US army figures indicate that since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, about 5500 military personnel have absconded.

In 2003 an independent advisory service for US military personnel, the GI Rights Hotline, received 32,000 calls, twice as many as in 2001, from soldiers wanting to leave the military. 

Some refuse to serve for political reasons, others are just unwilling to go to a country where 1500 US soldiers have been killed and more than 11,000 wounded.

Many soldiers who object have already spent time in Iraq and become disillusioned by their experiences.

Camilo Mejia is one of them. He spent six months in a combat unit in Iraq after the invasion, and upon returning to the US for a vacation decided he would not return for moral reasons.

He subsequently served a one year prison sentence for deserting.

Hard to justify

Mejia says his experiences in Iraq shocked him.  

Some say the promised benefits
of joining the army are illusory

"The commanders wanted us to get into firefights because they wanted to put that on their resume to make them look better," Mejia told Aljazeera.net. "Thirty people were killed by my unit. About three of those people had weapons."

"Once you come home it's really hard not to think about it. You start going back to those moments and it's really hard to justify that," he said.

As some soldiers begin their second or even third tour of Iraq, Mejia says many are asking why are they still in the country two years after invasion and after handing over power and overseeing elections.

"'What the hell else are we there for?' Soldiers ask themselves this question. It's like there is no ending," he said.

Unofficial draft

The Pentagon is struggling to maintain enlistment targets.

According to army figures the active-duty army in March missed a monthly recruiting goal for the first time since May 2000, and the Guard and Reserve are also lagging.

And as the Pentagon struggles to find enough troops to replace already overstretched units in Iraq and Afghanistan, many say it is resorting to measures that amount to an unofficial draft.

"We think there is a draft but a different kind because it doesn't include everyone," Robert Dove, an administrator with the Quaker peace group American Friends Committee, told Aljazeera.net.

Stop loss

Dove points to the US Army's "stop loss" policy, which prevents soldiers from retiring or leaving the military after they have finished their duty.

Mejia (C) says he does not think
the war can be justified

Carl Webb says he is a victim of this policy. He went Awol after being given orders to return to duty when he had just finished three years of part-time service in the US National Guard.

"One month before I was due to leave they gave me these orders [to return to service] ... I enlisted for three years in August 2001, which meant that my time was up in August 2004. I am saying this is illegal," Webb told Aljazeera.net.

"The policy that they have now is the policy of not allowing people to leave or calling back men who are 40 or 50-years-old. It doesn't affect the general public," he said.

Overloaded system

Despite the vocal protests of some of those who refuse to serve, there is evidence that the number of desertions has actually declined.

"We have had a steady decrease in the number of deserters," a US Army spokeswoman said.

There are far fewer conscientious
objectors than during Vietnam

"Most of the people who are deserting are continuing to desert for the same reasons. ... The number of people who have deserted for reasons of conscience is very, very small," the spokesperson told Aljazeera.net.

To be sure, cases of soldiers coming out against the war and registering themselves as "conscientious objectors" are still far less than the 190,000 claims filed during the Vietnam war.

But despite the army's figures, Dove of the American Friends' Committee believes the number of deserters is actually much higher.

"There are at least 5000 and I am sure that means there are a lot more. The system is overloaded," he says.

Poverty draft

Webb says he joined the National Guard simply because he needed to supplement his income.

"I didn't have any money. I was broke. I was in debt and there was a $2500 bonus for those who joined, so I sold my soul to the devil," he said.

"You are giving terrorism a whole new life"

Camilo Mejia,
US Army deserter

Critics of US Army recruitment policies say that in a bid to meet their quotas, recruiters often operate in poor communities and lure young people with promises of an education and other benefits.

"I think poor people are definitely targeted. We refer to it as a poverty draft. What that really means is that recruiters target low-income people. So when they choose which high schools to recruit people from, they spend a lot more time in high schools in poor areas," Dove said.
  
He said the benefits of joining the US military were usually less than many recruits were led to believe.

"You can get up to $70,000 in assistance once you have completed your service. Almost no one gets that... Most people who get any money at all get considerably less than that and a lot of people get nothing," he said.

Also, an increasing number of National Guard units are being sent to Iraq, something that has shocked some National Guard recruits.

Great horror

"The National Guard were originally for emergencies within the United States, so a lot of people join the National Guard for a host of reasons, including that when they go for their training camp they will get paid for it," Dove said.

Some US soldiers have been
disillusioned by their experience

"But in the last two years they have been enlisted, and to their great horror they [have found they] can be sent off to war."

Both Mejia and Webb have added their voices to the anti-war lobby in the US, attending rallies and speaking about the reasons behind their actions.

"The only way this can be resolved is through protests by the masses," Webb says.

For his part, Mejia says he realised while serving in Iraq that the arguments used to justify the conflict were bogus.

"You go into an Arab nation, you kill people, you steal their oil, you destroy their country and charge them to have it rebuilt," Mejia said.

"You are giving terrorism a whole new life."