Where Will They Get The Troops?

Where Will They Get The Troops?

As the Obama administration debates whether to send tens of thousands of extra
troops to Afghanistan, an already overstretched military is increasingly struggling
to meet its deployment numbers. Surprisingly, one place it seems to be targeting
is military personnel who go absent without leave (AWOL) and then are caught
or turn themselves in.

Hidden behind the gates of military bases across the U.S., troops facing AWOL
and desertion charges regularly find themselves in the hands of a military that
metes out informal, open-ended punishments by forcing them to wait months —
sometimes more than a year — to face military justice. In the meantime, some
of these soldiers are offered a free pass out of this legal limbo as long as
they agree to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq — even if they have been diagnosed
with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In August 2008 at TomDispatch.com, we reported on the deplorable conditions at the 82nd Replacement
Barracks at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There, more than 50 members of Echo
Platoon of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 82nd Replacement Detachment were being
held while awaiting AWOL and desertion charges. Investigations launched since
then — in part in response to our article — have revealed that the plight
of members of Echo Platoon is not an isolated one. It is, in fact, disturbingly
commonplace on other bases throughout the United States. And it is from these
“holdover units,” filled with disgruntled soldiers who have gone AWOL,
many of whom are struggling with PTSD from previous deployments in war zones,
that the military is hoping to help meet its manpower needs for Afghanistan.

Nightmare in Echo Platoon

On August 16th, determined to put an end to unbearable mental and psychological
pain, Private Timothy Rich, while on 24-hour suicide watch, attempted to jump
to his death from the roof of Echo Platoon’s barracks (where he had been held
since being arrested for going AWOL). Prior to his suicide attempt, Rich had
been offered amnesty by the military in exchange for agreeing to deploy to Afghanistan
or Iraq.

He had already been through a hellish year awaiting a discharge and treatment
for mental health problems. “I want to leave here very bad,” he explained.
“For four months they have been telling me that I’ll get out next week.
I didn’t see an end to it, so I figured I’d try and end it myself.”

He fell three stories, bouncing off a tree, before hitting the ground and cracking
his spine. The military gave him a back brace, psychotropic drugs, and put him
on a renewed, 24-hour suicide watch.

While he has recently been discharged from the military, Rich was not atypical
of the soldiers of Echo Platoon, some forced to wait a year or more in legal
limbo — in dilapidated buildings under the authority of abusive commanders
— for legal proceedings to begin, and many struggling with mental illness or
PTSD from previous deployments. As Specialist Dustin Stevens told us last August:
“[It’s] horrible here. We are treated like animals. Some of us are going
crazy, some are sick. There are people here who should be in mental hospitals.
And the way I see it, I did nothing wrong.”

Shortly after our story was published, Stevens told us that at least half a
dozen soldiers in the platoon, including him, were suddenly given trial dates.
Although he was likely to be found guilty and face punishment, Stevens claimed
to be “relieved” to have an end in sight. Soon after, according to
Echo Platoon informants, their barracks were condemned as a result of a military
investigation of the site and, on October 19th, the platoon itself was disbanded.

Recently, due possibly to the attention his story drew to the mistreatment
and indefinite detention soldiers were facing in Echo Platoon, Stevens was informed
by the military he would be “chaptered out” — in other words, given
an administrative discharge from the Army — and will not be forced to serve
formal prison time.

James Branum, Stevens’ civilian lawyer, as well as the legal adviser to the
G.I. Rights Hotline of Oklahoma and co-chair of the Military Law Task Force
(MLTF), summed developments up this way: “After repeated complaints and
congressional inquiry, Echo Platoon was shut down. The whole place was shut
down. Everyone was scattered to other units. If your old unit still exists,
they are sending you to your old unit. We know that at least one of the NCOs
[non-commissioned officers] in charge of Echo Platoon was fired. I think this
is a positive thing.”

Echoes of Echo

The troubling state of affairs in Echo Platoon may only have been the tip of
the iceberg when it comes to Army holdover units. Evidence suggests that soldiers
being held on other bases in the United States for AWOL and desertion face similar
apathy or intentional neglect – and that they, too, are often left
with the choice between living in legal limbo or agreeing to be sent to a war
zone.

Scott Wildman, a former Army Specialist, went AWOL in 2007 when he was unable
to receive adequate help for severe PTSD sustained after a 15-month deployment
to Iraq. In February 2009, he finally turned himself in at Fort Lewis in Washington
State, only to find himself lost in a labyrinthine bureaucracy. For the first
four months, he was not allowed to leave a confined area and was forbidden even
to walk around by himself.

Here’s
how he describes his experience: “I was flipping out. My wife had left
me while I was over there. I hadn’t seen my kids in a couple years. I came home
and tried to get help. At Fort Lewis, they do not care about you. I had been
diagnosed by civilian and military doctors with severe depression, PTSD, and
severe anxiety. When you are at the unit, they make fun of you. They crack PTSD
jokes. They all have it too, but they’re too cool.”

During the eight months he has been held at Fort Lewis, Wildman claims he has
suffered verbal abuse and substandard mental healthcare. “The command treated
me like dirt. My commander ignored me for the first couple months until my roommate
jumped me. They’ll make sure you’re in the room and call you a ‘bunch of PTSD
pussies.'”

Four weeks ago, Wildman was informed that he would be court-martialed, but
was not given a trial date. Feeling he had no other choice, he went AWOL again
and remains so today.

“I’d been going to see some military counselors, but we weren’t making
progress on the real problem…. They give us classes on calm and peacefulness,
but they are right near the shooting ranges. There’s gunfire and explosions
all around, people being screamed at all the time because it’s infantry. It’s
not a good place for someone with [mental health] issues.”

