, some because the Army wouldn't let them leave to tend to family problems, and some because of medical problems.
"It is horrible here. We are treated like animals," he says. "We're all just lost, wanting to go home. Some of us are going crazy, some were already crazy, some are sick," he says. "I'm bouncing on a pin needle. I read all of the time, I talk to people all of the time to try to stay out of this place in my mind. It's really hard."
"AWOL troops being held in a replacement unit is totally absurd and unusual and is an example of how the command has plenty of ways to punish people and enforce discipline, bypassing the formal justice system. Smoking people, giving them unofficial duties, mistreatment, and in this case, making an example out of people and segregating them, are all informal mechanisms of punishment commonly used in the military." says Carl Davison, Iraq war resister and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. "People who follow their consciences deserve our support, and there needs to be a highly vocal community out there to let them know they are not alone."
"Every single person here should not be here. There are people here who should be in mental hospitals, who are just sitting here. This place is hell, it really is," says Stevens. "And in my mind, I didn't even do anything wrong."