Jeremiah Adler yearned for the type of mettle-testing adventure he never found in his pacifist, vegan upbringing in the Garden Home area of Southwest Portland.
He made solo treks into the Oregon woods for days at a time. He stood on the front lines of downtown anti-war protests. Then, shortly before graduating last June from the alternative Waldorf School, Adler did what his friends and family considered unthinkable.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army — not just a two-year stint, but a five-year commitment with a chance to attend the U.S. Army Airborne School.
“I didn’t want to be the average infantryman, the average grunt,” says Adler, now 18. He wanted to make a difference, he says, not only to the Iraqis he hoped to help liberate, but to the military itself.
But only hours after arriving for basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., he had a change of heart. The Army, he says, wanted to turn him into “a ruthless, coldblooded killer,” and he wanted no part of it.
He begged to be sent home, even faking a homosexual relationship with another recruit who also wanted out. The drill sergeants screamed their disgust at him, Adler says, but wouldn’t sign discharge papers.
“I get this call,” says his mother, Marilyn Wasson. “He’s in a closet, whispering, in a voice I don’t even recognize. He’s telling me he’s made a terrible, terrible mistake.”
After nine days, Adler fled, running into the Georgia forest in the middle of the night with a friend. As he did, he joined thousands of other would-be soldiers who bolt from their units each year, risking everything from a blot on their employment records to prison time. Since 2001, more than 15,000 people have gone AWOL, or absent without leave, from the Army, according to statistics provided by a military police official at Fort Lewis, Wash.
Unlike in the Vietnam War era, deserters haven’t become the cultural iconoclasts who rail against the war from a safe haven in Canada. Most simply slip back into society and stay below the public radar unless they’re picked up for another crime.
Adler eventually turned himself in, avoiding a possible court-martial. He is now visiting friends in Germany and awaiting his “other than honorable” discharge papers.
“What it came down to for me is, I said this is not who I want to become.”
Adler’s story, which was picked up by the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, is a flabbergasting, yet cautionary tale of the often-jarring difference between the expectations of enlistees and the realities of training for war.
It’s a story bound to inspire outrage in some households, especially those with war veterans.
Oregon Army National Guard Sgt. John Larsen, who spent nine months in Iraq last year, called Adler’s actions “laziness or cowardice, I don’t know which.”
Larsen was in the right front seat of a Humvee on Sept. 25 when a roadside bomb detonated northwest of Baghdad, killing Spc. David W. Johnson, who was in the gun turret.
“My gunner was a cook. He wasn’t trained to be in the infantry,” Larsen says. “But I tell you what, he did his job. He didn’t run from it.”
Adler says he understands such sentiments.
“There’s a huge community of people who label me a coward,” he says. But he says he has “absolutely no regrets about doing what I did.”
Convinced he could lead
With the protracted conflict in Iraq straining its manpower, the Army has put recruiting efforts into overdrive. It has hired hundreds of new recruiters and tripled the bonuses they can offer to new sign-ups. Some parents, including Adler’s mother, say recruiters don’t always give a true picture of what life in the military will be like.
Her son, Wasson says, was a perfect target. He was naive, idealistic and itching to prove his manhood.
“They convinced him he was of the caliber to be an officer. He was going to be a leader,” she says.
Instead, he became a deserter.
As a high school senior, Adler seemed as unlikely a candidate for the military as one could imagine. He not only marched the streets of Portland to protest the war, but his mother had to talk him out of a plan to scale a downtown crane and hang an anti-war banner from it. Growing up, he was forbidden to play with toy guns. To schoolmates, he was a jokey, sensitive social activist.
But there was another side to Adler. He had served as a cadet for the Beaverton Police Department and spent enjoyable nights on ride-alongs with officers. He didn’t play organized sports, devoting himself to art and music, but he loved working himself to his physical limits.
He thrilled to the possibility of joining the Army. He told his mother, he told his teachers, he told his friends. They all tried to talk him out of it.
Adler said he had led a good, but sheltered, life. Going to college was the expected path, but it sounded dull. He wanted a change.
“I fought with him,” says Rachel Manning, a classmate and part of Adler’s small social circle at Waldorf. “It got intensely personal.”
“Very, very idealistic”
Adler spent nearly a week by himself in the mountains and on the last day videotaped his best argument on why he should join. He played the tape to a large gathering of classmates, family members and teachers at his school.
By the end of the tape, his mother was ready — sadly, grudgingly — to go along with his plan.
“He said, if it’s only warmongers in the military, that’s how the military will stay,” Wasson said. “He believed he could tip the scales. It was a very, very idealistic attitude, but my son is a very articulate, convincing kind of guy.”
Adler was ecstatic. He took to waking before dawn, strapping on a 40-pound backpack and a pair of combat boots and running the six miles to school. He wore his uniform for his senior class picture.
His first move was to join the Army Reserve because he thought he could drill part time while attending college before going on to active duty. But an ROTC representative at the University of Oregon told his mother that reservists were being deployed almost as fast as they signed up. Wasson stormed into the recruitment office looking to get her son out.
Instead, a different recruiter convinced Adler an even better option would be to join the regular Army, and that he had what it took to make it in the special forces. Adler jumped at the chance.
He was giddy on the airplane to Fort Benning in September. He arrived late at night and filed with 103 other recruits into an auditorium. A drill sergeant welcomed them with a story about why he joined the Army. Not for the education, not for the camaraderie but, as Adler recounts him saying, “to shoot (bad people).” The auditorium erupted in hoots.
Over the next few days, Adler says, pretty much the sole topic of conversation with anyone was about “shooting Arabs.”
“It wasn’t about preparing you to kill,” Adler says about basic training. “It was about instilling inside you a desire to kill.”
Harvey Perritt, a spokesman at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command Center in Virginia, says basic training is the standard entry for everyone who signs on.
“There is a deliberate process that the Army goes through to turn civilians into soldiers,” Perritt says. “Recruiters are pretty meticulous about explaining what conditions are for soldiers in the Army.” He says he has no comment on Adler’s experience.
Fewer going AWOL
Desertion is considered a serious offense, says Lt. Col. Tom Tatum, deputy commander of the 42nd Military Police brigade at Fort Lewis. But people who flee basic training aren’t treated as harshly as those who quit or run in the heat of battle, he says.
Recently, Tatum says, the number of soldiers reported as AWOL has dropped dramatically. At Fort Lewis, the number dropped from 133 in 2003 to 61 last year.
“You think you’d be seeing a spike in AWOLs,” he says. “But I’m not seeing it. It kind of tells you you’re doing good.”
Few basic training deserters are prosecuted, he says — usually only those who commit other crimes as part of their desertion.
Army spokeswoman Kim Henry says most deserters leave because of family or financial problems. But a sizable percentage fit Adler’s profile, she says. They simply don’t fit in.
While in hiding, Adler talked to lawyers and the GI Rights organization in New York. On their advice, and his mother’s, he soon returned to Oregon, then went to Fort Lewis and turned himself in. He was put on leave, taken off the military rolls and eventually will get his formal discharge.
“I don’t believe the military is an inherently evil organization,” he says, “but it’s definitely not for everyone.”
Harry Esteve: 503-221-8226; firstname.lastname@example.org
HARRY ESTEVE , The Oregonian