Heather Wokusch.com – 2007-07-04 22:38:04
“The point now is how do we work together to achieve important goals. And one such goal is a democracy in Germany.”
— George W. Bush, May 2006
There’s an unexpected front in the Bush administration’s “war on terror” — Germany. And the roughly 68,000 US troops stationed across the country often find themselves in the center of controversy over US foreign policy.
Take Agustín Aguayo, a Mexican-American conscientious objector (CO) formerly based in Bavaria. Aguayo unsuccessfully applied for CO status before deploying in 2004, and citing nonviolence, even refused to carry a loaded weapon during his year as a combat medic in Iraq.
In late 2005, Aguayo appealed to a US Federal court on grounds that his CO status had been wrongfully denied, and after his bid was rejected, fled Germany rather than redeploy to Iraq in September 2006. Before surrendering to military authorities in California less than a month later, Aguayo held a press conference stating, “I have come to believe that it is wrong to destroy life, that it is wrong to use war, that it is immoral, and I can no longer go down that path.”
Aguayo was promptly sent back to Germany and thrown in the brig. His case became something of a national cause célèbre, with prominent German newspapers reporting his eventual court martial and conviction for desertion.
Other US troops in Germany seeking early discharge have been luckier, and many can thank the Bammental-based Military Counseling Network (MCN). In fact, all seven of the conscientious objector applicants the MCN supported through the application process in 2006 ended up receiving Honorable discharges.
One was former US Army Specialist Kyle D. Huwer, who served for one and a half years before, as he puts it, “I finally came to my senses and realized that what I was doing was wrong.”
Another was former US Army Private Clifton F. Hicks, who served from the summer of 2003 to late 2005. Hicks says, “I joined to defend the people of the United States, and when I found our Army was not doing that, and that I was in fact being used to further the goals of evil men, I began to question my involvement in such an organization.”
For some troops in Germany, going AWOL (absent without leave) seems the only option, such as “John,” who took a stateside leave earlier this year and never returned.
Even John’s family does not know where he is now, and it could be for the best. His parents are avid Bush-supporters; his uncle works for a weapons manufacturer and his stepfather, for an oil company.
The only person John has fleeting contact with is his girlfriend, “Sarah,” doing her best to cope with his absence. Sarah had lived in Germany with John and is frustrated with life back in the US: “Watching the news here really makes me angry, people are so detached from reality. They increase the troop deployments from 12 to 15 months, and no one besides the military families recognizes it. They are sending back national guard people for multiple deployments, no one recognizes it. You hardly hear anything about what that puts on the families, emotionally and financially. I’m deeply mad and sad about that at the same time.”
Initially gung-ho about enlisting, John said second thoughts arose when he was repairing a phone hookup in Baghdad and spotted “Abu Ghraib” on a faulty fiberoptic cable. He felt part of something wrong: “I didn’t directly have blood on my hands, but I was part of it.”
John granted an exclusive interview for this article, and spoke about becoming disenchanted with the military. Of his year in Baghdad: “It was not what I was expecting at all. There are people in Iraq making HUGE sums of money profiting over poorly supervised and ill-run government contracts. When you hear about the cost of the war in Iraq, it’s this kind of thing that’s doing it, not the body armor, having to pay the soldiers a couple of meager extra bucks, or armoring the humvees. It’s paying KBR $90 for every time I turn in my laundry while paying poor Pakistani and Filipino workers who work long hours with no days off for years at a time (and handling thousands of bags of laundry) $15 a day.”
John’s unit returned to Germany in mid-2006, but he says, “We were treated like dirt still, and being late in the morning was a serious thing because they were afraid of people killing themselves overnight.”
After a few months out of Iraq, John felt “a tantalizing taste of freedom and what life should be like, not what life in the army is.” Rather than deploying to Afghanistan later this year, he approached the Military Counseling Network and decided to go AWOL.
While MCN counsels US troops on a range of early discharge possibilities, case manager Tim Huber says that conscientious objection and hardship are currently the most prevalent choices: “These two discharges reflect an expansive array of problems with the military, including problems with the morality of the current war in Iraq, family issues, a dismissive attitude on the military’s part towards post-traumatic stress disorder, and a general fed-upedness towards rotational deployments with no end in sight.”
