Sunday, August 07, 2005

Escaping Hell


I am a deserter.

One morning in December, 2003, I put my family into an old car, bought for $600, and left the military base in Colorado Springs, where I was on leave. I did not want to return to Iraq. I did not want to participate in this war based on lies. I did not want to kill any Iraqi civilians. I did not want to participate in the slaughter. I understand my fellow citizens consider me a coward and a traitor. But I don't give a damn. To each his own conscience. I also know that I will never benefit from an amnesty. When one is in the military one does not desert. But I take responsibility for this. I can live with this. Not with Iraq.

My name is Joshua Key. I was born in 1978 in Guthrie, in central Oklahoma. My family worked on a ranch. We had a hard time making ends meet, but I loved the outdoor life, amongst cowboys, and where we didn't have to wear shoes until we started school. I married Brandi after high school. We were the same age, and from the same background. I dreamt of becoming a welder, but I didn't have money for school. So I looked for work doing anything. But there was no future in Guthrie, which has no industry. We went to Wisconsin, then returned, as we found nothing. Our future seemed dim, and we already had two children.

The recruiter promised me a paycheck, a health care plan, instruction in a skilled trade, and no overseas deployment. He lied.

It was then I met the recruiters from the Army. It was February, 2002. They knew how to talk to me, that's for sure! They held out the prospect of leaving Oklahoma and living a grand adventure. They told me that not only was I going to serve my country, but I was going to afford my family exceptional advantages: a good health care plan, a regular paycheck, money for study after leaving the Army, and I'd learn to build bridges, which would be a marketable skill in civilian life. Not only that, they told me, because I was the head of a family, I'd be assigned to a regiment that would never be sent overseas.

My recruiter promised me this while looking me straight in the eye. By April 1st I had signed up for three years; it was a done deal. I was content, happy to be involved with something bigger than myself, something that would assure the future of my family. I left for boot camp in Missouri, leaving Brandi pregnant with our third child.

How could we explain that the most powerful army on earth, with the greatest technology, would lack food and water for their troops?

But right away I became disenchanted. The promises of the recruiter and the reality were two different things. I wasn't there to build bridges, but to learn to destroy them; I was assigned to mine training, to become a sapper. I called Brandi: "I've been fooled!" After several months of training I was re-assigned to Fort Carson, Colorado, to the 43rd Company of Combat Engineers. Brandi came to live on the base with the kids. And, in the fall of 2002, the rumours about Baghdad began.

Everything was done from the perspective of fighting in the desert, against Iraqi troops. The war games became more intense. Whole regiments were kept on stand-by. Be ready to leave from one day to the next, we were told. And myself, I kept on believing, clinging to their promises. I couldn't believe they'd lie to me. I wanted to put the question to an officer, but I was made to understand that I should keep quiet if I didn't want my family to suffer. I was trapped.

The war started on March 19th, 2003. Our equipment was on the trains, ready to leave for Kuwait. It was a long journey. There was still hope that the war would be over fast. On April 1st we were told "In ten days boys, you're leaving." I was in shock. The only way to boost our morale was to tell ourselves that at least the cause was just: that Saddam had the most bloodthirsty regime on the planet, that he possessed weapons of mass destruction, a super powerful army, and that to rid the world of the al-Qaeda terrorists we had to capture Iraq.

Dirty, hungry, sleep-deprived, we were ready to open fire on anything that moved, always on edge.

Obviously learning via television that France, Germany and Canada would not support the war shook me up. But President Bush ordered us to go to war. It was not open for discussion.

I arrived in Kuwait on April 10th, and we were stationed in the desert until the 27th. In a furnace. With two bottles of water per day, as opposed to the six necessary ones. And on one meal per day, as opposed to three. We couldn't understand: how could we explain that the most powerful army on earth, with the greatest technology, would lack food and water for their troops? We were dehydrated, we were hungry; in the dunes with the sand getting into everything. We waited, cleaning our weapons.

On the 27th, after a stopover of a few hours in Baghdad, we flew into Ramadi. We were then told that the little wooden bridge, the only approach to this city of 300, 000 wouldn't support the weight of our tanks. Our company, approximately 100 men, would have to go in alone, on foot. At that point we shit in our pants. We had hardly arrived, and they ordered us to go out on patrol. I told myself "What is this madness? I'm a combat engineer, trained to disarm land mines in the desert, not an infantryman." Oh well, I was wrong.

So I started on night patrol throughout the city. One man three metres in front, one three metres behind. My blood ran cold. With my machine gun in hand. This drove the inhabitants mad, and I think that was the goal. We created an escalation; they shot at us, so we could shoot back at them.

