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Absent Without Regrets: A Soldier's Story

Patrick O'Neill

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On New Year’s Eve, Jeremy Hinzman sat in a McDonald’s on N.C. 401 in Fuquay-Varina explaining his precarious situation. On December 20th, Hinzman, a U.S. Army specialist stationed at Fort Bragg, got the news he had dreaded. His unit--the 504th Brigade, 2nd Battalion--would be shipping out to Iraq shortly after the new year for an indefinite deployment in the war on terrorism. Last year, Hinzman, 25, the father of a 1-year-old son, was deployed for more than eight months to Afghanistan. When he left, Hinzman’s son, Liam, was just 7 months old. When Hinzman returned, Liam was walking and didn’t remember his father. While he didn’t see any combat in that first deployment, Hinzman said he had a bad feeling about going to Iraq.
Jeremy Hinzman, with his wife, Nga Nguyen, and their son, Liam.
In Iraq, Hinzman, said he felt like he would have to do some things he’d regret. During Christmas leave, Hinzman, who is a member of the Fayetteville Friends Meeting, discussed his options with his wife, Nga Nguyen. He could go to Iraq--an option both he and Nguyen rejected. He could refuse the deployment order and face court martial and a likely prison term. Or he could follow a plan of action that thousands of young men like himself had taken during the Vietnam War--he could flee to Canada.

He chose option three. On Jan. 2, Hinzman and his family packed up their small car with a few essentials, leaving almost all of their possessions behind. They left post housing under the cover of darkness for the 17-hour drive to the U.S.-Canadian border. Quakers living in the U.S. made contacts in Ontario, and the family was set up with places to stay until they moved into a Toronto apartment on Feb. 1.

A story in the Feb. 7 edition of the Toronto Globe and Mail, says Hinzman is believed to be the first U.S. soldier to file for refugee status in Canada for refusing duty in Iraq. The report says Hinzman’s case is “the first echo of the 12,000 deserters and 20,000 draft resisters who came north more than 30 years ago to escape the Vietnam War.”

A Re-Assessment of Values

Before enlisting, Hinzman said he was searching for some meaning in his life, and the military--which had a “higher purpose"--was better than working just for the sake of making a buck. “I guess I just kind of sold my soul for the college money,” he said. “That’s probably a little too blunt. I had this notion that, “Hey, I’m going to go and get paid to exercise, shoot weapons and jump out of planes,’ and that sounded real fun. It didn’t matter to me at that point. I was just young, and I didn’t feel I was really going anywhere.”

Hinzman admits he got in over his head. When he joined the Army, he said he was expecting Al Gore to be elected president. The terror attacks of 9-11 were still an unimaginable horror. But the Iraq war forced him to reassess his values.
The horror of unnecessary war against a weakened nation is enough to make any self-respecting soldier think again.

"It’s a political decision, which as a soldier I’m not really entitled to have,” he said. “But I feel that if I had gone to Iraq I would be in a sense putting myself into a criminal enterprise and becoming a criminal because it’s a war--or an act of aggression. I don’t think it can be called a war--based on false pretenses in terms of weapons of mass destruction, the links to al Qaeda and bringing democracy to Iraq."

"Because if democracy was to happen in Iraq, the Shiites would take power, and they would by no means be a friendly government towards the U.S. or its interests. So I don’t want to risk my life for that, and I don’t think the government should risk the lives of our country’s young for that, and also to line the pockets of big corporations. I mean the obvious example is Haliburton."

"It’s kind of, to me, messed up to go destroy a country’s infrastructure and then have an auction to see who can rebuild it. It just smells bad to me, and I don’t want to be part of it, nor do I want to kill people or be some place where I wasn’t wanted. There are a lot of governments and leaders in the world that we don’t necessarily like, but we’re not going there. For example, Zimbabwe--we don’t do anything about Robert Mugabe. I mean he’s just as bad a tyrant as Saddam Hussein was, but why aren’t we there? It’s obviously about economics. I don’t want to be a pawn in that game.”

"How Can You Kill a Human?"

Hinzman, a native of Rapid City, S.D., admits he was not a typical soldier. A Catholic convert who also follows Buddhist teachings and enjoys the silent worship of Quakers, Hinzman was a military misfit from the get-go. His fellow soldiers were weirded out by his meditation regimen and his choice to not eat meat.

For the most part, Hinzman said he kept his political and moral views to himself, “although I won’t deny I was known as the liberal, and this is in a culture where everybody watches Fox News. There aren’t very many vegetarians in the Army, so that would open up a whole bag of tricks.”

Hinzman’s peers would ask a logical question: “Well, if you can’t eat an animal or if you can’t kill an animal, how can you kill a human?”

"They did ask those kind of questions, and it did raise their eyebrows,” Hinzman said. “That’s one of the reasons that got me thinking that I was in the wrong place. If you think logically, that makes sense. If you can’t kill an animal, how can you kill a human?”

When you have your victim in your sights, they say, don't look him in the eyes, in case you see yourself looking back.

When you have your victim in your sights, they say, don’t look him in the eyes, in case you see yourself looking back.

Hinzman also felt uncomfortable with the Army mindset that encouraged misogyny and violence. Particularly, he remembers the indoctrination of the troops during basic training. During exercises, the new recruits would drill using macabre chants.

"When we were marching around chanting songs like, “Train to kill. Kill we will,’ or during bayonet training they’d ask, “What makes the grass grow?’ and we’d say “Blood, blood, bright red blood.’"

"When we would thrust [the bayonet], the drill sergeant would yell that, and we’d have to scream back. People would actually get hoarse yelling this crap. I could never really get into that stuff. Some people ate it up because I think there is an opportunity in groups to kind of let go of your inhibitions and do wanton things...”

"It’s all presented, at least on the surface, as, “Oh, it’s just in humor, and no one’s around listening to it,’ but I think that really does put that mindset in a soldier that they’re killers.”

The atmosphere was surreal, he said. “It’s what you think about when you think of a dystopian novel, just all these mindless drones walking around, and the sad thing is that they were individuals with thoughts and feelings, and, at least when they’re at work, that’s lost much of the time.”

The military mindset also fosters a rejection of feminist/maternal values, Hinzman said.

"It’s a very misogynistic place to be in,” he said. “Everyday conversation, it’s like a gangsta rap song the way women are referred to by people you would never suspect of talking that way. There is a lot of domestic violence in the Army, and marriages don’t work and women are objectified.”

When weighing up the 'duty' to kill and die for an unjust cause, and the duty to be there for his family, Hinzman made the human choice.

When weighing up the ‘duty’ to kill and die for an unjust cause, and the duty to be there for his family, Hinzman made the human choice.

The circumstances required enormous self-discipline, Hinzman said. “I would have this constant dialogue with myself,” he said, “and sometimes I’d have to force it because when you’re around something enough, when you’re in an environment enough, you do tend to become a product of that environment.

"Like for instance, I swore all the time, and I would have to make these resolutions that I’m not going to swear because that’s the first step on the road to losing yourself; your autonomy. It’s almost expected that you’re going to refer to women and the enemy in negative terms, objectifying the people you fight against so they no longer have humanity. I had to bite my tongue constantly.”

While he would occasionally have meaningful conversations with his peers, for the most part, Hinzman kept to himself.

"When you’re at work you put on your game face, especially as a lower enlisted person,” he said. “You don’t really talk about the moral ramifications of what you’re doing. Everyday discussion is kind of stultified."

Aiming High

Before he went AWOL to Canada, Hinzman led a somewhat double life. As a soldier in the 82nd Airborne, Hinzman, 25, never knew when he might get the call to go fight in a war he didn’t believe in. While many of his army peers were hanging out in Fayetteville’s seedy bars, Hinzman and his wife and son would spend many weekends in Raleigh, where they would grocery shop at Whole Foods and spend time with progressive friends.

With Sept. 11 came Pres. Bush’s promise of vengeance, and for Hinzman the realization that he may have to fire his M-4 at real people instead of targets. Hinzman had always told himself that if he were in combat, he would “aim high” and not try to kill anyone. In his heart of hearts, however, Hinzman said he knew such a plan was unrealistic.

Once inserted into a combat situation, morality becomes blurred, and group rules are the only thing that keeps troops alive.

Once inserted into a combat situation, morality becomes blurred, and group rules are the only thing that keeps troops alive.

"The more and more I was in the military, the more and more I found that that wouldn’t be true for the fact that I liked the people I worked with, and I would just feel like an ass if I did that and betrayed them in that way and not gave it my all in the heat of battle,” Hinzman said. “I knew I wouldn’t aim high, and that I may actually shoot to kill, and I didn’t want to put myself in that predicament.”

So, last year, before his unit received orders to ship out to Afghanistan, Hinzman submitted a conscientious objector (CO) application to the army asking--not to be discharged--but to be assigned to a non-combatant role.

Despite the CO request, Hinzman was ordered to go to war. Once in Qandahar, Hinzman found out there was a price to pay for his beliefs. Word circulated among the troops that he had filed the CO claim, and Hinzman’s first sergeant decided to make an example of the soldier who didn’t want to fight. For more than eight months, Hinzman was assigned to KP, washing dishes in a mess hall 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

"It just made me bitter,” Hinzman said. “I worked absurdly long hours for a long time. It was a lonely experience.”

Officially, Hinzman said, he was not told he was being punished, but that’s what it was, and he understood why the action was taken.

