Another Soldier AWOL Rather Than Deploying to Iraq
"Just because we volunteered, doesn't mean we volunteered to throw our lives away for nothing. You can only push human beings so far," says Marc Train, a 19-year old soldier from America's heartland. "Soldiers are going to Iraq multiple times. The reasons we're there are obviously lies. We're reaching a breaking point, and I believe you're going to see a lot more resistance inside the military."Train's a private in the US Army, stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia. But the last time anyone saw him on base was March 16, just before he headed to DC to protest the war he is expected to fight.
Before leaving for DC, Train contacted Garett Reppenhagen, chairman of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He wanted to participate in the street theater protests Reppenhagen was organizing for Iraq veterans to mark the fourth anniversary of war. "When I learned he was coming from Fort Stewart where he was still an active duty soldier, my first thought was: Wow, the kid has guts," Reppenhagen said.
Photos show Train at an anti-war demonstration outside the Pentagon that drew over thirty thousand people on March 17. He was on stage with veterans and other GIs opposing the war. In one hand he held an antiwar banner. The other held a red flag, waving in the wind, high above his head.
"We parted that evening with plans for Marc to get a ride to the Operation First Casualty preparation the next day," says Reppenhagen. "Marc never showed. Something deep down inside me figured he wasn't going back to Fort Stewart."
Train was an Army brat. His father was stationed in Germany, where Train spent the first three years of his life. All he remembers from that time is that all the houses were yellow and once in a while he and his mom Charlene would watch as MPs rolled through town in Humvees.
Eric Train was responsible for border security between East and West Germany. "He may have seen some bad things there," his son Marc says, uncertain. "I've heard stories from people stationed with my dad. When people tried to cross from East to West, they'd get pretty torn up. They were shot down. My dad might have been exposed to that."
When the wall came down, Eric moved his family back to the United Sates. Seeking to spare them the monotony of an active duty lifestyle, Eric transferred to the Army reserves. When he couldn't find a job, he started drinking. Spiraling into debt, Eric and Charlene were in the process of splitting up. When young Train was five, his father shot himself in the head with a deer-hunting rifle.
After that, Train went through a predictable string of psychotropic medications for young people with trauma. At one point, he was admitted to Charter Mental Hospital in Wichita, Kansas. He spent nearly a month there before his mom rescued him. "I'm kind of a mamma's boy," says Train, laughing a little. "For 13 years, I put her through a lot of crap. I never went to class and the school would call her job all the time. We'd get really frustrated and yell at each other. The cops would come and I'd get taken away to jail. My mom always came to pick me up later, though."
Train and Charlene ended up in Salina, Kansas, a city that promised boom-time economic growth, superlative education and health care, and its own symphony. Train bounced from school to school just the same: Salina High School South, an alternative school, and finally the Job Corps. He graduated from the Job Corps with a GED, and a diploma from a high school in nearby Manhattan, Kansas.
Train and Charlene weren't hungry, but they still struggled to make ends meet. Charlene made just enough money that she didn't qualify for government assistance. "Part of the continued assault on the middle class," Train says. The family wasn't homeless, but they occasionally went to stay with Train's grandparents. Mostly, they just kept moving from place to place. Looking around, Train didn't see much in the way of a future ahead of him.
"I was in an economic trap," he says. "I just wanted to find some stability in my life. The Army seemed like just the thing. Going through school, they teach you implicitly that if you're fucked here, you're gonna be fucked forever. I needed a way out of that."
Train signed up for the Army under the delayed-entry program in the summer of 2005. On September 1, he was picked up at his house by a recruiter and delivered to the military entrance-processing station (MEPS) in Kansas City. Nine days later, Train ended up at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where he began a new life on September 9.
"That was zero day," Train says, talking about the Army process of breaking down and rebuilding new recruits. "They tried to shatter everybody."
As Train's Midwestern boyhood was being smashed out of him by Army drill instructors, he watched hurricanes Katrina and Rita rip through the Gulf Coast. As the drill instructors tried to remake him into a US Army soldier, Train grew increasingly critical of the government's callousness in response to the death and economic devastation in the region. He knew the National Guard should have been around to assist with the disaster, but the troops were deployed in Iraq instead.
After basic, Train spent 16 weeks at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, learning to be an intelligence analyst. He was given an interim top-secret security clearance, and after an initial investigation would have access to highly sensitive compartmentalized intelligence. "The really spooky, CIA stuff," Train explains, without going into further detail. In April 2006, he arrived at his first duty station at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
Train started a blog critical of the US government's financial decisions. How could the administration disburse funding to its pals at Halliburton's KBR and Bechtel, but allocate nothing for the people in the Gulf Coast, he asked. Along the way, Train says he may have been a bit disrespectful to those responsible. Since his writings were posted anonymously, it shouldn't have mattered.
But when Train's commanders discovered his blog, they hit the roof. On the grounds that he was a threat to national security, his clearance was suspended. He went through a months-long investigation that resulted in the revocation of his top-secret security status and other disciplinary action. He could no longer do the only job he knew how to do.
"No one ever asked me if I intended to overthrow the government, or even if I would have supported that. If they had asked, I would have said no, because I wanted to support my unit," Train says. "I'd seen movies like 'Iraq for Sale,' and I had heard about the scandal at Abu Ghraib. I wanted to use my knowledge to support our mission and help the people in Iraq. But no one asked me. They thought I was an infiltration and espionage threat. They thought I'd support the overthrow and downfall of the United States government."
In November 2006, Train's security clearance was formally revoked and his commanding officer started to talk seriously about Train leaving the Army. Train agreed he and the Army weren't such a good fit anymore. He filled out a separation packet, and was pulled off the deployment roster in January. His paperwork made its way through the chain of command. By every indication, Train was on his way to getting out of the Army.
By this time, Train had signed the Appeal for Redress, an online petition for active duty members of the military. He joined Iraq Veterans Against the War and was developing a political critique of the geopolitical policies that supported the Iraq war.
Some time in February, Train began hearing rumors that his discharge had been rejected and that he would be sent to Iraq anyway. His rear detachment commander eventually confirmed the rumors, saying Train would deploy as an 11Bravo infantryman, with generic assignments and combat responsibilities.
"Everyone in the Army gets a few combat skills. But infantry? It's not what I was trained for," Marc says. "It would have been a suicide mission."
Train knew the threats were serious when he was sent to the rapid fielding initiative (RFI) and equipped for deployment. He says the officers laughed a little as they told him he'd be put on shit-burning duty, just like in the movie "Jarhead." That, and because he wasn't reclassified with more useful duties or properly prepared for the ones to which he was now assigned, convinced Train that going AWOL was his best option. He left for the March 17 protests in Washington, DC, knowing he wouldn't return to Fort Stewart.
Train arranged to meet other GIs in DC. Jonathan Hutto is the cofounder of the Appeal for Redress, and he says even though he didn't know about Train's plans, no soldier makes the decision to go AWOL lightly. "I support any and everyone who has been driven to go AWOL," says Hutto, himself an active duty member of the Navy. "It's not his fault that he went AWOL - it's the government's fault for committing this war and creating such an untenable situation."
Like Hutto, Iraq Veterans Against the War's Garett Reppenhagen says Train going AWOL was an understandable choice given the circumstances. "I also would have supported him if he had gone back and continued service," Reppenhagen said. "Everyone's situation is different, and you have to weigh your obligations to your country and your oath against your moral compass and your higher conscience. There is never a right or wrong answer when matching such powerful forces."
"I have a huge pain in my heart, like it's literally breaking," Train said after leaving Washington, DC. When one organization invited him to speak in high schools about his time in the Army, Train began to turn his anger into action. "The recruiters are coming into these inner-city schools full of kids who are already going to have a hard life, harder than most people. When the same kids come back with post-traumatic stress disorder, the military denies them benefits. It sickens me because I wore that uniform. I represented a system of treating people like garbage."
Train says the militarization of America's schools is shocking. "They're creating a culture of conformity. They're teaching kids to lash out at anything different." Train notes the metal detectors, the security guards on every floor, students wearing uniform-like clothes.
"I want to counter the whole idea that just because you think you might have messed up one area of your life, your life is ruined forever," Train says. He doesn't know specifics, but in the long run he knows his work will have something to do with giving young people hope. "I want to build support networks for troubled kids so they don't have to join the military."
"Many people joined the Army wanting to do good and honorable things. They joined as patriots. It's hard for them to speak out," says Train, who believes that patriotism is getting abused by the current administration's relentless charge towards war. "Regardless of what the mainstream media says about troops supporting the war, a lot of people around me disagreed with the policies."
Iraq Veterans Against the War's Reppenhagen says, "There's an unwritten social contract a service member makes with his nation." He added, "That contract says he will be sent to war only when peaceful solutions have been exhausted. When that service member comes home, the contract dictates that he is taken care of and given aid. The American people and US government officials are breaking that contract. In light of this, it's very hard to judge harshly those who resist the Iraq war."
Train thinks the time when soldiers cannot or will not voice their concerns and oppositions is nearing a close. "Recruiting is down. The length and number of tours is up. GIs are exhausted, and we're angry. When a bunch of uniformed soldiers say the war is fucked up, the anger begins to spill over. There's going to be a breaking point soon. The Army already has a situation on its hands."
Sarah Olson is an independent journalist and radio producer based in Oakland, California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.