Sentenced for resisting war

August 15, 2008

FORT KNOX, Ky.--On July 17, a military court sentenced James Burmeister to six months in prison for going AWOL. Burmeister, who fled to Canada last year rather than return to Iraq, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Burmeister, originally from Eugene, Ore., went to Iraq in September of 2006 as a gunner in Unit 118 First Infantry Division. Burmeister took part in "small kill teams" that used "bait and kill" tactics.

In a July 2007 article in The Oregonian, Burmeister recalled how his team placed fake cameras on poles and labeled them "U.S. Property." Then they would shoot anyone who touched the cameras. Burmeister wrote in his deposition asking for asylum from the Canadian government, "These citizens were almost always unarmed. In some cases, the Iraqi victims looked to me like they were children, perhaps teenagers."

Burmeister's convoy was hit by roadside bombs three times. The third time, Burmeister was knocked unconscious and two pieces of shrapnel were buried in his face. After this incident, Burmeister began to have nightmares and feel faint.

He was sent to Germany for rest. There, he was diagnosed as suffering from PTSD and from a possible brain injury. He was also to found to have chronic high blood pressure. In May 2007, however, Burmeister was ordered to return to Iraq. He then went AWOL, fleeing to Canada, where he lived with his German wife and his son.

During the time that he was AWOL, Burmeister told people about the bait and kill teams, including Canada's CBC News in June 2007 and the Oregonian in July 2007. He also told PBS's Now. At his trial, the PBS interview and the Oregonian article were entered as evidence against him.

On March 4, 2008, he turned himself in to the Army. At his court-martial, Burmeister explained that in February he received an e-mail from a soldier in his company that said that the bait and kill practice had stopped. He decided to turn himself in then because his "mission had been accomplished."

While awaiting trial, Burmeister was kept in a room near a training ground, where he could hear soldiers firing from tanks day and night, worsening his PTSD, according to his father. Burmeister's wife has returned to Germany and has given birth to another child whom Burmeister has not seen.

Burmeister was charged with "desertion with intent to shirk important service." He pleaded guilty to going AWOL, in order to avoid getting a longer sentence. Burmeister will also receive a reduction in rank and in pay, and he will receive a bad conduct discharge. He will not be eligible for veterans' benefits. That means the Veterans Administration will not give him treatment for his PTSD and for his head injury.

The Eugene Weekly has pointed out that of the 4,698 soldiers who have been charged with desertion in 2007, only 108 have been convicted. Eric Burmeister, James' father, believes that his son was prosecuted as punishment for speaking out about the bait and kill teams.

After the trial, at which he testified on his son's behalf, he said, "I obviously now believe that James has been made an example to the rest of the soldiers and to the rest of those who dare think about what James did, that the punishment can be quite severe."

Eric Burmeister and his wife Helen have been speaking out about James' case and about the Iraq war. Eric told the Eugene Weekly, "I can never be quiet until they all come home. It seems like they are all my children now."

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