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 antiwar veterans convening
in St. Louis, Mo.
James was a patriot, and after Sept. 11, he 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. Circello flew to the United States and has been AWOL
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, where he 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, serving them tea and calling
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
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 Humvees, 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.
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
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
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.
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 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?"
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
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.
Postscript: Last week, James turned himself in to the military at Ft. Knox.
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.