Emily McNeill

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

First in a two-part series

Two years into a degree at the University of Southern Maine, Perry O’Brien dropped out to join the Army.

It was August 2001, and O’Brien was restless and searching for adventure, for an environment that could offer more in the way of life experience than a campus in Southern Maine.

On some level his abrupt change of direction wasn’t so unusual. Plenty of 20-year-olds like O’Brien leave school to find themselves. They backpack through Europe or drive cross-country or join AmeriCorps. But none of these options appealed to him. Looking back, he says, they all seemed too predictable for a white, privileged kid like himself. If he was going to find himself, he wanted to leave his privilege behind.

The military seemed like the place to do so. O’Brien had grown up on an island off the coast of Maine in a liberal, artsy family with liberal, artsy friends. Sure, he liked action movies and played with G.I. Joes, but no one he grew up with was connected to the military, and the service had never appealed to him before.

After long discussions with his parents, they were “cautiously supportive.” And so, as the island made the transition from tourist season to the relative calm of fall, O’Brien signed up at his local recruiting office.

He was set to spend four years in the army training to become a medic. He might do a humanitarian deployment or two, he imagined, and when he got out, he’d be a paramedic and eventually go back to school.

But then on Sept. 11, 2001, a brilliantly clear morning in his first week of training, came the attacks that would change the military’s focus and Perry O’Brien’s life.

Nearly six years have passed since O’Brien stepped into that recruiter’s office in Maine. He’s 26 now, and he still wears his blonde hair like a military man, cropped close to his head. With the buzz cut and his muscular upper body he would look tough, except for the broad grin that keeps spreading across his face. It’s an unpolished, natural smile that reveals a slight under-bite–a smile that, because it doesn’t win you over, puts you at ease.

On this warm, sunny evening in April 2007, O’Brien is approaching the end of another year studying political theory at Cornell University. He’ll graduate next year and then apply to MFA programs in creative writing. His goals these days bear little resemblance to the plans he was creating in the fall of 2001.

O’Brien leans forward slightly, his huge arms folded on the table in front of him at Gimme! Coffee in Ithaca, N.Y. He speaks easily about the last six years of his life; he’s told this story over and over again.

In October 2002, O’Brien’s unit received their deployment instructions. They had just finished a “mock war” training operation in Louisiana when they learned they would be going to Afghanistan.

O’Brien was excited. In just over a year in the military, he’d had very little opportunity to use his medical training. At Fort Bragg in North Carolina, he’d felt like a “glorified warehouse worker.” Afghanistan would give him the opportunity to finally work with patients. And Operation Enduring Freedom seemed to him like a good war. There were terrorist training camps to be destroyed, and Afghan civilians to be liberated from the Taliban.

When he first arrived in Afghanistan in January 2003, O’Brien’s unit began operations that resembled the kind of humanitarian deployment he had imagined when he signed up for the army. His efforts to escape privilege had landed him in one of the poorest nations on earth. Without many American casualties to tend to, he spent much of his time treating Afghan civilians who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to advanced medical care. Sometimes he and his unit would drive into villages and hand out books and pens and two-week supplies of Motrin. It felt good, O’Brien says. “It felt like the Peace Corps with guns.”

But slowly things started to change. One day that spring O’Brien saw an Afghan patient whose hands were infested with gangrene. He had been hung from a tree for three days by an Afghan militia, a force the United States military had been cultivating to help root out people connected to Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. The man’s arms had to be amputated. Soon after, O’Brien learned that the man had no connections to terrorism; he was just a farmer who had neglected to pay his taxes to his village elders.

The incident with the farmer was just one of many indications that the United States’ operation in Afghanistan was seriously flawed. The military was working within a complex tribal system with very little understanding of the sociopolitical situation and too few translators to navigate it. Part of O’Brien’s responsibility was to process the thousands of detainees picked up the by the United States and its allied Afghan militias. Too many, he was beginning to discover, were arrested solely because some village elder turned them over. Meanwhile, he says he saw the “abject terror they were experiencing” at the hands of U.S.-supported forces. When O’Brien learned that 3,000 Afghan civilians had been killed in American bombing campaigns–as many as had died in the 9/11 attacks–he began having serious questions about the ethics and effectiveness of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“When I added all that together–all of this terror and intimidation, and death and destruction–and I tried to balance that with us handing out two-week supplies of Motrin, it really didn’t even out,” he recalls. “And the problem for me is, not only did it not even out in a moral sense, if it didn’t even out in the public eye, we were probably only succeeding in turning the Afghan people against us. In other words, we were probably creating an environment in which terrorism is more likely to emerge.” And once back in the United States, O’Brien’s newfound convictions led him to pursue conscientious objector status.

Emily McNeill is a senior journalism major at Ithaca College and an editor of the Campus Progress-supported publication Buzzsaw Haircut.