Refuseniks tell Heartbreaking, Awful Tales of U.S. Military

Lately, I’ve been doing some volunteer work for Courage to Resist, an American group that supports members of the U.S. military who have turned against its wars and have refused to fight.

They’ve done a series of audio interviews with some of these soldiers, and I’ve been helping to transcribe these so they can be published in book form.

While each story is unique and interesting in its own right, there’s also an awful, relentless monotony in it. Many of the stories follow the same basic pattern: Some kid, hoping to improve on a mediocre lot in life and motivated by a desire to do something worthwhile for his (or sometimes her) country, talks to a military recruiter and gets a great song-and-dance about opportunity and how in the military we’re all one big happy family that sticks by each other through thick and thin. Once in, the corruption, dishonesty, and betrayal of the military and its degrading, cruel, and dehumanizing culture start to pile on, and the new soldier starts to understand that he’s been had. Sent overseas, he discovers quickly that his actual mission doesn’t bear any resemblance to the noble stories the government and propagandists are pitching back home, and that his life and his mission are considered far less important than ass-covering up the chain of command. When he tries to get help — for instance for his injuries, for his post-traumatic stress disorder, or for the family he’s left behind — he finds that the “big happy family that sticks together” quickly becomes disparagement, abuse, bureaucracy, and wholly inadequate assistance: at best they’ll try to drug you up to keep you quiet. Finally deciding to get out, he then finds that the military has dozens of ways of making you suffer if you try to leave, and that there’s often no exit except as an outlaw.

David Cortelyou dropped out of high school, got an equivalency certificate, but couldn’t find work, so he signed up. He was trained as a fire support specialist and deployed to Iraq in 2005. In Iraq he learned that when you’re surrounded by cruelty and killing, “it was either laugh about it, cry about it, or say nothing and go insane.” When an insurgent blew himself up nearby while laying an IED, they laughed about it. When his platoon tortured to death a dog that was hanging around one of their guard points — “slit its throat, smashed its skull with a shovel, cut its belly open, broke its leg” (and then killed its puppies when they found out it was a mother) — they laughed about it. And that was in Bi’aj, which was relatively “safe” (a mortar destroyed his tent once, but he was out on mission at the time).

In contrast, Ramadi, where he was assigned next, was “hell on earth.” His platoon was assigned to train and support green cavalry scouts, but because his battalion commander considered his platoon to be too valuable an asset to waste on such works, the cav scouts went out unsupported, making rookie errors and taking considerable casualties.

And the cav scouts got mutilated. I’ll say it: the cav scouts, they got their asses kicked in Ramadi. I can’t remember how many memorial services I went to where I talked to the guys afterwards and they told me about what was going on. Their commander was sending them down black routes, which is a road that it’s a 100% chance that you’re gonna get hit, whether it be IED or small-arms. You don’t go down black routes, because it’s 100% that you’re gonna get hit. You’re gonna get hit by something. So they have routes and whatnot mapped out so you know where to go and where not to go. Well, their commander would send them down black routes because it got them to their objective faster. Half way to the objective they’d have to turn around and come back because they were loaded down with casualties — dead or otherwise. And I kept hearing about this, and I like, “well, what the hell — we’re supposed to be there for these guys’ support and they don’t have the support they need, they’re getting pinned down by small-arms fire, and if we woulda been there we coulda called in artillery, they would have had an extra rifle firing friendly rounds.”

On another occasion “we had to escort a few paperweight, pencil-pushers, desk-jockeys, office pokes, people who had never been outside the wire for combat situations, no clue what they were doing” and when they hit a mine, one was killed, and the remaining desk-jockeys made matters worse by clumsily interfering with radio communications while Cortelyou’s team was trying to call in a medevac.

But, “laugh about it, cry about it, or say nothing and go insane.” Preparing to go out on another route clearance mission, his crew were delayed at the gate by a convoy of trucks bringing back the casualties from another battle.

