I Broke the Rules by Having a Conscience
Former U.S. soldier Joshua Key recalls the traumas that drove him AWOL
By Peter Laufer
Excerpted from the book 'Mission Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq' by Peter Laufer, copyright 2006 Chelsea Green Publishing; 212 pages; $14 paper.
'We was going along the Euphrates River," says Joshua Key, a 27-year-old former U.S. soldier from Oklahoma, detailing a recurring nightmare--a scene he stumbled on shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. "It's a road right in the city of Ramadi. We turned a real sharp right and all I seen was decapitated bodies. The heads laying over here and the bodies over here and U.S. troops in between them. I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, what in the hell happened here? What's caused this? Why in the hell did this happen?' We get out and somebody was screaming, 'We fucking lost it here!' I'm thinking, 'Oh, yes, somebody definitely lost it here.'"
Joshua says he was ordered to look around for evidence of a firefight, for something to rationalize the beheaded Iraqis. "I look around just for a few seconds and I don't see anything." But then he noticed the sight that triggers the nightmares. "I see two soldiers kicking the heads around like a soccer ball. I just shut my mouth, walked back, got inside the tank, shut the door, and it was like, I can't be no part of this. This is crazy. I came here to fight and be prepared for war but this is outrageous. Why did it happen? That's just my question: Why did that happen?"
He's convinced there was no firefight that led to the beheading orgy--there were no spent shells to indicate a battle. "A lot of my friends stayed on the ground, looking to see if there was any shells. There was never no shells, except for what we shot. I'm thinking, OK, so they just did that because they wanted to do it. They got trigger-happy and they did it. That's what made me mad in Iraq. You can take human lives at a fast rate and all you have to say is, say, 'Oh, I thought they threw a grenade. I thought I seen this, I thought I seen that.' You could mow down twenty people each time and nobody's going to ask you, 'Are you sure?' They're going to give you a high five and tell you that you was doing a good job."
He still cannot get the scene out of his head. "You just see heads everywhere," he says. "You wake up, you'll just be sitting there, like you're in a foxhole. I can still see Iraq just as clearly as it was the day I was there. You'll just be on the side of a little river running through the city, trash piled up, filled with dead. Heads and stuff like that. I don't sleep that much, you might say. I don't sleep that much." His wife, Brandi, nods in agreement and says he cries in his sleep.
We're sitting in the waning summer light on the back porch of the Toronto house where Joshua and his wife and their four little children have been living in exile since Joshua deserted to Canada. They've settled in a rent-free basement apartment, courtesy of a landlord sympathetic to their plight. Joshua smokes cigarettes and drinks coffee while we talk. He's wearing a T-shirt promoting a 2002 peace rally in Raleigh, N.C. There's a scraggly beard on his still-boyish face; his eyes look weary.
Sleep deprivation while on duty, first in Kuwait and then in Iraq, was routine, Joshua says, and he thinks exhaustion was generated intentionally by his commanders. "You'll do whatever the hell they say just to get that sleep. That's the way they controlled us. You ain't had no sleep and you got shitty food all the time. I got to call my wife once every month, maybe once every two weeks if I was lucky. Mail, shitty, if it even came." Food and water were inadequate, he says. "When we first got to Kuwait we were rationed to two bottles of water a day and one MRE [meals ready to eat]. In the middle of the desert, you're supposed to have six bottles of water a day and three MREs. They tell us they don't have it. I'm thinking 'How in the hell can the most powerfullest nation, the most powerfullest military in the world, be in the middle of a damn desert and they don't even have no food to feed us?'"
Joshua rejects the U.S. government line that the Iraqis fighting the occupation are terrorists. "I'm thinking: What the hell? I mean, that's not a terrorist. That's the man's home we killed. That's his son, that's the father, that's the mother, that's the sister. Houses are destroyed. Husbands are detained and wives don't even know where they're at. I mean, them are pissed-off people, and they have a reason to be pissed off. I would never wish this upon myself or my family, so why would I do it upon them?"
Pulling security duty in the Iraqi streets, Joshua found himself talking to the locals. He was surprised by how many spoke English, and he was frustrated by the military regulations that forbade his accepting dinner invitations to join Iraqis for social evenings in their homes. "I'm not your perfect killing machine," he admits. "That's where I broke the rules. I broke the rules by having a conscience." And the conscience developed further the more time he spent in Iraq. "I was trained to be a total killer. I was trained in booby-traps, explosives, land mines and how to counterresolve everything." He pauses. "Hell, if you want to get technical about it, I was made to be an American terrorist. I was trained in everything a terrorist is trained to do." In case I might have missed his point, he says it again. "I mean terrorist."
