AWOL GI Refuses Service In 'Gulf War II'

November 21, 2002.

( - U.S. Army Private Wilfredo Torres stepped forward this past Monday to say he was absent without leave for nearly a year because he wanted no part of a U.S. invasion of Iraq. The announcement from Torres, a 19-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., came on Veteran's Day and just three days after the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution authorizing the use of American force to disarm Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Torres surrendered Monday afternoon to U.S. military police at Fort Myer, Virginia, was incarcerated overnight on an AWOL charge and was to be transferred to Fort Knox, Ky., Tuesday morning, according to his attorney Tod Ensign, who is also the director of a veterans' rights advocacy group called Citizen Soldier.

Torres was participating in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., when he left without permission shortly after Thanksgiving last year. Monday, he told he is ready to accept the consequences for his actions even if it means a dishonorable discharge from the Army.

"I am returning to the military today so my case can be resolved. If I am punished, then I am ready," he said.

"Since I left Fort Benning, Georgia, last November, I thought about our country's foreign policy and my potential role as a soldier. I have decided that it will be wrong for our country to attack Iraq on its own, without working as part of the U.N.," said Torres.

Even after Friday's unanimous vote by the U.N. Security Council, authorizing the use of force against Iraq, Torres said he is still convinced the United States wants to invade Iraq on its own.

"I'm no expert, but I think that such an attack will undermine the U.N. and affect America's standing in this world," Torres said.

"If we do [attack], I won't be going with them," he added.

While turning himself in on Veterans Day, Torres denied he meant any disrespect to military veterans. "I have the greatest respect for them, but from what I have read lately, our government has not done a good job of caring for Gulf War and Vietnam Vets," he said.

Torres said he realizes he could be court-martialed or receive a dishonorable discharge but those are chances he is willing to take.

Ensign and other activists are already labeling any military action against Iraq, "Gulf War II." Then- President George H.W. Bush launched the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Now, the former president's son is America's commander- in-chief.

"If the war goes ahead and my own reading is that [President George W.] Bush thinks he can go ahead without any further need for a further U.N resolution, I think we will hear from dozens and even hundreds of young people," said Ensign. "I've been getting calls already from reservists who are asking about their options.

"I think this movement will grow, if [Bush] goes ahead with the war there, " he said.

Fort Knox, Ky., is the Army's main facility for AWOL GIs.

A dishonorable discharge, according to Ensign, could bar Torres from future Army and other veterans' benefits.

According to the Uniform Code For Military Justice, if a soldier goes AWOL for 30 days, the government changes the status to desertion. Both are violations under the code.

When the status is changed to desertion, according to the code, the military contacts family members and issues an arrest warrant to all of the law enforcement agencies in the United States. If police then stop the individual, he/she will be arrested and returned to military control.

An AWOL soldier, under article 86 of the Uniform Code For Military Justice, faces a maximum punishment of "a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement at hard labor for 18 months."

Article 85 of the code, dealing with desertion, establishes that "the maximum punishment is a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement at hard labor for three years. In times of war, the maximum punishment for desertion is death by lethal injection."

The U.S. Army had no comment on the Torres case. The offices of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) were closed Monday in honor of Veterans Day.

But in a Veterans Day message, American Legion National Commander Ronald Conley made it clear that any invasion of Iraq would mean an increase in the number of active duty troops.

"An invasion of Iraq could result in the mobilization of about 300,000 members of Reserve and National Guard units," said Conley. "Increasing the active-duty force, from its current 1.35 million to at least 1.6 million, is a more sensible way to correct the undersized total force than demanding long-term deployments from Reserve and Guard personnel."

Conley said those in military uniform should be proud to serve America.

"It's a privilege to wear this nation's uniform and to serve under this nation's flag, which is an international symbol of freedom, justice and democracy. On the other hand, one must be prepared to make the Supreme Sacrifice to defend freedom, as more than one million U.S. citizen-soldiers have done," he said.