FORT HOOD — Army Specialist Mark Wilkerson turned himself over to authorities at Fort Hood Thursday afternoon after being absent without leave (AWOL) for 19 months.
Spc. Wilkerson said he decided to end his run in order to encourage other soldiers to speak out against the war in Iraq and urge Americans to support veterans with medical conditions obtained in combat operations.
"So this message is for those of who are AWOL right now: you are not alone. Don’t let anyone judge you for what you believe in," he said in a statement at Camp Casey III, the property in Crawford named after the late soldier-son of peace activist Cindy Sheehan. "And I say this to every member of our Congress and our senate, and even our president: Don’t leave any soldier behind. Give them the help and support they need, because you sent them there."
The 22-year-old Colorado Springs, Colo. native said he enlisted prior to Sept. 11, 2001, and was in support of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. However, his experiences in Iraq led him to question his mission and soul-search. For moral reasons, he said he decided to go AWOL when his request for Conscientious Objector status was denied by the Army in late 2004.
"It was a complete life turn-around, which allowed me to come to the conclusion that military service was no longer the correct path for me to take," he said with nine supporters standing behind him wearing T-shirts that read "I Support IVAW." "I am not willing to kill, or be killed, or do anything else I consider morally wrong, for reasons I don’t believe in, and now today, I am turning myself in to face the consequences of my actions."
Spc. Wilkerson’s fate is still unclear. He could face jail time, a court-martial, or an administrative discharged for leaving the 720th Military Police Battalion in Iraq, where he served over a deployment from March 2003 to March 2004.
Outside the visitor’s center at Fort Hood, Maj. Joe Edstrom, a public affairs officer at Fort Hood, told the press that Spc. Wilkerson would be processed back into his unit that afternoon "with all the same rights as a U.S. Army soldier under the uniform code of military justice.
"Anything other than that is just speculation at this point, since it is up to his chain of command as to what will take place after he is in process to his unit," Maj. Edstrom said.
When asked about his parents’ thoughts about his decision, Spc. Wilkerson said, "Me, my parents, and some members of my family don’t always see the same way politically, but they have supported me throughout this process."
"It means a lot to me that people have supported me and that there are people who have come before me in this same sort of fashion, and I just hope we can get through this so I can move on with my life," he added.
Nervous and scared about returning to the base where he served in basic training, Spc. Wilkerson was accompanied to the visitor’s center by members of Iraq Veterans for Peace, Gold Star Families for Peace, Veterans for Peace, and CODEPINK, as well as members of the media.
"To those of you who don’t know, there is a G.I. resistance to this war, and Mark is standing at the forefront of it, said Geoffrey Millard, a member of IVAW, at the Camp Casey press conference. "I know there is a G.I. resistance to this war because I’m part of it."
Millard, a former National Guard sergeant, said that he had "multiple un-excused absences" from his unit and refuses to be deployed as long as the United States continues "to have illegal and immoral wars around the world."
"I cannot put on a military uniform and serve this country because when I put on a military uniform and serve this country, I’m saying that it’s okay for the Bush administration to continue what it’s doing," he said.
Millard referred to soldiers that have gone AWOL as "living in exile," a life-style that includes the constant worry of getting caught at any time in any place. He encouraged those in the pro-peace movement to do more to support war resistors such as Spc. Wilkerson and others who have fled to Canada.
"We here at Camp Casey have decided that we are going to support war resistors," said Millard. "We have decided that we will give the support necessary to G.I. resistors because when we refused to fight the war is going to be over — no questions asked.
"This is what stops it. G.I.s saying, ‘I’m not going to go,’" he continued. "Mark Wilkerson, Ehren Watada, Suzanne Swift — these are people that going to make sure that there are no more Cindy Sheehans, no more Bill Mitchells, no more Gold Star families, no more vets who get turned away from VA clinics for PTSD, no more suicides because there aren’t going to be anymore vets when we refuse to go to the war."
Sheehan said she was honored that Wilkerson had chosen "to become a part of our Camp Casey family" prior to turning himself in, and she encouraged the authorities at Fort Hood to treat him professionally during the rest of his time there.
Sheehan defended Wilkerson by referring to President George W. Bush’s time absent without leave in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.
"I’ve heard people ask Mark, ‘Why aren’t you fullfilling your obligation to your country?’ George Bush never fulfilled his obligation during the Vietnam war," she said to a roar of applause. "And George Bush and Congress have abdicated their responsibility to their military by doing what they did to them in Iraq."
Other Gold Star Family members present were Juan Torres and Bill Mitchell.
