Two soldiers that are facing court-martial for desertion. (Photo: Brian Harkin / The New York Times)
At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, AWOL soldiers find themselves detained for months under difficult conditions in an extended legal limbo they cannot escape.
Dustin Stevens is one of about 50 soldiers being held at Fort Bragg awaiting likely AWOL and desertion charges that seem like they will never arrive, he says.
A former soldier who refused to continue military service seven years ago because he did not want to fight a war, Stevens says that he and his colleagues are being held in legal limbo - a no man's land of poor living standards and arbitrary punishments - while awaiting charges and possible court-martial. Stevens has been in a holdover unit for five months without charges, and he says that others have been held for up to a year in conditions he describes as harrowing.
The unit is overcrowded and filthy, he says, with four people to a room. The command verbally abuses the soldiers, with one commanding officer proclaiming, "We should just shoot you all," according to Stevens. Troops are not receiving the medical and mental health care they need. "People around me are literally going crazy. I hear people threaten suicide on a daily basis," says Stevens. "They won't give us leave passes unless it's a dire emergency, so we're just sitting here, day by day."
The command offered the soldiers a free pass if they agreed to deploy to Afghanistan, according to Stevens. About ten people took up the offer, he says. Those who decline must find a way to endure.
At least 50 AWOL troops are being held right now in the holdover unit at the 82nd Replacement Company, constituting about three-quarters of its population, with the rest medical holdovers, says Stevens, who is corroborated by his civilian lawyer, James Branum. A holdover unit is a special unit for people who are on a legal hold of some kind, whether it is because they are seeking medical discharge, switching assignments or, as in Stevens's case, waiting for charges.
Branum says that at this particular holdover unit, AWOL soldiers are being held for long stretches of time before receiving charges. "People are in this unit for months and months. They take forever to do anything," says Branum. "You are going to be there six months if you're lucky, 12 if you're not."
Maj. Virginia McCabe, 82nd Airborne Division spokesperson, confirmed that AWOL soldiers are in the Holdover unit at the 82nd Replacement Company at Fort Bragg, but could not say how many are there, how long they are being held, or what their conditions are like. She acknowledged that soldiers are confined to the unit if they are deemed a flight risk, but could not provide details on how that is determined. "Each AWOL soldier has his or her own special circumstances," she says. "They stay in a holding platoon until a legal decision is made. Or they might say they made a mistake and are ready to serve."
Kathy Gilbert, head of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild, says that holdover units can be very unpleasant. "In reality, a lot of times these units are run by senior enlisted personnel who are obnoxious and give people a hard time," she says.
Gilbert also says that legal hold makes it structurally difficult to make complaints. "People on restriction would have to request to see a commanding officer, the person officially in charge of restriction, if they wanted to make a complaint. There is not an official way to do that," says Gilbert. "Most people who are on restriction don't even know whose authority places them on restriction and don't know that senior enlisted personnel don't have the authority they often claim to have. Command doesn't have an open door policy or encourage people to speak up."
In a military where desertion is still technically punishable by death, Stevens says he has found military "justice" to be cruel and arbitrary.
In May 2002, after five months in the Army, Stevens refused to stand in formation at his Airborne graduation and declared that he no longer wanted to serve. Stevens had joined the army to escape a broken home, thinking he had few other options. Yet, since day one, he had been having panic and anxiety attacks, finding himself morally opposed to his service, and to the prospect of deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan sometime in the future. "I knew in my heart and in my mind, I couldn't kill anybody and couldn't be a part of an organization that did so," he says. Upon his refusal, Stevens's command told him to simply go home and wait for his discharge papers, he says. The papers never showed up, but he didn't think anything of it, he says.
Seven years later, during a routine traffic stop, Stevens was told that there was a warrant for his arrest and he was whisked off to military custody, torn away from his girlfriend and his job. "This whole time, I've been living my life. I've been working, paying taxes, had a car and apartment," he says. Since January 15, 2009, he has been in a holdover unit, biding his time while he awaits charges that might be months away. These months of detention will not count toward his sentence.
Stevens says that the people being held in the 82nd Holdover Unit went AWOL for various reasons, some because they were opposed to the war, some because the Army wouldn't let them leave to tend to family problems, and some because of medical problems.
"It is horrible here. We are treated like animals," he says. "We're all just lost, wanting to go home. Some of us are going crazy, some were already crazy, some are sick," he says. "I'm bouncing on a pin needle. I read all of the time, I talk to people all of the time to try to stay out of this place in my mind. It's really hard."
"AWOL troops being held in a replacement unit is totally absurd and unusual and is an example of how the command has plenty of ways to punish people and enforce discipline, bypassing the formal justice system. Smoking people, giving them unofficial duties, mistreatment, and in this case, making an example out of people and segregating them, are all informal mechanisms of punishment commonly used in the military." says Carl Davison, Iraq war resister and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. "People who follow their consciences deserve our support, and there needs to be a highly vocal community out there to let them know they are not alone."
"Every single person here should not be here. There are people here who should be in mental hospitals, who are just sitting here. This place is hell, it really is," says Stevens. "And in my mind, I didn't even do anything wrong."