At one point, despite a confidentiality protocol that should have prevented
it, Wildman’s commanders went through his medical evaluations and found out
that he had been involved in the accidental killing of two little girls in Iraq.
They proceeded to needle him by threatening to write him up for war crimes.

Explaining why he once again went AWOL, Wildman says, “I didn’t know what
was going to happen next. I had to remove myself from that situation.”

“Examples of how the military is treating soldiers, like the case of Wildman,
are common,” comments Kathleen Gilberd, co-chair of the MLTF. She also
points out that the Army, stretched thin by years of multiple deployments to
two war zones, has taken to downplaying potentially severe medical conditions
to keep soldiers eligible for service overseas. It is commonplace, she reports,
for formerly AWOL soldiers to be “bribed” with offers of having all
charges, or potential charges, dropped, as long as they accept deployment to
Iraq or Afghanistan.

“A lot of folks who are under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed are being deployed
second and third times,” she adds. “Barrier mechanisms that should
prevent this from happening are being routinely ignored… If someone is on
psychotropic medication or is diagnosed with a fresh psychiatric condition,
there should be a 90-day observation period and delay, under DOD [Department
of Defense] policy.”

Remarkably, that sometimes-ignored 90-day hold period for military personnel
on psychotropic medications does not always apply to soldiers who are diagnosed
with traumatic brain injury (TBI) of a sort commonly caused by roadside bombs.
According to an Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center analysis, reported in
the Denver Post in August
2008, more than “43,000 service members — two-thirds of them in the Army
or Army Reserve — were classified as nondeployable for medical reasons three
months before they deployed” to Iraq. The process, if anything, only seems
to be accelerating when it comes to Afghanistan.

Deploying the Undeployables

Not all soldiers go AWOL in order to save their minds and bodies. Some are
trying to save their families. One soldier held in Bravo Platoon, a holdover
unit of the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs
(who did not want his name made public) disclosed that, having returned from
service in Iraq, he was told he would soon be redeployed there. Because his
mother was ill, he refused and was threatened with a court martial.

“When I turned myself in, I submitted a binder with letters from my mom’s
doctors and state officials that made clear that I needed to be home to take
care of my mother. At that time, they had me on restriction and lockdown 24/7
to keep me from leaving again. Later they punished me. I was assigned extra
duty and received a rank reduction from E3 to a private. I was treated like
crap.”

He and the other soldiers in his holdover platoon were subjected to verbal
abuse and made to do menial jobs. He claimed that he was threatened daily with
being sent to the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas,
the military’s maximum security correctional facility — and then was urged
to agree to go back to Iraq instead. It made no difference that he had “no-go”
orders from doctors at Fort Carson exempting him from overseas deployment.

His commander promised him a clean slate if he would redeploy to Iraq, insisting
that the only alternative was a court-martial. Despite a regimen of humiliation,
he stood his ground and was finally discharged for family hardship in September
2008. There were at least 11 other soldiers then in Bravo Platoon. Like their
counterparts in Echo, most were told that their records would be wiped clean
once they agreed to redeploy. The alternative was a non-judicial punishment,
followed by a court-martial some months down the line.

As he tells it, Sergeant Heath Carter, originally based at Fort Polk, Louisiana,
found himself torn between pressing family needs and an indifferent military
command. On returning from the invasion of Iraq, he discovered his daughter
living in what he believed to be an unsafe environment. Heath and his new wife
started consulting attorneys in order to secure custody of the child. Precisely
during this time, the military began changing Carter’s duty station. He was
moved from Fort Polk to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, then on to Fort Stewart, Georgia,
reducing his chances of gaining custody.

Convinced that this was a crucial matter for his daughter, he requested compassionate
reassignment to Fort Leavenworth, Missouri, about two hours away from her. His
appeals to the military command, to his chaplain, even to his congressman failed.
In May 2007, having run out of options, he went AWOL from Fort Stewart, heading
home to fight for custody, which he won.

This January 25th, however, he was arrested at his home by Military Police,
who flew him back to Fort Stewart where he has been awaiting charges for the
past eight months. Being a sergeant, he is in a regular unit, not a holdover
one. Initially, his commander assured him he would be sent home within a month
and a half. Several months later, the same commander decided to court-martial
him.

Carter feels frustrated. “If they had done that in the beginning, I would
have been home by now. It’s taken this long for them to decide. Now I have to
wait for the court-martial. If we had known it would take this long, my family
could have moved down here. Every time I ask when I’ll have a trial, they say
it’s only going to be another two weeks. I get the feeling they’re lying. They’ve
messed with my pay. They’re trying to push me to do something wrong.”

His ordeal has forced Carter to reflect on America’s wars. Once, he admits,
he was proud of his mission in Iraq. Now, he sees things differently. “I
don’t think there is any reason for us to be there except for oil.”

His wife, who witnessed her husband’s callous treatment, says, “He’s been
there [Iraq], done that, and seen horrible, terrible things, so of course he
doesn’t want to go back.”

While the Obama administration decides how many thousands of troops to send
to Afghanistan, service men and women are already facing repeated deployments,
oftentimes while having already been diagnosed with medical conditions that
should render them unfit for deployment.

Nothing has changed for these beleaguered troops, except the venue of their
maltreatment and the desperation with which the military is now struggling to
make the necessary deployment numbers as it continues to fight two endless wars.

Dahr
Jamail, an independent journalist, is the author of The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight
in Iraq and Afghanistan
(Haymarket Books, 2009), and Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded
Journalist in Occupied Iraq
(Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported
from occupied Iraq for nine months, as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan,
and Turkey over the last five years.

Sarah Lazare is the project coordinator for Courage to Resist, an
organization that supports troops who refuse to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She is also a freelance writer.

Bhaswati Sengupta contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 Dahr Jamail and Sarah Lazare