Comrades in Arms

I received this letter from an ex-soldier.

Hi Mr. Hathaway,

I got your letter (forwarded) asking for information for your book. To answer your first question, Yes, I’m enjoying living in Holland. I’m becoming the little Dutch girl — the little Black Dutch girl, but that doesn’t bother people here. They’re very tolerant and internationally minded.

As for the rest of your questions, at first I didn’t think I could answer them. They reminded me too much of an essay test in school. Plus it’s not exactly pleasant to remember back on all this stuff, you know. I’m trying to leave it behind and start a new life.

But I kept thinking about it and finally decided I would forget the questions and just write about what happened. Like you said, people should know about this. Don’t give anybody my address, though. The army still wants to put me in prison.

Compared to a lot of people, I had it easy in Iraq — on a huge base with a Burger King, cold beer, video games, movies, air conditioned trailers, baseball games. About once a month we got mortared or rocketed and had to dive into the bunkers and maybe every other time somebody got killed, but there were thousands of us, so usually you didn’t know them even though you felt bad for them.

Although it wasn’t very dangerous, we had to work our tails off, shifts of twelve on, twelve off, seven days a week — you felt like a zombie. I was a data entry clerk, sitting in front of a computer typing stuff in. My eyes were fried, and I was on meds for migraines. When you weren’t working, all you wanted to do was forget everything. When you were working, you wanted to forget it even more.

We had a big mental health clinic, and they sent combat troops there for evaluation and therapy. These guys were a wreck. I know because I had to type up some of the reports. The shrinks would try to get them on the right mix of tranks and anti-depressants, and they’d run therapy groups where the GIs would talk about what they’d been through, and then the docs would send them back, unless they thought they might kill themselves or another American, in which case they’d cycle them through again.

One of our cooks hung out with these guys, and he’d tell us their stories. Mostly it was about how much they hated the hajis because you could never tell who was a terrorist and who wasn’t. An IED would go off beside the road and kill your buddy, and you didn’t know who set it. Maybe it was one of those people watching. You wanted to kill them all. A haji would fire some shots into your patrol, then disappear into the crowd. They were hiding him. You wanted to kill them all.

As the spoon was telling the stories, you could tell how mad he was about it. He had a safe job, but he really identified with the combat guys and what they were going through. He said the Arabs were cowards, they were afraid to stand up and fight fair, so they sneak around. They use car bombs and kidnap people for hostages. They’re chicken-shit wimps. They know they’d lose a fair fight, he’d say, and his mouth would twist around.

I told him, What’s so fair about the way we fight? Flying way up above someone where they can’t shoot back and dropping a bomb on them. Blowing up a whole apartment building to get one sniper, who’s probably already left. I said it seems to me taking a hostage is better than just killing somebody. It gives the other side a chance to save his life.

He asked me whose side I was on and gave me a look like he wanted to shoot me. I said I was on the side of going home and giving these people their country back.

He got really pissed then, called me a haji whore, said I was probably blowing them all. He was shaking, he was so mad at me.

I just left. No point talking to somebody like that.

Couple of days later I had to go to the latrine in the middle of the night. The latrine was two sections of Porta-Potties between the women’s and men’s shower rooms and next to the mortar bunkers. It was all pretty ugly, but the flies loved it, so we had electric bug zappers mounted around the area — whenever you went out there you had to listen to the crackle and pop of bugs being fried.

The cook came out of one of the men’s potties, zipping up. I looked the other way, hoping he wouldn’t notice me, but he walked up to me. I figured he was going to call me another name. Or just maybe he might apologize for the ones he’d called me. Instead he looked around to make sure no one else was there, then grabbed me with one hand over my mouth, the other on my throat.

He shoved me into one of the women’s potties, said he’d kill me if I screamed, and locked the door from the inside. He was squeezing my throat so hard I was afraid he was going to kill me anyway. He pushed me down and made me sit on the toilet. As soon as I did, I peed on myself, I was so scared. He unzipped and said, “You’re going to give me some of what you’ve been giving the hajis.” He pulled my hair real hard, yanked my head down, and stuck his thing in my mouth. Disgusting. I won’t say what he said he’d do to me if I bit it.

He called me more names while he was squirting, then he twisted my hair, stuck his fist in my eye, and told me to swallow. I swallowed and he laughed. I won’t say what he said he’d do to me if I told anyone.

