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Lost in Military Limbo

Inside the world of AWOL soldiers.

| Mon Aug. 10, 2009 12:41 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Echo Platoon is part of the 82nd Replacement Detachment of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Soldiers in the platoon are relegated to living quarters in a set of dimly lit concrete rooms. Pipes peep out of missing ceiling tiles and a musty smell permeates beds placed on cracked linoleum floors.

For soldiers who have gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave) and then voluntarily turned themselves in or were forcibly returned, the detention conditions here in Echo Platoon only serve to reinforce the inescapability of their situation. They remain suspended in a legal limbo of forced uncertainty that can extend from several months to a year or more, while the military takes its time deciding their fate. Some of them, however, are offered a free pass out of this military half-life—but only if they agree to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq.

Specialist Kevin McCormick, 21, who was held in Echo Platoon for more than seven months on AWOL and desertion charges, was typically offered release, subject to accepting deployment to Iraq, despite being suicidal. "Echo is like jail," he says, "with some privileges. [You are] just stuck there with horrible living conditions. There's black mold on the building [and] when I first got there, there were five or six people to a room, which is like a cell block with cement brick walls. The piping and electricals are above the tiles, so if anything leaks or bursts, it goes right down into the room."

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Specialist Michael St. Clair went AWOL because he could not obtain treatment from the military for his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On turning himself in, he ended up consigned to Echo Platoon. As he recalls it, "The number fluctuates all the time, but on an average you have 50 people sharing two functioning toilets and a single shower… Except for a couple of rooms none have doors, and there is minimal privacy with four or more people to a room. It's stressful not knowing what's going to happen to you."

Former military recruiter Staff Sargeant Jeffrey Nelbach went AWOL in 2004 in hopes of salvaging his family life. (It is not uncommon for soldiers to remain AWOL for years at a time.) Now, he's paying for it with a stint in Echo. He confirms the awful conditions. "It is an old, moldy building with bad ventilation. Fifty-plus people use the same latrine. And more and more people are going there."

Nelbach, who is quick to say that he's "not really for the war and not really against it," has lost his house and is struggling to support his children with no income during his first few months in Echo, a limbo-land where even military pay can be suspended. His experience has convinced him that "military justice is arbitrary and if your chain of command is bad, it means everything up is bad."

"Not Many Have This Opportunity."

According to Major Virginia McCabe, spokesperson for the 82nd Airborne Division, AWOL soldiers are confined to the holdover section at the 82nd Replacement Detachment at Fort Bragg if they are deemed a flight risk. She offered no criteria, however, for just how that is determined. "Each AWOL soldier has his or her own special circumstances," she said. "They stay in a holding platoon until a legal decision is taken. Or they might say they made a mistake and return to serve."

Normally, soldiers on a legal "hold" of some kind end up in platoons like Echo. It may be because he or she is seeking a medical discharge, switching assignments, or waiting for a court martial to be convened.

Echo Platoon, however, seems to be made up of a contingent of wayward soldiers the military does not know what to do with. Captain Kevin Thaxton, commander of the 82nd Replacement Detachment, of which Echo Platoon is a part, offers this explanation:

"While the entire replacement detachment contains 500 soldiers, there are 40 AWOLs in Echo and about 20 in for holdovers/personnel issues and post-UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] Punishment, totaling about 60 people.
"Some are given the opportunity to go back with their unit and deploy. Those who accept do not exactly have their records cleared, but they do get to start over, keeping in mind we know this person has had problems before. We don't advertise that they went AWOL, but the commanders and the NCOs know about it. Not many have this opportunity. It depends on how long they've been AWOL. You have to say OK, would I trust a person who decided they didn't want to serve at one time, someone who is always on the fence?"

"Having a Head Full of Insanity"

One soldier in Echo Platoon, Specialist Dustin Stevens, had gone AWOL before the invasion of Iraq, and did so because he was opposed to all wars. On turning himself in, he's been in the holdover section for six months now awaiting AWOL and desertion charges. He may not be halfway through his purgatory. Others in the platoon have been held for more than a year in a no man's land of small-scale arbitrary punishment in which, according to soldiers in Echo Platoon, officers in charge regularly verbally abuse them as well as make physical threats.

Kevin McCormick describes his experience this way: "You're less than human to the commanders. [They act as if] you don't deserve to be alive. A sergeant told us he wanted to take us out and shoot us in the back of the head. We get threatened all the time there."

On being questioned about such threats, Captain Thaxton played it safe. "I can't confirm or deny verbal abuse," he responded. "It depends on if a person is angry after something has been done."

On average, two new soldiers are assigned to Echo Platoon every week, according to Stevens. Resigned to a long wait, Stevens sums up life in the platoon this way:

"I've been here almost seven months, and only a few people have gotten out during that time. There was a Purple Heart veteran who was here and is now serving a 15-month jail sentence. One guy, gone for 10 years, got two years in prison without pay, although he had a newborn daughter. It doesn't make sense. Unfortunately, our sentence does not take into account the time served here. Some of us get paid, albeit the E1 or entry level wages, but I'd gladly give them the money back if I could go home...
"[Soldiers in Echo Platoon] don't... get the benefits others get. You are pretty much a prisoner. You can't do anything. They say you are not confined, but you can't go more than 50 miles off post. It's almost impossible to get leave unless in dire emergency, so we're just sitting here, day by day."

Downplaying the punitive nature of the platoon, Captain Thaxton admits only that "people who get in trouble are restricted to post. It keeps them from getting in fights with other soldiers. However, they are allowed access to Post Exchange [shopping], the chapel and dining facilities along with a 50-mile radius for travel."

Thaxton repeated several times that soldiers in Echo Platoon "can go to behavioral health [care]." While the soldiers themselves admit this is true and that they do have access to mental-health care, they say it is of very poor quality. Doctors, they claim, just focus on "drugging them up," rather than giving them adequate therapy in order to help them deal with their specific problems. The platoon's soldiers regularly confide suicidal urges to each other.

In Echo Platoon the deleterious effects the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are having on ordinary soldiers are clearly visible. By December 2006, it was already estimated that that 38% of all Army personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan had served multiple tours of duty. By October 2007, the Army reported that approximately 12% of all combat troops in Iraq were coping by taking antidepressants and/or sleeping pills.

In April 2008, the Rand Corporation, a military-affiliated think-tank, released a study stating: "Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan—300,000 in all—report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression."

Like others who have turned against America's wars after multiple deployments to Iraq, Michael St. Clair has his regrets:

"I had always idealized the military, like we were going out to fight the Nazis, and had real moral high ground. When I got over [to Iraq], I was shocked by the brutality. My whole first tour, I can honestly say I never saw an Iraqi guy who deserved to die, who had weapons or was attacking us or anything. In many instances American soldiers took really bad decisions that killed innocent Iraqis. I had a hard time reconciling that with what I had thought I would be doing. By the time my second tour was over, I had morphed into a killer. A lot of people don't understand what war actually is. I don't know what's worse: being charged with felony or having a head full of insanity."

On St. Clair's return from his second tour, the military did a post-deployment health assessment, and six months later a reassessment. That is when his PTSD symptoms began to appear, and he was prescribed medication for depression. According to St. Clair, when he reported a panic attack, he was told he would not be sent to sniper school, and that he would not be given any further training because he was considered too unstable, which made him a danger to the country. Nevertheless, his military psychiatrist was, he claimed, pressured by higher ups to declare that he had a pre-Army personality disorder and was not suffering from PTSD. In despair, he went AWOL for 10 months before turning himself in.

His story is one more instance of the troop-unfriendly and skewed practices of the military machine. Diagnosed with PTSD, he was finally given a medical discharge for a personality disorder in an effort by the military to continue their systematic denial of the psychologically destructive effects of war.

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