We were like zombies, moving through a fog.

In the beginning certain residents would come out of their homes to applaud us. This astonished me. It was explained to me that this was a reflex from the Hussein regime, where people were ordered to acclaim the military so they would not be executed. They weren't happy to see us, as some believed, but they were full of fear. Often, of course, we were spit on, stones were thrown at us. And then the fire fights, the rocket attacks, and the grenade attacks multiplied. When we reached Fallujah, there was the real nightmare. Buddies were disappearing one after the other without any word from or about them. Wounded, dead, we would never hear about anything. Three of my friends had a leg blown off.

At one point there were so many attacks and mortar rounds incoming that upon awakening we would ask ourselves "Is today my day?" We would dream of being wounded, so we could return home. All, and yes all, thought that losing a limb [would be preferable to] remaining in this Hell. Several guys shot themselves in the foot or the leg. One of my buddies used his M-16 to break his own ankle. I never came close to doing it, but the idea of self-mutilation crossed all our minds. At one point our CO put out a memo: if you injure yourself, or figure out another way to get sent home, rest assured you'll be sent back here for another twelve to 18 months.

We were always based in the centre of town. No running water, no shower, no toilets. Our uniforms were stained with blood, we smelled of our own shit. In Ramadi we slept in what had been one of Saddam's palaces, which had been pillaged and ransacked. Elsewhere, we'd manage to find an opening into a bombed out house. In fact, we were continually sleep deprived. I believe it was intended. It left us nervous, anxious, ready to open fire on anything that moved, always on edge. We were like zombies, moving through a fog.

There's an expression for the look in our eyes: "the thousand yard stare."
There's an enormous difference between the bases you see on TV and the units like ours, stationed in the city centre. The bases in the "Green Zone" are in the middle of nowhere, huge, and well-equipped. The grub is good there, the soldiers have the latest uniforms, and they're immaculate. They can phone home to their families when they want, they have access to the Internet. They're delighted to be in Iraq, and to smile at the cameras. No danger, no revenge, none of the chaos that the cameras are always filming in the villages, the streets smashed, the neighbourhoods bombed out, and especially never the rest of us, the troops in the "Red Zone", soaked in sweat and blood, wearing gear dating from Vietnam, faces constantly horrified, and our eyes... there's an expression for the look in our eyes: "the thousand yard stare", a fixed look to hide the fact that, otherwise, one is well and truly lost.

The raids were the most traumatic. We'd get the word the night before: "Ok boys, tomorrow you're doing two takedowns." We were given satellite photos of two houses which, according to CIA intelligence, were the hideouts of the terrorists we were supposed to capture. At four in the morning we began our surprise attack. I placed a big charge at the front door of one of the houses. I beat a hasty retreat, the door was pulverized, we rushed forward, machine guns in hand, picking our way through the rubble.

There were tears and howls. We never found anything like what we'd been told, but what violence! Our adrenalin was pumping at maximum because we figured that any moment we were going to be killed. We did come across some men who were still alive, who we'd drag outdoors and tie up, and herd onto trucks, even though they'd hadn't done anything suspicious. That was always the case.

I never signed up to kill fathers, mothers, children.

We were ordered to take aim at everyone, but I never pointed my weapon at a child. I felt only a strong compassion. I'm not GI Joe, I'm just a civilian who's trapped inside a military uniform. I'm a guy who feels betrayed by his own country. And who asks himself: "I'm here, for what?" There aren't any weapons of mass destruction, no planes, no tanks, no army. Just families, people who we're terrorizing, and whose lives we're tearing apart.

To my buddies I'd say: Imagine you're at home back in the States, in the middle of drinking a beer. And then we show up at your house in the middle of the night. You'd go crazy, right? You'd fight back! You'd want to kill everybody! Man, if it was me, I'd want to do things a thousand times worse than what they have.

We rain down gunfire on their heads from our helicopters, our tanks are in their cities, the interrogations, the check-points, the nine o'clock curfew, it's all totally arbitrary. At any time you can be thrown in prison. At any moment your car can be blown up. You shoot first, think later. How many Iraqis have been killed simply because of the language barrier? I remember a father and his little boy who were machine gunned, in two seconds, because they didn't understand the meaning of the word "Stop!" I was horrified. They didn't have any weapons. They were totally innocent.

After that I refused to open fire indiscriminately, preferring to give people the benefit of the doubt. It's clear it was us who was in the wrong. But I never signed up to kill fathers, mothers, children. Otherwise, if we had scrupulously followed military procedures, Iraq would be empty!

