Preparing Undeployables for the Afghan Front
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
As the Obama administration debates whether to send tens of thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan, an already overstretched military is increasingly struggling to meet its deployment numbers. Surprisingly, one place it seems to be targeting is military personnel who go absent without leave (AWOL) and then are caught or turn themselves in.
Hidden behind the gates of military bases across the United States, troops facing AWOL and desertion charges regularly find themselves in the hands of a military that metes out informal, open-ended punishments by forcing them to wait months--sometimes more than a year--to face military justice. In the meantime, some of these soldiers are offered a free pass out of this legal limbo as long as they agree to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq--even if they have been diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In August 2008 at TomDispatch.com, we reported on the deplorable conditions at the 82nd Replacement Barracks at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There, more than fifty members of Echo Platoon of the 82nd Airborne Division's 82nd Replacement Detachment were being held while awaiting AWOL and desertion charges. Investigations launched since then--in part in response to our article--have revealed that the plight of members of Echo Platoon is not an isolated one. It is, in fact, disturbingly commonplace on other bases throughout the United States. And it is from these "holdover units," filled with disgruntled soldiers who have gone AWOL, many of whom are struggling with PTSD from previous deployments in war zones, that the military is hoping to help meet its manpower needs for Afghanistan.
Nightmare in Echo Platoon
On August 16, determined to put an end to unbearable mental and psychological pain, Private Timothy Rich, while on twenty-four-hour suicide watch, attempted to jump to his death from the roof of Echo Platoon's barracks (where he had been held since being arrested for going AWOL). Prior to his suicide attempt, Rich had been offered amnesty by the military in exchange for agreeing to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq.
He had already been through a hellish year awaiting a discharge and treatment for mental health problems. "I want to leave here very bad," he explained. "For four months they have been telling me that I'll get out next week. I didn't see an end to it, so I figured I'd try and end it myself."
He fell three stories, bouncing off a tree, before hitting the ground and cracking his spine. The military gave him a back brace, psychotropic drugs, and put him on a renewed, twenty-four-hour suicide watch.
While he has recently been discharged from the military, Rich was not atypical of the soldiers of Echo Platoon, some forced to wait a year or more in legal limbo--in dilapidated buildings under the authority of abusive commanders--for legal proceedings to begin, and many struggling with mental illness or PTSD from previous deployments. As Specialist Dustin Stevens told us last August: "[It's] horrible here. We are treated like animals. Some of us are going crazy, some are sick. There are people here who should be in mental hospitals. And the way I see it, I did nothing wrong."
Shortly after our story was published, Stevens told us that at least half a dozen soldiers in the platoon, including him, were suddenly given trial dates. Although he was likely to be found guilty and face punishment, Stevens claimed to be "relieved" to have an end in sight. Soon after, according to Echo Platoon informants, their barracks were condemned as a result of a military investigation of the site and, on October 19, the platoon itself was disbanded.
Recently, due possibly to the attention his story drew to the mistreatment and indefinite detention soldiers were facing in Echo Platoon, Stevens was informed by the military he would be "chaptered out"--in other words, given an administrative discharge from the Army--and will not be forced to serve formal prison time.
James Branum, Stevens's civilian lawyer, as well as the legal adviser to the G.I. Rights Hotline of Oklahoma and co-chair of the Military Law Task Force (MLTF), summed developments up this way: "After repeated complaints and congressional inquiry, Echo Platoon was shut down. The whole place was shut down. Everyone was scattered to other units. If your old unit still exists, they are sending you to your old unit. We know that at least one of the NCOs [non-commissioned officers] in charge of Echo Platoon was fired. I think this is a positive thing."