More talk heard of desertion, disgruntlement; 'backdoor draft' adding to worries for some troops
December 11, 2004
By Tim Harper
David Qualls reluctantly returned to Iraq yesterday, but not before he made a louder statement about the state of U.S. troop morale than any of the pointed questions from soldiers to Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld this week.
Qualls, an army specialist from Morrilton, Ark., and seven other soldiers who have remained nameless, have sued the Pentagon, claiming they are improperly being kept in Iraq beyond their agreed tour of duty.
It is a burgeoning problem for Rumsfeld and the Bush administration because more and more soldiers in Iraq are questioning the rationale for their mission, the way in which they have been equipped and how long they've been deployed.
In so doing, they are shining new light on the price being paid for what is widely seen as inadequate war planning and piecemeal responses as U.S. troops battle an insurgency better armed and more determined than any scenario drawn up.
As the U.S. death toll in Iraq tops 1,270 and the looming Christmas season only magnifies the frustration of families at home, stories of desertions and disgruntled troops began dominating the airwaves.
There was the now-famous grilling of Rumsfeld by troops stationed in Kuwait, who challenged him on a lack of armoured vehicles, lengthened deployments, antiquated equipment and unpaid benefits.
The Toronto case of Jeremy Hinzman, a 26-year-old South Dakotan who said he fled to Canada instead of deploying to Iraq after realizing he could not kill another human being, was given prominence in many U.S. media outlets.
A navy petty officer is at large and been declared a deserter after refusing to board a troop transport ship in San Diego, bound for Iraq.
"I just couldn't sleep at night knowing that I took 3,000 people to a place where 100 of them might die," 23-year-old Pablo Paredes told National Public Radio.
The U.S. Army wants to prosecute First Lt. Julian P. Goodrum of Knoxville, Tenn., for being away without leave (AWOL) after the 34-year-old, 16-year military veteran checked himself into a civilian psychiatric hospital, claiming he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The mysterious case of Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, a 24-year-old Lebanese-born U.S. Marine who disappeared from his camp near Falluja last summer, led to a charge of desertion this week.
Dan Felushko, a 24-year-old marine, told the CBS program 60 Minutes this week that he left Camp Pendleton, Calif., and came to Canada rather than Kuwait, because he felt it would have been wrong to fight.
"I didn't want, you know, 'died deluded in Iraq' over my gravestone," he said.
According to the CBS program, some 5,000 American men and women have deserted the military since the war began. They are largely accused of cowardice back home, but they say they are acting out of conscience.
Some say they saw no link between the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the Iraq war, others lost faith when it became clear there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Many who remain are clearly becoming disillusioned.
Erik Leaver, of the liberal Institute for Policy Studies, said this week's confrontation in Kuwait show many soldiers believe Washington is not being straight with them.
"This is not a well-articulated mission," Leaver said. "More and more we are hearing from military families that their sons or daughters are coming home on leave and saying, 'Mom, I don't know what I'm doing over there.' The soldiers on the front lines there understand U.S. policy is not working."
Leaver said the shortage of armoured vehicles, coming on the heels of last year's controversy over a lack of body armour, is particularly distressing because this a war of choice for the Bush administration, which determined its timing and still did not prepare properly.
The Qualls case focused attention again on a program known officially as "stop-loss," but is more popularly known on the home front as a "backdoor draft."
Many believe the program, which allows the Pentagon to extend voluntary deployments in time of war or national emergency, is the single most morale-damaging program in place.
The Pentagon is not forthcoming on how many soldiers will have their stays extended, but many estimate it could affect 40,000 to 47,000 soldiers, both regular service and reservists — about a third of the 150,000 Americans who will be in Iraq for the run-up to scheduled Jan. 30 elections.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who appears to be mulling another presidential run in 2008, this week called the stop-loss program the single most damaging morale issue for the military and pointed the finger of blame at an ill-prepared Pentagon.
"It just adds another layer of stress to families left at home who are not able to plan moves, or enrol kids in school," says Michelle Joyner of the National Military Families Association, a support group for those with loved ones in Iraq.
Joyner, whose brother, Adam Smith, is serving in Iraq, said her group has fielded calls from families who lost college tuition deposits or are having difficulty getting straight answers from units as to when their family members could be expected to return.
"It forces some families to live day to day without being able to plan for the future," she said. "Ìf you can't get clear answers, it just feeds gossip and increases stress. So when we get some calls from families, we simply have to tell them there are some questions for which we have no answer."
Many of those raising questions, like Qualls, are older and more experienced.
About 45 per cent of the 138,000 troops now on the ground in Iraq are drawn from the U.S. Reserve and National Guard and tend to be less deferential to authority than younger active duty troops.
The 35-year-old Qualls failed in his attempt to win a court injunction keeping him in the U.S. until his lawsuit could be heard.
He left Camp Taji about 24 kilometres north of Baghdad last month and returned to Arkansas for U.S. Thanksgiving.
He first enlisted in the army in 1986. He was on active duty until 1990 and then was a member of the Individual Ready Reserves before leaving the military in 1994.
In July 2003, Qualls entered the service again, under an Army National Guard policy known as Try One, which allows veterans to serve for only one year on a trial basis before committing to a full enlistment, according to the lawsuit.
Qualls was deployed to Iraq in March but has been told his stay will be extended.
The news for those who have come home is equally bleak.
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reported this week that Iraqi war veterans are beginning to show up at shelters in California, raising fears of a repeat of the generation of homeless Vietnam vets.
And another study released in the New England Journal of Medicine this week showed medical advances have saved the lives of many soldiers in Iraq who would have died in previous wars. However, many of the 10,300 soldiers wounded so far are attempting to re-integrate into their country with much more horrific and debilitating injuries than veterans of any other previous war.
Meanwhile, the death toll mounts. Death dropped in this reporter's in-box three times during the writing of this story.
The Pentagon confirmed the deaths of Sgt. Arthur C. Williams, IV, 31, of Edgewater, Fla.; Capt. Mark N. Stubenhofer, 30, of Springfield, Va.; and Sgt. 1st Class Todd C. Gibbs, 37, of Angelina, Texas.
They came by way of separate e-mails that drop with such numbing regularity, they are often treated as spam — unless you remind yourself that three more families have paid the ultimate price.
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