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Telephone calls from soldiers flood the GI Rights Hotline
"They want out of Iraq"

December 12, 2003 | Page 5

THEY WANT to know about the rights that the Pentagon brass doesn't tell them about. That's the reason that the GI Rights Hotline has seen a huge increase in the volume of calls that it has received--first during the buildup for war against Iraq, and now during the U.S. occupation.

The hotline is run by a coalition of nonprofit organizations whose mission is to provide information to military service members about discharges, grievance and complaint procedures, and other rights. TERESA PANEPINTO, the GI Rights program coordinator for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, talked to Socialist Worker's ERIC RUDER about why so many military service members are calling the hotline.

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CAN YOU describe what soldiers have seen that has turned a growing number of them against the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq?

SOME SOLDIERS may feel like the U.S. is a good country, and I'm serving my country by being in the military, and I went to Iraq to liberate my sisters and brothers over there. And all of a sudden, they're seeing that we're not liberating anything, and there weren't any weapons of mass destruction, and we're being seen as occupiers, and these people hate me.

And wow, now I understand why they hate me. I hate me. Look at the role I'm playing. We've heard from many people who've been absolutely sickened to their stomachs. They're saying, "I can't deal with seeing any more women and children dead, I can't deal with seeing any more civilians being killed." I'd say that's the biggest factor.

HAVE CALLS to the hotline increased?

AT THE GI Rights Hotline, we've seen a couple waves of increases. In 2002, the hotline received more than 21,000 calls, an average of about 1,700 calls a month. In the first three months of 2003--during the buildup, invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq--we received double that number, more than 3,500 calls a month.

Then as it seemed that things were calming down, that number dropped. But in the past three months or so, the number has risen again, and we're now receiving more than 2,000 calls a month.

Many of those calls are directly related to what's going in Iraq. We get calls from young women and men who have been stationed in Iraq--calling from there, or when they're home on leave. Or from the thousands and thousands and thousands of reservists who are being involuntarily activated and told that as of December or January, they'll be in Iraq for a year.

First and foremost, they want out of Iraq, or they want to avoid going. And as a secondary issue, most of them want out of the military altogether. The reasons why people want out vary greatly.

But you can basically break it down into terrible living conditions--that means either being disgusted with the living conditions that the Iraqi people are being forced to live under and knowing that this is the direct result of the U.S. military intervention, or the awful living conditions for the GIs themselves, in terms of not having enough water, electricity, or Kevlar vests to go around.

Or, they feel like they're sitting ducks because of Bush's inflammatory comments. Or we get calls from people who were against the war to begin with--or, once they've been there, turn against the war. As more people go through these thought processes and have these feelings, we're seeing more and more conscientious objectors--people saying not only am I against this war for oil, I'm against every war.

In addition to these general issues, there are individual reasons that come up with several thousand GIs in terms of familial hardships. There are thousands of single moms and single dads out there who are members of the military. And clearly, the military does not offer child care and is not too concerned with the question, "What am I going to do with my kids?"

Just in the past six weeks or so, we're also hearing from a number of people who have gone through some pretty traumatic experiences in combat situations in Iraq, and we're needing to deal with how we are going to support these GIs who are suffering from combat post-traumatic stress disorder.

WHAT DO you say to people who say that the U.S. has an all-volunteer military, and that anyone who volunteered should have been prepared for this?

I ANSWER that on two levels. On one level, the U.S. may have a volunteer army, and the volunteers should have known what they were getting into, but what were GIs told and what were we, the American population, told?

That Saddam is a bad man, they're holding weapons of mass destruction, there could potentially be ties between the 9/11 terrorists and the Iraqi regime. Something must be done, so let's go find the weapons of mass destruction. These were the pretexts for invading Iraq--but none of it is true!

But the bigger issue about this all-volunteer military is that it really isn't. There may not be a draft right now, but there is a poverty draft--or what we call "economic conscription."

Because of economic conditions in our country, which continue to worsen on a daily basis, many young men and women who come from poor urban and poor rural communities are told by military recruiters that the only opportunity they have to better their lives--getting money for college or learning some kind of a trade--is to join the military.

The U.S. military has a $2 billion annual recruiting budget. We can't avoid the recruiters' advertisements, no matter where we see them. They're in schools, they're in shopping malls, they're on basketball courts, they're hanging out on street corners, and they're telling young men and women the same thing--this is the only way to get money for college, this is the only way to learn a trade.

So, really, young men and women are forced into it. And statistics show that more than 90 percent of people do so to get money for college or job-skills training. So they're not joining out of a sense of patriotism, they're joining out of a sense of economic need.

IS THAT why people who are against the war to begin with end up in combat in Iraq?

ABSOLUTELY. We've heard from so many service members who have said things like, "This is a war for oil. I'm not benefiting from it. No one in my community is benefiting from it. I don't know anyone who's benefiting. What I do see is the destruction caused by it. So why would I be for this war?"