After fourteen months on the run in the US, while surfing the Internet, I discovered the underground railway to Canada.

At night, we'd talk among ourselves: when do you think we'll be ordered back out on patrol? The struggle for democracy, the hunt for terrorists, we can't buy it any more! If you knew the attention and personnel devoted to protecting the oil wells as compared to the safety of the cities, and of the people who died in the process...
I wrote to Brandi every day, or at least I tried to. Never mind what. Often the same phrases, over and over. The mail was the only means of communications with our families. No telephone or internet, like the troops in the Green Zone. Problem was, the Iraqis quickly came to understand that the best way to hurt us was to interdict the mail. They'd pinpoint when it arrived and, when they could, plant explosives or steal our mail. But I understand. In their place I'd have done the same thing.
In mid-October, after eight months in Iraq, I suddenly got word that I was to receive two weeks of leave State-side, to visit my family, before coming back for another tour. I thought: this is my chance. I never want to come back here. My flight landed in Kuwait, Ireland, Atlanta, Dallas, Colorado Springs...

The night of my arrival, I talked to Brandi. She'd been living in a state of high anxiety, not reading the newspapers, or watching the TV news. Three times she'd called headquarters because she heard rumours I'd been injured in a mortar attack.

They didn't even bother to return her calls!

Together, we made the decision to leave. It was necessary to go quickly, and to tell no one. I bought an old Camaro to replace my van, because the Army knew the plates. We quickly wound up our personal affairs, and then we headed out for the east. In full daylight, like we were going for a quick visit. We left Colorado behind, crossed Kansas and then Missouri. Finally we stopped in Philadelphia. We needed to get lost in the crowd of a big city, where we wouldn't attract any attention. When I found a job I made the mistake of not staying sufficiently mobile. I was now legally a deserter, a fugitive from justice — the FBI had called my mother; they were searching for me.

It's going to take years before America leaves its trance and faces the truth about the atrocities going on in Iraq.

I started doing day jobs as a welder, and we moved from motel to motel. For fourteen months. Total paranoia. I was afraid to be noticed, afraid of the knock on the door, afraid to talk on the telephone. Toward the end, I became convinced that Social Security or my income tax records would be used to track me down. I had to do something. Then, while surfing the Internet, I discovered the underground railway to Canada. and I contacted Jeffrey House, the Toronto lawyer who is working to get his government to grant sanctuary to American deserters. Brandi was now pregnant with our fourth. The baby was born after some complications and a month in hospital. But,
when Brandi had regained her health, we hit the road for Canada.

As we approached the border at Niagara Falls, in March, I felt like my life was totally up for grabs. My driver's license had expired, I had no other papers except for my military ID. I had already decided that, if I was arrested by the American police, if I was told to get out of the car, I'd jump off the bridge. I hadn't subjected my family to this fugitive life only to be thrown in prison.

When the Canada Customs officer told us to stop and roll down the window I was totally stressed out, in complete shock. "Where are you going?" he asked. "For how long? Those are your four kids? ... Have a good stay in Canada." He didn't even look at my ID!

The War Resisters Support Committee welcomed us warmly to Toronto. We were given a place to stay, a bit of money. My two eldest children, five and six, went to school and learned Chinese! And Jeffrey House launched the procedure for me to seek refugee status. That's going to take a long time. But I know that from now on, my future, and my kids' futures, are in Canada.

I see a therapist. I suffer from post-traumatic stress. I have insomnia, nightmares, and hallucinations that flash me right back to Iraq. That's the way it is. That's not going to go away. Unfortunately, it's going to take years before America leaves its trance and faces the truth about the atrocities going on in Iraq. I am not a conscientious objector. I believe there are just wars. But this isn't it.


Mick Lowe translated the above article, written by Annick Cojean for Le Monde magazine, no. 68. Joshua Key, born in 1978, in Oklahoma, served eight months in Iraq before going AWOL. He and his wife Brandi (also of Oklahoma) arrived in Toronto in March of 2005, with their four young children. They are currently seeking refugee status.

As of three months ago, official reports said that over 5,100 soldiers were officially AWOL , though the true figures may well be upwards of six times as many.

Soldiers who need help can get it here, at the GI Rights Hotline. It is a nonprofit volunteer network giving assistance to soldiers regarding discharges, AWOL status and discrimination/harrassment.

Be patient, however; they're known to get pretty busy.

Quote of the Day: Mama, take this badge off of me
I can't use it anymore.
It's gettin' dark, too dark for me to see
I feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door.

Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can't shoot them anymore.
That long black cloud is comin' down
I feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door. –- Bob Dylan

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