And because it was… it was right across the street, quite literally right across the street from the front gate — about five minutes after it ended we had a bunch of Iraqi police trucks — these white Chevrolet pickup trucks that they use for their police vehicles — and about five minutes after it ended these vehicles started pulling in the front gate and the backs of them are loaded with dead — not just wounded, but dead — soldiers. And I’m not talking about a few bodies in the back, I’m talking these trucks — five or six trucks — loaded, piled on top of each other, with dead bodies, dead Iraqi police. And the last truck that came in only had like four bodies in it, but they had let the tailgate down. And sitting on the tailgate, this large, fat, Iraqi police member had been hoisted on the tailgate — and, uh, laugh about it, cry about it, or say nothing and go insane: we laughed about it. Who cares? They were Iraqi. “Oh, and by the way, did you see that fat fucker on the last truck?” ’Cause he was, he was a huge guy. Every bump they hit, you could see his fat jiggle. And it was ridiculous, because he was only half-way on the truck as it was, and because he was so large, every bump they hit his fat jiggled and shifted his weight — he ’bout damn near fell off the back of the truck. And so, we laughed about it — ha ha!, the Iraqis can’t fight as well as we can, whatever, and did you see that fat fuck on the back truck? — and after that, nothing was ever said about it.

And to be honest, I had completely forgotten about that, about the trucks. It wasn’t until about seven or eight months ago I was sitting here talking to one of the NCOs from my platoon, down-range, he and I were sitting here talking about some shit that had happened there. He mentioned it and at first I had no clue what he was talking about… no clue. I thought he was just bullshitting with me and makin’ shit up. And then he explained, “no man: the truck that came in that was loaded with dead IPs. You don’t remember that, man? You were a gunner at that time, you should’ve seen it.” And he kept trying to explain it to me and I couldn’t remember. And then he mentioned the fat man on the back truck, and as soon as he mentioned the fat man on the back truck it came back to me like a dam had just broken open or something, and the first five minutes of remembering it was like I was there again watching these trucks roll in.

…Yeah, that was a real bad month for us: soldier dies in my arms, two weeks later we get a convoy full of dead IPs, every day for three or four weeks after that we were attending memorial services…

…There’s a lot of other stuff that happened in Iraq that I can’t even talk about, just stupid shit like that that just bears on my mind every single day. I got to think about the stupid shit: the dog, the guy that blew himself up, the truck full of people, the battle buddy dying in my arms, the chain of command stupidity I guess. And every day I’ve got to think about this and try and deal with it. And the Army, their way of trying to help, is to give me pills and get me doped up so I forget about it, or so I don’t talk about it.

David switched from “laugh about it” to “say nothing and go insane.” When they were being processed out of Iraq, as part of the process they were asked if they had any psychological issues they wanted to deal with first. Some of the other soldiers interviewed by Courage to Resist mentioned this same sneaky trick. They ask you if you need help while you’re in Germany waiting to be processed home, and they make sure you know that if you say “yes” that’s going to delay your processing and keep you away from home that much longer, and so, in Cortelyou’s words, “98% of the people say, ‘no; fuck no. We’ve been in Iraq for 15 months, we don’t want to be cooped up in a shrink’s office rehashing everything that happened, we want to be going out partying, getting drunk, whatever.’ ”

So that’s what we did. And it wasn’t until about two months later that I started having nightmares, and… not flashbacks, but just, I started getting really tense and nervous and anxious about everything. A car door slams too hard and I freak out. Driving down the road, even now — this is a year later, a year later — I still, driving down the road, find myself looking on the sides of the roads. I’m not just spacing out, I’m looking for things: tripwires, pressure plates, shit that’s not supposed to be there. When I walk past people, I find myself being suspicious of ’em, especially if they have their hands in their pockets. Every time I leave my room, I pat my chest — a year later, a year down the road and I still look for my weapon — and because it’s not folded across my chest, yeah, now I don’t, but I still look for it. But I used to look for it and when it wasn’t there I would turn around and go back into my room and look for it. Now all I do is just pat down my chest looking for the strap, and if it’s not there, then I just… it clicks, and okay, yeah, hello, you’re not in Iraq anymore; you don’t have a weapon. And I used to go back into my room searching for my weapon, and it would take me five or 10 minutes to realize that, hello, wise guy, you’re in Germany not Iraq, you don’t have a weapon. Two, three months later, I had all these problems, all these issues, and because of the platoon I was in I was scared to go to anybody for help. Because my platoon was, you know, the John Wayne handbook prodigy: tough skin, tough guys, big burly tough guys, don’t cry, don’t talk about problems, and whatever — and all that macho bullshit. So instead of talkin’ to anybody about it, I started burning myself to feel human, because a lot of shit that happened downrange wasn’t human.

