SAN FRANCISCO, California - On Thursday, 22-year-old Army Specialist Mark Wilkerson turned himself in to Fort Hood in Texas, after being AWOL (Absent Without Leave) for more than 18 months.
Wilkerson, who served in the 720th Military Police Battalion in Iraq from March 2003 to March 2004, made the decision to refuse redeployment on moral grounds, and went AWOL when his request for "conscientious objector" status was denied by the U.S. Army late in 2004.
"When I first got there, I was very supportive of our mission and our president's decision to go in," he told IPS before turning himself in. "But when I got there I started to wonder whether what we were doing was really important enough for people to be dying."
During his time in Iraq, Wilkerson was stationed in Tikrit and Samarra, two strongholds of Saddam Hussein's former regime. One of his jobs was to guard truck convoys that ran up and down the highway and through city streets.
Initially, he said, "Iraqi kids on the road were waving flags for us, but after a year they were now throwing rocks at us and that equates to more IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the road and now you have the suicide bombers. The death toll is 2,639 American soldiers. That's a lot."
Wilkerson said he's not a coward, but rather determined it would be morally wrong to go back to Iraq. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers have filed applications for conscientious objector status. Dozens have run away to Canada and applied for asylum.
Among those turning out to support Wilkerson in Crawford was Chaz Davis, a former military police officer from Alvin, Texas, who was discharged in 2005 when the military approved his petition to be a conscientious objector.
Davis never went to Iraq. He was stationed in South Korea when the U.S. military invaded Iraq, but most members of his basic training company were sent to Iraq, he said, and a quarter of them died in the first year of the war.
"I started reading and doing research," he said. "Watching Michael Moore's film [Fahrenheit 9/11] and doing loads and loads of research on the Internet, I realized I couldn't kill. I realized if I was faced with a situation where I would kill or be killed, I wouldn't be able to put someone in my sights and pull the trigger."
Observers say these developments are reminiscent of the Vietnam War, when the refusal to fight by hundreds of thousands of soldiers was a major force toward U.S. withdrawal. According to journalist and Vietnam War resister Peter Laufer, 170,000 U.S. soldiers filed for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. Between 50,000 and 60,000 fled to Canada. Others deliberately injured themselves or simply went AWOL.
The numbers are smaller this time around, but Laufer says they're nonetheless significant. The movement has pushed him to write a new book about the phenomenon called "Mission Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq".
Soldiers who publicly refuse to serve "open doors to others who refuse quietly to themselves or have not made a decision," he said. "It's empowering for them to know they are not alone. Also, they are on the front line of the battle for the soul of their nation. They are a potent force to convince people who support the war. They are staking their freedom and future on these decisions."
Laufer said that besides the number of refusers, there's another important difference between the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. During the Vietnam War, he said, "veterans came home to a very loud antiwar movement. Nothing like that exists today. The mood in this country is completely different now."
When Wilkerson gave himself up at Fort Hood Thursday, he was flanked by members of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Gold Star Families for Peace, the group founded by Cindy Sheehan, the bereaved mother who garnered national headlines confronting U.S. President George W. Bush at his ranch last year.
This year, Sheehan has once again set up shop outside Bush's Texas ranch, using money from her son's death benefits to buy a nearby property. She said she hopes the land will serve as a refuge for war resisters and their families
In a statement, she asked for more people to follow in Wilkerson's footsteps. "Mark served one tour in Iraq and what he saw there changed him to such a degree that he couldn't in good conscience return again. It shouldn't be his duty to enter combat once again. He has already done what has been asked of him, and fulfilled his oath," Sheehan said.
"There is a belief on the part of the soldier that they will be used carefully, and as a last resort only when all other means to resolve a conflict have been exhausted. Instead, soldiers are put into harm's way without proper training and equipment, and for reasons we have come to find were fraudulent. The social contract between the U.S. government and our society and the solider who serves has been broken," she said