FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Mark Wilkerson’s Call to America

by SUSAN VAN HAITSMA

My favorite photograph of Mark Wilkerson shows him smiling, looking relaxed. He is standing in a grove of trees whose trunks radiate outward from his image as though they are drawing life from him. One side of his face glows with reflected sunshine. He wears a black “Iraq Veterans Against the War” T-shirt with a small star over his heart.

I first met Mark on the grounds of the Texas Capitol during a peace demonstration on Gandhi’s birthday, October 2, 2004. Mark was stationed at Ft. Hood, and he and his wife had driven down to attend their first anti-war demonstration in Austin. I didn’t know then the extent of Mark’s experience in Iraq, but he looked stressed, his eyes circled with dark shadows. He exuded nervous energy. He looked at the materials on our Nonmilitary Options for Youth table and described how he had been recruited through the JROTC program in high school with assurances that he would receive training to become a peacekeeper. At the demonstration, Mark met local members of Veterans for Peace, who understood more profoundly than I the internal and external battles he was facing.

Mark had served one tour of duty in Iraq, during which he had begun to question both the morality and the practicality of the invasion and occupation. Assigned to the military police, he participated in house raids and arrests of Iraqi citizens. He witnessed the effects of the occupation on Iraqi civilians and the change in attitude toward US soldiers. He began suffering serious post-traumatic stress and underwent a crisis of conscience about his participation in the army. He filed for a discharge as a conscientious objector in March 2004. When his claim was denied 8 months later, he appealed the decision, but soon learned that his unit was about to be deployed to Iraq for a second tour. Stuck between honoring his conscience and obeying orders to deploy, he went AWOL in January 2005.

Mark was AWOL for about 18 months. During that time, he said the nightmares didn’t stop. He also felt at sea, as though he could not move forward with his life. He worked long hours, trying to save for a future that might include prison. Just before he turned himself in at Ft. Hood in August 2006, he held a press conference at Camp Casey in Crawford, TX. Flanked by other GI resisters and supportive members of Military Families Speak Out and Gold Star Families for Peace, Mark confidently and eloquently expressed his reasons for having left the military and his reasons for returning to the base to accept the consequences.

When I saw Mark Wilkerson last on February 22, 2007, he was embracing his family shortly before being handcuffed and walked to a van outside the Major General Lawrence H. Williams Judicial Center at Fort Hood, Texas following his sentencing by a military judge to seven months of confinement, demotion in rank and a bad conduct discharge for desertion and missing movement.

During the court-martial proceedings, several family members and officers in Mark’s chain of command were called as character witnesses. Mark’s wife described how, several months into his tour, his letters began to include doubts about his mission. During his first 2-week leave, she saw that Mark had changed. He was restless, bothered and “set off by little things. There was an edge to him that hadn’t been there before.” When he returned to Iraq, Mark felt increasing hopelessness about his mission, yet he performed his duties admirably, as his commanding officers testified.

After his tour, Mark had emotional battles, nightmares, and one night, a breakdown. “My body and my mind had never felt that way before,” he said. He explained that when he was home, family and friends ” were treating me like some sort of hero,” but he felt nothing like a hero inside. He hesitated to ask for help in the military “because an unsaid rule is that we’re not supposed to rock the boat.” Even after he filed his conscientious objector claim, he was advised to refrain from seeking PTSD counseling while the case was pending.

In Mark’s court-martial, the fact that his conscientious objector claim had been denied prior to a looming second deployment could not be used as a defense to the charges of desertion and missing movement to which he pleaded guilty. However, it is important to note that the conscientious objector approval process in the military is considered by many to be a broken system. By law, the military must allow soldiers to apply for discharge as conscientious objectors when they have experienced, after enlisting, a “crystallization” of their moral, ethical or religious beliefs about participating in war. However, J.E. McNeil, director of the Center on Conscience & War, says that, according to military figures, only about 50 percent of CO claims are being approved, and anecdotal evidence suggests the percentage may be even lower. “They throw as many roadblocks in your way as they possibly can,” she says. “The process takes incredibly long, and it really doesn’t have to. They don’t really follow their own regulations. They treat it as an annoyance.”

Unlike the case of First Lt. Ehren Watada, the illegality of the Iraq war was not used as a point of defense in Mark’s court-martial. However, at one point, the military judge asked if there wasn’t an inconsistency inherent in Mark’s guilty plea. Was his intent to “shirk a duty,” or to resist an unjust war? If he was saying he was wrong to desert, was he also saying he was wrong to act on his conscience? Both defense and prosecuting attorneys stated that they saw no inconsistency, and the judge laid aside the concern.