Huber and MCN Director Michael J. Sharp face a daunting workload. Since the beginning of this year, they have handled roughly ten new soldier cases every month — a 30% increase over the numbers averaged in 2006.
Of course, the majority of US troops in Germany are not seeking early discharge. The military has become a way of life, and that can present challenges when they eventually return home and look for civilian work.
That’s where Sudie Nolan-Cassimatis comes in, a vibrant woman who teaches job-application skills to retiring service members. As part of the Department of Labor’s Transition Assistance Program, Nolan-Cassimatis travels across Germany to different military bases each week, coaching classes of 10-50 on the finer points of entering the US job market. Basics such as writing résumés and answering interview questions are covered in the course, but as Nolan-Cassimatis observes, “these things seem very straightforward to those of us who have never
been in uniform, but don’t seem at all straightforward to folks who have spent their careers in the military.”
She’s clearly dedicated to her work: “Mostly, I am amazed and touched each week at the stories I hear from soldiers. Many of them have been deployed twice or more, even the soldiers who are only 22 years old, and they have a resilient spirit. They’ve given up multiple years of their lives. Many of them have kids that they’ve been away from for years at a time. I think it’s only fair that they get a shot at a job on the outside.”
Nolan-Cassimatis knows firsthand about having a loved one serving in a war zone. Her husband Dimitri is currently in Baghdad working as a Squadron Surgeon.
Before deploying, Dimitri Cassimatis was a cardiologist at the sprawling Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC) in southwestern Germany. It is the largest American hospital outside of the US and the first stop for medical and psychiatric evacuees out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
C-17 cargo planes drop off the wounded day and night, and LRMC’s staff of 2,200 can handle 1000 beds in an emergency. A typical day at LRMC sees nine new acute cases.
On a recent visit to the facility, the Iraq war’s toll on US troops was brutally evident. A 23-year-old soldier, physically shattered and facing blindness, was among many battling for life in the Intensive Care Unit. Couldn’t even see the newly-earned purple heart pinned to his pillow.
In the next ward, a fresh-faced young woman whose neck had been crushed during a bad fall. A 19-year-old nearby contemplating life with just one leg. Relentless stories of IED (improvised explosive device) attacks and sniper assaults; youth putting a brave face on lives torn apart and innocence lost.
The wounded at LRMC may be under the radar for most Germans, but debate continues over whether the US military presence there ultimately perpetuates the Bush administration’s wars.
Just last week, a group of Iraq veterans and German peace activists demonstrated outside Katterbach Army Airfield in Bavaria, trying to convince active-duty soldiers preparing for a 15-month deployment to reconsider.
As Adam Kokesh, a 25-year-old member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, “There is no military solution for Iraq. An army can only destroy.” Kokesh and other US veterans were also trying to raise awareness about the struggle of those in the Bavarian town of Ansbach working to resist the expansion of a US military base there.
Advocates point out that Americans have lived peacefully in the country for decades, supporting the economy, contributing to communities and befriending locals.
But as Lori Hurlebaus of Courage to Resist notes, “Even if the German military was not involved in the invasion of Iraq, there is a military conducting a war of aggression from German soil.”
1. Read more about Agustín Aguayo’s case (www.aguayodefense.org) and check out the site’s great links. Aguayo returned to California in May for a whirlwind speaking tour; invite him to speak in your city via the site.
2. Learn more about war resisters at Courage to Resist (www.couragetoresist.org).
3. Read more about early discharge possibilities at the Military Counseling Network (www.getting-out.de).
4. Check out Iraq Veterans Against the War (www.ivaw.org) founded in 2004 “to give a voice to the large number of active duty service people and veterans who are against this war, but are under various pressures to remain silent.” Adam Kokesh and another IVAW member, Liam Madden, are being harassed by the Marines for their antiwar activities. Learn more and take action at the IVAW site.
5. Visit Veterans for Commonsense (www.veteransforcommonsense.org), which aims “to raise the unique and powerful voices of veterans so that our military, veterans, freedom, and national security are protected and enhanced, for ourselves and for future generations.”
Originally published: June 10, 2007
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