Kevin Benderman spends his days sitting in a plastic chair in the stockade at Fort 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 date when he hopes the Canadian government will grant him political asylum. Aidan Delgado is back in school, studying religion at the New College of Florida and practicing Buddhism.
All three are among a small but growing number of soldiers who have become disillusioned with the war in Iraq and are trying to get out of their required service.
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 simply deserted, refusing to appear for duty.
Some are more desperate: Last December, 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,” said a Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke. “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 since 2000 – 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 done time.
Former Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, 30, of Miami Beach, Fla., says he had 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 cell phone or his computer. He stayed away from his family and friends.
Eventually, with the help of anti-war advocates, he found a lawyer and turned himself in. But his request to be 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, and 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.
A soldier cannot be a conscientious objector just because of opposition to a particular war.
To apply as a conscientious objector 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 JE McNeil, executive director of The Center on Conscience & War, a 65-year-old Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization that supports the rights of conscientious objectors.
The organization runs the GI Rights Hotline, and McNeil said it received more than 36,000 calls this year from soldiers interested in how to get out of their required service. That’s up from fewer than 1,000 a year before the war in Iraq, she said.
McNeil said her counselors usually get calls from soldiers who are already considered AWOL (absent without leave) or even deserters. She said they often counsel soldiers away from trying to be conscientious objectors, pointing them instead toward other types of 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 the service are “dissatisfaction with Army life, family problems and homesickness.”
Simple desertion has been decreasing in the military in recent years – about 2,500 troops last year simply 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.
Army paratrooper Jeremy Hinzman, who fled from Fort Bragg, N.C., in January 2004, weeks before his 82nd Airborne Division was due to go to Iraq, is awaiting a February hearing in Toronto.
“Perhaps I made a mistake by enlisting in the Army, but the U.S. is putting the lives of its soldiers in jeopardy in order to the line the pockets of big money,” he said.
Hinzman said he vowed to his wife that he wouldn’t go to Iraq, and then had to decide whether he would face a court martial or flee. He said he didn’t want to miss out on his son’s formative years, so he chose Canada.
Hinzman’s attorney said as many as 200 American war resisters are hiding in Canada, waiting to see how Hinzman’s case plays out before coming forward.
Hinzman said he and his wife plan to use every legal channel they can to stay where they are.
“We simply want to be granted some sort of status here and then sink into an a life of obscurity where we can be decent, hard-working, tax-paying citizens,” he said.
About a dozen reservists have filed “stop loss” lawsuits, arguing that it is illegal to make them stay in the military once their required term of service is complete. The Bush Administration has argued with success so far that under federal law the Pentagon can involuntarily extend the deployment of any reserve officer who’s on active duty, if the president believes it’s essential to national security.
Several of these objectors, like Army Spc. David W. Qualls, signed up for a so-called “Try One” program with Army National Guard which the Army says “allows a veteran to serve for only one year on a trial basis before committing to a full enlistment.”
Just a few months into his service last year, the Army told Qualls he was recalled to active duty and his “expiration of term of service” had been extended for an undetermined number of years.
“What this boils down to in my opinion is a question of fairness,” said Qualls.
He filed a lawsuit, and even though he later accepted a $15,000 bonus and re-enlisted for six years, the suit has not been dropped, said his attorney, Staughton Lynd of Niles, Ohio.
“He felt that his family was on the verge of bankruptcy and he had no economic alternative but to re-enlist,” Lynd said.
Many resisters complain that they were misled by recruiters. Others say their beliefs have changed.
“When I enlisted I believed that killing was immoral, but also that war was an inevitable part of life and therefore, an exception to the rule,” said Texas Army National Guard Spc. Katherine Jashinski, 22, who in November asked a federal judge to order her release from service.
After joining the military, Jashinski said she “started to reevaluate everything that I had been taught about war as a child. I developed the belief that taking human life was wrong and war was no exception. I was then able to clarify who I am and what it is that I stand for.”
Jashinski, a cook, learned in October that her 2004 conscientious objector discharge application was denied. Now awaiting a hearing, she says she will not deploy with her unit.
Although there have always been soldiers who refuse to fight on moral grounds, the U.S. government made conscientious objector status official in 1962. Four years later, during the Vietnam War, requests began to pour in. Desertion rates also hit historical highs, and thousands of soldiers who refused to deploy were court-martialed. In 1971, requests peaked when 4,381 members of the military applied to be conscientious objectors.
Twenty years later, during the Gulf War, conscientious objector applications rose to 441 in 1991. At that time, about 500,000 soldiers were deployed in the Persian Gulf.
Aidan Delgado decided he was a conscientious objector last year, after spending a year in Iraq where he was stationed at Abu Ghraib prison. His application was approved and he was honorably discharged last January.
“When I met Iraqi prisoners firsthand, I saw the people who were supposed to be our enemies but I didn’t hate them. They were young, poor guys without an education, like us. They were supposed to fight us and we were supposed to fight them. It didn’t make sense,” said Delgado, who speaks Arabic and lived for a while as a child in Egypt. “I told my commander that I wouldn’t kill anyone. I turned in my rifle.” MARTHA MENDOZ, AP