Nervous in the Service

As war looms in Iraq, some U.S. reservists are trying to get out of their military obligations

Junior says his reserve unit recently was called up and sent to Camp Pendleton, where it's awaiting deployment orders. But Junior didn't show up at the big Marine training base in northern San Diego County.

"Right now I'm supposed to be deployed, so I'm AWOL," he says. "That's a crime. I have to turn myself in."

His path to the Marine Reserves is a familiar one. He joined partly because he needed extra cash for school, but also because his life lacked a sense of direction. He had a year of college under his belt at the time, but felt he was in a rut and things weren't going his way. Joining the Marine Reserves would be a challenge he otherwise wasn't getting in life. His military specialty is assisting helicopters in landing and storing combat vehicles.

Junior had no problem coping with the physical rigors of boot camp. But he says he felt increasingly uncomfortable with the moral dilemmas of war as he learned to fire a weapon and kill with a bayonet thrust. He began to formulate his conscientious-objector beliefs while still in basic training.

His anti-war epiphany, he says, came during a target-shooting exercise. He scored well enough to earn an expert marksman rating, but his instructor refused to confer it, saying Junior had an "attitude problem." Junior confronted his superior over the remark.

"He said he thought in real-life combat I wouldn't score well. It pissed me off and I told him he was right, I wouldn't score well -- I think killing is wrong," says Junior, who began researching his options for getting out while still in boot camp. He called around to different organizations, including the GI Rights Hotline.

Junior says that, as a CO, he'd rather sit in jail than go into combat. He's been working with a local attorney on his conscientious objector application, and is now waiting for letters from friends and relatives who can vouch for his beliefs. With those in hand, he plans to turn himself in and expects to be sent to a military lockup in New Orleans. There he will wait until the government evaluates his CO application, usually a lengthy process. He says he isn't so worried about the jail time, though.

"I've already been through boot camp and other training, so hopefully it won't be so bad," he says. "Plus, it's the last time I have to deal with these people."

Entry-level Marine reservists earn $180 per weekend of reserve duty. Those on active duty receive $1,400 a month. Junior says he'd be happy to give back his reserve pay to the government. It wasn't much, he says, though he doesn't know the exact figure.

"If they demand it back, I'd give them their money back," he says.

While Junior may be relegated to non-combatant status to fulfill his reserve contract, he's optimistic that the Marines will let him go. The military has made it clear it will jettison those who are insufficiently gung-ho or otherwise fail to meet its demands. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that military service is not just a job, it's a calling. And Junior clearly doesn't hear the trumpet.

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