After months of suicide attempts with overdoses of pills washed down with alcohol, and of burning himself, getting “blister on top of blister on top of blister, so I had a good four of five inches of just blistered skin” on his palms and wrists and fingers so he could feel the pain and think “alright, you’re still human, whatever, I guess,” someone finally called him on it. But “instead of ‘hey, man, do you need to sit down and talk about something, you maybe wanna go to chaplain or maybe a mental health specialist — do you wanna talk about something?’ — no no, no no: ‘hey man, did you know you can get in trouble for damaging government property?’ ”

They said that? They said that by burning yourself you could get in trouble for damaging government property?


So you were property.

I was pissed. I was furious. For one, I’m already having problems because I got this feeling like I’ve turned into a machine — a machine that can kill without second thoughts, a machine that can look at a dead person and laugh about it. And so I’m already having a little bit of… identity issues, if you will. And now I’m told that I’m government property, and I’m damaging it? All right, well, fuck you very much, Uncle Sam: I’m done. If this is how you’re going to react to a soldier having a problem, I’m done; I quit.

He went AWOL, then turned himself back in. He got a mental health referral for a discharge from a mental health specialist that worked for the Army, but not much in the way of assistance — though everyone he talked to, from the psychiatrist to the chaplain, seemed to want to give him pills. He didn’t want to go on pills, in part because his suicide attempts had been with pills, but he seemed to have to explain this over and over again to the same people until it was like talking to a brick wall.

Between the mental health discharge recommendation and the disciplinary hearing for going AWOL, which he thought also would end in a discharge, Cortelyou figured that at least his combat service was over. But then they told him that they were assigning him to a unit that was due to redeploy as soon as he served a three-month disciplinary restriction.

I was just there, just kind of passing in and out of time, not knowing what I was going to do. I can’t be in the military; it’s not that I don’t want to be: I can’t. I can’t stand being around people in uniform, I can’t stand being in uniform, because every day all it is is a constant, 24-hours, seven-days-a-week reminder of not only what I did but what I witnessed and kept my mouth shut to. So again in December, late December, just after Christmas, I went AWOL again. And this time I was gone for 40-some-odd days; I’d become a deserter.

This time, the Army gave him a Chapter 14 discharge for a pattern of misconduct and the commission of a serious offense. He was released from the Army earlier .

Also this week I watched two documentaries about U.S. soldiers — both very good ones.

Sir! No Sir! is about GI resistance during the Vietnam War. It’s a real eye-opener, and does a good job of shining some light on the roaches whose revisionist dolchstoßlegende history of the Vietnam War has been plaguing the United States for the past twenty-five years or so.

Standard Operating Procedure is master-documentarian Errol Morris’s take on the Abu Ghraib photos scandal. It’s a very good documentary, and includes interviews with many of the Americans most intimately involved with the photographed incidents. However, the story it tells concentrates on a couple of idiosyncratic viewpoints that tend to warp it and limit its scope: 1) that the soldiers in the photos were railroaded in an attempt to shield higher-ups from responsibility (and the film makes this case persuasively), and 2) that the nature of photography and of our relationship to photographic evidence can be one that distorts the truth and leads people to adhere quickly and strongly to mistaken impressions. (You can see more of this persepctive in the New Yorker article from Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris on the subject from earlier this year.)

This all has the result of pushing the victimized prisoners into the background of the story (none of them or their families are interviewed in the film) and making them props in a drama about America and Americans and what this all meant to us. And while it’s easy to come to sympathize somewhat with these soldiers over the course of the film — they certainly come off more sympathetically than they do in the grinning, thumbs-up abuse shots we’re all familiar with, and there’s certainly no justice in laying what happened at Abu Ghraib entirely at their feet — it’s still remarkable how much, to them, what happened is all about them and what they suffered, and how little they refer to their victims and who they were and what their stories were and what ever happened to them.