Deserting to Canada seemed the only viable alternative, Joshua says. He did it, he insists, because he was lied to "by my president." Iraq--it was obvious to him--was no threat to the United States. He says he followed his orders while he was in Iraq, and so no one can call him a coward for deserting. "I was not a piece of shit. I always did everything I was told and I did it to the highest standards. They can never say, 'Oh, he was a piece of shit soldier.' No bullshit."
Joshua doesn't mind telling his war stories again and again. He readily agrees to talk about the horrors he experienced in Iraq, his life AWOL and underground in the States, and his new life as a deserter in Canada. Telling the stories helps him deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder, he says, and he apologizes in advance if his narrative is not linear or if he has trouble expressing himself. In fact, his scattered approach to his timeline and his machine gun–like delivery set the scene for his troubled memories--there is nothing smooth or simple or easy to understand here.
He cannot pinpoint when he decided that the war was wrong and that he could not serve as a soldier anymore. Joshua served for eight months in Iraq, beginning in April 2003. He was on duty west of Baghdad in Ramadi, Fallujah, Al-Kahim, along Highway 10, working as a combat engineer. "Explosives and land mines, that was my job," he says. This was before the worst days in Fallujah, before it became the scene of fierce opposition to the occupation and of a devastating American military reaction. "Fallujah was very unstable at the time, a lot of sporadic gunfire and a lot of firefights and stuff like that. The way I look at it, we sort of caused what happened there. You know, I think as in most areas we did."
"Innocent people started dying for no reason. Mass casualties. What else is going to happen except total chaos? I seen it with my own eyes. The whole month of May  it was very calm, hardly ever any gunfire. I never got in a firefight the first month I was there; I didn't even know what it was. At the end of May," he says, and then pauses. "When I first got to Iraq, I was in Ramadi." Another pause. "I'm sorry, I jump a lot around."
He tries again. "We went to Ramadi first--that's where I learned how to raid homes, do traffic control points," he says. "That's where they sort of got us into the groove of what we're going to do here. That's where I did my first raid. When we got to Fallujah, that was a total different story."
His unit was trigger-happy, Joshua recalls, and that led to another horrific incident that haunts him to this day. Joshua was in an armored personnel carrier when an Iraqi man in a truck cut them off by making a wrong turn. His squad leader started firing at the truck. "The first shot, the truck sort of started slowing down," Joshua recounts. "And then he shot the next shot, and when he shot that next shot it, you know, exploded."
Joshua watched the truck turn to debris. "It was very strange. He was just going along and just because he tried to cut in front of us. ... No kind of combat reasons or anything of such ... I think he had plenty of distance and everything. ..." Joshua seems still in shock at the utter senselessness of it all. "Why did it happen and what was the cause for it?" He says it again, "Why? When I asked that question I was told, basically, 'You just didn't see anything, you know?' Nobody asked no questions."
It was symptomatic of what he would see repeatedly in Iraq. "You don't have to have a reason to do anything," he says. "You can do whatever you want, really. I mean, all you have to have is, I guess, the rank to pull it off."
Before he set foot in Iraq, Joshua supported the removal of Saddam Hussein. "They made it sound like one day he's going to be stepping on our doorsteps back home," he says. "I figured, just do it now rather than my kids have to deal with it later on in life. But once we got there, you start seeing it's not what it was kicked up to be. It wasn't like they portrayed it."
Assigned to raid houses, Joshua was quickly conflicted by the job. "It got very traumatic for me, because at first it's like an adrenaline rush. You're thinking, 'OK, I can do this. I ain't never been trained for it, but of course this is what I got to do, so we'll do it.'"
Most raids started with a briefing. "They would take you into the CO's [commanding officer's] tent. They'd sit you down, you'd have aerial photographs of the place, satellite photos. You'd have a lot of intelligence telling you, you know, what's supposedly going to be there, what they think might be there."
Once at the home to be raided, Joshua started the operation. "Since, myself, I knew demolition, usually we'd put C4 [plastic explosive] on the door, blow the door off and we'd go in--in six-man teams, usually. We would go in, completely raid the home, get all pertinent people out of the home, you know women, children, men. If they look over the age of sixteen you take them and put them in back of a five-ton [truck]. There would be another squad out there that would tie them up, put them in the back, and they'd be sent off. But we couldn't really tell their ages. Sometimes you would have an interpreter with you, but you could never tell if he was telling you the truth or not."