"As far as [my first sergeant] was concerned, I said I didn’t want to soldier anymore, and that offended him,” Hinzman said. “I don’t blame him. I think if I was him I would have acted harshly towards a CO applicant as well. I empathize with him. He had to at least present a hard line. You would just have to be firm because it would open the door for people who were contemplating similar actions, or for people who just didn’t want to fight, or didn’t want to play the game anymore, to do the same thing. If you show, ‘Oh, the guy who did this, his life is hell,’ then people might hesitate or not do it."

During an interview regarding his CO application, Hinzman said he would defend his camp if it were under attack. His honesty killed his application. The army might recognize the CO claim of a soldier who would never fight, but not one who just wanted to pick and choose his battles. Hinzman withdrew his application when it was clear it would be denied.

Hinzman was finally given the option of helping the Bush administration police an illegal occupation, or to break with the army altogether.

Hinzman was finally given the option of helping the Bush administration police an illegal occupation, or to break with the army altogether.

Last July, Hinzman was back at Fort Bragg, and things started to improve. A competent soldier, Hinzman was assigned to be one of his company’s armorers, a position of great responsibility “because you’re in charge of millions of dollars worth of weapons,” he said. Although Hinzman said he “wasn’t very good at telling people what to do,” he was assigned to important jobs on the post. “I didn’t have to have my hand held,” he said.

Prior to filing his CO claim, Hinzman was a radio operator for his platoon, another position that carries with it a lot of responsibility. Had he reenlisted, Hinzman said he was on track to make sergeant.

A Conscientious Decision

Still, the thought was always in the back of his mind that his unit would get the call to Iraq. When the call came on Dec. 20, Hinzman and his wife, Nga Nguyen, consulted with their families and decided it was time to leave the country. The decision, after three years of his four-year tour of duty, means Hinzman will never collect the thousands of dollars in college tuition he would have received in exchange for his service, and, as an army deserter, Hinzman can never return legally to the U.S. unless he’s ready to face a court martial and likely prison term.

In Canada, Hinzman hooked up with Toronto immigration lawyer Jeffry House, who is helping the couple apply for refugee status. Since Hinzman could be imprisoned for his stance, he has a legitimate “fear of persecution,” one of the requirements to receive refugee status, House said.

“I believe that he would basically be punished for his conscience, for his religious and political beliefs. I don’t believe that his conscientious objector application was dealt with in any sort of reasonable way. On a practical level,” Hinzman’s chances of remaining in Canada are excellent, House said. “I don’t think Jeremy will ever be sent to the U.S.”

Jeremy Hinzman will not be the last soldier to AWOL, and as the death toll in Iraq goes ever upwards, the support they receive will grow.

Jeremy Hinzman will not be the last soldier to AWOL, and as the death toll in Iraq goes ever upwards, the support they receive will grow.

Hinzman also has public opinion on his side. While U.S. citizens strongly support the Iraq war, the large majority of Canadians agree with Hinzman that the war is “contrary to international law”, House said. “There’s a lot of sympathy for him here.” House says there is no precedent for Canada deporting war resisters, and the U.S. is not likely to want Hinzman back. Since an article appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail on Feb. 7, House said he has received dozens of calls from people offering money and support for Hinzman.

“He’s kind of a poster boy, and the question is will there be more?” House said.

For her part, Nguyen, 31, says she’s now just glad that her husband won’t be going to Iraq. She was able to put some of her things that have sentimental value in storage in Fayetteville. The rest didn’t matter. She and her 21-month-old son, Liam, would not have to be separated from Jeremy again. “I didn’t have any attachments to the other stuff,” she said. “I guess I was just happy that we were going to have this life where we were going to be together, and I was going to know for sure how Jeremy was doing. In Iraq, he might die.”

Leaving the U.S. --especially Fayetteville--didn’t make her sad, Nguyen said. “I felt like, ‘OK, I have Jeremy back, and I know for sure he isn’t going to go,’ “ she said.

Life as a military wife has been riddled with anxiety during the war on terrorism, Nguyen said. Wives would watch TV news reports and read The Fayetteville Observer every day to find out if anyone from Fort Bragg had died. “They would list names, and me being a military wife, that was always constantly in the back of my head even though I tried not to dwell on it,” she said.

Hinzman said he does not believe he has abandoned his fellow soldiers, all of whom shipped out to Iraq last month. If he saw them today, Hinzman said, “I’d hold my head up high. I would have more to be ashamed about had I not acted on what I felt was right and went to Iraq. Although I’m here, I think that would have been the easier thing to do, because the odds are I would have come back unscathed. I probably wouldn’t have had to act violently.”

Published Monday, February 23rd, 2004 - 07:24pm GMT

Article courtesy of Independent Weekly

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