The case of Sgt [Kevin] Benderman [charged with desertion after refusing to return to Iraq] and those of others like him has focused attention on the thousands of US troops who have gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave) since the start of President George Bush’s so-called war on terror. The most recent Pentagon figures suggest there are 5,133 troops 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 could be far higher. Staff who run a volunteer hotline to help desperate soldiers and recruits who want to get out, say the number of calls has increased by 50 per cent since 9/11. Last year alone, the GI Rights Hotline took more than 30,000 calls. At present, the hotline gets 3,000 calls a month and the volunteers say that by the time a soldier or recruit dials the help-line 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 Sgt Benderman to recruits such as Jeremiah Adler, an idealistic 18-year-old from Portland, Oregon, who joined the Army believing 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 said the Army simply wanted to turn him into a “ruthless, cold-blooded killer”.
Mr Adler begged to be sent home and even pretended to be gay to be discharged. Eventually, he and another recruit fled in the night and rang the hotline, which advised him to turn himself in to avoid court-martial. He will now be given an “other than honourable discharge”.
From southern Germany where he is on holiday before starting college in the autumn, Mr Adler told The Independent: “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, Mr 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 said he could hear other recruits crying at night. “You can hear people trying to make sure no one hears them cry under their covers,” he wrote.
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, as were the 50,000 or so young Americans who sought refuge north of the border to avoid the Vietnam war.
But in March he was refused refugee status by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board. Mr 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.”
The Pentagon says it does not keep records of how many try to desert each year. A spokeswoman, Lieutenant Colonel Ellen Krenke, said the running rally had declined since 9/11 from 8,396 to the present total of 5,133. She added: “The vast majority of those who desert do so because they have committed some criminal act, not for political or conscientious objector purposes.”