Military Resisters: In Their Own Words

by Phillip Watts

Revolutionary Worker #1236, April 11, 2004, posted at

Spring has come and March Madness, the annual NCAA basketball tournament, is well under way. As I was watching some of the games this year (as many as I could sneak in anyway), I started to trip on these commercials for the U.S. army that kept coming on. Now the U.S. military is always trying to get at youth, particularly during events like the NCAA basketball tournament, and promise them dreams of running, jumping and parachuting, going to college and getting ahead etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. But most of the commercials I've seen in the past have seemed like they were signing people up to be in a triathlon or something. With this whole "army of one" shit. Or showing a guy rock climbing and at the end he becomes a Marine. But these new commercials were different.

These new ones were designed not to entice young people with promises of running and jumping, but to pull at heartstrings and make youth feel that they can be someone if they join the military. In the two different ads I watched, each showed a young man, one Black and one Latino, talking with their parents. The commercials are serious and somber as the youth tell their parents of the important decision they have made, to make something of themselves and join the army. Though it is not mentioned outright, what is implied is that the youth may have to make some sacrifices because of this decision, but that it is honorable, and they can make something of themselves and get money for college in the process.

Clearly these commercials are taking into account that the U.S. is waging a war on the world. Of course these extremely deceptive commercials fail to mention that as many as 600 GIs have gone AWOL or why. They fail to mention that amongst GIs who took a recent survey, 50 percent reported a low morale. That over 600 GIs have died in Iraq and thousands more have been severely injured. They certainly don't tell those they try to recruit about razing Iraqi villages and killing Iraqi civilians, of which some 10,000 have been killed during this war so far.

It is important that many GIs are now refusing to fight and bringing to light the realities of the military and the war in Iraq. As a revolutionary communist, I don't share the pacifist views of some of these GI resisters. And I have been reading about the 1960s and the many Vietnam vets who escaped the military and became revolutionaries. We need that kind of revolutionary movement today. But there is much to learn from these stories from GI resisters. It becomes clear how these soldiers are caught between callous officials in the military on one hand, and an angry Iraqi people on the other. It becomes clear that not finding WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) is having a deep effect on U.S. troops, as more begin to see there is no "honor" fighting for a lie. These are some of their stories.

The Case of Camilo Mejia

Among the most important AWOL cases is that of Camilo Mejia. Mejia had served in the army for three years. He first joined up in his youth after coming to the U.S. from Nicaragua. After his first three years in the army Mejia signed up in the Florida National Guard for another five, with hopes of getting tuition assistance for Florida State schools. But after six months in Iraq, Mejia decided he had enough. During a short two-week leave he decided he didn't want to return to Iraq. He spent the next months living underground in New York and Boston.

Recently, Mejia came out of hiding and publicly declared that he will not be a part of the U.S. occupation in Iraq. "I can no longer be an instrument of violence," he told the press. "I made a decision to disagree with this war, I think this war is particularly immoral."

Mejia has made several heavy statements on his reason for not returning. "The justification for this war is money and no soldier should go to Iraq and give his life for oil." "This is an immoral, unjust and illegal war," he told the press. "The whole thing is based on lies. There are no weapons of mass destruction, and there was no link with terrorism. It's about oil, reconstruction contracts and controlling the Middle East."

Part of Mejia's decision not to return was based on his experiences fighting in Iraq. On the Not In Our Name website Mejia tells an account of one particular ambush, the views of the military officials and how he came to see himself as a conscientious objector.

"On May 30, my squad was ambushed for the first time in the eastern part of Ar Ramadi in what was called the `Sunni Triangle.' We heard a whistle as we passed an area that was notorious for bombed-out buildings. Next, a bomb exploded in the road in front of our lead Humvee. Prior to this attack, I had briefed my squad on what I understood to be Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), which was that if we were ambushed we should `haul ass' while returning fire with our weapons. Following the blast, bullets rained down on us from rooftops on both sides of the road as we drove out of the area.

"Back at the base, we were euphoric that no one had been hurt in the ambush. My commander, XO, and 1st Sgt. immediately asked to be briefed. When I told them what happened they asked me why we had fled rather than staying and fighting. I told them that it was SOP to try and drive out of an ambush. They agreed, but added that we had just sent the wrong message to our attackers because our mission is not to run from the enemy--but to kill them. The next morning our commander passed down word that in the future we should not celebrate our `failures' and celebrating our escape also sends the wrong message to other soldiers.

"It dawned on me that protecting our troops didn't rank very high on our leaders' agenda. Medals, glory, and `sending the right message' were all worth the lives of a few soldiers. This war was more complicated than I had imagined. Not only did we have to be careful with the enemy, but we also had to be careful with our own leaders, too.

