BERLIN - Tomorrow President Obama will be in Germany. First he will stop in Dresden and at the concentration camp at Buchenwald, near Weimar. Then he will visit wounded U.S. soldiers at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the largest American hospital outside the U.S., located on a site of built in 1938 as the campus of the Adolf Hitler School for Youth.
André Shepherd, 32, a U.S. soldier seeking asylum in Germany, knows what he hopes Obama will tell the wounded soldiers. "If Obama is serious about being the peace president," Shepherd says, "he will tell the soldiers that he will end the 'overseas contingency operations,' including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and do so immediately." More U.S. and coalition soldiers have died in Afghanistan during the first five months of 2009 than during the first five months of any year since the war there began in 2001, and so far no troops have been withdrawn from Iraq despite Obama's statement on January 19th, 2009: "I will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq."
Shepherd gained international attention when he applied for asylum on November 26, 2008. His case raises significant issues in international and in German law: the German constitution forbids the preparation of aggressive war from German soil, a provision that some jurists believe applies also to the U.S. military. A number of U.S. soldiers have resisted and faced court martial and jail in Germany since 2005. In the U.S. recent resisters currently facing court martial are Victor Agosto and Travis Bishop from Fort Hood in Texas, who both last month refused to deploy to Afghanistan. But since the "war on terror" began, Shepherd is the first U.S. resister to turn to the German government for help; his case is presently before the German Federal Office of Migration. He says that if his application is rejected, he will appeal within the German court system. (See http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2009/05/28-4)
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Shepherd joined the U.S. Army in 2004, was trained as a helicopter mechanic and then stationed in Germany, where there are ca. 68,000 U.S. soldiers. After a six-month tour of duty in Iraq, he fled the U.S. base in Ansbach, Germany, rather than be deployed a second time to Iraq. He says that, on grounds of conscience, he could not again serve in combat. He now lives together with other asylum-seekers, mainly Iraqis and Afghans, in a facility provided by the German government. Shepherd does not expect to be able to rejoin his family in the U.S. until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been ended.
"It is good that wounded U.S. soldiers receive excellent medical care in Germany," says Shepherd, "but it should not be forgotten that civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan who are injured by U.S. troops receive no such help." U.S. soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are flown to Landstuhl, near Ramstein Air Base, within 24 hours of injury. The Landstuhl hospital's mission states: "We enable the warfighter to continue the mission of the U.S. Armed Forces." Due to rapid treatment, nearly three times as many wounded U.S. soldiers survive their injuries as did during the Vietnam War; however, ca. 90 percent who come to Landstuhl are so severely wounded that they must be sent to the United States for further treatment. According to Dr. Evan Kanter, President of Physicians for Social Responsibility, "We now have service members with dreadful injuries who would never have survived similar conditions in an earlier battle." The U.S. military estimates that "36,000 plus" have been wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and passed through Landstuhl; some independent observers believe the Pentagon underestimates by half the number of U.S. casualties.
Shepherd hopes that Obama will not only speak to the wounded in Landstuhl, but also listen to them. "All of the wounded soldiers President Obama will visit in Landstuhl were injured after he took office," says Shepherd. "For them and their families -- and particularly for the Iraqi and Afghan civilians -- the 'change' he promised us is not happening nearly fast enough."