When AWOL Is the Only Way Out


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

When AWOL Is the Only Way Out

By Peter Laufer, AlterNet
Posted on June 2, 2006, Printed on June 6, 2006

The following text is an excerpt from Peter Laufer's new book, "Mission 
Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq" (Chelsea Green, 2006).

"We was going along the Euphrates River," says Joshua Key, a 27-year-old former 
U.S. soldier from Oklahoma, detailing a recurring nightmare -- a scene he 
stumbled on shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. "It's a road 
right in the city of Ramadi. We turned a real sharp right and all I seen was 
decapitated bodies. The heads laying over here and the bodies over here and U.S.
troops in between them. I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, what in the hell happened 
here? What's caused this? Why in the hell did this happen?' We get out and 
somebody was screaming, 'We fucking lost it here!' I'm thinking, 'Oh, yes, 
somebody definitely lost it here.'"

Joshua says he was ordered to look around for evidence of a firefight, for 
something to rationalize the beheaded Iraqis. "I look around just for a few 
seconds and I don't see anything." But then he noticed the sight that now 
triggers his nightmares. "I see two soldiers kicking the heads around like a 
soccer ball. I just shut my mouth, walked back, got inside the tank, shut the 
door, and it was like, I can't be no part of this. This is crazy. I came here to
fight and be prepared for war but this is outrageous. Why did it happen? That's 
just my question: Why did that happen?"

He's convinced there was no firefight that led to the beheading orgy -- there 
were no spent shells to indicate a battle. "A lot of my friends stayed on the 
ground, looking to see if there was any shells. There was never no shells, 
except for what we shot. I'm thinking, Okay, so they just did that because they 
wanted to do it. They got trigger happy and they did it. That's what made me mad
in Iraq. You can take human lives at a fast rate and all you have to say is, 
say, 'Oh, I thought they threw a grenade. I thought I seen this, I thought I 
seen that.' You could mow down 20 people each time and nobody's going to ask 
you, 'Are you sure?' They're going to give you a high five and tell you that you
was doing a good job."

He still cannot get the scene out of his head. "You just see heads everywhere," 
he says. "You wake up, you'll just be sitting there, like you're in a foxhole. I
can still see Iraq just as clearly as it was the day I was there. You'll just be
on the side of a little river running through the city, trash piled up, filled 
with dead. Heads and stuff like that. I don't sleep that much, you might say. I 
don't sleep that much."

His wife, Brandi, nods in agreement and says he cries in his sleep.

We're sitting in the waning summer light on the back porch of the Toronto house 
where Joshua and his wife and their four little children have been living in 
exile since Joshua deserted to Canada. They've settled in a rent-free basement 
apartment, courtesy of a landlord sympathetic to their plight. Joshua smokes 
cigarettes and drinks coffee while we talk. He's wearing a T-shirt promoting a 
2002 peace rally in Raleigh, North Carolina. There's a scraggly beard on his 
still-boyish face; his eyes look weary.

Sleep deprivation while on duty, first in Kuwait and then in Iraq, was routine, 
Joshua says, and he thinks exhaustion was generated intentionally by his 
commanders. "You'll do whatever the hell they say just to get that sleep. That's
the way they controlled us. You ain't had no sleep and you got shitty food all 
the time. I got to call my wife once every month, maybe once every two weeks if 
I was lucky. Mail, shitty, if it even came." Food and water were inadequate, he 

"When we first got to Kuwait we were rationed to two bottles of water a day and 
one MRE [meals ready to eat]. In the middle of the desert, you're supposed to 
have six bottles of water a day and three MREs. They tell us they don't have it.
I'm thinking 'How in the hell can the most powerfullest nation, the most 
powerfullest military in the world, be in the middle of a damn desert and they 
don't even have no food to feed us?'"

Joshua rejects the U.S. government line that the Iraqis fighting the occupation 
are terrorists. "I'm thinking: What the hell? I mean, that's not a terrorist. 
That's the man's home we killed. That's his son, that's the father, that's the 
mother, that's the sister. Houses are destroyed. Husbands are detained and wives
don't even know where they're at. I mean, them are pissed-off people, and they 
have a reason to be pissed off. I would never wish this upon myself or my 
family, so why would I do it upon them?"

Pulling security duty in the Iraqi streets, Joshua found himself talking to the 
locals. He was surprised by how many spoke English, and he was frustrated by the
military regulations that forbade his accepting dinner invitations to join 
Iraqis for social evenings in their homes. "I'm not your perfect killing 
machine," he admits. "That's where I broke the rules. I broke the rules by 
having a conscience."

And the conscience developed further the more time he spent in Iraq. "I was 
trained to be a total killer. I was trained in booby-traps, explosives, 
landmines, and how to counterresolve everything." He pauses. "Hell, if you want 
to get technical about it, I was made to be an American terrorist. I was trained
in everything a terrorist is trained to do." In case I might have missed his 
point, he says it again. "I mean terrorist."

Deserting to Canada seemed the only viable alternative, Joshua says. He did it, 
he insists, because he was lied to "by my president." Iraq -- it was obvious to 
him -- was no threat to the United States. He says he followed his orders while 
he was in Iraq, and so no one can call him a coward for deserting. "I was not a 
piece of shit. I always did everything I was told and I did it to the highest 
standards. They can never say, 'Oh, he was a piece of shit soldier.' No 

Joshua doesn't mind telling his war stories again and again. He readily agrees 
to talk about the horrors he experienced in Iraq, his life AWOL and underground 
in the States, and his new life as a deserter in Canada.

Telling the stories helps him deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder 
(PTSD), he says, and he apologizes in advance if his narrative is not linear or 
if he has trouble expressing himself. In fact, his scattered approach to his 
timeline and his machine gun-like delivery set the scene for his troubled 
memories -- there is nothing smooth or simple or easy to understand here.

© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

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