It's been interesting to see that, because these GIs are part of this enormous, oppressive institution and are being so oppressed themselves. But they have a very astute political analysis.

WERE YOU caught off guard by the speed of the increase in interest of the hotline?

I HAVEN'T, to be honest with you, because even prior to 9/11, there was a great interest and need for the GI Rights Hotline. We would receive more than 1,000 calls a month then, and that's again because people join mainly for money for college or for job-skills training, and the vast majority feel that they got a bait-and-switch.

What they were promised in terms of training, educational benefits, pay and where they would be stationed compared with what they actually get leaves many people disgruntled. So while people call the GI Rights Hotline for many different reasons, there's at least one common thread that runs through every single call that we get--"My recruiter lied to me."

Even in the pre-9/11 world, there was a definite need for our services, and so it doesn't surprise me to see that that has increased. For a variety of reasons, 57 percent of people who sign up for the Montgomery GI Bill receive no benefits. One is that you need to get an honorable discharge to be eligible for those benefits, and though 70 percent get an honorable discharge, 25 percent don't.

And it's important to point out that people of color are three times less likely than their white counterparts to get an honorable discharge from the military. So again, when you're looking at this poverty draft, and who the military targets, and who has the greatest need, and then you look at what the reality is, it's a pretty awful situation.

What we hear in advertisements is "get up to $50,000 for college!" But they make sure the "up to" term is as quiet as possible. In order to be eligible for all $50,000, you need to be eligible for something called the Army Navy Scholarship Fund, and this is something that not everyone is able to qualify for.

And if you do, most likely, some fairly good four-year colleges would have already been knocking on your door, looking to offer you a scholarship. So really what's offered and what the reality is are two vastly different things.

WHAT QUESTIONS do people have for counselors at the GI Rights Hotline?

THE VAST majority wants out of the military. Increasingly, we're hearing from GIs who say, "I don't care what the consequences are, I'm thinking about going AWOL [absent without leave]. So what's going to happen?"

They're fed up, and they know that because of the way the military bureaucracy works, being discharged is a long process. Particularly when you're looking at people who are facing potentially deadly combat situations where they can be killed or they would have to kill someone else, many are deciding that what their conscience tells them to do is simply not show up.

WHAT ARE the sanctions for going AWOL at this time?

IT DEPENDS. There's no way to say with certainty. Clearly, going AWOL is illegal, and obviously, we never advise anyone to do that.We simply provide GIs with information about what would happen if they were to go AWOL, and that there are ways that you can turn yourself in and hopefully get a lesser punishment.

Worst-case scenario: Someone would be facing a court martial, a punitive discharge--either a bad conduct or a dishonorable discharge--and time in a military prison up to five years.

WHAT IMPACT is the Iraq war and occupation having on recruiting?

I THINK that in terms of the reserves and National Guard, they're hurting. Very few service members are re-enlisting once their term of service is up. The active military met all their recruiting goals for this year, but the reserves have not.

So I think we're going to see more and more aggressive tactics by military recruiters to get young people to join, and we'll see how that pans out--if it means more typical lies like there's a "no war" clause in your contract, we won't send you, don't worry.

ARE PEOPLE really told that?

YES! PEOPLE are told that there's a "no war" clause in their contract. Unfortunately, we would be here from now until next May talking about all the lies that recruiters tell young people, and that's just one example of that.

Recruiters lie about your pay, your rank, your job, where you'll be based. But where we see some really outrageous lies are for young people who are members of the DEP, or delayed enlistment program, which is how most people enlist in the military.

When people decide that they no longer want to be part of the DEP and want to get out of that obligation, which they are legally allowed to do, all they have to do is not show up for their active-duty basic training. Then they're out of the military, with no repercussions whatsoever. But recruiters will tell young people considering that option that they'll have a permanent mark on their record, they'll go to jail, they're considered AWOL.

And post 9/11, we were hearing such comments as "You're going to be shot for treason if you don't show up." There have even been instances of recruiters literally kidnapping DEP recruits and bringing them to ship off to their boot camp or basic training. Recruiters are salespeople who have quotas to meet, and they're under a tremendous amount of pressure themselves, so unfortunately, the vast majority of them are not honest.

IS THERE a disproportionate number of GIs of color who turn to you for advice because of racism in the military?

WE DON'T keep records in terms of the race of the people who call us, but we certainly do receive a number of calls from people of color who talk about that discrimination. There was someone who was called "the little Black nurse" every day. There was someone called "burrito head" every day and made fun of for not being able to speak English.

That's very real, and you can even look at the composition of the officer pool in the military--it's 88 percent white, it's 91 percent male. So who's reaping the benefits of military enlistment?

The GI Rights Hotline can be reached by phone at 800-394-9544 from the U.S., at 215-563-4620 from overseas, or on the Web at www.girights.org.

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