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Breaking Ranks

More and more U.S. soldiers are speaking out against the war in Iraq -- and some are refusing to fight.

| Mon Oct. 11, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

Several of Hoffman’s Marine Corps buddies have now joined Iraq Veterans Against the War, and the stream of phone calls and emails from other soldiers is constant. Not long ago, he says, a soldier home on leave from Iraq told him, “Just keep doing what you’re doing, because you’ve got more support than you can imagine over there.”

Members of IVAW led the protest march that greeted the Republican convention in New York, and their ranks swelled that week. But the protest’s most poignant moment came after the march, as veterans from wars past and present retreated to Summit Rock in Central Park. Joe Bangert, a founding member of Vietnam Veterans of America, addressed the group. “One of the most painful things when we returned from Vietnam was that the veterans from past wars weren’t there for us,” he said. “They didn’t support us in our questioning and our opposition to war. And I just want to say,” he added, peering intently at the younger veterans, “we are here for you. We have your back.”

There was no Iraq veterans’ group for Brandon Hughey to turn to in December 2003. Alone and terrified, sitting in his barracks at Fort Hood, Texas, the 18-year-old private considered his options. He could remain with his Army unit, which was about to ship out to Iraq to fight a war that Hughey was convinced was pointless and immoral. Or he could end his dilemma—by taking his own life.


Brandon Hughey

Army private Brandon Hughey is one of six U.S. soldiers seeking refugee status in Canada.

Desperate, Hughey trolled the Internet. He emailed a peace activist and Vietnam veteran in Indianapolis, Carl Rising-Moore, who made him an offer: If he was serious about his opposition to the war, Rising-Moore said, he would help him flee to Canada.

The next day, there was a knock on Hughey’s door: His deployment date had been moved up, and his unit was leaving within 24 hours. Hughey packed his belongings in a military duffel, jumped in his car, and drove north. As he and Rising-Moore approached the Rainbow Bridge border post at Niagara Falls, Hughey was nervous and somber. “I had the sense that once I crossed that border, I might never be able to go back,” he recalls. “It made me sad.”

Months after fleeing Fort Hood, the baby-faced 19-year-old still sports a military-style buzz cut. Sitting at the kitchen table of the Quaker family that is sheltering him in St. Catharines, Ontario, Hughey tells me about growing up in San Angelo, Texas, where he was raised by his father. In high school he played trumpet and loved to soup up cars. But when his father lost his job as a computer programmer, he was forced to use up his son’s college fund. So at 17, Hughey enlisted in the Army, with a $5,000 signing bonus to sweeten the deal.

Quiet and unassuming, Hughey grows intense when the conversation turns to Iraq. “I would fight in an act of defense, if my home and family were in danger,” he says. “But Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. They barely had an army left, and Kofi Annan actually said [attacking Iraq was] a violation of the U.N. charter. It’s nothing more than an act of aggression.” As for his duty to his fellow soldiers, he insists, “You can’t go along with a criminal activity just because others are doing it.”

So far, only six U.S. soldiers are known to have fled to Canada rather than fight in Iraq. But in 2003, the Army listed more than 2,774 soldiers as deserters (military personnel are classified as having deserted after not reporting for duty for more than a month), and many observers believe the actual number may be even higher; the Army has acknowledged that it is not aggressively hunting down soldiers who don’t show up. The GI Rights Hotline, a counseling operation run by a national network of antiwar groups, reports that it now receives between 3,000 and 4,000 calls per month from soldiers seeking a way out of the military. Some of the callers simply never thought they would see combat, says J.E. McNeil, director of the Center on Conscience and War. But others are turning against the war because of what they saw while serving in Iraq, and they don’t want to be sent back there. “It’s people learning what war really is,” she says. “A lot of people are naive—and for a while, the military was portraying itself as being a peace mission.”

Unlike Vietnam, when young men facing the draft could convincingly claim that they opposed all war, enlistees in a volunteer military have a tough time qualifying as conscientious objectors. In the Army, 61 soldiers applied for conscientious objector status last year, and 31 of those applications were granted. “The Army does understand people can have a change of heart,” notes spokeswoman Martha Rudd. “But you can’t ask for a conscientious objector discharge based on moral or religious opposition to a particular war.”

Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey may be the most unlikely of the soldiers who have come out against the war. A Marine since 1992, he has been a recruiter, infantry instructor, and combat platoon leader. He went to Iraq primed to fight. “9/11 pissed me off,” he says. “I was ready to go kill a raghead.”


Jimmy Massey

Jimmy Massey went to Iraq a gung-ho Marine, but returned shaken after killing civilians.

Shortly after Massey arrived in Iraq, his unit was ordered to man roadblocks. To stop cars, the Marines would raise their hands. If the drivers kept going, Massey says, “we would just light ’em up. I didn’t find out until later on, after talking to an Iraqi, that when you put your hand up in the air, it means ‘Hello.’” He estimates that his men killed 30 civilians in one 48-hour period.

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