By Marti Hiken & Kathleen Gilberd

“My husband wants out,” says Martha. “That’s all there is to it. If they won’t let him out, he’ll go AWOL.”

This is a common complaint that military counselors and lawyers hear from GIs, their families and friends. Although the Department of Defense reports that only about 700 GIs have gone absent without leave (AWOL) since the beginning of the current war in Iraq, those involved in counseling and representing GIs know that the number is in the thousands. Dissatisfaction and objection among US troops in this current war has increased steadily, reflected in growing numbers of GI’s seeking discharge or going AWOL. In response, a national network of military counselors formed the GI Rights Hotline to offer information and guidance about discharges, GI rights, and similar issues.

Members of the Hotline include the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, the National Lawyers Guild’s Military Law Task Force (MLTF), the Center on Conscience and War (formerly NISBCO), Quaker House, and other local and regional counseling groups. The Hotline was formed in the mid-1990s in response to the changing nature of the US military and its creation of easily-activated military bases throughout the world.

It took peace and anti-war activists six years to organize a resistance to the Vietnam War. During Gulf War I, it took six weeks before we had the military counseling centers up and running. When this Gulf War began in 2002, we were already prepared.

In 2003, the GI Rights Hotline received 30,000 calls. About 15% of those were from GIs seeking Conscientious Objector claims; 30% were from AWOLs; and the rest ran the gamut from discharge information to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS). This year the calls are coming in at a rate of 3,000-4,000 per month, not including calls directly to member organizations of the GI Rights Hotline.

Sample Calls for Counseling

To better understand the nature of our work, it is useful to review the kinds of calls one member group of the Hotline—the Military Law Task Force—receive on a typical day.

For example, a military counselor in Northern California called seeking the name of a lawyer in Kansas. Apparently, MPs and sheriffs in Kansas have found it their duty to seek out AWOL GIs, capture them, stick them in jail, beat them brutally and then ship them back to their units. Presently 25,000 Marines serve in Iraq, and the number going AWOL continues to climb.

A second call follows almost immediately and concerns another Marine, this one AWOL and suicidal in Iowa. Although his psychologist told the soldier’s commanding officer that the soldier intends to kill himself if he has to go back, the commander says he wants him to return immediately, saying he’ll deal with the problem. The counselor says they need a lawyer in Iowa and San Diego. Fortunately, we locate a MLTF lawyer in Iowa and a good counseling group with legal support in San Diego.

The next phone call is from a GI in Alaska who wants to know if Canada is an option. He’s received deployment papers for Iraq. He is connected to a MLTF member in Alaska.

The MLTF received a call from the wife of a reservist just back from Iraq. She reported that her husband suddenly charged into their bedroom thinking that his wife was an Iraqi about to shoot him. Apparently he suffered from PTSS, which can be suffered for years when soldier’s brutal memories are triggered. She was asking us what she should do about it.

Additional calls sought information about disability, AWOL concerns, draft resistance and conscientious objection. There are days in which MLTF receives one telephone call every 15 to 20 minutes.

Reservists and Families Speak Out

Staff Sargent Camilo Mejia is the first soldier known to be tried for desertion after service in combat in the current Iraqi conflict. Although he sought status as a conscientious objector, Camilo was found guilty and sentenced to a year in the brig. In his CO application, he described the conditions of detention and treatment of Iraqi prisoners, including instances where soldiers were directed to “break the detainees’ resolve.” He also described witnessing the killing of civilians, including children.

Nancy Lessin, the founder of Military Family Speaks Out, and a member of the Bring Them Home Now! Campaign, called the MLTF because Camilo is being moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. It’s an isolated area, offering little protection for a GI resister. We contacted an NLG lawyer and law students in Oklahoma City. We called Camilo’s family to give them the names of the Oklahoma contacts and then began to coordinate the support system for Camilo before he arrives at Ft. Sill.

Because Camilo is a Costa Rican citizen, born in Nicaragua, we must also call immigration defense lawyers to find out about Camilo’s deportability. He has a green card and is a permanent resident.

Factors Behind Military Resistance

Camilo’s case is perhaps the most reported, but it is far from isolated. The increasing opposition to the US war in Iraq by military personnel arises from many factors, including:

• Access to information critical of the invasion and occupation, including analysis about finding no weapons of mass destruction or evidence of imminent threat;

• Mistreatment of Iraqi civilians and damage to basic living structures;

• Mistreatment of US forces by an overzealous and war-thirsty administration.