I ask him to describe a typical scene after he blows the front door and his comrades rush into the house. "Oh, very traumatic," he says without hesitation. "Yes, very, very traumatic. I mean, yeah, they're screaming and hollering out their lungs."
"And you can't understand a word they're saying?" I ask.
"No, you can't."
"And you're yelling back at them in English?"
"And they can't understand a word you're saying?"
"No. And it's traumatic on both parts because you got somebody yelling at you, which it might be a woman. You're yelling back at her, telling her to get on the ground or get out of the house. She don't know what you're saying and vice versa. Yeah, you don't know anything. It got to me. We're the ones sending their husbands or their children off, and when you do that it gets even more traumatic because then they're distraught. You know--very, very distraught. Of course, you can't comfort them because you don't know what to say. And that bothered me."
While the residents are restrained, the search progresses. "Oh, you completely destroy the home--completely destroy it," he says. "If there's like cabinets or something that's locked, you kick them in. The soldiers take what they want, at will you might say. You completely ransack it. After you do it, usually a whole other team comes in and does the whole same thing again, just to make sure it's not got anything."
Joshua estimates he participated in about 100 raids--every one of them a bust.
"I never found anything in a home. You might find one AK-47, but that's for personal use. But I never once found the big caches of weapons they supposed were there. I never once found members of the Baath party, terrorists, insurgents. We never found any of that.
"We would get where they would do whole neighborhoods like that; for no suspicion whatsoever, they would corridor off the whole big neighborhood and do a hundred houses at once." He looks pained at the memories.
The house raids became routine work for him--and they bothered him long after they were done. "Yeah, that was one of my problems when I came home," he says. "That's what I deal with now, because now when I think back, I especially see them people's faces when you raid their home. It got to where it was distraughting to me because I didn't want to do it, but yet I was made to do it. You want to have sympathy towards the people because you know there's no reason in doing this, but you can't, you can't even show it."
But it wasn't only Iraqis who were victims, as Joshua witnessed. "I had three good friends get their legs blown off." It happened during a firefight Joshua missed because he had been up the entire night before, pulling guard duty. When the squad returned, he saw that "one of them's leg was gone from the waist down, two from the knee down. It was crazy. It was a very crazy situation. I always remember when they set it [the leg] right there by him. He just said, 'Well, I get to see my daughter now. And I'm thinking, 'Oh, shit. Your leg's blown off.' But his daughter was born while we was there; he never got to see her and that's the way he felt."
It was a sentiment Joshua tells me he understood completely. "I don't know how many times we was in a firefights and I tried to throw myself in front of a shot, just trying to get wounded, just to go home. I think a lot of us do that."
I try to lighten up the moment, just to give us a breather from his ghastly stories. "You're a bad shot in reverse? You can't get yourself shot?"
"Exactly," he tells me. "It'd be funny because I'd see my friends doing it as well. You know, you get in a firefight and you just sort of hope enough of it grabs you that you're not one to get seriously hurt, but you want to get the hell out of there."
Eight months in Iraq and Joshua Key was never hit. In addition to the house raids, he worked a lot of TCPs--traffic control points--checking cars for weapons and other contraband, and he never took a hit. But some of the Iraqis driving up to the TCPs did.
"We had an incident where a vehicle was coming," he tells me. "At that time we didn't have signs, we didn't have anything stating 'Stop,' no interpreters. We had nothing. The only things we had was waving our hands and telling them to stop. One car came through and they totally let loose on the car. After they had hit it, our medic was trying to bandage them up as quick as possible--it was a kid and his father. The father, I'm sure he was dead. The kid looked like he was still breathing. We bandaged them up, put them in the back of our tank and hauled them to the hospital. At the same time, the other people was checking the vehicle to see if there was weapons or a reason why they didn't stop, and there was nothing. That hit us all hard, because it's just a language barrier. They don't know what the hell we're saying. I'm not going to sit here and kill all of them, you know? And I didn't. A lot of times I wouldn't. They just don't understand. You can't kill everybody. And that's the problem now, you know."
Joshua lets loose with a stream-of-consciousness barrage of war memories and policy critiques, ending with, "You know, stuff like that. With our friends getting their legs blown off. I'm not seeing no gain from all this. I'm fighting a war for months and months. All I'm seeing is death, destruction and chaos."
