André Shepherd walked away from his US Army “specialty” as a helicopter mechanic in 2007. He had recently been transferred from Iraq to a US base in Germany. After much consideration and thought, he had decided he could no longer participate in the military as long as it was engaged in the war crime that was/is the US war on the Iraqi people. He left with a small bag of belongings and began the process of getting asylum in Germany. His battle continues today, some seven years later. Most recently, the European Court provided a mixed (at best) decision in his case. In short, it stated that any ruling about the legality of a war mandated by the UN Security Council is unassailable. Like Bernd Mesovic of the asylum seekers support organization PRO ASYL said, “It is scandalous that the Court more-or-less decrees for such cases that no war crimes ‘are committed’ in such wars, and that this also applies to operations about which there is some other international consensus. Reality is turned on its head by an assertion of fact here.”
I stay in contact with the doings of The Clearing Barrel GI Bar and Coffeehouse in Kaiserslautern, Germany. This coffeehouse is a gathering place for GIs and their friends. Given that its politics are antiwar, it also provides information to those in the military looking for a way out. It is through them that I have followed André’s case. (More information on the Clearing Barrel can be found at the end of this interview.)—Ron J.
Ron Jacobs: Hi André, thanks for doing this. To begin, can you provide a short summary of your history since joining the Army? When did you join, when were you sent to Iraq, etc.?
André Shepherd: Hi Ron. Thanks for having me on. It is good to have a forum in which I can provide factual information on the case.
To make a long story short I officially joined the military on January 26th 2004. This was due to the fact that I was homeless for about two years and needed a way to finally be able to stand on my own two feet. I was deployed to Iraq in September 2004 for a six-month tour of duty. I was only there half the time because my unit was already in Iraq starting in February 2004. It was during my tour that I began to have doubts about the war, since General Sanchez told us personally that the WMDs that were supposedly in Iraq were non-existent. In 2005 I began to do extensive research into not just the Iraq conflict, but over the entire War on Terror in general. What I discovered was that we as soldiers have been lied to multiple times about the reasons why we had to invade these nations and that our actions had nothing to do with protecting our country. That is why I decided to leave the military entirely in April of 2007, about three months before our second deployment.
From April 2007 until November 2008 I lived underground in southern Germany. During this time my friends and I tried to find ways to immigrate into Germany legally so I would begin to try and have a normal life. It did not work on the grounds that I needed the DD-214 (discharge papers) from the military that explained how I arrived there in the first place. After every other option was exhausted, I officially applied for political asylum on November 26, 2008 in protest to the Iraq war.
Since that time I have worked tirelessly to win the case. I was also busy learning German and building my life from scratch. Many things that I had done in the United States I had to do again in my new home, such as drivers training, schooling, and social and cultural integration.
RJ: Was there a single event or series of events that made you decide to refuse to fight any more? Why didn’t you apply for CO status?
AS: Several things changed my mind about the Iraq war: The news from our General started the ball rolling, then the eye witness accounts to the numerous atrocities being committed in Iraq, coupled with the findings of the media and world governments that we had been deceived, and that the wars have no legal standing. Influential individuals and governments also have said that Iraq in particular is illegal. Contrary to popular belief, this was not a snap decision, rather a process that took about two years before I decided to leave.
The CO status is a very important question, second to only the legality of the invasion itself. The US army rules clearly state the in order to be granted CO status one must satisfy three stipulations:
1. The applicant must reject all wars of any form (defensively or offensively)
2. The applicant could also claim CO status on religious grounds
3. If the applicant claims either point one or point two he/she must then live the lifestyle in which to support their claims.
The problem with these stipulations is that I cannot satisfy any of them. Here we have a soldier who is not against having a military force to defend the nation, or the unfortunate necessity of war…if my land or my family/friends are attacked, I would definitely fight. Besides, rejecting every war would mean that I would have to reject the war that gave birth to the USA in the first place. So point one is definitely not an option.
Point two also doesn´t work because during this time of confusion I also had doubts about religion. The Christian religion does make a lot of good points; however at the same time they also have an extremely bloody history where they also used Jesus/God as an excuse to commit wanton slaughter. I have developed enough questions to become a “free agent” so to speak.
That leaves us with point three. Since I cannot claim CO status by either point one or point two point three is moot. Even if I did claim one of those reasons I would have to live a “lifestyle” to support these claims. That means no paintball, archery, martial arts, Call of Duty or any of those things that I do enjoy. How can I claim that I am non-violent and then partake in these activities? That does not make any sense at all.
RJ: What has your life been like since you made that decision? Can you work? Have you been able to stay in touch with people in the States?
AS: The journey has not been easy, although I have been allowed to work in the past year. I also have a great circle of friends who have supported me through this. I also keep regular contact to my family so at least I have some connection to home.
RJ: As you probably know, I heard about the most recent turn in your case (the February 25, 2015 European court decision) via the good folks at The Clearing Barrel GI Bar and Coffeehouse in Kaiserslautern, Germany. What is your actual status in Germany? Are you at risk of being picked up by German or US authorities?
AS: My official status is that of an asylum seeker. According to the UN this status trumps the Special Operating Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the nations of NATO. This is significant, because the asylum process has temporarily trumped the transfer of soldiers to their home country. At the moment there is no minimal danger of being taken away by the American forces. If things go terribly wrong with the decision then that could change rather quickly.
