Army says 5,500 U.S. service members have deserted
Mom worried her soldier-son is on the runArmy Spec. Levi Moddrelle served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division in 2003, came home to Stanford late that year -- and then disappeared.
Moddrelle, 21, a 2002 graduate of Lexington's Lafayette High School, was trained as a Chinook helicopter mechanic. But his mother, Susan Tileston of Stanford, says she thinks he was so distressed by his experiences in combat around Mosul at the height of the war that he ran away from the Army to avoid the possibility of another tour in Iraq.
"We haven't seen or heard from him since Feb. 2 of '04," Tileston said. "I'm so worried that I'm on medication. At this point, I just want to know that he's OK. It's terrible not knowing whether he might be hurt or lying in a ditch somewhere."
Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd confirmed last week that Moddrelle has been absent without leave from his unit at Fort Campbell -- Bravo Co., 7th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment -- since Jan. 31, 2004, and is now listed as a deserter.
A handful of U.S. troops who are opposed to the war -- including 22-year-old Army Spec. Darrell Anderson of Lexington -- have fled to Canada in recent months and are seeking refuge there to avoid prosecution as deserters. Their cases have drawn intense media interest. Much less has been written about deserters or AWOL soldiers who remain in the United States, staying below the radar.
Just how many there are-isn't clear. The Pentagon has said that about 5,500 U.S. service members have deserted since fighting in Iraq began, but officials haven't said how many have returned to their bases or been apprehended. The number of Army deserters actually has been falling steadily since fiscal 2001, the Army says.
No figures are available on how many have gone AWOL -- soldiers who are absent without leave usually are designated as deserters if they don't return within 30 days -- because those cases are handled by individual units at the local level.
Rudd, the Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said some news media reports have given a false impression that large numbers of soldiers are deserting because they oppose the war.
"But that's not the case," Rudd said. "Most people continue to desert for the same reasons they have always deserted: some kind of personal problem, or just an inability to adjust to Army life."
According to Rudd, Army desertions peaked at 4,597 in fiscal year 2001 (up from 2,966 in fiscal 1999) and have been falling ever since. The number dropped to 2,468 desertions last year, and only 508 have deserted so far this fiscal year, she said.
Nevertheless, various groups are offering support and assistance to soldiers opposing the war.
Some former soldiers have created a Web site -- www.peace-out.com -- that advises soldiers on how to apply to become conscientious objectors. A Canadian organization, the War Resisters Support Campaign, assists troops thinking of deserting to Canada. And a handful of former soldiers have formed Iraq Veterans Against The War, calling for Washington to bring U.S. troops home now. ( '? also see http://www.SoldierSayNo.org
Another group, the GI Rights Hotline, counsels soldiers on various issues, including AWOL and desertion. Hotline spokeswoman J.E. McNeil says the hotline is receiving 2,000 to 4,000 phone calls per month, many from soldiers who have deserted or gone AWOL or are considering doing so.
McNeil stressed that the GI Hotline never advises anyone to desert, but does offer information on how soldiers can turn themselves in and receive the minimum amount of punishment. And McNeil says she thinks there are many soldiers like Levi Moddrelle, who have fled from the service and are still in the United States, laying low to avoid being arrested and sent back to the military.
"It's harder to stay under cover today, but it can be done," McNeil said. "If you're only AWOL and not listed as a deserter, your name usually-doesn't go into the police computers. So, you're less likely to be picked up for driving with a broken tail light or something. And there are tons of jobs you can get where nobody is going to do a background check."
Susan Tileston, who filed a missing person report on her son with the Kentucky State Police, said she has received banking records and other information suggesting that Moddrelle might be in Florida. She said police told her Moddrelle apparently received a traffic citation in Florida last fall, but provided no details.
Moddrelle grew up in Lexington with many different interests, and a passion for cars. He wanted to start his own business building custom cars, but decided to join the Army to get money for college. He was only 17, so his mother had to give her permission for him to join.
Moddrelle talked little about his war experiences after he returned from Iraq in December 2003, his mother said. But Tileston said he did reveal that he was assigned to combat duty, and was in firefights involving convoys around Mosul, even though his primary training was in repairing helicopters.
"All he would tell me was that he was fired on and that he had to fire back," Tileston said. "But he told some of his friends that he had had to shoot people. He just wasn't prepared for that psychologically. He didn't deal with it very well."
Tileston said her son was never a very political person, but had made it clear after he came home that he opposed U.S. intervention in Iraq.
"He thought it was the wrong war for the wrong reasons," she said.
Kimberly Smith of Lexington, a former neighbor whose son is a close friend of Moddrelle, said Moddrelle spent a few days at her home just before he disappeared. Smith has a cousin who is scheduled to ship out for Iraq soon.
"Levi is so intelligent it's amazing," Smith said. "He's a good kid, he never got in any trouble. But you could tell something was wrong. He was sent over there to work on helicopters, and he ended up shooting people. Evidently, it must have traumatized him."
Tileston said that when she talked with Moddrelle by phone on Feb. 2, 2004, he told her he would drive home to Stanford that night. But he never arrived, and she hasn't heard from him since.
Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd says the Army is eager to assist soldiers like Moddrelle in resolving any personal problems they might have -- if they turn themselves in. Deserters can face up to five years in prison, but lesser punishments usually are imposed, she said.
"If possible we want to keep these soldiers," Rudd said. "If they are good soldiers and they go AWOL for understandable reasons, we don't want to automatically lose them. People shouldn't be afraid to turn themselves in."
Tileston says she simply hopes that her son will contact her.
"I just hope someone will tell him to call or write his mother," she said.
© Herald Leader
By Jim Warren HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITER