At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, AWOL soldiers find themselves detained for months under difficult conditions in an extended legal limbo they cannot escape.
Dustin Stevens is one of about 50 soldiers being held at Fort Bragg awaiting likely AWOL and desertion charges that seem like they will never arrive, he says.
A former soldier who refused to continue military service seven years ago because he did not want to fight a war, Stevens says that he and his colleagues are being held in legal limbo - a no man's land of poor living standards and arbitrary punishments - while awaiting charges and possible court-martial. Stevens has been in a holdover unit for five months without charges, and he says that others have been held for up to a year in conditions he describes as harrowing.
The unit is overcrowded and filthy, he says, with four people to a room. The command verbally abuses the soldiers, with one commanding officer proclaiming, "We should just shoot you all," according to Stevens. Troops are not receiving the medical and mental health care they need. "People around me are literally going crazy. I hear people threaten suicide on a daily basis," says Stevens. "They won't give us leave passes unless it's a dire emergency, so we're just sitting here, day by day."
The command offered the soldiers a free pass if they agreed to deploy to Afghanistan, according to Stevens. About ten people took up the offer, he says. Those who decline must find a way to endure.
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Stevens says that the people being held in the 82nd Holdover Unit went AWOL for various reasons, some because they were opposed to the war, some because the Army wouldn't let them leave to tend to family problems, and some because of medical problems.
"It is horrible here. We are treated like animals," he says. "We're all just lost, wanting to go home. Some of us are going crazy, some were already crazy, some are sick," he says. "I'm bouncing on a pin needle. I read all of the time, I talk to people all of the time to try to stay out of this place in my mind. It's really hard."
"AWOL troops being held in a replacement unit is totally absurd and unusual and is an example of how the command has plenty of ways to punish people and enforce discipline, bypassing the formal justice system. Smoking people, giving them unofficial duties, mistreatment, and in this case, making an example out of people and segregating them, are all informal mechanisms of punishment commonly used in the military." says Carl Davison, Iraq war resister and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. "People who follow their consciences deserve our support, and there needs to be a highly vocal community out there to let them know they are not alone."
"Every single person here should not be here. There are people here who should be in mental hospitals, who are just sitting here. This place is hell, it really is," says Stevens. "And in my mind, I didn't even do anything wrong."
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