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Some Disillusioned GIs Choose Not to Fight

Since the Iraq war, more servicemembers are resisting deployment by seeking conscientious objector status or simply fleeing, some to Canada.

January 01, 2006|Martha Mendoza | Associated Press Writer

Kevin Benderman spends his days sitting in a plastic chair in the stockade at Ft. Lewis, Wash., completing a 15-month sentence for "missing movement" with his unit. Jeremy Hinzman is raising his baby boy in Toronto, awaiting a court hearing on his request for political asylum in Canada. Aidan f is back in school, studying religion at the New College of Florida and practicing Buddhism.

The three are among a small but growing number of soldiers who have become disillusioned with the war in Iraq and are resisting deployment.

Increasing numbers of men and women in uniform are seeking honorable discharges as conscientious objectors. Others are suing the military, claiming their obligation has been wrongfully extended. Many have deserted, refusing to appear for duty.

Some are more desperate: A year ago, Army Spc. Marquise J. Roberts of Hinesville, Ga., persuaded a cousin to shoot him in the leg. The cousin was sent to jail, Roberts to the stockade.

"You sign a contract and you're required to serve for whatever time period you've agreed to," Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said. "There are certain standards the enlistment contracts oblige soldiers to, and they are required to fulfill them."

But Pentagon policies do have exceptions, and soldiers are increasingly challenging their mandatory service.

Requests for conscientious objector status, which can qualify someone for an honorable discharge, have steadily increased -- about 110 soldiers filed the complex paperwork in 2004, about four times the number in 2000. Of those, about half were approved. Those who were rejected either went back to the war or refused to serve. Some are now on the lam. Others have been court-martialed and served time.

Former Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, 30, of Miami Beach, Fla., says he had a change of heart while on a two-week leave last year after spending a year in Iraq.

"Going home gave me the opportunity to put my thoughts in order and to listen to what my conscience had to say. People would ask me about my war experiences and answering them took me back to all the horrors, the firefights, the ambushes, the time I saw a young Iraqi dragged by his shoulders through a pool of his own blood or an innocent man was decapitated by our machine gun-fire," he said.

When it was time to ship out, Mejia went into hiding. For the next five months he didn't use his cellphone or his computer. He stayed away from his family and friends.

Eventually, with the help of antiwar advocates, he found a lawyer and turned himself in. But his request to be deemed a conscientious objector -- which he filed after he went on the lam -- was denied. Mejia spent nine months in military prison and was dishonorably discharged in February.

Mejia was among the first from Iraq to request to be a conscientious objector. He now speaks at antiwar rallies and conferences, counseling other would-be resisters.

"As this war continues, we're going to see more refusals, disobeying of orders, stop-loss lawsuits," said Marti Hiken, who co-chairs the National Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force. "There's going to be more and more resistance."

Conscientious objection, as defined by the military, is a "firm, fixed and sincere objection to war in any form or the bearing of arms" because of deeply held moral, ethical, or religious beliefs.

Opposition to a particular war cannot qualify a soldier as a conscientious objector.

Requesting conscientious objector status is a labyrinthine process that includes a written application and interviews with a psychiatrist, a military chaplain, and an investigating officer.

"Being a conscientious objector is not an easy way to get out of the military and not a fast way to get out of the military," said J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience & War, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that supports the rights of conscientious objectors.

The 65-year-old organization runs the GI Rights Hotline, which McNeil says received more than 36,000 calls this year from soldiers interested in how to get out of their required service. Before the war in Iraq, they got fewer than thousand calls a year, she said.

McNeil said the calls are usually from soldiers who are already considered absent without leave or deserters. She said they often counsel soldiers away from trying to be conscientious objectors, pointing them instead toward other bases for discharge requests: hardship, parenthood, health problems, drug or alcohol use.

These are usually more appropriate reasons, she said. Military studies show the main reason deserters cite for leaving are "dissatisfaction with Army life, family problems and homesickness."

Desertion has been decreasing in the military in recent years -- about 2,500 troops last year didn't show up for work, down from almost 5,000 in 2001, according to the Pentagon public affairs office. Some of these men and women are in hiding in Canada, where about 20 have applied for refugee status.

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