Spc. Chas Davis of Alvin, Texas, explained that he empathized with Wilkerson and the unknowns he now faces. It took Davis nine months — three months longer than the normal process — to be discharged as a conscientious objector in January 2005. He did so with help from the office of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX).
"I can only imagine what (Mark) is going through right now because I know when I was going through the process, it’s like your whole life is up in the air. You don’t know if you’re going to be stuck where you’re at, whether you’re going to be sent to the desert, whether your going home," Davis said during the Camp Casey press conference. "What Mark is going through is that times 10 because it’s not just not knowing where he’s going to be, it’s not knowing what they are going to do to him and what kind of punishment he’s going to face.
"The fact that he has the gall to stand up in front of everybody right here now and publicly admit the way he feels and what he believes and the fact that he has been able to operate for 18 months, I don’t think I’ve ever met a more courageous person in my life."
Davis said that because he had "an extremely liberal chain of command and a very helpful congressman," he was able to remove himself from his position in the miliary police. He noted that this process is set up to disfavor soldiers seeking CO status, where 90 percent of the applications are approved.
"All soldiers are patriots whether they are pro-war or anti-war. They are all someone who took an oath to defend everybody else in this country, but there are a few that take it that extra step, and they read into what their responsibilities are," Davis said. "In light of that, I see Mark as one of the truest patriots we could ever have in this country. Thomas Jefferson said it best, "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.’"
Ret. Col. Ann Wright, president of the Camp Casey Chapter of Veterans for Peace, said that she is very proud of Wilkerson for refusing to obey illegal orders.
She said that there have been more people in the U.S. military that have stood against the war in Iraq than public civil servants who, unlike people in the military, don’t face jail time or court martials for expressing dissent.
At the same time, Col. Wright expressed compassion for those troops who continue to serve in the armed forces while knowing their orders break international laws as well as the U.S. Constitution. The focus instead, she said, should be on ousting the cause of the war — the Bush administration.
"To the Bush administration, we say, ‘You must stop the war. You must stop the killing. You must take our military out of this illegal, immoral, war-crime war," she added.
Col. Wright is herself one of three federal employees who resigned in opposition to the United States’ March 2003 invasion of Iraq. She served in the U.S. Army for 29 years. So far, 12 soldiers have been court-martialed over the Iraq war, and somewhere between 8,000 and 40,000 troops have gone AWOL during this time.
Charlie Anderson said he, too, had to make the hard decision whether or not to go AWOL like Wilkerson. In Anderson’s case, he struggled before his second deployment less than a year after he returned from Iraq and suffered the consequences of his decision.
Anderson, a retired hospital corpsman 2nd class 5th Marine force, told the audience that instead of taking his own life, he decided at the last minute to honor his oath to defend the United States and its Constitution. As a result of his deployments to Iraq, he is now living with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Anderson was quick to point out that while 30 percent of veterans are seeking mental health care, those specific veterans might not necessarily have PTSD or other psychological injuries.
Nor is PTSD a mental illness, Anderson said. "The anxiety disorders that are caused by combat are not mental illnesses. The nightmares, the flashbacks, all of that is not a mental illness. That is a psychological injury," he said. "That was something that was done to us, and that is something that we have to live with for the rest of our lives."
Anderson then praised Wilkerson, whom he called his "brother in arms," for taking the consequences of his own decision.
"In bearing true faith and allegiance to the Constitution, when we realize what we are doing is immoral and illegal and does not stand for what this country stands for and is in direct conflict with that oath, we have no choice but to stand up and say, ‘I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to go, and I’m going to take the consequences that go with that,’" he said. "And that is what Mark is going today, and I’m very proud of him."
About 30 people were in attendance at the press conference at Camp Casey III. Some of them wore pink tape with the number 2,639 written on it, signifying the most recent U.S. troop death toll.
Keith Crunk, a neighbor of President George W. Bush, commented during the question period of the press conference that he wanted Wilkerson to keep the public aware of his on-going situation. Wilkerson’s blog is (markwilkerson.wordpress.com).
Crunk, 76, told the Iconoclast that more Americans should support soldiers like Wilkerson.
"The tent should have been filled," said Crunk, a veteran of the Korean conflict. "Everyone should have heard what these young men had to say, and I have full sympathy for them, and I highly respect and admire them."
Media in attendance included Truthout.org, Waco Tribune-Herald, NBC 6, and the Associated Press. En route to Fort Hood, Wilkerson had a telephone interview with National Public Radio.
