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What the military won't tell soldiers

By Roberto Barreto | February 6, 2004 | Page 2

PEOPLE ACROSS Puerto Rico rallied to the side of "el Desertor Boricua"--and helped to save him from military prison after he was arrested and charged with desertion from the U.S. Army. Josean González joined the armed forces because he wanted to study medicine and hoped that the Army would help him. But his first months in the military--at a language school in San Antonio, Texas--turned out to be a nightmare.

He faced racism and was subjected to physical and mental abuse. Desperate to get out, Josean got leave to visit his sick mother. There, he announced that he wouldn't return because of the abuse. The army classified him as a "absent without leave" (AWOL).

When González's mother, Magdalena Acevedo, called Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico, hoping to arrange for psychiatric care for her son--who she feared would commit suicide--officials gave her a date for an appointment. But when Josean arrived on December 3, there were no doctors waiting to see him.

Instead, military police handcuffed him, put him on a plane and returned him to his unit in Texas--where he faced disciplinary measures under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Josean's arrest caused anger among many in Puerto Rico, where more than 5,000 soldiers have been mobilized for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Because of the pressure building in Puerto Rico, Josean and his family learned that he had the right to quit the army--as a soldier who had not completed 180 days of military service. In theory, all soldiers have this right. But many times, commanders don't inform them.

This traumatic experience for Josean shows that what the army promises is very different from what it offers in reality--and exposes the idea that the U.S. has a volunteer military. "Poverty and the restricted economic situation force many Puerto Ricans to stay in the armed forces under tricks and deception," said lawmaker Rubén Berríos of the Puerto Rican Independentist Party. "When a person doesn't have any true options, in truth, [military service] isn't free or voluntary."

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