After he left, I was shaking and couldn’t get my breath. I’ve never felt worse in my life — helpless, worthless, little, like one of the bugs sizzling in the traps. I needed to throw up. I grabbed a plastic bag from the dispenser on the wall and got most of the puke into that. The bag was small, for used tampons, so a lot of it went over my hands. I knotted the bag and stuffed it into another bag.

I felt so filthy I wanted to die. The only thing that kept me going was rage. I knew if I killed myself, the guy would get away with this. To get back at him, I had to stay alive.

Crying all the while, I washed my hands, brushed my teeth for ten minutes, took a shower, washed my hair. Heart pounding, body twitching, I lay in my bunk trying to blank my mind until reveille finally played over the loudspeakers.

I wasn’t hungry, and I knew if I went into the mess hall, he’d be there, asking me if I wanted my eggs scrambled or sunny-side up. I went to the office, and as soon as first sergeant came in from breakfast, I told him what the guy did and what he threatened to do to me if I told. The first sergeant told me to go see the medics and come back when I was done.

The medics asked me if I wanted an exam. I said no, I wanted them to examine what was in the bag for DNA evidence that the guy had raped me. They said they didn’t have a forensic lab, but they could store the specimen in the refrigerator until the CID told them what to do with it. They gave me a receipt marked “stomach contents.”

When I went back to the first sergeant, he said I was being transferred to another base for my protection. I got mad. I said I didn’t want to be transferred, I wanted to file a rape complaint and have the guy transferred to jail. He said that since the guy threatened me, the top priority had to be my safety. I said I’ll be safe when he’s in jail. The first sergeant said they can’t put him in jail until after they investigate, and that’ll take awhile, and in the meantime my protection is more important. The guy won’t know where you are.

I said let me file the complaint first. He went to the file cabinet, took out a form, and handed it to me: Sexual Harassment Report. I told him this wasn’t harassment, it was rape. He said this was the only form he had for that sort of thing. The CID could change it to rape later.

I didn’t want to fill out that form. I went to the CID, but they wouldn’t listen to me at all. They said all reports have to come through the chain of command — they don’t accept what they called “wildcat reports.”

By now it was clear I was getting the bureaucratic run-around. I was afraid if I got transferred out before the report got to the CID, it would never get there. So I went back and raised hell with the first sergeant. That helped. He could tell I wasn’t lying and he knew the cook, so he said he’d make a deal with me. If I went ahead with the transfer today, he’d make sure the company commander forwarded the report to the brigade commander, and then he’d check with CID to make sure they got it.

I thought about it. I really didn’t want to see that slimy spoon again. The thought of being totally away from him was very appealing. I needed a change. So I filled out the form, said a few good-byes, packed my duffel bag, and rode the convoy to the next base.

It was only about ten miles away, but this was one of the few times I’d really seen Iraq since I came in country. The place was a wreck — blown up houses, boarded up stores with bullet holes in the walls, twisted metal that used to be cars, men looking at you with hate in their eyes, women looking away. I wondered if any of the women had been raped by GIs or their own men. I would’ve liked to have talked to them, but they’d probably hate me for what I’m a part of.

The bay of the truck I was riding in had sandbags on the floor to protect from mines. A Blackwater shooter stood behind a machine gun mounted on the cab. I held my rifle pointed out but didn’t think I could shoot anybody. I remembered back to when I’d joined the army for college tuition help. I thought about what had happened to me and what my country was doing to the people here. I just cried.

My new company was pretty much like my old one, and my job was the same. After two weeks I got a report saying the specimen had been examined and no sperm was found, so the complaint was dismissed due to lack of evidence.

I wrote a letter to CID asking how many samples had been taken in the specimen and got a reply back saying they didn’t comment on criminal investigations. I went to the Judge Advocate trying to get a lawyer to file an appeal and order a new lab test, but they said there weren’t legal grounds for an appeal.

It filled me with fury that the guy was going to get away with this … and probably do it again. I went to my new first sergeant and raised hell. This time it didn’t help. He said all the procedures had been followed and I had to accept the result. If I didn’t stop making trouble, he would have the company commander flag my personnel file so I wouldn’t get promoted.

I fell apart, crying and shaking like after the rape. I didn’t care about getting promoted, I told him, but I did care that I was being raped by the army bureaucracy. He called the company clerk and told her to take me to Mental Health.