The brief interchange touched on what may be the crux of the dilemma faced by soldiers in all wars. What is a soldier’s duty? The prosecuting attorneys in Mark’s case stressed that he “shirked his important service” when he was “absent by design.” He was told that he “abandoned the Army family that would embrace him.” Soldiers commonly say that when they are on the battlefield, they are not fighting to protect liberty or democracy; they are fighting for the soldiers on their right and left. If they are compelled by conscience to embrace a larger human family that extends to their adversary, it’s no wonder that their expanded sense of duty presents a problem for the military and themselves.

One of the prosecuting attorneys distinguished between being a good soldier and a good public citizen. “This dichotomy must be maintained,” he said. But, human beings simply cannot divide themselves into two separate beings with two separate moral codes and two separate sets of behaviors. Attempts to do so are injurious, and soldiers who suffer from PTSD know this.

Part of Mark Wilkerson’s defense centered on his achievements in high school as a teenager with a keen interest in peacemaking. Following a serious family violence crisis when he was 12 years old that was described in detail during his court-martial, Mark adopted a strong leadership role in his family, his school and community. He used the tragedy to become more determined to prevent violence. He wanted above all to help people, to be a healer and a reconciler.

Mark wanted to help his country, but his country betrayed him. His country capitalized on his honorable intentions, gave him false promises, fed him misinformation, used him to carry out inhumane missions, caused him psychological injury and then punished him by making him an object lesson for his fellow GI’s.

In fact, Mark is an example of the best kind, for all of us. In the same courtroom where soldiers were sentenced for harming Abu Ghraib prisoners, Mark was sentenced for refusing to harm. In his final testimony, Mark’s plainspoken optimism rose above the contradictions of his surroundings. “I’m ready to live the life I know I can live,” he said. “I still want to help people, to be useful. I always lived by a certain moral code. I know whatever I do, I’ll do it well. I look forward to being able to do it.”

Mark Wilkerson’s blog is www.markwilkerson.wordpress.com.

SUSAN VAN HAITSMA is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth in Austin, Texas and can be reached at jeffjweb@sbcglobal.net

 

 

May 03, 2016
Rev. John Dear
A Dweller in Peace: the Life and Times of Daniel Berrigan
Patrick Cockburn
Saudi Arabia’s Great Leap Forward: What Would Mao Think?
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Electoral Votes Matter: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders vs Donald Trump
Chris Gilbert
Venezuela Today: This Must Be Progress
Pepe Escobar
The Calm Before the Coming Global Storm
Ruth Fowler
Intersecting with the Identity Police (Or Why I Stopped Writing Op-Eds)
Victor Lasa
The Battle Rages on in Spain: the Country Prepares for Repeat Elections in June
Jack Rasmus
Is the US Economy Heading for Recession?
Dean Baker
Time for an Accountable Federal Reserve
Ted Rall
Working for US Gov Means Never Saying Sorry
John Eskow
The Death of Prince and the Death of Lonnie Mack
May 02, 2016
Michael Hudson – Gordon Long
Wall Street Has Taken Over the Economy and is Draining It
Paul Street
The Bernie Fade Begins
Ron Jacobs
On the Frontlines of Peace: the Life of Daniel Berrigan
Louis Yako
Dubai Transit
Bill Quigley
Teacher, Union Leader, Labor Lawyer: Profile of Chris Williams Social Justice Advocate
Patrick Cockburn
Into the Green Zone: Iraq’s Disintegrating Political System
Lawrence Ware
Trump is the Presidential Candidate the Republicans Deserve
Ron Forthofer
Just Say No to Corporate Rule
Ralph Nader
The Long-Distance Rebound of Bernie Sanders
Ken Butigan
Remembering Daniel Berrigan, with Gratitude
Nicolas J S Davies
Escalating U.S. Air Strikes Kill Hundreds of Civilians in Mosul, Iraq
Binoy Kampmark
Class, Football, and Blame: the Hillsborough Disaster Inquest
George Wuerthner
The Economic Value of Yellowstone National Park
Rivera Sun
Celebrating Mother Jones
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir and Postcolonialism
Mairead Maguire
Drop the Just War Theory
Weekend Edition
April 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
Vijay Prashad
Political Violence in Honduras
Paul Krane
Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police
David Anderson
Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz
Rob Hager
Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize
Pat Williams
FDR in Montana
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail