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A Patriot's Story

When Going AWOL is the Only Escape

by SARA OLSON

James Circello sat on the edge of his bed staring at the floral pattern on a generic hotel comforter, contemplating what life would be like in prison. It was early August, and his parents had given him a one-way bus ticket to Lawton, Okla., and told him he was welcome home once he got his life together. U.S. Army Sergeant Circello had been AWOL since April, and with just a few dollars left in his wallet and a dying cell phone battery, he saw two options: turn himself in to military authorities at Ft. Sill, or get the next bus out of town and join hundreds of anti-war veterans convening in St. Louis, Mo.

James was a patriot, and after Sept. 11, joined the Army to defend his country. By 2002 James was in Italy, assigned to the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade. The 173rd deployed to Iraq between March 2003 and 2004. Facing redeployment last April, this time to Afghanistan, James asked himself if he could tolerate replicating the disaster he’d been part of in Iraq. When he answered no, a friend drove him to the airport, he flew to the United States and has been AWOL ever since.

Contemplating life in his Oklahoma hotel room, James realized he didn’t go AWOL to avoid a second tour of duty. He wanted to help stop the war, and how better to do that than join with the hundreds of other veterans now opposing the Iraq war? So James grabbed his Army-issued green duffle bag and headed for the Greyhound station. He boarded a bus to take him south to the banks of the Mississippi River and joined an international community of veterans working to put an end to war.

James joins a growing number of disillusioned and newly politicized Iraq War veterans. According to an Associated Press report released last week, the number of AWOL Army soldiers has increased 80 percent since March of 2003. The Army says 4,698 soldiers deserted their posts in fiscal year 2007 — an increase of over 2,000 soldiers from the year before. GI rights advocates say the number is far higher. Soldiers go AWOL for many reasons, and the majority of them don’t denounce the Iraq war. However, an increasing number publicly oppose the war, even though this could mean harsh punishments or jail time.

What turns a patriot like James Circello, who volunteered for military service, into someone critical of the United States occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan? What experiences turn someone willing to fight and die for his country into someone who, in a recent interview, said quietly: "It’s disturbing when you see humanity fail."

Fighting the war on terror

"I remember the day kids started throwing rocks," James said. Initially, Iraqis did welcome them, served them tea and called them liberators. But gradually, James says they grew hostile. "Not without reason, in my opinion," he says.

James can still hear the helicopters beating the air above the city and see U.S. troops on every street corner in Kirkuk. The city was locked down, the traffic going nowhere and soldiers were herding families into corrals like sheep. That was the day smiles dancing on the faces of Iraqi boys hardened. Boys used to run through the streets of Kirkuk, chasing Jeeps loaded with American soldiers. They would run barefoot through garbage and didn’t seem to care when the streets became muddy with sewage. "They were smiling," James said. "That was the weird part. As they’d chase after our Jeeps, they were smiling." Sgt. Circello lost his belief in American liberation at the same time these boys lost theirs.

Even humanitarian aid was distributed with brutality and chauvinism, James says. When the chain of command learned there was a shortage of petroleum — and without oil to cook, people were starving — the Army set up distribution centers where women were cordoned into lines made from razor wires. The wait was endless, and there was never enough cooking oil.

"It was hectic and maddening," James said. "U.S. soldiers would put their hands on the women in line, forcing them to move, trying to get them to be quiet and stand still. They’d stick guns in their faces trying to threaten or humiliate them. I did it myself … once."

In those early days, James didn’t live on an Army base. His unit lived in a house in Kirkuk. They didn’t need hum-vees, because when something happened in the city, they looked out the window. Soldiers roamed the streets on motorcycles, and at first, security wasn’t such a problem.

But things started going badly pretty quickly. When soldiers set up roadblocks, if the driver couldn’t prove ownership of his vehicle, it was impounded. Unfortunately, the soldiers relied on a very American way to prove ownership: They checked for papers. But the ubiquitous orange and white taxis often existed in families for generations, and no one had papers anymore. When they were stopped, American teenagers would wrest the sole source of income for several generations of a family from the hands of the family patriarch.

Coming home

When James went home to Lima, Ohio, his family didn’t ask him about Iraq or about being AWOL. They did offer to listen, but there was a schism between James and his parents, who still believed in the mission of the Iraq war. They didn’t want to hear that their son had deserted and was now living illegally in his childhood bedroom.

James is frustrated by how little many Americans appear to have thought about the war, or even know that it continues. Even today, with the war massively unpopular, James thinks politics is still defining the terms of the debate, and people still seem uncomfortable challenging the Bush administration about the war. "People say we have to stay because 4,000 soldiers will have died in vain if we leave," James says. "But what gives their death meaning if we stay?"

Even though he has struggled with how to turn himself in for the better part of the summer, James says he’s not afraid to go to prison. His goal is to raise awareness in the United States about the war about the thousands of soldiers who oppose it and somehow to make amends to the Iraqi people. He’s terrified he’ll go to prison before he can do that.

Struggling to communicate this message, James traveled from New York to Ohio, Oklahoma to Missouri, Louisiana to Pennsylvania and many places in between. He did this without renting a car or boarding an airplane, because using his credit card would give away his location. James got a job building houses in New Orleans, where he was paid under the table, but most AWOL soldiers can’t find work because they’re wanted by the U.S. government. James doesn’t appear to mind sleeping on the couches of people he just met, which is good because with the United States on the brink of a recession, his precarious legal status also makes it difficult to find housing.

As the Iraq War nears its fifth anniversary, more and more soldiers oppose the war, and many more are AWOL. Soldiers opposing their own government and the wars they’ve been ordered to fight have never been popular. Dating back to the Revolutionary War, U.S. soldiers have questioned the morality of war, and when they’ve acted on these questions, they have been maligned by the civilian population and punished by their government. Technically, the penalty for deserting during wartime is death. Today, many, mostly younger veterans, are calling for support of war resisters and trying to eliminate the stigma of cowardice associated with deserters.

Supporting the troops

"Right now we’re in the middle of two foreign occupations, and a lot of people don’t understand the sacrifice people in the military are making or the reasons we’ve been asked to make it," says Kelly Dougherty, executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Dougherty says it’s difficult to return from military service, only to realize many Americans don’t seem to know there’s a war going on at all.

That frustration is compounded when veterans have trouble obtaining everything from mental and physical health care to disability compensation, according to Paul Sullivan, executive director at Veterans For Common Sense. He says the Veterans Administration (VA) is struggling to provide for the quarter million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans it already treats, and this is already having disastrous consequences for returning GIs.

Recent Army studies found nearly one in five Iraq veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD,) and almost half demonstrate combat-related trauma of some sort. According to a CBS News investigation, more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have committed suicide than have been killed in combat. What’s more, Sullivan says the average wait for the VA to consider disability claims from injured veterans is about six months, and this helps explain the 15,000 recent veterans who are homeless today.

That veteran services have fallen into such disrepair indicates how poorly planned the Iraq war has been, according to Camilo Mejia, chairperson of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who, himself, spent nearly a year in prison rather than return to Iraq. He says failing services are just the latest example of how the government elects to wrap itself in yellow ribbons and hollow rhetoric rather than meaningfully care for veterans.

"How do we honor veterans and then send them to fight in an illegal war?" Mejia asked this week as the country celebrated Veterans Day. "How do we honor the veterans and then not speak out about their service? We don’t want to hear their analysis or their questions, and we don’t want to hear how their "service" in Iraq has changed them. How can we go on waving the flag and talking about supporting the troops, when we ignore the thousands of veterans opposing this war?"

Finding peace

As the country celebrated Veterans Day last week, James was again contemplating life behind bars. He spent this week traveling from Baton Rouge, La., to Washington, D.C., and then west to Kentucky, where he says he will turn himself in at Ft. Knox. He says he’s grateful to the community of veterans — from every state in the country — who have supported him and soldiers like him.

Just like everybody else in the country, it’s clear James desperately wants his service in the Army to be meaningful. The difference is that, for him, serving meaningfully means changing the nature of the U.S. debate about the war and somehow making amends to the Iraqi people.

On the phone from somewhere in the middle of the country, James says he’s ready to resolve his conflict with the U.S. military so he can more effectively accomplish his goals. You get the sense that maybe he wishes going to prison could resolve the rest of the conflicts he experiences as well. Last week, James turned himself in to the military at Ft. Knox, in Tennessee. Rather than going to prison as he had feared, James was simply discharged with an other than honorable discharge, which prevents him from accessing healthcare or the GI Bill, but at least for now, James seems OK with that. Now he says he’s ready to start the rest of his life, much of which is likely to be shaped by his time in Iraq and his experiences as an AWOL soldier opposing the war.

Sarah Olson is an independent journalist and radio producer.