They refused to soldier on; Five thousand U.S. troops are missing from duty, the Pentagon says. Some fled to escape the horror of war. Others hated the grim reality of being trained to kill. So they went AWOL ...
(By Andrew Buncombe, originally published in The Hamilton Spectator, May 16 2005)
Sergeant Kevin Benderman cannot shake the images from his head.
There are bombed villages and desperate people.
There are dogs eating corpses thrown into a mass grave.
And there is the image of a young Iraqi girl, no more than eight or nine, the entirety of one of her arms severely burned and blistered and the sound of her screams.
Last January these memories became too much for this U.S. veteran of the war in Iraq.
Informed that his unit was about to return, he told his commanders he wanted out and applied to be considered a conscientious objector.
The army refused -- and charged him with desertion.
Last week his case -- which carries a penalty of up to seven years' imprisonment -- 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 Benderman.
"If I have to go to prison because I don't want to kill anybody, so be it."
The case of 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 U.S. President George W. Bush's so-called war on terror.
The most recent Pentagon figures suggest that 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, much higher. Staff who run a volunteer hotline to help desperate soldiers and new recruits looking to get out or else having discovered at basic training that military life is not for them, say the number of calls has increased by 50 per cent since 9/11.
Last year alone, the GI Rights Hotline received more than 30,000 calls.
At the moment, the hotline is receiving up to 3,000 calls a month and the volunteers say that by the time a soldier or new recruit dials the helpline they have almost always made up their mind to get out by one means or another.
"People are calling us because there is a real problem," said Robert Dove, a Quaker 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 such as Benderman to new recruits such as 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, Ga., he realized he had made a mistake and believed the army wanted to do nothing more than turn him into a "ruthless, cold-blooded killer".
Adler 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 court-martial. He will now receive an "other than honourable discharge".
Speaking from southern Germany where he is on holiday before starting college in the autumn, Adler said: "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."
In one letter home to his family, Adler wrote that when he arrived he was horrified by the things he heard other recruits talking about -- things that in civilian life would result in someone being treated as an outcast.
In another letter, he wrote that at night he could hear other recruits sobbing.
"You can hear people trying to make sure no one hears them cry under their covers," he wrote.
Adler now provides advice to other new recruits who have decided that the military is not for them.
"When people contact me I tell them go AWOL-- it's the quickest way to get out," he said.
"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.
Despite Hinzman's request, in March he was denied refugee status by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board.
Hinzman, who is appealing the decision, 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."
Campaigners say that new recruits who decide they want to leave the military are the most vulnerable to pressure from sergeants and officers who try and 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", they say. They also face intense peer pressure and abuse - both as they try to get out and after they manage to do so.
Campaigners have also drawn attention to the often scurrilous tactics used by US military recruiters, who for the last three months have failed to meet their targets for new recruits.
Following a series of cases in which it was revealed 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 military physical, the Pentagon has announced all recruiting will halt on May 20 for a day of retraining.
J. E. 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 McNeill, a lawyer by training.
"He was recruited to be an MP (military policeman). They are the people they are sending to Iraq."
Benderman's wife, Monica, who has been heavily involved in organizing his defence, said:
"A lot of what they are saying about Kevin is not true.
Speaking of his husband, she added: "He is staying strong. I am proud of him."