"When I saw with my own eyes what war can do to people, a real change began to take place within me. I have witnessed the suffering of a people whose country is in ruins and who are further humiliated by the raids, patrols, curfews of an occupying army. My experience of this war has changed me forever.

"One of our sergeants shot a small boy who was carrying an AK-47 rifle. The other two children who were walking with him ran away as the wounded child began crawling for his life. A second shot stopped him, but he was still alive. When an Iraqi tried to take him to a civilian hospital, Army medics from our unit intercepted him and insisted on taking the injured boy to a military facility. There, he was denied medical care because a different unit was supposed to treat our unit's wounded. After another medical unit refused to treat the child, he died.

"Another time, my platoon responded to a political protest in Ar Ramadi that had turned violent. My squad took a defensive position on a rooftop after some protesters started throwing grenades at the mayor's office. We were ordered to shoot anyone who threw anything that looked like a grenade. A young Iraqi emerged from the crowd carrying something in his right hand. Just before he threw it, we all opened fire, killing him. The object turned out to be a grenade, which exploded far from everyone. I know that the man we killed had no chance of hurting us--he was too far away. My platoon leader later told us that we killed three other Iraqis during this same protest, although I didn't see them die.

"I also learned that the fear of dying has the power to turn soldiers into real killing machines. In a combat environment, it becomes almost impossible for us to consider things like acting strictly in self- defense or using just enough force to stop an attack.

"Going home on leave in October 2003 provided me with the opportunity to put my thoughts in order and to listen to what my conscience had to say. People would ask me about my war experiences and answering them took me back to all the horrors--the firefights, the ambushes, the time I saw a young Iraqi dragged by his shoulders through a pool of his own blood, the time a man was decapitated by our machine gun fire, and the time my friend shot a child through the chest.

"Coming home gave me the clarity to see the line between military duty and moral obligation. My feelings against the war dictated that I could no longer be a part of it. Acting upon my principles became incompatible with my role in the military, and by putting my weapon down I chose to reassert myself as a human being."

It has now come out that Mejia has been charged with desertion by the U.S. military and could face serious prison time. After turning himself in to military officials in Florida, Mejia had applied for conscientious objector status. He is the first veteran to both fight in Iraq and seek conscientious objector status. His lawyers have stated that in many ways Mejia's situation is a test case for other GIs who have refused to return to Iraq. Mejia has stuck to his convictions stating that he would rather go to prison than go back to Iraq. On March 20, in his home country of Nicaragua, anti-war protesters carried signs in support of his actions.

Mejia's case was recently covered by 60 Minutes II. During the show, Mejia stood firm and resolute on his convictions, that the war against Iraq is unjust and immoral, that it is illegal. It was very, very inspiring. But the other part of the show was serious wartime propaganda. As one of Mejia's commanding officers told Dan Rather, "His duty's not to question myself or anybody higher than me, his duty is to carry out the orders that I give him or his platoon leader gives him. We're not paid in the military to form personal opinions or doubt what our leaders say."

Lucky for humanity some people, like Camilo Mejia, don't follow blindly.

An Unnamed Soldier Applies for CO Status after Four Months in Iraq

In an article on Alternet by Dan Frosch, there is an account from one GI, part of a Special Operations unit, who spent four months in combat in Iraq. He has remained anonymous as his application for conscientious objector status is still pending. In just a few weeks of battle his thoughts on the war started to change. "There was this numbness..., this human aspect, you didn't think would be there," he said. "People all around me--us, the Iraqis--we were all losing friends and family. It was sickening."

"I saw destruction of people. Innocent lives taken that won't be coming back. I took lives," he said. "You were trained to think these people were lower than you. But you wondered if that person you'd just killed could have been your friend.... There was no honor in it, and I didn't want to be a part of it any more."

Stephen Funk Released from Military Prison

Another GI resister was released from a North Carolina military prison last month after serving six months for "unauthorized absence" or AWOL. Stephen Funk was the first conscientious objector imprisoned for refusing to fight in the Iraq war.

A military jury acquitted Marine Stephen Funk of the charge of "desertion" on September 6, 2003. However, they then convicted him of the lesser charge of "unauthorized absence" (aka AWOL). The jury later sentenced him to six months imprisonment.

In April of last year, then 20-year-old Funk, a gay Marine Corp Reservist, stated: "I am a conscientious objector because there is no way for me to remain a Marine without sacrificing my entire sense of self-respect.... I refuse to surrender my dignity, I refuse to hand over my liberty or surrender my beliefs. I refuse to kill. The military demands obedience, but I will not obey... I know it demands courage to say no in the face of coercion. I hope other soldiers will find the courage to follow their beliefs... I hope other soldiers will come to see they are more than just cogs in the machinery of war and have the power of free will."

After his release from military prison, a welcome home party was thrown for him by anti-war activists. Funk told Free Speech Radio News,"Doing what's right and being punished for it is much better than spending the rest of your life in the system doing something you found out was wrong."

