Fighting the War: Wilkerson sentenced, activists press Congress

Soldier faces seven months in prison for refusing Iraq service

Spc. Mark Wilkerson faced a choice between his freedom and his conscience. He chose the latter, and now he's paying the price.

Last Thursday, Feb. 22, a Fort Hood military court sentenced the 23-year-old soldier to seven months in prison, with a bad-conduct discharge, for going absent without leave from the Iraq war. He will join more than 25 other soldiers nationwide who are incarcerated or facing prosecution for refusing to redeploy to Iraq, including Lt. Ehren Watada of Washington, who will return to court in March after his first hearing was declared a mistrial.

Wilkerson went AWOL while on leave from Iraq in November 2004, after the Army denied his application for conscientious-objector status – a legal exemption from fighting based on religious, moral, or ethical grounds. After spending 19 months as a fugitive, Wilkerson decided it was time to accept the consequences of his actions; without a plea agreement, he could have been sentenced to seven years in prison. In September 2006, he told a crowd of anti-war protesters at Cindy Sheehan's Camp Casey that he planned to turn himself in. In order to avoid a costly legal battle, Wilkerson declined a trial by jury and pled guilty to desertion.

On the eve of Wilkerson's sentencing, more than two dozen supporters gathered at South Austin's Cafe Caffeine. Wilkerson was scheduled to spend his last night as a free man speaking at the event but could not attend due to last-minute meetings with his lawyers. Ann Wright, a former Army colonel and State Department official who resigned in protest of the Iraq war, addressed the crowd and called the actions of Wilkerson and other soldier resisters an important "stand of conscience." "They are the ones that are willing to put their bodies on the line – not on the line for murdering or criminal activity," Wright said, "but on the line for conscience and morality and to hold accountable an administration that is putting our nation at risk."

Kelly Dougherty, co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War, echoed Wright's comments and underscored the difficulty of the decision faced by soldiers who choose to refuse. Soldiers are financially dependent on the military; not only do they lose their income if they go AWOL, but they face the likelihood of high legal costs. A strong military culture of camaraderie also causes soldiers to hesitate. "When you join the military, you become a part of a new family," Dougherty said. "IVAW members who have returned home and oppose the war often think of re-enlisting, because they don't want to leave their brothers and sisters in the military to fight the war alone."

Another speaker, Hart Viges, an Iraq veteran and a conscientious objector, stressed the need for more education about the war to young people, including counter-recruitment in schools. Adapting the language of combat, Viges said, "If we want to stop this war, we have to hit their supply line."

Among the group was Charles Davis, a veteran and a successful conscientious objector. Asked why he thought Wilkerson's appeal for CO status was denied, Davis said that a great number of applications are denied simply because soldiers rush through them. A successful application packet requires great detail and careful wording, Davis said. Davis consulted closely with the GI Rights Hotline and spent nine months preparing his packet – three more than is standard, thanks to an extension granted with the aid of his representative, Ron Paul, R-Surfside.

In a final statement posted on his blog (see full text below), Wilkerson admitted going AWOL may not have been the right choice, but at the time he felt it was the only choice. And he seemed to express little regret for his actions. "Even though I committed a crime, I'm no criminal. And even if I do go to prison, I'm no longer a prisoner," he wrote. "My conscience is clear."

Also last week, a coalition of anti-war groups, including CodePink, Instruments of Peace, Veterans for Peace, and MoveOn.org, launched a campaign to engage lawmakers directly in hopes of garnering support for measures to block funding to the Iraq war. As members of the U.S. Congress returned to Texas for a recess, groups met with staffers, initiated phone campaigns, and delivered more than 25,000 letters to local congressional offices.

Instruments for Peace member Sylvia Benini said that in conversations with staffers on Tuesday, she learned that Republican representatives are now under pressure from broad sections of their constituency to take action against the war. The groups were hoping to get lawmakers to sign pledges against voting for supplemental funding. All declined or refused to sign the pledges, including Austin Democrat Lloyd Doggett, despite his recent comments on the need for Congress to limit appropriations for the war.

Doggett said that "in an ever-changing environment in Congress," there may be tactical reasons he needs to vote for funding. "I am not unwilling to vote against funding," he said, "but winning a vote to significantly limit funding is a better way to stop the killing than casting a vote against funding that is overwhelmingly defeated."

Members of the anti-war groups said that if their demands aren't met, they plan on some form of nonviolent civil disobedience. "If we don't get this," said CodePink organizer Debbie Russell, "we're prepared to do more than just stand on the [federal building] plaza."


See Justin Ward's interview with Lloyd Doggett, on Patriots for Peace, Congress, and the war, below.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Iraq War, Mark Wilkerson, Ann Wright, Kelly Dougherty, CodePink, Lloyd Doggett

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