“That must be them.” Petra took one hand off the steering wheel and pointed to a group of soldiers about two hundred meters away, standing along our road next to a high chainlink fence topped with barbed wire.
Traffic was light, but Petra said, “I don’t want any other cars around.” She pulled off the road and stopped. “Get everything ready.”
I crawled into the back of the car and opened the rear hatch to give access to the interior and to raise the license plate out of sight. We wore caps and sunglasses to be less recognizable.
When the road was empty, she started driving again. We approached the soldiers, who were walking in the grass, stopping often to pick things off the ground and put them in sacks they were dragging.
“There’s Rick.” Petra slowed and drove along the shoulder. A man turned his head at the sound of our car crunching gravel, dropped his bag, and ran towards us with a slight limp. While the guards shouted for him to stop, I thrust my arm out, grabbed Rick’s hand, and pulled. He lunged forward and dived into the open hatch, banging his leg on the edge. A guard was swearing and groping at the holster on his belt. Rick scrambled in, knocking off his glasses, and Petra floored the gas. Our spinning tires hurled gravel behind us then squealed over the pavement. The car slid halfway across the road before Petra brought it under control, and we sped away.
One guard was waving his pistol at us but not aiming it, and the other was punching buttons on a cell phone. Some of the detention soldiers were clapping and shouting in envious congratulations, others just stood staring.
I closed the hatch as Petra rounded a corner and headed for the autobahn. Rick lay on the floor trembling and gasping, holding his leg in pain. I gripped him on the shoulder to steady him. “Way to go! You’re on your way out of the army.”
His tension exploded into laughter, then tears. “Thanks, thanks,” he spluttered.
“It’s not over yet,” Petra said.
Rick breathed deeply, scrinched his eyes to block the tears, and clenched his fists. “Not going back.”
I tried to calm my own tremors.
Petra drove away from the base through a section of fast-food franchises and striptease bars that bordered it. Rick put his glasses back on; bent at the bow, they sat crookedly on his nose. We put up the rear seat so we could sit without attracting attention, then waited at the stoplight by the autobahn entrance for thirty seconds that seemed like ten minutes, surrounded by other cars full of American soldiers and German civilians, none of whom noticed us. Finally Petra roared up the onramp. German autobahns have no speed limits, and soon the Volkswagen was going flat out at 160 kilometers per hour.
From a small suitcase I pulled out civilian clothes for Rick, and he started stripping off his uniform. “Last time I’ll ever wear this thing.”
As he took off his shirt, I got a whiff of the sour stench of fear, which I knew well from my own time in the military. He stuffed the fatigues into a trash bag, then put on corduroy pants and a cotton sweater. Now he looked like a young German, but with the buzz cut hair, almost like a neo-Nazi. I set my cap on his head.
At the first rest stop we pulled in and parked beside a van. I gave him the suitcase and a wallet with a thousand euros in it. We shook hands, then hugged. I clapped him on the back. He got out of the car and kissed Petra on the cheek, crying again as he thanked us. With a combination of a glare and a grin, he pushed the bag with his uniform into a garbage can. I got into the front seat of the VW; Rick got into the back of the van, giving us a V sign. The van pulled away, headed for Sweden, where Rick would apply for asylum.
Petra re-entered the autobahn, much slower now because she too was crying, quietly, on a resolute face. “He’s out of the war,” she said in her throaty German accent. “No one’s going to kill him, and he’s not going to kill anybody.” She took the next exit, then wended back over country roads towards her home. “Now I’m exhausted.”
“Me too, all of a sudden,” I said. “This one was hairy. We broke more laws than usual.”
“Good. Such laws need to be broken. I’ll make us some coffee.”
Petra had been the first of our group to meet with Rick. She worked in Caritas, the German Catholic social agency, and a priest had brought him to her office. Rick was absent without leave, AWOL, from the army, determined not to go back, but didn’t know what to do. He’d heard from another soldier that the Catholic Church sometimes helped, so he went there.
The priest was in too public a position to personally do much, but he introduced him to Petra because she was active in Pax Christi, the Catholic peace movement. The priest and the social worker had a tacit “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreement about her counseling work with soldiers. She didn’t volunteer information, and he didn’t pry.
Petra had various approaches to freeing soldiers. She could help them apply for conscientious objector status, but these days CO applications were usually turned down by the military. She had a degree in clinical psychology and was skilled at teaching GIs how to get psychological discharges, to act the right amount of crazy and handle the trick questions the military shrinks would throw at them. But now those too were usually denied. The military needed bodies — didn’t care if they were crazy.
If neither of these methods worked, and if the soldiers were desperate to get out, she would help them desert, a drastic step because it risked years in prison for them and major hassles for her.
Petra has never been arrested, but based on experiences of others in our group, she could expect to be charged with accessory to military desertion and with aiding and abetting a fugitive. The court process would be a severe drain on the energy and finances of both her and our group, but it was unlikely that she’d actually go to prison. With public opinion already so opposed to this war, the German government wouldn’t want to risk the protests. But she’d probably get a year on probation, lose her job, and have trouble finding another one.
Why did she take the risk? Petra’s grandfather had been an SS trooper, the kind of Christian who unquestioningly supports authority. His children reacted by becoming atheists. Petra became the kind of Christian who opposed authority, including the church hierarchy. She felt stopping war was more important than her personal security.