RJ: I know that the European court just ruled that, while it is possible you could seek asylum in Germany, you would have to prove that you would have been involved in war crimes and that deserting was your only option to avoid committing such crimes. This sounds to me like a Catch-22—in other words you can’t claim asylum if you can’t prove you would have been involved in war crimes—even though the whole damn war was a war crime. What is your take on this and do you think any eventual resolution will be in your favor, thereby setting a standard for future military members who decide they can no longer participate in a war?
AS: I really appreciate that you have the same sentiment as I do about the War. Any thinking person can see that if the initial invasion is illegal, then all subsequent actions can be viewed as illegal actions and a breach of peace. I can honestly say that the decision from the EuGH is disappointing since we do have a very strong case. Even though they have made the task difficult, they did leave just enough wiggle room for use to successfully argue our case. Naturally a lot more research into the matter is needed, but my perspective is that so far there was no clear winner in this case so far.
The fact that the court is requiring me to prove that War Crimes have been is strange, since there have been numerous reports that the Apache Helicopter was misused during the Iraq Conflict, and that grievous crimes against the Iraqi people war committed. The “collateral murder” video should have laid these concerns to rest. There is a reason why Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. It has more to do with what was revealed instead of what he actually did. Also one must also think that this was just one instance that was made public. The question is “how many other incidents happened that we are not aware of? Oh, and one more side note: This unjust murder of civilians and journalists happened in July 2007, the time in which we would have been deployed to Iraq for my second tour of duty.
The fact that they acknowledged that every soldier has the right to apply for asylum in Europe is a small and significant victory. If all else fails, at least we were able to secure at least the hope that soldiers in a similar situation could potentially have a place to go since Canada has (inexplicably) all but closed the door on them.
They also noted that War Crimes could stem from a nation if they did not have a mandate from the UN. This is a question that still has not been satisfactorily resolved due to the fact that the United States did not have a legal mandate to invade. Many opponents point to the resolution that was given AFTER the invasion; however in many people´s eyes it was only a face saving maneuver from the Security Council, since the US went ahead with their attack despite numerous protests from the IAEA and the UN itself. Nowhere in that mandate is the actual invasion mentioned, so I can interpret this as the UN quietly saying that the war itself is illegal. However, I am not a legal expert, so I would have to refer to my lawyer on that regard. Even if the German Court sides with the US on the mandate issue the EuGH acknowledged that war crimes can still be committed in a UN sanctioned action, so at least we still have a chance given the evidence of wrong doing. Unfortunately the legality of the war was (strangely) skipped over, so it is not clear if that will allowed to be a point of contention.
The question of conscience is notably absent from the judgment. That is a shame really because Secretary General Sharpton has recommended that moral conscience should be taken into account. I just do not understand why the court did not do more to solidify the rights of the individual (soldier) to form their own opinion of a particular conflict. We were never nor will we ever be robots, and we should be treated as human beings with fully functioning mental faculties.
Despite these challenges, I still see this case as winnable. Of course it will take a herculean effort, since our ability to argue has been slightly limited so as not to state the obvious: That the United States lied to its citizens and conducted an illegal invasion on a nation that never attacked them in violation of the Constitution that we swore to protect. As a result of these idiotic maneuvers individual soldiers had to stand up and do the morally right thing by not participating in future missions.
RJ: Do you have any other thoughts?
AS: I would like to use this opportunity to say that I chose to fight this battle because I believe that the American government has gone too far. In the years following September 11th the United States has attacked and destroyed several countries, ripped apart the lives of its victims and put undue pressure on their armed forces while at the same time neglected its duties to its citizens while most of the world sits idly by. What we are trying to accomplish is to persuade the United States to change their course, because the path that they are taking us on is a path to destruction. We (the soldiers who are resisting along with whistleblowers) are not cowards or traitors. We have chosen to give up everything in defense of the Constitution that we have sworn to protect. I just hope and pray that we can achieve victory before it is too late.
RJ: Thanks. I hope this interview helps your case reach a greater public and does some good.
The Clearing Barrel GI coffeehouse opened in 2012 in the center of Kaiserslautern, Germany, the current centerpiece of U.S. military installations in Europe. The city includes the Ramstein Airbase and Landstuhl Medical Center.
The Clearing Barrel is run by Meike Capps-Schubert, who has been active in the Military Counseling Network since 2003. The café/bar is the only GI-Rights-Hotline branch outside the U.S. The staff is mostly volunteer. It’s a warm and beautiful place to relax and to enjoy a strong fair trade coffee, beer or a vegan meal. The coffeehouse also provides a safe, alternative space for soldiers, veterans and their families to socialize, learn about their rights in the military, receive counseling, engage one another in political discussions, and organize themselves to resist illegal wars and militarization. It also offers events, movies and concerts
The Network and Hotline help service members with military discharges, grievances, complaints and other GI rights. They can assist veterans in getting their benefits. Although not everyone working with the Network is a lawyer, they can help military members find one in cases when an attorney might be useful. In addition, the Network is currently working with several German organizations to build up a similar network for members of the German military (Bundeswehr.)
German soldiers, veterans and family members are welcome to contact The Clearing Barrel/Military Counseling Network.
In order to assist them in their much needed work, they have asked those who can to please donate.
Military Counseling Network
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Or to our fiscal sponsor:
Center on Conscience & War, 1830 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20009-5706, Memo Line: GI-Café-Germany Donation
Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series. All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.