A soldier's life was never Joshua Key's dream. He was living in Guthrie, Okla., just looking for a decent job, and he found the Army.
"We had two kids at the time and my third boy was on the way," he says matter-of-factly. "There's no work there. You know what I mean? There wasn't going to be a future. Of course you can get a job working at McDonald's, but that wasn't going to pay the bills." The local Army recruiting station beckoned and Joshua says, "I started thinking, hey, you always see it on TV. I'll go up and I'll talk to them and see what they have to offer."
Joshua looks back on his initial meeting at the recruiting station with regret, remembering himself as an idealistic young man who brushed aside warnings from his friends and family about the Army and decided to choose Uncle Sam over Ronald McDonald. "I know I did the wrong thing because I felt that the man in the green suit--the person with the government--was going to be telling me the truth. I mean, that's what the hell you think. You always hear, 'Don't ever listen to the recruiters. You know they lie to you and shit.' But I'm thinking, 'This guy works for the government. I'm going to listen to what he's got to say.' And he said, 'You have to join right now because if they know that you got a third child on the way, they won't let you in. So you got to do it real quick.' So I was like, 'Let's jump on the ball!'"
Joshua signed up, and says the Army offered him a "nondeployable duty station" and training as a combat engineer--which they defined as a bridge builder--if he relinquished his claim on a signing bonus. He jumped on another ball and picked Fort Carson, Colo.
He was in for a few surprises when he got to basic training and met the drill sergeants. "I realized that this is a bunch of shit," he says. "They're like. 'Hey, you're going be the baddest killer on the battlefield.' And I'm thinking, 'Oh shit.' I wrote my wife--we still have the letter in storage back in the States--and said, 'Oh shit, I fucked up here, because I thought I was going to be building bridges.' I learned real quick that you don't have the authority to question shit. I mean the only thing you have the authority to question is, 'When can I go to the bathroom?' When I got to Fort Carson, they put me in a rapid deployment unit. I'm thinking, 'What the hell? I thought this was a nondeployable base.' I said to my lieutenant, 'Sir, I've been lied to ever since I got in the Army.' That's when I was told, 'Shut the hell up. You're going to learn the Army way.'"
A high school graduate, Joshua certainly was aware when he joined that the Army is in the war business, a fact he readily admits. "Of course I knew I might have to go to war. I accepted that fact even though they said I wouldn't." But he was unaware of the growing hostilities between the Bush administration and Iraq. "I hardly ever looked at a newspaper. Never watched the news."
And shortly after he finished basic training, he was en route to the war zone. After eight months of fighting he received two weeks off, relief time back in the United States. At the end of that leave, he was due for another Iraq tour.
He never reported for duty.
I ask him how he made that decision. "On the whole way home, from the time I left Baghdad, I never slept one inch," he says. "I'm just thinking, trying to contemplate, because I knew this was my one chance. At that point I knew, this is morally wrong. I can't keep doing this. I'm not going to kill innocent people just because I have to follow my damn orders. I wasn't going to do it."
He follows this memory of his trip home with a rather astounding revelation. "For the last three months I was there, my gun didn't work and I never said a word," he tells me. "I was in constant different battles here and there, and my gun didn't even work. I said something one time. I said, 'You know, my weapon's not working.' They never said anything back. For the last three months I was there I had a faulty weapon, wouldn't even shoot."
He would have shot at an enemy, he tells me, to keep "my ass alive" and "to help my buddies." He would have grabbed another gun. "But otherwise I'm not going to try and kill people. The objective is staying alive." Joshua sometimes speaks in present tense, as if he is still in Iraq. Other times he speaks in past tense and the war he left behind sounds like long ago history. "It's not you're wanting to kill people, it's just you're having to because you're forced to, but yet you're not wanting to. I mean, you're doing what you have to to stay alive."
Joshua still does not understand what he was doing in Iraq in the first place. "I still couldn't tell you why I was there. What purpose was it for? Whose gain was it for? I don't know the truth to it. Like I tell my wife, that's the problem with war--your president, your generals, they send you off to go fight these battles. And all the way down to your commanding officers, they don't go out there with you. They send you out there to fight and do the crazy shit and do the dirty stuff. You're the one who has to live with the nightmares from it. You come back, you're nothing, you know? Guys are living on the streets that fought in Iraq just as well as I did. I mean it's horrific."
A few days after returning to his base in Colorado, Joshua told Brandi that he was convinced the war was wrong, immoral. He made an anonymous call to Fort Carson officials and asked about the possibility of not getting sent back to Iraq, about reassignment to a job stateside. He was told to get back on the plane to Baghdad. Instead he said to Brandi, "The only option we got is running."