When she met Rick, she was impressed by his sincerity and also his desperation. He told her he’d got married after high school to a co-worker at a restaurant, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador who was a few years older. They wanted to have children but couldn’t raise them on minimum wage. He wanted to become an electrical engineer but couldn’t afford college. The army’s offer of tuition aid and electronics training was better than life at Pizza Hut, so he enlisted in 2001.
The plan was that she’d work in the towns where he was stationed. After his four-year hitch, he’d go to college while she continued to work, and after college when he had a good job, they’d have kids. Eight years seemed like a long time to get started in life, but by then he’d have a real career.
After 9-11, the army needed infantry troops more than electronic specialists, so they took away his needle-nosed pliers, gave him an M-16, and flew him to Afghanistan. First they made him excavate corpses from the collapsed caves of Tora Bora, full of the reek of rotting meat, hoping to find bin Laden’s. Then they sent him on night ambush missions along the Pakistan border: staring out from a machine gun bunker with goggles that made everything glow green and yellow, shooting anything that moved after dark, shipping the bodies out in the morning on the supply helicopter, still hoping to find bin Laden. Finally he was assigned to round up men from the villages around Kandahar and send them to interrogation camps. But there weren’t many men in the villages. They were either dead or in the mountains, and the army didn’t have enough troops to comb the mountains.
After eight months his wife divorced him.
In one of the villages an old woman walked by them with her goat. The goat wore a pack basket. The woman reached down, patted the goat, and blew them all up.
Rick woke up lying in a helicopter surrounded by dead and wounded friends. He felt he’d become one of his ambush victims being shipped out. The army would be disappointed to find out he wasn’t bin Laden.
It turned out later the woman was the mother of two sons who had been killed by the Americans.
With shrapnel wounds, a fractured leg, and a twisted spine, Rick was evacuated to the US hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where after five months of treatment he was pronounced fit for active duty and given orders for Iraq. By then he’d heard about Iraq from other patients. He panicked, went AWOL, then met Petra.
She helped him clarify his options. He could apply for conscientious objector status or a psychological discharge, but with orders into a combat zone, his chances of success were nil. But if he deserted, there was a good chance that Sweden would accept his application for asylum.
Rick told Petra later that what finally settled his decision to desert was learning that in Sweden the state helps pay college expenses. You don’t have to join the military and kill people just to get an education.
But before our group could make arrangements, Rick got arrested for AWOL and assigned to the detention barracks. If they’d known he was planning to desert, they would’ve locked him in the stockade, but simple AWOL has become too widespread for that. He was busted down two ranks and assigned to sixty days hard labor, at the end of which he’d be sent to Iraq still under detention.
After visiting him in the detention barracks, Petra told us he seemed like a man on death row. His psychological condition was deteriorating so rapidly that she was afraid he would kill himself rather than go back to war. He begged her to try to get him out.
The current work detail for the detention soldiers was twelve hours a day of picking up trash along the fence at the boundary of the base. They’d finished inside the base and had just started working on the outside, a group of ten detainees with two guards.
Petra and I wouldn’t have risked the snatch inside the base, but we were pretty sure the guards wouldn’t fire their pistols outside the base for fear of “collateral damage.” Shooting the local population is bad for public relations.
I alerted our sanctuary network in Germany and Sweden and arranged the logistics to get Rick into a new life.
Since I’m a US citizen, if I got arrested for helping soldiers desert, I’d be sent back to the homeland for trial and probably to prison. It’s worth the risk to me, though.
I do this work because my past is similar to Petra’s grandfather’s. I was in the Special Forces in Panama and Vietnam. I’d joined the Green Berets to write a book about war. During our search and destroy operations, I kept telling myself, “I’m just here gathering material for a novel.” But our deeds have consequences that affect us and others regardless of why we do them. I’m still dealing with the repercussions from my involvement, and my work in the military resistance movement is a way of atoning for it.
I’ve met many veterans who never saw combat but still feel a burden of guilt. Just being part of an invading force and abusing another country pollutes the soul. Under the hyperbole, there’s some truth in Kurt Tucholsky’s statement, “All soldiers are murderers.” The military exists to kill people, and everyone in it contributes to that. Even as civilians, we finance it.
Having got medals for combat, I know that the real heroes are the people like Rick who refuse to go, who stand up to the military and say no. If they’re caught, the government punishes them viciously because they’re such a threat to its power. Deserters and refusers are choosing peace at great danger to themselves. I wish I’d been that morally aware and that brave.
When this book is published, I’ll have to stop actively participating in desertions and will have to break off direct contact with our group. Once I go public, my e-mails and phone calls will probably be routed through Langley, Virginia, and that would endanger our whole operation.
Ironically enough, when I left the Special Forces, the CIA offered me a job. If I had accepted it, I could now be that G-13 civil servant who is perusing the messages of dissidents, trying to find ways to neutralize us. The road not taken.
Now living in Germany, I can see how important it is to resist such things in their early stages. In the 1930s many Germans were afraid to oppose their government as it became increasingly vicious, hoping it wouldn’t get too bad, hoping they’d be spared, hoping it would end soon, but then bitterly regretted their passivity after it was too late.
Better to go down resisting. Better yet to change it while we still can. It’s clear now that Obama isn’t really going to change things, so we have to do it ourselves.
“The Real War Heroes” is the first chapter of Radical Peace: People Refusing War (published by Trine Day, 2010), which presents the first-person experiences of war resisters, deserters, and peace activists in the USA, Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Recently released by Trine Day, it’s a journey along diverse paths of nonviolence, the true stories of people working for peace in unconventional ways. Other chapters are posted on a page of the publisher’s website.