Breaking Ranks: The Story Behind the Story

| Thu Oct. 21, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

My interest in antiwar soldiers began, as many of my stories do, locally. I live in Vermont, which has suffered the highest per capita number of deaths in Iraq of any state. I had heard about forums being held around the state that featured military families who were speaking out against the war. This intrigued me, since I had seen almost nothing written about soldiers and military families who were opposed to war.

I have interviewed and spent time with many soldiers for other stories that I’ve written for Mother Jones (“No Child Unrecruited,” November/December 2002; “Recruiting the Class of 2005,” January/February 2002), and it immediately struck me how significant this development was. Soldiers are trained to obey orders, not to challenge the commander in chief. If a few soldiers and their families were publicly breaking ranks, I figured there might be a burgeoning underground of others soldiers who think the same way. And that is just what I found.

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My first calls were to groups that work with and counsel GIs, and they confirmed that inquiries from soldiers looking for a way out of fighting in Iraq were way up. I then began getting phone calls and emails from dissident soldiers and families all around the world. A sister called about her brother, who had deserted the Army rather than return to Iraq, and was now living on the run in his car somewhere in California. Another sister in Washington called me to tell me about her brother, who had become suicidal since returning from Iraq, but the VA was denying he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) so that he could be returned to fight again. Military counselors in Scandinavia and Europe emailed to tell me about American GI’s who were inquiring about applying for conscientious objector status. I also heard about soldiers fleeing to Canada rather than fight. I met with three of them in Toronto. The stories of Jeremy Hinzman, Brandon Hughey and Dave Sanders were powerful and tragic. Each had joined the military to get job training, and to pay for college. That fateful step has now led them to flee the country rather than fight in a war they each feel is unjust, illegal and immoral.

The political movement of antiwar soldiers basically formed under my feet as I researched this story. When I first began locating antiwar soldiers in early July, they were a disparate group. At the end of July, at the Veterans For Peace annual conference in Boston, Iraq Veterans Against the War was launched. No mainstream media covered the event.

I interviewed several dozen Iraq War soldiers for this story. I was surprised to find that nearly all of the men and women I spoke suffer from some form of PTSD, and many have contemplated suicide. They wouldn’t volunteer this info, but if you knew to ask them about it, they would open up and talk about it. As Mike Hoffman, head of Iraq Veterans Against the War, told me, “Once you go through war, you’re not the same. You can’t help it. There is something fundamentally wrong about it. People are not supposed to go around and randomly kill people.”

Last week, my town had a big homecoming party for four local guys who just returned from Iraq. There was a lot of partying around the picnic tables at the local ball fields, where the celebration was. I was glad my neighbors made it home in one piece. But having just finished the research for “Breaking Ranks,” I knew that these veterans will be dealing with what they did and saw in Iraq for the rest of their lives.