(Originally published in The Irish Independent, May 21 2005)
Many American troops disgusted by the brutality of war are going AWOL rather than back to Iraq. Andrew Buncombe reports from Washington
Sergeant Kevin Benderman cannot shake the images from his head. There are bombed villages and desperate people. Dogs eat corpses thrown into a mass grave. Most unremitting of all is the image of a young Iraqi girl, no more than eight or nine, her entire arm severely burned and blistered and the sound of her screams.
Last January these memories became too much for this veteran of the wars in Iraq. Informed that his unit was about to return to the ravaged country, he told his commanders he wanted out and applied to be considered a conscientious objector. The army refused and instead charged him with desertion. Last week his case - which carries a penalty of up to seven years' imprisonment if he is found guilty - started before a military judge at Fort Stewart in Georgia.
"If I am sincere in what I say and there's consequences because of my actions, I am prepared to stand up and take it," said Sgt Benderman. "If I have to go to prison because I don't want to kill anybody, so be it."
The case of Sgt Benderman and that of others like him has focussed attention on the thousands of US troops who have gone AWOL (absent without leave) since the start of President Bush's so-called war on terror. The most recent Pentagon figures show 5,133 troops remain missing from duty. Of these, 2,376 are sought by the army, 1,410 by the navy, 1,297 by the marines and 50 by the air force. Some have been missing for decades.
But campaigners say the true figure of those who have gone AWOL could be much higher. Staff who run a volunteer hotline to help desperate soldiers looking to get out of the services or new recruits having discovered at basic training that military life is not for them, say the number of calls has increased by 50% since 9/11. Last year, the GI Rights Hotline received more than 30,000 calls. At the moment the hotline is receiving up to 3,000 calls a month.
"People are calling us because there is a real problem," says Robert Dove, who works in the Boston office of the American Friends Service Committee, one of several volunteer groups that have operated the hotline since 1995. "We do not profess to be lawyers or therapists but we do provide both types of support."
The people calling the hotline range from veterans like Sgt Benderman to new recruits like Jeremiah Adler, an idealistic 18-year-old from Portland, Oregon, who signed up to join the army in the belief he could help change its culture. Within days of arriving for his basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he realised he had made a mistake and believed the army wanted to do nothing more than turn him into a "ruthless, cold-blooded killer".
He begged to be sent home to his family and even pretended to be gay in order to be discharged. Eventually he and another recruit fled in the night and then rang the hotline, which advised him to turn himself in to avoid being court-martialled. He will now receive an "other than honourable discharge".
"It was obviously a horrible experience but now I'm glad I went through it. I was expecting to meet a whole lot of different types of people - some had noble reasons. I also met a lot of people who wanted to kill Arabs," he says.
In a letter home to his family, Mr Adler described how he could hear other recruits sobbing at night. "You can hear people trying to make sure no one hears them cry under their covers," he wrote. "I was told I would be facing 20 years' hard labour at Fort Leavenworth military prison because that is what the sergeant will tell you. I learned that was not the case."
Jeremy Hinzman, 26, a reservist with the 82nd Airborne Division who served in Afghanistan, decided to go AWOL after his unit was ordered to Iraq. He took his wife and child and fled to Canada, hoping to be welcomed like the 50,000 or so young Americans who sought refuge north of the border to avoid the Vietnam war.
But in March he was denied refugee status by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board. He told the hearing: "We were told that we would be going to Iraq to jack up some terrorists. We were told it was a new kind of war, that these were evil people and they had to be dealt with ... We were told to consider all Arabs as potential terrorists ... to foster an attitude of hatred that gets your blood boiling." He is currently appealing the decision.
Campaigners say that new recruits who decide they want to leave the military are the most vulnerable to pressure from officers who try to force them to stay. Some are told they will go to jail, others are told they will never be able to get a job if they receive a "less than honourable discharge".
It was also revealed that recruiters had illegally covered up recruits' criminal and medical records, threatened one prospect with imprisonment for failing to meet an appointment and provided another with laxatives to help him lose weight and pass a physical.
Senior commanders have said the current recruiting environment - with the war in Iraq having cost the lives of more than 1,600 soldiers and the economy able to offer other jobs - is the most difficult ever. Despite this, the Pentagon insists it is committed to finding recruits in a fair and transparent process.
JE McNeil, who heads the Centre for Conscience and War in Washington DC, a Christian group whose members also staff the GI Rights Hotline, said many troops she spoke with had been lied to by recruiters. "I had an 18-year-old who was told he did not have to serve in Iraq. 'I was told I'd get a job where I would not be sent,' he told me," said Ms McNeill, a lawyer by training. "He was recruited to be an MP (military policeman). They are the people they are sending to Iraq."
Campaigners say that despite pressure exerted in the barracks and the insults they will probably face, if a new recruit follows the correct legal procedure they can usually get out of the military. Usually the advice to those on the run is to turn themselves in. After 30 days of being AWOL a soldier is considered to be a deserter and a warrant is issued for his arrest.
At that point a soldier can be returned to his unit, court-martialled or given jail time or - and this is more often than not the outcome for new recruits - they will be given a non-judicial punishment and a 'less than honourable' discharge.
Kevin Benderman is anything but a raw recruit. He first joined the US Army in 1987, served in the Gulf War and received an honourable discharge in 1991. He rejoined in 2000 and served during the invasion of Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division. He says that what he saw there left him morally opposed to returning. The military alleges that on January 10 he failed to show up when his unit was due to ship out.
Sgt Benderman's case to decide whether there is sufficient evidence for a full court-martial has been adjourned till May 26. His wife, Monica says: "A lot of what they are saying about Kevin is not true. He never went AWOL and was never a deserter. He is staying strong. I am proud of him. If people cannot see he is genuine, then they are not looking at him."
Pentagon spokeswoman Lt Col Ellen Krenke, said the running tally of AWOL troops had declined since 9/11 from 8,396 to 5,133. She said she could not say whether this was the result of more AWOL soldiers giving themselves up or whether fewer were going AWOL.
"The vast majority of those who desert do so because they have committed some criminal act - not for political or conscientious objector purposes," she said.