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Lost in Military Limbo

Inside the world of AWOL soldiers.

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

Staying AWOL

After his deployment to Iraq, Kevin McCormick went AWOL because he felt suicidal and wasn't getting the help he needed. While in Iraq, he says, "I had a lot of problems back home. My mom had recently passed away. When I asked for help it got pushed back in my face. Even the Inspector General denied me treatment." (Essentially, the Inspector General represents a soldier's last recourse in attempting to correct a problem. If the IG refuses to help, there are few alternatives available.)

When, after four-and-a-half-months AWOL, McCormick turned himself in, he was offered absolution if he agreed to serve again, an absurdity not lost on him. "They offered me that deal," he exclaims, "when it was a known fact that I had issues with my mental care. They offered me a chance to go back to the unit!" His refusal to do so left him languishing in Echo Platoon for eight months until he finally received a medical discharge.

Even though his decision to go AWOL was in no way a protest against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, he is now opposed to it. "I personally don't feel we need to be in Iraq and I've been there and seen it firsthand. I think the U.S. being there is pointless."

His blunt advice to soldiers who go AWOL and intend to turn themselves in is, "If you're AWOL, fuck going back."

Staff Sergeant Nelbach will have spent over nine months in Echo Platoon by the time he is tried in October. His court martial will in all likelihood bring further punishment. Due to his higher rank and the fact that he was a platoon leader, Nelbach is in charge of making sure that soldiers in the platoon follow through on their work assignments. He also accompanies people to medical appointments and does necessary paperwork. He is thus seen by other platoon soldiers as the one who runs the place. Yet he is aware that none of this will help him when he comes to trial. "It's inhuman," he insists. "There's no fairness to it. It's always been mass punishment there."

Warehousing Soldiers

Assigned to Echo Platoon in January 2009, Dustin Stevens continues to bide his time awaiting charges that might still be months away. "[It's] horrible here. We are treated like animals. We're all so lost and wanting to go home. Some of us are going crazy, some are sick. And the way I see it, I did nothing wrong. By reading or talking to people all of the time I try to stay out of this place in my mind… There are people here who should be in mental hospitals."

James Branum, Stevens' civilian lawyer, is also the legal adviser to the G.I. Rights Hotline of Oklahoma and co-chair of the Military Law Task Force (MLTF) which offers training to the legal community and information about G.I. Rights and military law to service members and their families. He says AWOL troops make up three-quarters of Echo platoon and that medical cases are the bulk of the remainder. Accustomed to inordinate delays from the military, he says, "People are in this unit for months and months. The [authorities] take forever to do anything. You are going to be there six months if you're lucky, twelve if you're not."

On the legality of such detention without trial, Branum comments:

"I think there are some illegal elements about how they are running the place, but the general concept is not illegal. You have people there with legitimate medical and psychological issues, but instead of proactively helping them, the military shuffles them off to this replacement [detachment] to be treated like dirt. They are told they have no rights when they do have a right to talk to their commander, to have an attorney, and to talk to Congress. Echo, if run properly, would be a good thing. Not so when people are being warehoused and told repeatedly they have no rights. That is illegal."

As for the military's goal in running Echo Platoon and other similar units at military bases around the country:

"To me it doesn't seem productive. Oftentimes, the military doesn't know what it is doing. There isn't a logical explanation for this. Maybe deterrence is one. Other soldiers see these guys being ill treated and don't want to resist. They also want to break and wear people down so they'll deploy rather than keep resisting. The Army isn't true to its own processes at times. If their goal is to get folks deployable, this isn't the way. You don't want guys with physical or psychological issues to deploy."

In 2008, USA Today revealed that more than 43,000 troops listed as medically unfit had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan anyway.

A Yardstick of Desperation

In a discussion of her group's role in dealing with the legal holding of soldiers, MLTF co-chair Kathleen Gilberd commented:

"Fort Bragg is not an isolated situation. Placement in legal-hold [detachments] where soldiers languish for months is common to all the services. What we're seeing is the command not making up their minds. Their indecision has severe consequences for those with open-ended medical issues because they cannot avail themselves of help until their legal situation is resolved."

Chuck Fager, the director of the Fayetteville Quaker House (the town of Fayetteville adjoins Fort Bragg) claims that the military is primarily focused on "making numbers" for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Orders from the Pentagon say you have to send X [number of] troops," he points out. "The military does not have them and is constantly looking around for where to get them. One potential pool is the mass of soldiers gone AWOL. Eventually they either go back or get picked up... We are guessing [military officials] think they can persuade a significant number of these AWOL soldiers to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. "

The U.S. still maintains more than 130,000 soldiers in Iraq and, by year's end, will have at least 68,000 in Afghanistan, a figure likely to rise in the years to come.

Think of Echo and other platoons like it as grim yardsticks for measuring the desperation in which a military under immense strain is now operating. Looking up at that military from Echo's airless limbo, from a world of soldiers who have fallen through the cracks of a system under great stress, you can see just how devastating America's two ongoing wars have been for the military itself. The walking wounded, the troubled, and the broken are now being pressured to reenter the fray.

If Chuck Fager is right, the future is bleak for the members of Echo Platoon who endure deplorable conditions with little idea about whether their future involves charges, trial, deployment, or medical release. It is a painful irony that some of those who volunteered to serve and defend our nation are now left particularly defenseless and vulnerable as a direct consequence of its ill advised foreign adventures.

Bhaswati Sengupta contributed to this report.

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