Later in the afternoon, the veterans from Camp Casey performed an action informing soldiers of their legal rights at Fort Hood. Thursday and Friday night, "Sir, No Sir!" was shown at a Howard Johnson hotel in Killeen. This documentary shows the history of G.I. resistance during the Vietnam War at Army bases such as Fort Hood.
For more information on the legal rights of enlisted soldiers, call the G.I. Rights Hotline. To donate to a defense fund for Spc. Wilkerson, visit the OIF-OEF website.
Statement by Mark Wilkerson
Thursday August 31, 2006
Camp Casey, Crawford, TX
First, I would like to thank you all for being here today. Today is a big day for me. I am turning myself in from being absent without leave, or AWOL, from the military. I have been AWOL for a year and a half.
My name is Mark Wilkerson. My experience in the Army began in June 2002, shortly after my high school graduation. I enlisted prior to September 11, but I found a new resolve to join after that tragic day. I thought that somehow, through my upcoming military experience, I would be able avenge those people that had been killed on that day. After basic training, I ended up in Ft. Hood, TX where in March 2003, I deployed to Iraq with the 720th Military Police Battalion. I was nervous and scared, but at that time I was supportive of my president’s decision to go into Iraq, and I was optimistic about the good things that we could do there for the people of Iraq. I quickly learned that wasn’t going to happen. There were many experiences that I had in Iraq that made me question my mission, and also made me change the way I viewed spirituality, relationships, our government, and my life in general. It was a complete life turn-around, which allowed me to come to the conclusion that military service was no longer the correct path for me to take. This revelation led me to apply as a Conscientious Objector, or C.O., immediately upon return from Iraq in March 2004.
The military states that a conscientious objector is a person who objects to participation in all forms of war, and whose belief is based on a religious, moral or ethical belief system. I felt I met those requirements, though the military disagreed. I told myself I would never return to Iraq, but that I would make sure I was discharged in the right and legal way. I told myself I would never go AWOL. In July, while my C.O. paper was still being processed, my unit was told we were returning to Iraq in January 2005.
My C.O. claim was denied in November, so I applied for a rebuttal, and was told it wouldn’t be considered until my return from Iraq, more than a year away. So I made the difficult decision to go AWOL, for political, spiritual, and personal reasons. I am not willing to kill, or be killed, or do anything else I consider morally wrong, for reasons I don’t believe in, and now today, I am turning myself in to face the consequences of my actions.
I read a USA Today article that said that there are over 8,000 soldiers who have gone AWOL during the Iraq War. I think it would be naVve to assume that all 8,000 went AWOL in direct protest to the Iraq War, but I’m sure that many of them did. So this message is for those of who are AWOL right now: you are not alone. Don’t let anyone judge you for what you believe in.
As of August 27,there have been 2,628 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, on top of the over 19,000 wounded there. I honor and respect every soldier who has made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. I honor them and their families. May the soldiers who have been killed remind each and every one of us that life is short, and life is fragile, and life must be respected. I also respect every soldier who makes the decision to enlist into the military, and to go to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, regardless of their personal opinions on war. Let me remind you all as well that there are many other soldiers who should not be forgotten either, and that’s the large number who return from war with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, which is very hard to diagnose. And without treatment, many of these soldiers have a very difficult time adjusting to their normal lives. Many soldiers affected with this disorder, this injury, don’t come forward to make a claim, for one reason or another. Again, I say to them: you are not alone. If you have a family member who is suffering, urge them to come forward and tell someone who can help. And I say this to every member of our Congress and our senate, and even our president: Don’t leave any soldier behind. Give them the help and support they need, because you sent them there.
I would like to thank everyone who has helped and supported me along this journey of the past year and a half- Family, friends, fellow veterans. When I left the army, I made what I felt was the right decision for me to make. I joined the military with honorable intentions, and I still feel honor in my heart. I love my country; I want no one to doubt that. I am unsure of what actions and punishments will be placed on me for my decision. I am scared, but I go with peace in my heart and hope for the future- not only my future, but the country’s future as well. This is a difficult and scary time for our country, but hopefully in the end, peace will rule this great land. John F. Kennedy once said that war will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today. I look forward to that day. There comes a time in a person’s life when they must do the right moral decision for themselves, doubtless of how popular that decision is in other’s eyes, or what others feel about it. While I would not consider myself a very religious man, I do believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ. I would like to share two passages from the bible. The first - from Psalms Chapter 33, verse 5: Seek peace, and pursue it. The second from Matthew chapter 5, verse 9 - Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God. I believe that through my actions, I am doing my best to live by the values stated in those quotes. Thank You.