As in the past, many GI’s have come to oppose the war in Iraq as a result of their own experiences in it. Men and women deployed to Iraq are reminded daily that they are viewed as part of an army of occupation. Images of US forces as “liberators” have long passed, replaced by graffiti, rocks and bombs intended to repel an unwelcome occupier.

Military personnel also have access to information that contradicts their original marching orders. Mainstream news sources report that no WMDs have been found, despite earlier administration claims. And although the Bush administration has carefully hidden military coffins from media scrutiny, these personnel know the toll this action is taking on the lives, limbs and minds of their fellow soldiers.

News of brutality towards Iraqi citizens and torture of prisoners has shaken many soldiers who previously supported the vision of this war offered by their leaders, despite the incredible barrage of racist ideology and images presented by the Pentagon and American news media.

Other soldiers and sailors have come to question military policy through mistreatment and mismanagement of its own troops. Current military strategy—including commitments to long-term occupations with over 311,000 publicly acknowledged servicemembers deployed in over 120 countries—has led to “manpower” problems and forced troops into lengthy and unwanted duty. “Stop loss” policies allow the military to retain soldiers beyond their regular discharge dates (although early discharges, such as conscientious objection, are generally unaffected). Tours of duty in Iraq are longer than anticipated, and the military has departed from past practice by ordering many combat troops into second and even third tours in combat zones.

Reservists, who reasonably expected that they would be used as reserve forces, have found themselves an integral part of the war from the outset. National Guard members who, with equal reason, thought they had enlisted to help disaster victims or maintain order at home, have been activated and deployed to Iraq.

The Department of Defense reports that 40% of the fighting force in Iraq is comprised of reserve forces. This is not only a “backdoor draft,” it is also a “senior draft.” Reservists tend to be older and have established positions in their communities. As a result of this war, some are losing their businesses. Their families are forced into poverty. Children haven’t seen their parent(s) for months. Tens of thousands become “militarized” by this war.

Another result of mass deployments and the senior draft has been the military’s failure to recognize personal, medical and family problems that make activation or deployment a crisis for many servicemembers and their families. Military counseling groups report that many clients are being sent to Iraq with serious physical or psychiatric problems. For many, this lack of concern for their health, safety and families has led to questions about broader policies and the war itself.

Massive deployments, poor planning, and lack of concern for the troops creates logistical problems as well. Equipment does not always follow the troops; even basic supplies may be inadequate; medical care is unreliable in many areas. When the Army recently examined the disproportionate number of suicides among soldiers in Iraq, it found that insufficient mental health personnel and spotty distribution of anti-depressant medications were a significant part of the problem.

At the same time, the problems of the first Gulf War—use of depleted uranium in tanks and shells and use of questionable vaccines, for example—have not been corrected, so that soldiers face the same likelihood of Gulf War syndrome or undiagnosed physical and neurological problems.

Individual and Collective Dissent

The result of all this is greatly increased frustration and anger within the military. Counselors and attorneys are hearing from growing numbers of conscientious objectors. While public resisters are few, the number of soldiers and sailors going AWOL or seeking discharge continues to grow. Large numbers of GI’s have spoken to reporters or sent home letters expressing their disagreement with the war or their frustration over the conditions in which they are forced to live and fight. To read the latest letters from GIs, go to the websites of Veterans for Peace ( or Military Families Speak Out (

In many cases, soldiers demonstrate resistance individually rather than in collective action. This is in large part the result of the military’s capacity for harsh retaliation and its frequent refusal to respect these civil liberties available to soldiers. The possibilities of private, and sometimes anonymous complaints and protest over the internet are conducive to individual dissent.

Dissent is still of great value, and it is paralleled by a more collective effort of the families of soldiers who serve or have died in Iraq. For example, Military Families Speak Out has educated many soldiers and civilians about the reality of the war. Over time, collective opposition within the military seems increasingly likely, if it is provided the legal and political support of the anti-war movement. Counseling and educational efforts are essential for servicemembers who are otherwise isolated and vulnerable within the military.

Despite the many challenges faced by networks that counsel soldiers and sailors, these groups continue to educate and guide questioning military personnel through a difficult process. For many military counselors and attorneys, educational work with GI’s, counseling, and support for resistance within the military remain an integral part of anti-war efforts. Soldiers and sailors who speak out against the war or resist combat service are a potent symbol of opposition to the war. Those who seek discharge or go AWOL are a growing obstacle to the military’s smooth functioning.

Marti Hiken and Kathleen Gilberd are co-chairs of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild. Gilberd also works with San Diego Military Counseling Project.