Fayetteville, North Carolina
In January, Jeremy Hinzman, a paratrooper from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division loaded his wife, son and a few possessions into their small car and drove from Fort Bragg to Toronto, Canada. In a journey reminiscent of one taken by another generation of soldiers, Hinzman committed a felony punishable by death, in order to avoid serving in a controversial war.
I’ve known Hinzman since he arrived from advanced infantry training, which he completed in the same place I had years ago: Fort Benning, in Georgia. We met in an unlikely place, Quaker House in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I was there to attend a meeting of an anti-death penalty group and he was there to talk to the director, a man who counsels soldiers on discharge issues.
When I left the military after completing my enlistment, I went to work in a southern penitentiary. It took years for me to realise that the racism endemic to the prison was something I could not tolerate. I was able to quit and walk away from that job.
It didn’t take Jeremy Hinzman quite so long to realise that he was participating in something that was wrong. At Fort Benning, instructors led a chant during bayonet training “What makes the grass grow?” His fellow trainees exclaimed, “Blood, blood, blood” and Jeremy started to question his enlistment decision.
There aren’t many places in US society where it’s OK to scream one’s bloodlust. Some people willingly train to kill for their country. Others realise they can’t. That’s why the US military has a conscientious objector discharge program. The all-volunteer military stops being all volunteer the day that a person enlists. Even the Pentagon realises that people can change.
After spending a few months training with his unit at Fort Bragg, Hinzman filed a conscientious objector application. He hadn’t been a slacker while contemplating this decision. He’d been awarded the highly coveted expert infantry badge, worn only by those who master dozens of tasks involving deadly military skills. He’s aced parts of the army physical fitness test and was admired by his superiors for his work ethic.
After receiving his application, the army removed him from training and assigned him duty as a guard at the gates of Fort Bragg, checking IDs to keep terrorists from invading the home of the Airborne Infantry. Yet when his unit received orders to deploy to Afghanistan, Hinzman was ordered to go with them. His superiors claimed they had no record of his conscientious objector application.
Hinzman deployed and while on a clerical detail, discovered his application in, of all places, his personnel record. A hearing was convened and after Hinzman explained that, in the event of an attack he would defend his friends in the unit in which he’s served for two years, his application was denied. The Army wouldn’t discharge him.
When he returned from that deployment, I saw him often. We marched against the war in a demonstration at the state capitol. We attended meetings of a local grassroots peace group. Hinzman never used his unique position to generate attention. He participated as a believer in peace, not as a novelty act from the 82nd Airborne.
We talked about computers and cycling as well the war and the occupation. I watched his son grow. When his unit received orders for Iraq, only five months after returning from Afghanistan, I was saddened beyond words. While defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld held press conferences proclaiming that the soldiers he professes to support would receive real breaks between deployments, the people in military communities like the one I live in saw the real truth as we watched our friends prepare to depart to yet another combat zone.
By necessity, Hinzman planned his move to Canada secretly. Rather than laying low and avoiding the spotlight once he arrived, however, he decided to speak out for the first time, willingly drawing attention to his decision. To those who know him, he isn’t a novelty act or a weakling who couldn’t hack the rigours of the infantry. I know men who’ve served in Iraq and I admire them. I admire Jeremy Hinzman as well. He’s not a typical military hero, but he’s a hero nonetheless.
[Lou Plummer lives in Fayetteville, which is home to Fort Bragg, one of the biggest army bases in the US. An army veteran himself, he has a son currently on duty in Iraq and is active in Military Families Speak Out.]
From Green Left Weekly, June 23, 2004.