They gave me tranks and put me in a woman’s therapy group. The group was quite an experience. It was run by a psychiatric nurse and had about twenty members, all of them had been abused by men they worked with. My story was actually one of the milder ones. I hadn’t been pounded with fists or tied up and raped by three guys. I hadn’t been burned with cigarettes or scarred on the face with a bayonet. But what happened to me was worse than some of the other cases — the woman who’d been mentally pressured into sex by her sergeant major and the one who’d had her hair cut off by her jealous boyfriend. All in all, we were quite a crew — the walking wounded. And most of the guys had got away with it.

During single therapy with the nurse I pleaded with her to help me get out of the army. She said she had been able to get some people discharged, but only when their work record was terrible and their attitude was affecting others, in other words, when the army knew it would be better off without them. It would take many very unpleasant months for me to build that kind of record, she said. In the meantime the army would punish me in all sorts of ways for screwing up, and she didn’t think I could take that kind of pressure. But she might be able to get me transferred out of country for mental health reasons. To do that, though, she’d have to write a report that made me seem like a total basket case, and that would mean no promotions or privileges.

No problem with that, I said, as long as I get out of here. I started crying then, and to my surprise she started crying too.

She told me that seeing what was going on here had totally turned her against the military. She said that abuse here is worse than stateside because the soldiers are part of a machinery of destruction, and that brings out the worst in people. Especially since we know deep down that this is an immoral war, our own morals tend to get lost too.

She wanted to just quit, but she had only sixteen months left until early retirement, and she needed to stick it out. In the meantime she was glad to help others get out.

Two weeks later I was in Germany and incredibly relieved. The atmosphere was very different. There wasn’t this ghoulish backdrop of violence to everything, and I felt safe from both terrorists and rapists.

But I couldn’t fit in. I just wasn’t a soldier anymore. Everything we were doing seemed totally stupid, and I couldn’t ignore that it was all helping the military do its basic job — killing people. I couldn’t kowtow to these lames anymore, salute and say Sir and Ma’am. I sort of did it, but they could tell I didn’t mean it, that I was dissing them. I started getting into trouble. I got an Article 15 for talking back to a captain and got restricted to barracks for coming back late from a weekend pass. I got demoted to Pfc for insubordination — I had refused to shine my shoes and polish my brass for a brigade inspection, and our platoon got gigged because of it. I still had twenty months to go on my enlistment, and I knew I had to get out now or I’d end up spending the rest of that time in jail. I didn’t want to give the army any more of my life but didn’t have any idea how to escape.

I remembered hearing about an underground group that helps people get out, but I didn’t know how to get in touch with them. I remembered seeing a peace sign and a PACE banner in a window in Ramstein, so I went there on my next pass.

It turned out to be a little radical office, two friendly, scruffy people sitting on scruffy furniture with anti-war posters on the wall and lots of books. They were German pacifists, but they told me they couldn’t help me desert because they’d get arrested. They’d already been busted once for helping someone who turned out to be an agent. They said their phones and e-mail were tapped, they weren’t sure if by the Germans or Americans. There was a good chance their office was bugged, so they couldn’t even talk about doing anything illegal. About all they could do was picket and put up posters.

I told them what it was like in Iraq and what had happened to me and how it was with me now. They looked at me carefully and listened carefully, like the nurse had. When I finished, one of them stood up and motioned me to come outside. Out on the street, she scribbled something on a piece of paper and gave it to me, told me I should call this number, but only from a public phone and not on the base. She squeezed my hand and kissed me on the cheek.

It turned out to be your phone number, Mr. Hathaway. You know what happened after that, but I’ll say it anyway because you asked me to. Then I’ll bring you up to date on what I’ve been doing since we last saw each other.

First I met with you and some other people. I had to tell my story again and answer lots of questions. I had to bring copies of my rape report and my disciplinary write-ups. I guess the group was trying to see if I was an agent. At first I thought that was dumb — if I was an agent, I could fake those. But then I thought maybe if they’re faked and the group gets arrested, you could get the case thrown out for entrapment.

I was very relieved when the group decided I was for real. I could tell you all really cared about me.

My actual desertion was so simple. You gave me a train ticket to Holland and the way to contact the safe house. You gave me money (that was very nice!) and a big good-bye hug (also nice!).

I was scared on the train. I felt totally alone and at the same time afraid everyone could tell just by looking at me that I was deserting. I was riding off into a whole new life and had no idea what it would be — happiness, prison, poverty, another rape?

The people in the safe house were wonderful. They took me right in and made me feel at home. They were risking jail to help me, and the group in Germany had been too, and I’m really grateful to you all for the good new life I have now.

First I got new clothes, a place to live, then a job — data entry again, but better pay, shorter hours, and a lot nicer people. I still have this background worry that the army will catch me and lock me up, but at this point it’s not very likely. If they knew which town I was living in, they could probably track me down, but the army doesn’t have enough soldiers to really search for all the deserters. They need the ones they’ve still got for Iraq and Afghanistan. As long as I don’t get into trouble here (I’m very careful!), I’m probably safe until my passport expires. That’s in eight years, and by then I can apply for Dutch citizenship. As soon as I’m good at the language (it’s hard!), I can go to college here (it’s almost free!).

I miss my family a lot, though. My sister got married last month, and it really hurt that I couldn’t go back for the wedding. The MPs would probably be waiting to greet me at the airport. I’m hoping my family will visit me here — I think they’d like it. They might not like some of the changes I’ve gone through here, though.

I became friends with one of the women who works at the safe house. Then we became more than friends. This happened gradually. I’d never gone in that direction before, and it took some adjusting to.

Some of this change was because I got to thinking about how armies and war really are a man thing. They let women in because they need the bodies, but we really don’t belong there. It hurts us to be part of such a thing. We try to cover up and forget the hurt, to prove we can take it, we’re good enough for the man’s world.

But now I see it’s really the opposite — the man’s world isn’t good enough for us. But they have the power. They say how things are going to be, and we have to fit into that.

Even the way people have to work — rush to a job in the morning, work all day, come home at night exhausted and brain-dead, all just to get enough money to live on. I’m sure that must’ve been invented by a man — the owner of the factory where the rest of us have to work. Working all day long is no way to live, especially if you have a family, children who need to be taken care of. But a woman either has to do that or give up her power to a man who does it. The whole thing fits together — wars, factories, families all run by men.

And look where it’s got us. We’re killing each other, we’re killing Mother Earth, everybody’s miserable, nobody’s happy, but men are afraid to change. They’re terrified of losing their control. Power is everything to them — if it’s gone, they’re nothing, little boys again.

The whole thing has made me kind of sick of men (please don’t take that personally — one of the reasons I like your novels so much is that they show you’re trying to change all this too). I really needed to get away from the male world. So I’m trying something different.

And being with a woman is definitely different, we’re more tuned in to one another. I’ve discovered that men aren’t necessary to be happy in this world. Women are quite special, and I’m glad to be Nynke’s lover.

I was raised to believe this was unnatural, but now that seems ridiculous. The whole idea that some things people do are natural and other things unnatural doesn’t really make sense — people are part of nature, and other animals sometimes do it that way. To say it’s unnatural is just a way of saying, “I don’t like it,” but hiding behind some big authority like God or Mother Nature.

Going through this change made me see that other things we believe are also probably nonsense. Most people believe that war is natural — we’ve always had wars, humans are just warriors, that’s the way it has to be. They say the important thing is that we win. We need a strong military or another country will take us over. People are born violent, and we have to defend ourselves against that.

But this may be just the way things are now. In the future things might not have to be this way. It could be that this argument that human nature is violent is being put out by people who want to keep us from changing.

Our ancestors believed all sorts of bullshit was natural, made that way by God — kings had the right to rule over us, Blacks were inferior to Whites, women should obey men. When some people started to change those, conservatives screamed just like today that we can’t change them, don’t even try. But they were wrong.

I admit that doesn’t mean they’d always be wrong. Some things might be built into humans, and maybe we can’t do anything about them. It’s hard to know for sure what those things are, but here’s a way to find out. Let’s start changing things. Let’s change our ideas of how women and men are supposed to be. Let’s change what it means to work. Let’s outlaw nuclear weapons, then all military weapons. Let’s make war illegal. How do we know it won’t work until we’ve tried it?

Then after a long time of trying, at least a hundred years, what we haven’t been able to change, that might be hardwired into us. We might have to just accept that. But we won’t know until we’ve really tried to change. No harm in trying. I think we’ll be surprised how much we can change.



• Comrades in Arms” is a chapter from Radical Peace: People Refusing War, which presents the experiences of peace activists who have moved beyond petitions and demonstrations into direct action, defying the government’s laws and impeding its ability to kill. Chapters are posted on a page of the publisher’s website at

William T. Hathaway’s books won him a Rinehart Foundation Award and a Fulbright professorship. His novel Lila, the Revolutionary is a fable for adults about an eight-year-old girl who sparks a world revolution for social justice. Read other articles by William.