German peace groups help GIs get out

December 17, 1990|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- German peace groups and American counselors are trying to help the increasing number of disgruntled GIs find 66TC way out of serving in the Gulf crisis.

About 100,000 of the 250,000 troops based in Germany are expected to be sent to Saudi Arabia as part of the plan to beef up Operation Desert Shield, and there are signs that many of the troops do not want to go. At least 20 cases have been reported of soldiers who want to leave the forces rather than go and many more have said they would rather disobey orders than fight.

The soldiers' position is supported by sympathetic German peace groups, which have been holding vigils in front of U.S. bases, distributing leaflets encouraging desertion and trying to talk the soldiers out of their new mission.

One group recently passed out leaflets with a phone number of a little-known counseling service for soldiers in central Germany, the Military Counseling Network, run by two Mennonite workers from the United States, Andre and Cathy Stoner. Within a few weeks the number of calls grew from two a week to 20 a day.

"We were completely overwhelmed. There was no way we could possibly do quality counseling and so called for help," said Mr. Stoner, who for four years has been counseling U.S. soldiers who want to leave the forces.

Six extra counselors were sent from different religious organizations in the United States and are set up in various cities near big U.S. military bases.

The primary reason that service members call is that they do not feel that the Gulf conflict is worth the sacrifice of their lives, Mr. Stoner said. Some say that although they joined for patriotic reasons they do not feel that defending Kuwait is the same as defending American values.

"Most don't think that supporting some sheik is worth it. They say: 'That's not why I joined the military. That doesn't have to do with American values,' " he said.

Airman Henry Spielburger, for example, said the Gulf conflict has reinforced his desire to seek conscientious objector status, which allows soldiers to leave the service because they object to war.

"I just can't see fighting for a non-renewable natural resource. And as for invading Kuwait, I don't know why this gets us angry now. Iraq has done plenty of worse things in the past and we never got angry," he said.

U.S. military officials said they do not know how many servicemen share this opinion. James Boyle, press officer at the U.S. Army in Europe's headquarters in Heidelberg, said no central statistics are kept of the number of people seeking conscientious objector status in Germany, which hosts the largest permanent concentration of U.S. military forces overseas.

Several members of the military questioned in Berlin said they had concerns about the legitimacy of a possible war with Iraq, but most said they would go.

Pvt. Jack Taylor, however, said it involved a big decision: "It's either the desert or the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I think I'll take the desert."

Mr. Stoner said the prospect of a court martial and up to fiv years in prison is daunting to many of the soldiers, but that they have taken heart in a recent case where a soldier in Hawaii was given only an administrative discharge for failing to follow orders sending him to the Gulf.

"I think the case shows that if you are resolute and really believe that you shouldn't go that they won't throw you in jail," Mr. Stoner said.

Although the armed forces have been making conscientious objector status more difficult to obtain through new administrative procedure, most German peace groups do not realize that it exists at all, Mr. Stoner said. This has led some groups to base their activities on Germany's experience in World War II and to call on soldiers to desert, he said.

Beate Roggenbuck, a member of the Stuttgart chapter of the ecumenical peace group, Life Without Weapons, said groups are stopping this practice, although a recent conference of German, Polish and Arab peace groups stated that its aim is to create a "climate for desertion" in Germany.

Other activities involving the German peace movement's 28,000 members include stepped-up pressure on the German Parliament not to amend its constitution to allow German troops to be deployed overseas and for mass demonstrations across the country Jan. 12, three days before the United Nations' ultimatum to Iraq runs out, Ms. Roggenbuck said.

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