Escaping to Canada

During the Vietnam War many GI resisters who went AWOL split to Canada. An underground railroad was set up as literally tens of thousands of youth avoided serving in the U.S. military and fighting in Vietnam. Many were avoiding being drafted into the military, others who had already been inducted or had fought in Vietnam were escaping the military. Part of what made this possible was the whole anti-war movement and a culture of resistance against the war. Many diverse forces assisted GI resisters, from the Quakers to other more radical and revolutionary forces. While it is not exactly known how many GIs resisting the Iraq war have fled into Canada, there are some inspiring stories of GIs who have.

Jeremy Hinzman is one of the GI resisters who escaped into Canada with his wife and young child rather than go to war in Iraq. As Hinzman told the press, "I feel that if I had gone to Iraq I would be in a sense putting myself into a criminal enterprise and becoming a criminal because it's a war--or an act of aggression, I don't think it can be called a war--based on false pretenses in terms of weapons of mass destruction, the links to al-Qaida and bringing democracy to Iraq."

Hinzman had filed for conscientious objector status before he was originally shipped out to Afghanistan after 9/11. As the National Catholic Reporter tells it, when Hinzman got to Kandahar, "Word circulated among the troops that he had filed the claim, and Hinzman's sergeant decided to make an example of him. For more than eight months, Hinzman was assigned to KP, washing dishes in a mess hall 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week." As Hinzman puts it, "I worked absurdly long hours for a long time, it was a lonely experience." Hinzman's conscientious objector application was ultimately rejected.

After returning from Afghanistan and facing the very real prospects of redeployment in Iraq, Hinzman made the decision to escape the country and go to Canada. He said that if he saw his fellow soldiers, who have since been shipped out to Iraq, "I'd hold my head up high. I would have more to be ashamed about had I not acted on what I felt was right."

Hinzman has also shed a lot of light on how the U.S. military trains its troops. It is quite chilling to think about these so-called liberators bringing democracy to Iraq, in light of Hinzman's descriptions of how U.S. troops are trained.

"When we were marching around chanting songs like, `Train to kill. Kill we will,' or during bayonet training they'd ask, `What makes the grass grow?' and we'd say, `Blood, blood, bright red blood.'.

"It's all presented, at least on the surface, as, `Oh, it's just in humor, and no one's around listening to it,' but I think that really does put that mindset in a soldier that they're killers."

"Everyday conversation is like a gangsta rap song, the way women are referred to by people you would never suspect of talking that way."

"It's almost expected that you're going to refer to women and the enemy in negative terms-- objectifying the people you fight against so they no longer have humanity."

Hinzman is believed to be the first American soldier to leave the United States and seek asylum in Canada because of his opposition to the Iraq war. He is currently classified as a deserter by the U.S. military. A hearing some time in May will determine if Hinzman's application to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada requesting permission to stay as a refugee will be accepted.

Another GI who has escaped into Canada is Brandon Huey, with the help of Carl Rising Moore, a Vietnam vet turned peace activist and advocate for AWOL GIs.Huey joined the army when he was just 17 years old. At first Huey thought joining the army was a good move. As he puts it on the Canadian documentary TV show Disclosure , which followed his journey into Canada: "Growing up, I always thought it was a good thing to do, go into the military." After high school, I figured it'd be a good way to get money to go to college."

But soon after Huey enlisted, the prospect of going to fight a war he knew was wrong started unraveling his earlier ideas about the army. Huey started to look for a way out which brought him to an article on the internet about a new "underground railroad." From this article he found and contacted Carl Rising Moore with the following e-mail:

"I do not want to be a pawn in the government's war for oil, and have told my superiors that I want out of the military. They are not willing to chapter me out and tell me that I have no choice but to pack my bags and get ready to go to Iraq. This has led me to feel hopeless and I have thought about suicide several times. However, just a few days ago I discovered some articles about you and Freedom Underground on the Internet, which gave me new hope.

"I am desperate enough that I would gladly leave the country if that's what it meant to escape. I do not have much money, however, and would need a place to stay and help finding a job once I left the country.

"I pray that you or someone you know can help me. I am in Texas, I won't tell you exactly where because I don't know who could be reading this but I am willing to pack my bags and start driving to anywhere you tell me to go."

Huey made his connection and was able to escape into Canada. He told the filmmaker who traveled with him why he felt he had to desert. "I thought what was going on over there was immoral, it wasn't right. I feel that since Bush broke international law, that every soldier has the responsibility to resist it."

He also shed light on the fact that the military is trying to keep returning troops separate from deploying ones. Disclosure sums up Huey's comments, "He's heard service members in Iraq are getting incurable skin diseases because of the sand flies. Both sides are suffering from the use of depleted uranium, the effects of which will last long after the war is over. There are rumors some soldiers have died from dehydration due to a tight water ration."

"Morale is abysmal and the suicide rate is higher than normal. Some of the Humvees aren't properly armored--including the ones Hughey was supposed to drive. There is no exit strategy. Most damning--no sign of weapons of mass destruction."

Reservists Going AWOL

GI reservists have been playing a much bigger role in Iraq than in other U.S. military offensives. There is a lot of resentment among reservists, many of whom have served long tours in Iraq and have lost their jobs or businesses in the U.S. Jason Cheney is a Lance Corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. He is one of a number of reservists who applied for Conscience Objector status.

Jason Cheney had written a public letter telling his story, he starts telling how: "Last January my reserve unit, 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion in Tampa, FL, was ordered to active duty for `Operation Iraqi Freedom.' I walked into my unit on the day I was to report, and found my Commander. I told him that I would not be participating in this war. He looked at me funny, the thought of what I was telling him sinking in. He actually rubbed his head like in the movies! To him, I may have looked normal, like I was used to doing this, but that was one of the scariest moments of my life. At first I was humiliated, but realized that I was doing the right thing and I could just hope that some of those mocking us would join us in the fight.

".It's hard to explain the way that the military can get into your mind to somebody who has never been. But you are trained from the first day of basic training to not question orders and do what you are told, now!You learn to fear those in authority and want only to please them. So coming clean with yourself and admitting that you don't agree with your superiors is like jumping in a pit of hungry bulldogs. So you just go with the flow, that is until something really important begins to happen."

Jason Cheney was sent to New Orleans for further processing. At first he was alone, but as he tells it: "Three days later, my prayers came true. In walked PFC Alhassan, LCpl Nuniyants, and LCpl Walz. All CO's. I guess they were a little iffy around me because they didn't know who I was. But that lasted about 30 minutes and we all fast became good friends. Throughout the next few weeks, CO's came pouring in to the base. I guess we had a total of 27 CO's there at the time. We all weren't close, although now that I think back on it, I wish we had been. We even had a Staff Sergeant on our side from a reserve unit in New York, if I'm not mistaken. But we had a good group that stayed close throughout our ordeal and we still talk a lot.

".Eventually, everyone in my chain of command, all the way up to the commandant, denied my claim as a CO, and I was finally sent back to my unit in late August. Keep in mind that these Marines had just gotten back from Iraq, and they lost one of their soldiers while over there. Man were they so totally not happy to see me. I dealt with a lot of crap for the three weeks that I was there. I was forced to clean the oil drains at the end of the ramp twice a week. I `busted rust' on the AAV's all day at least four times. I was called a liar, cheater, coward, dirtbag, etc. I definitely know how to clean a bathroom now. All this while just waiting for them to demobilize me off of active duty.

"My Master Sergeant in Tampa asked me one day, `So, Cheney, if we get activated again, and have to go to war, what's gonna happen to you?' I told him, `I'll be in the same position I am now, Master Sergeant..'

"So now I have been off active duty for roughly five months, and haven't had a single call from my reserve unit. Hopefully they won't take so long this time to do what they need to do to discharge me. I would've like to have been classified as a CO, and gotten an honorable discharge, but now I'll get an OTH (other that honorable) discharge, and be on my way. I don't regret what I did, if anything, I'd say it is the best decision that I have ever made. I stood up for what I believed in, something that takes more guts than just doing what you are told.."


Recently at a public event, in a grotesque display of imperialist arrogance, George Bush made jokes about not finding Weapons of Mass Destruction. As countless lives continue to be torn apart by this war and thousands of people have died. And here Bush is cracking jokes about not finding WMDs, which were one of the main pretexts for the war to begin with. With such callous contempt for the lives of the people, it is not surprising to hear about the morale of U.S. troops--that seven in ten soldiers characterized the morale of their fellow soldiers as low or very low. It indicates some deep things about what effect the mountain full of lies used to justify the war against Iraq is having on U.S. troops. It is not surprising to hear that suicide rates are on the rise among U.S. troops.

On March 20 there was an anti-war demonstration of over 1,000 people at Fort Bragg Army Base in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Among those speaking were families of GIs, including GIs who had been killed in Iraq. And some news accounts also mentioned that there were young guys in the audience with the distinguishable "high and tight" hair cuts of the U.S. military. As a climate of war and repression continues to grow in the U.S., as the winds of preemptive wars and empire building blow throughout the land, a counterwind is blowing. A culture of war is being met by a culture of resistance to such unjust wars. Women and men who are being told to fight and die for a mountain of lies are searching for the truth and finding their conscience. They are finding underground railroads and a community of friends and allies who support their refusal to fight in an unjust war. And as this war progresses, we will welcome more GI resisters and conscientious objectors. And they should continue to find more of us to back them up!