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thedrifter
04-23-06, 08:09 AM
Deserters few and far between
Military's cash incentives override Iraq war perils
BY E.A. TORRIERO
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — American soldier Levi Moddrelle returned on leave from Iraq on Christmas Eve 2003, his mind and body scarred from war. A few weeks later, scheduled to deploy to Iraq again and telling friends he didn't want to die, the Kentucky helicopter mechanic went missing.

"Something happened to him over there that made him run away," said his mother, Susan Tileston, from her home in Stanford, Ky.

Moddrelle, 22, is one of more than 9,500 enlisted military personnel — from all branches of the service, including the National Guard — who have abandoned their service since the start of the war, according to military statistics.

Moddrelle, however, is part of a diminishing minority, not a growing trend. The number of desertions has dropped every year of the Iraq war, despite rising opposition to the conflict at home. Desertions have been cut in half since 2001, which was before the Iraq war started and when the war in Afghanistan was just beginning. Among the possible reasons for the drop: post-Sept. 11, 2001, patriotism and the added financial incentives doled out by the Pentagon.

Military officials point out that desertions during the Iraq war also are dwarfed by those in past U.S. conflicts. That may be testament to the all-volunteer force as opposed to the draft.

When it comes to the national debate on the Iraq war, deserters are hardly the driving political force they were in the Vietnam years. Only a few are vocal opponents.

"They are simply an insignificant part of the equation," said Charles Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University who specializes in military affairs. "The numbers are really low."

In World War II there were some 40,000 deserters, more than half of whom were convicted. And during the Vietnam War, the Pentagon reported 550,000 incidents of desertion, including about 350,000 who were considered draft dodgers and resisters. Military police combed the United States to arrest them. About 60,000 fled to Canada.

The troops fighting now in Iraq were not drafted as most in Vietnam had been, and many of them signed up with gung-ho intentions. But some are finding the war experience too brutal to bear.

About 2,500 to 3,000 of the 1.4 million Americans on active duty are absent without leave on any given day, military officials say. Many live quietly underground, staying with friends and family.

"I feel the war and the killing is unjustified," said Darrell Anderson, 23, who served seven months in Iraq with the Army's 1st Armored Division, fought in combat and was wounded by a roadside bomb.

Scheduled to redeploy to Iraq early last year, Anderson went to Canada, leaving his gear and a Purple Heart with his unit in Germany. In Anderson's hometown, Lexington, Ky., his mother has become an anti-war activist supporting his desertion.

As many as 4,000 enlisted people per month contact the support network GI Rights Hotline to inquire about consequences of deserting, organizers say. But most do not desert. Under recent changes in the military pay system, soldiers are offered economic incentives to remain in the service and stand to lose much if they flee.

"You have to be very motivated against this war to leave," said former Florida National Guard Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, who served eight months and 22 days in a military prison after being convicted of desertion in May 2004. "The military makes it hard for you to walk away from those benefits."

Many times, deserters voluntarily return to duty in a few months. They often are dealt with administratively and, in a military that needs to retain soldiers, most are pressed back into service. Save for a few cases where deserters made public anti-war statements, most do not face prosecution or stern military discipline, attorneys said.

Except for the Air Force, which sees fewer than 30 deserters annually, the military does not actively pursue deserters. After 30 days of absence, deserters' names are put into law-enforcement databases to alert local authorities in cases of traffic stops or if calls are received concerning their whereabouts.

"It's not like we have Marines running around the country knocking in doors to get these folks," said Maj. Douglas Powell, a spokesman for the Marines at the Pentagon. "We have a system that alerts us when they surface."

What little that is known about today's deserters can be gleaned from interviews with people convicted of deserting, their attorneys and those who went to Canada.

"You live with the terror that you can be caught any minute," said Army Pfc. Joshua Key, who fled while on leave after seven months in Iraq in 2003. He hid in Philadelphia for 14 months before crossing by car into Canada in 2004.

Key says he used his military training to throw off possible trackers in Philadelphia. He changed his appearance often, switched hotels every 30 days, did not drive, took welding jobs paying only cash and trusted his instincts.

One day, while working for an elevator company, Key said he had a suspicious feeling that someone was on his tail.

"So I just turned and ran down an alley," he said. "I looked over my shoulder and saw five cop cars. They stopped at the business next door and were looking for something other than me. But it's funny how my military intuition worked to sense them coming."

Key, a former combat engineer and a native of central Oklahoma, said he got tired of being on the run with a wife and four young children. He is one of an estimated 100 American soldiers who have sought refuge in Canada since 2003.

Key, who has become a media celebrity in Canada, is one of about two dozen seeking asylum there. So far not one case has been approved, but the men remain in Canada on appeal.

J.E. McNeil, who runs the Christian group Center for Conscience and War in Washington, cautions deserters about fleeing to Canada.

"It's horrific on their families," said McNeil, whose group advises conscientious objectors. "Going to Canada makes for a miserable life."

Since 2000, the number staying in the service and applying for objector status has jumped fourfold to more than 110 annually, she said. About half of those applications are approved, especially if soldiers stay out of the limelight, McNeil said.

Still, Mejia and others have used desertion to make an anti-war statement. Mejia, the first to go public with desertion, went to jail and was given a dishonorable discharge. He now spends much of his time speaking out against the war.

But in the Kentucky town of Stanford, missing soldier Moddrelle seems to have faded into anonymity. The military has done little to find her son, his mother said. Save for a call from one of his officers shortly after he left, she said, no one has inquired about him.

According to his mother, Moddrelle joined the Army at 17. In 2003 he was deployed to Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division to work as a Chinook helicopter mechanic in the northern city of Mosul. Classified as a marksman, he instead ran machine-gun cover for contractors. He told friends that on one deployment he killed an 8-year-old Iraqi boy threatening a convoy.

While on leave, Moddrelle called his mother Feb. 2, 2004, to say he was on his way home. He vanished instead and in the ensuing weeks, his bank account showed some activity in Florida. That ceased more than two years ago.

"He has $11,000 in the bank and hasn't touched a penny of it," she said. "We haven't heard a word from him."

His mother called the Kentucky State Police, which classified him as a missing person AWOL from the Army.

"He dropped off the face of the Earth," said State Police Lt. Mark Merriman. "If he ever comes back, we'll go out and get him back to the Army."

Ellie