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Nervous in the Service 

As war looms in Iraq, some U.S. reservists are trying to get out of their military obligations

Wednesday, Mar 12 2003
The wiry young man in the gray warm-up pants and faded T-shirt lowers his voice each time a passer-by gets too close. He's explaining why he's AWOL from the United States Marine Corps during wartime, and he's not exactly eager to be overheard by strangers. He doesn't want his real name printed, so I'll call him Junior. As we talk inside the cafe at the San Francisco Main Library, he sits at ramrod attention in a steel chair. Throughout a 45-minute interview, he never eases back into the chair.

Junior is 20 years old. In 2002, looking for a challenge after a dull freshman year of college, he signed up with the Marine Corps Reserves. It crossed his mind that he might be called to active duty someday, but he never thought he'd actually wind up slogging through an Iraqi desert with a rifle and a gas mask. Most of what he knew about war, after all, came from watching the almost comically psychotic Full Metal Jacket, and there hadn't been a major call-up of U.S. reservists since the Gulf War build-up of 1990.

But now, with George Bush threatening to strike at Saddam Hussein in a matter of weeks, if not days, Junior is trying desperately to bail out of the Marines. He has an attorney and is trying to be reclassified from cannon fodder to conscientious objector.

"When 9/11 happened, I never thought we would be going to war. I didn't think Bush was that crazy," he says. "Obviously, it would flash in my mind, 'Wow, we might go to war.' But it really wasn't a part of my decision to enlist at all. I never thought I would have to see war. I never thought I would have to support war."

As the U.S. ratchets up its military preparations for an invasion of Iraq, anti-war groups in the Bay Area report a noticeable rise in the number of calls from servicemen and -women seeking to cancel their military contracts.

"We've got a lot of calls from folks who want out of the military, and we help navigate them through the legal avenues of getting out," says Teresa Panepinto, a volunteer coordinator for the Oakland-based GI Rights Hotline, a nationwide 800 number sponsored by a network of nonprofit organizations that provide discharge counseling to both reservists and enlistees.

The number of calls to the hotline has increased sharply in recent months as White House war rhetoric has escalated. In December, the hotline recorded 1,730 calls. In January, there were 3,582 calls, nearly twice as many. Panepinto says annual call volume has jumped as well. Before 9/11, she says, the hotline averaged 15,000 calls a year. Last year, its volunteers handled 21,218 inquiries.

Although service members can be let go for a variety of reasons, including family or medical hardship, homosexuality, and physical or mental disability, most of those trying to get out now, says Panepinto, are conscientious objectors -- people who say they don't believe in war. Anti-war counselors say calls to the hotline spiked after Christmas, when enlistees and reservists talked with family and friends and began to worry about the personal consequences of going to war.

Despite the wave of concerned callers, the military says there has been no significant increase in the number of personnel actually leaving the armed services.

"The recruiting folks are continuing to make their missions, both as far as retention and new recruiting," says Steve Stromvall, a spokesman for the Army Reserves. "I can't say there's a trend there at all that we see."

Three days after the September 11, 2001 attacks, President Bush ordered 200,000 reservists nationwide to active duty for up to 270 days. As of last week, more than 168,000 of them had been called. About 900 Bay Area residents serve in the Army Reserves, and 300 of them have been deployed as part of the Iraq build-up.

Another Army Reserves spokesman, John Wagner, says that in the past year only three of the 12,000 reserve soldiers in California, Nevada, and Arizona sought conscientious objector status -- and none were from the Bay Area. According to the Defense Department, only four Marines have been discharged as conscientious objectors since 2001. However, 41 Marines were released as COs during the Gulf War, and anti-war counselors say it is too early to say how many service members may try to claim CO status while the threat of an Iraq war looms.

Mike Dedrick, a Seattle-based counselor for the GI Rights Hotline, says the anxiety level among reservists has jumped sharply in recent weeks. Many of them, he says, signed up for the extra money or education benefits offered by the military without realizing they might get called up. But, he says, "Things are not what they seem."

Since the U.S. has been at relative peace for the past dozen years, many reservists, especially younger ones, have been lulled into thinking that they'll never be involved in combat. Indeed, many sign up for reasons that have nothing to do with defending their country. They're looking for extra income, specialized job training, or simply a little dash of macho fun in an otherwise humdrum existence. But the nature of being a reservist is changing under a more belligerent commander in chief. Reservists today, says Dedrick, "are expected to serve, go on active-duty status."

Junior says his reserve unit recently was called up and sent to Camp Pendleton, where it's awaiting deployment orders. But Junior didn't show up at the big Marine training base in northern San Diego County.

"Right now I'm supposed to be deployed, so I'm AWOL," he says. "That's a crime. I have to turn myself in."

His path to the Marine Reserves is a familiar one. He joined partly because he needed extra cash for school, but also because his life lacked a sense of direction. He had a year of college under his belt at the time, but felt he was in a rut and things weren't going his way. Joining the Marine Reserves would be a challenge he otherwise wasn't getting in life. His military specialty is assisting helicopters in landing and storing combat vehicles.

Junior had no problem coping with the physical rigors of boot camp. But he says he felt increasingly uncomfortable with the moral dilemmas of war as he learned to fire a weapon and kill with a bayonet thrust. He began to formulate his conscientious-objector beliefs while still in basic training.

His anti-war epiphany, he says, came during a target-shooting exercise. He scored well enough to earn an expert marksman rating, but his instructor refused to confer it, saying Junior had an "attitude problem." Junior confronted his superior over the remark.

"He said he thought in real-life combat I wouldn't score well. It pissed me off and I told him he was right, I wouldn't score well -- I think killing is wrong," says Junior, who began researching his options for getting out while still in boot camp. He called around to different organizations, including the GI Rights Hotline.

Junior says that, as a CO, he'd rather sit in jail than go into combat. He's been working with a local attorney on his conscientious objector application, and is now waiting for letters from friends and relatives who can vouch for his beliefs. With those in hand, he plans to turn himself in and expects to be sent to a military lockup in New Orleans. There he will wait until the government evaluates his CO application, usually a lengthy process. He says he isn't so worried about the jail time, though.

"I've already been through boot camp and other training, so hopefully it won't be so bad," he says. "Plus, it's the last time I have to deal with these people."

Entry-level Marine reservists earn $180 per weekend of reserve duty. Those on active duty receive $1,400 a month. Junior says he'd be happy to give back his reserve pay to the government. It wasn't much, he says, though he doesn't know the exact figure.

"If they demand it back, I'd give them their money back," he says.

While Junior may be relegated to non-combatant status to fulfill his reserve contract, he's optimistic that the Marines will let him go. The military has made it clear it will jettison those who are insufficiently gung-ho or otherwise fail to meet its demands. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that military service is not just a job, it's a calling. And Junior clearly doesn't hear the trumpet.

About The Author

George B. Sanchez


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