HEIDELBERG, GERMANY -- February 22 -- February 21, 2005: The U.S. is prolonging its occupation of Iraq indefinitely, and thus putting pressure on a U.S. military short on manpower and falling short of its recruiting goals. This means increased pressure on currently enlisted soldiers. Most U.S. soldiers have signed eight year contracts, and many in Europe now face redeployment to Iraq for two and even three stints. While the soldiers are in Iraq, their families live in the U.S. army base ghettos in Europe, buying their groceries with dollars and waiting for their loved ones to come home. Most do come home, but many have been permanently damaged, whether physically or psychologically, by participation in a war involving so many civilian deaths as well as illegal practices such as torture.
Because of these pressures, those soldiers who have heard of Military Counseling Network (MCN) are now far more likely to pick up the phone and call the MCN offices in downtown Heidelberg. There two U.S. civilian volunteers in their twenties, David Stutzman and Reuben Miller, stand ready to provide U.S. soldiers throughout Germany and also in Iraq and South Korea with needed counseling services. Founded in March, 2003, by the German Mennonite Peace Committee, MCN is the only member of the GI Rights Network outside the United States. MCN is supported by CCCO (Central Committee for Conscientious Objection) an organization which has promoted resistance to war since 1948.
In addition to handling cases in the areas of medical care, desertion, homosexuality and family hardship, MCN has since early 2003 assisted more than 20 U.S. Army soldiers in Germany and in Iraq to file applications for conscientious objector status. A small percentage of these applications have been granted, but most have been denied - and all have been denied when the soldier was in Iraq. MCN, which carefully screens its conscientious objector cases, believes that these military denials have been unfair and hopes to call these denials into question. Funds are being raised to cover the costs of mounting a legal appeal in U.S. Federal Court by a soldier who was deployed to Iraq and is now stationed in Germany.
MCN has recently gathered new support from American Voices Abroad (AVA), a membership organization of U.S. citizens living and working in many countries in Europe and in the Middle East. AVA members oppose the doctrine of pre-emptive war and the U.S. Patriot Act. At its international meeting in Munich on Jan. 30 & 31, AVA founded a new Military Project to support to the counseling work of MCN and to broaden efforts to reach U.S. soldiers and their families throughout Europe with information about GI rights. AVA members in several cities in Germany, as well as in France, Holland, the Czech Republic, and Lebanon are participating in the new AVA Military Project. During the demonstrations on February 22nd and 23rd protesting Bush`s visit to Europe, AVA groups in several cities will use the slogan "S.O.S. - Save Our Soldiers - Bring Them Home!"
"It is important that U.S. soldiers learn that they have options," says Elsa Rassbach of AVA in Berlin. "We are going to help MCN spread the message that U.S. soldiers have rights and can apply for conscientious objector status, and we will help raise funds to support legal costs of soldiers." There are 100,000 U.S. service members stationed in Europe; in Germany alone there are 70,000 soldiers and 89,000 dependents. AVA will work with peace organizations throughout Europe to provide information about GI rights to U.S. soldiers and their families.
Every U.S. soldier is entitled to apply for conscientious objector status, but most such applications are currently being refused. One reason is that the U.S. military has been an all-volunteer force since 1973. It is widely believed that soldiers who voluntarily sign contracts with the U.S. military have agreed to fight and to kill. Yet the U.S. military has sometimes conceded that a person might change and develop conscientious objector views after joining the military. Last fall, for example, Sergei Chaparin, a Russian immigrant who had joined the U.S. armed services, had his claim of conscientious objection recognized by the highest authority in the Army for COs, the Discharge Review Board.
Many soldiers signed up at a very young age, and few of them could foresee the brutality of a war in which so many civilians have been killed as in Iraq. Nor could U.S. soldiers joining the military have known that U.S. commanders would be charged with war crimes; for example, recently a German attorney working with the Center for Constitutional Rights, based in New York, filed a law suit in Germany charging U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and several U.S. commanders in Iraq with war crimes. U.S. school children learn that German soldiers were wrong when they followed orders of Nazi commanders, and many U.S. soldiers have developed strong doubts about U.S. policy and military practices in Iraq. At the Walter Reed U.S. hospital for veterans, Specialist Josh Sanders recently told salon.com about how he felt during hospital intake: "They asked me if I missed my wife. Well, shit yeah, I missed my wife. That is not the fucking problem here. Did you ever put your foot through a 5-year-old's skull?"
It usually takes at least nine months for the U.S. military to make a decision regarding an application for conscientious objector status, and an appeal can take another nine months. Soldiers who have filed applications for conscientious objector status often face severe harassment in their military units. When deployed to combat areas, some of these conscientious objectors refuse to carry a weapon or refuse to load their gun.
One of the conscientious objectors counseled by MCN (who prefers to remain anonymous at this time) is among those who refused to load his gun, even though placed on dangerous guard duty for many months in Iraq. This soldier recently told U.S. high school students to consider carefully whether they could in good conscience join a military service in which they might find themselves causing severe collateral damage: "Do you want to be responsible for the sorrow of a mother, wife, and/or child? How sad do you think your mother would be if you died, torn to pieces by gun fire or a bomb? Could you live with yourself knowing that because of your actions, direct or indirect, a child will not have a parent, a wife will not have a husband or a person will not have his limbs."