The two of them packed up their three children and ran, with the intention of getting far from familiar Colorado. For $600 they bought a 1978 Camaro and headed east. Joshua wanted to go home to Oklahoma but figured the military would look for him at his mother's house first. The family ran out of money in Philadelphia and Joshua found work as a welder. They lived an underground lifestyle for over a year, frequently checking out of one hotel and into another, worried that if they stayed too long at one place they would attract the kind of attention that would lead to capture.
"I was paranoid," Joshua says. He was perpetually afraid of getting caught, and he was second-guessing his decision to go AWOL. "Every day I asked myself the question, 'Should I go to jail?'" And every day he had the answer for himself: "Why the hell should I have to go to jail, spend any time in prison, for something I totally believe in? It's immoral to me." He continues to share his internal monologue. "And hell, I went there and served my damn time. I had to do things for the wealth of other people. I mean, just leave me the hell alone. That's how I felt about it, but I knew it wasn't going to happen like that. I knew that it might not be now, it might be five years from now, but they're going to come knocking on that door. Wherever the hell we're at, they're going to come knocking. That's when I started checking into things in Canada.
The research was easy. Joshua sat down at a computer, went online, and searched for "deserter needs help to go AWOL." Up popped details about Army Specialist Jeremy Hinzman's flight north and his case for refugee status (along with several websites about George W. Bush's service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War and whether he went AWOL or fulfilled his commitment).
Joshua and Brandi talked it through and decided to opt for a new life as Canadians. It was a difficult choice.
"I know that I'm not going be able to go back there," he tells me in his Toronto backyard. "I hated leaving my country." He misses his family and he blames the Bush administration. "I blame them because they made me do it," he says flatly. "You can lie to the world; you can't lie to a person who's seen it. They made me have to do things that a man should never have to do, for the purpose of their gain. Not the people's--their financial gain."
George W. Bush should be the one to go to prison, says Joshua. "On the day he goes to prison, I'll go sit in prison with him," he says. "Let's go. I'll face it for that music. But that ain't never going to happen." He laughs.
While waiting for the Canadian government to adjudicate his refugee request, Joshua took his wife and children on a road trip from Toronto to Vancouver. It was half vacation and half speaking tour to drum up support for granting U.S. deserters refugee status in Canada. The family stopped off in Winnipeg, where Joshua was the guest on a radio talk show, telling his story and responding to callers' questions--many of whom were hostile.
"Did you not take an oath at the beginning of your service to serve your country?" asked a caller named Dave.
"Yes, I did," answered Joshua. "And I signed up voluntarily. But I never once in that oath said I would invade another country or fight a war for the greed of my president."
Geoff Currier, the show host, jumped into the fray. When you join, he pointed out, you agree to do whatever the Army tells you to do.
"A soldier should have a right to a conscience as well," Joshua shot back. "You shouldn't have to do everything you're told to do. If it's killing civilian people, because you're a soldier you should be implicated in that? No, I don't think so."
Plenty of the callers welcomed Joshua to Canada, but plenty didn't.
"When you enter the military, you're not allowed to have an opinion," said a caller named Rick with harsh irritation in his voice. "You're not allowed to voice your concerns, you know that going in. They've fed you, they've clothed you, and they've schooled you. Now you've come to Canada. Well, we don't want you either, buddy, honest to God." Rick said he'd like to throw Joshua out of the country himself.
The next day, says Joshua, the two encountered each other at a Winnipeg peace demonstration. "I was speaking and he presented himself to me and told me that he was in the Vietnam War. He said he had thought it out and that he was sorry, that he understands my reasoning."
As he adjusts to his new life in Canada, Joshua Key says he continues to suffer through flashbacks and nightmares from his days in Iraq. And while he and Brandi hope for a peaceful future in Canada, they look back with sadness at their native land.
"I think it was terrible we had to leave our country," he says. "But we did what we had to do. I love my people. I love the American people. I love the American land. But I do not like the American government."
Peter Laufer, a Vietnam War resister, is the author of several books about conflict and migration, including 'Wetback Nation: The Case for Opening the Mexican-American Border.' A former NBC News correspondent, Laufer has won numerous journalism awards, among them a George Polk for his reporting on Americans in prison overseas and an Edward R. Murrow for his study of Vietnam War veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. He lives in Sonoma County, in Northern California.
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