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More and more U.S. soldiers on leave from Iraq ask...
"What if I just don't go back?"

By Eric Ruder | October 17, 2003 | Page 5

THE GI Rights Hotline is reporting a 75 percent increase over the past three months in calls asking about the consequences of going AWOL (or "absent without leave"). Overall call volume at the hotline, which was set up to provide advice about soldiers' rights, is up from 2,000 to 3,500.

Many of the calls come directly from soldiers--both those home for 15-day authorized leaves, and those who manage to call by satellite phone from Iraq. "What would happen if I just don't go back?" a soldier asked in one phone call, according to an activist.

All this is a reflection of the growing discontent of U.S. troops forced to carry out Washington's occupation of Iraq--where they endure poor living conditions and long stretches of boredom, interrupted by the ever-increasing threat of guerrilla resistance. Adding to the bitterness is a sense of betrayal among ordinary soldiers--lied to by the Bush administration about the reasons for the war, and now demoralized by the Pentagon's repeated extensions of their tours of duty.

What's more, the Pentagon is granting 15-day leaves to reservists serving in Iraq--and making them pay for their own plane tickets to get home from their point of re-entry in the U.S. According to one press report, dozens of soldiers in one unit shelled out $43,000 for plane fares to take advantage of an upcoming leave--only to find out a couple weeks later that the brass had canceled the leave.

Jan Hogan, meanwhile, has two nephews serving in Iraq who will have to pay $1,200 each to get to St. Paul, Minn. Hogan told the Associated Press that George W. Bush should give money he collected on his campaign fundraising trail to help troops get home. "I'd like to take some of the millions he raised and help those two boys as well as all the others," said Hogan.

The Pentagon does pay for the return of some soldiers--those killed and injured. Military officials insist on tallying the human cost of the war on Iraq by counting only those soldiers killed--about 300 so far.

But combat deaths are small in comparison to the number of people injured or evacuated from Iraq for other reasons. Because of better medical facilities and transportation, soldiers can now survive combat injuries that once meant certain death. But that has meant more severe injuries--with the seriously wounded facing surgeries, amputations and years of rehabilitation.

Nearly 2,000 U.S. soldiers have suffered injuries, and 4,000 more have been evacuated for other medical reasons, including stress and psychological problems. "Hundreds of my comrades have died, and the numbers rise every day, but the original reasons why they were sent to their violent deaths ([weapons of mass destruction], connection with al-Qaeda, etc.) have now been rebuked by virtually everyone in the U.S. intelligence community," reservist Andy Topetzes wrote in an e-mail.

"The Iraqi people were duped into believing that their economic well-being and physical security would be insured once Baghdad fell and American troops took control of the nation. This is certainly not the case...Our piece-of-garbage president--the same one who thumbed his nose at an entire conglomerate of the United Nations before the invasion and broke international law by commencing with the invasion--is now begging for their help...

"And all of these things are perpetuated by a group of men who dodged Vietnam, lied about the shady nature of what little military service they did have, and then have the audacity to call themselves Patriots. I spit on them."

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