[NOTE: This story is fiction. But it echoes & rhymes with many true events from the soldier resistance during the U. S. invasion of Iraq that began in March 2003. It also unofficially reflects my experience as Director at Quaker House in wartime conditions.]
Money for College
Fayetteville/Fort Bragg North Carolina, late December 2003 – Wartime
I was running behind that morning, as usual.
Didn’t wake up until after ten – but then, working til all hours and then sleeping in is one of the few perks you get as the head of a peace project with a one-person staff.
Anyway the night before, I was trying to finish the latest Quaker House newsletter. It was supposed to be printed and in the mail within a week. I might make that deadline, might not. More late nights would probably be needed for that one.
Stumbling back from the bathroom, still rubbing my eyes, I remembered this was Wednesday, and our peace vigil downtown was scheduled for noon. Usually it’s at five, but a Canadian TV crew was going to be in town just this morning, and they asked if we could switch the time.
Damn – that meant I had to update my sign, and do it quick. So I was even more behind than I thought. Breakfast could wait; it might turn into brunch.
The vigil sign was a fold-out thing, white cardboard. On the left panel it read, “Yes to the Troops!” and on the right “No to the War!”
To do peace work in an army town like Fayetteville, you have to start by saying something positive about the troops to have any chance of being heard at all. Some people won’t believe you anyway, but you still have to say it.
In the middle panel of the sign were two six-inch squares, outlined in heavy black marker. Each square contained a number: on the left, the total of US GIs killed in Iraq as of last week. On the right: the total for this week.
To update, I drew the numbers on smaller squares of paper and taped them in. The sign was looking a little battered, since it was almost a year old; when I started, the death toll was about 250. It was due to pass a thousand any time now.
The numbers come off a website, and from checking the daily paper.
The paper. It was outside, on the lawn. I headed for the front door.
Then the phone rang. The cordless was on the dining room table. I snatched it up and kept going. “This is Quaker House,” I murmured, trying to sound professional and alert.
“Chuck– it’s Hank!” He sounded excited, though there was static in the connection. Probably a cell phone, that most modern means of disrupting communication.
“Good morning, Corporal,” I said, trotting down the steps, “how goes the battle on the northern front?” The paper was on the grass, its plastic wrapper wet with dew.
“Forget the army,” he said, almost shouting. “It’s Jenny, she had the baby, last night. A boy!”
“Fabulous,” I shouted back. I picked up the paper and turned back to the house. “A boy, eh? You’re naming him after me, right?”
Hank laughed. “In your dreams, you egotist! We’re naming him John, after Jenny’s father.”
“Oh well,” I said, in mock disappointment, “the next one for sure. And how’s Jenny? How did it go? Oh – and where ARE you now, anyway?”
“Jenny’s fine,” he said. “Labor was about twelve hours, not bad for the first one, they tell me. And we’re in Vancouver. Hey, it’s beautiful out here, man, you should come visit.”
“Right,” I said, “I’ll book a flight, soon as I raise some money. And for sure when your immigration hearing comes up.” I dropped the paper on the dining table and headed for the office, where the vigil sign lived.
Gotta multi-task here, I thought, talk and update the sign at the same time; the clock is ticking.
“And speaking of hearings,” I said to Hank, “what’s the word from the Canadian Immigration people – do you have a hearing date yet?”
“My lawyer says it will be six weeks, max,” he said. Then, “–Jeez, was it only that long ago that you and Hostetter and me were eating burgers with Jonah Lapp?”
He was right. “Yep,” I said. “Feels like six years, tho.”
“No kidding,” he said, through louder static, then his voice dropped a notch. “You heard from Hostetter?”
“Not since that email last month,” I bellowed, into the buzz.
“Remember? All it said was, ‘Iraq sucks. Baghdad sucks. The army sucks. And worst of all, it doesn’t look like anyone can stop the Yankees from going to the World Series this year.’ Which means he was fine.”
But the static had faded halfway through this recitation, and I finished it talking to a dead connection.
Cell phones. I bet the army uses them in its torture chambers in the Abu Ghraib prison.
He’ll call back, I figured, if not right now, in a few days. Unfolding the vigil sign, I carefully peeled off the sheets with the old numbers, and moved the “This Week” total to the “Last Week,” square; the tape was still sticky enough to hold it.
Now for today’s total. The website I checked yesterday said 997. I drew the numbers with the wide black marker, big enough to be seen from across the street or a passing car, and taped the square in the larger box.
But then I thought: maybe better double-check. My memory is bad for numbers. I moved toward the dining room where the paper lay, and remembered that Thursday evening six weeks ago when Hank and Hostetter sat around this same table, two soldiers talking about their orders to go to Iraq, and wondering what to do.
Jenny had been there too, at first, her blond hair pulled back in a cute french braid kind of way. Her huge pregnant belly made her middle look like an over-inflated balloon. I could see tension in her expression, but overall she seemed pretty calm.
Hostetter and Hank, though, were not calm. They all looked so young, I thought. Hank and Hostetter had been good buddies since high school in Indiana. Hostetter’s first name was John too, I realized, though he always went by his last.
Neither of their families could afford college, so they enlisted together, and managed to end up in the same unit at Ft. Bragg. And they both soon realized how big a mistake they had made– the army was not like what the recruiters had told them, and the Iraq war didn’t smell right.
That’s how I knew them: they came to Quaker House, for help in figuring out what to do.
There had been a lot of talk. But the time for that was past. Now their battalion, the 504th of the 82d airborne Division, had received its orders: they were to leave for combat duty in Iraq in less than a week.
“I’m not going,” Hostetter said, rubbing one hand nervously over his nearly clean-shaven paratrooper’s haircut. “I don’t believe in it. The whole war is based on a pack of lies.”
“But what about your college money, man?” Hank asked. “That $40,000 was really why we signed up. If you don’t go, it’s gone. You ready to kiss it off now?”
“What good will it be if I come back in a box?” Hostetter retorted. “Or minus my eyes, or legs? Not to mention with killing Iraqis on my conscience?”
“But the odds are in our favor,” Hank said. “Look at the numbers: 135,000 troops. Six hundred casualties, a few thousand wounded. That means nine out of ten come back in one piece. So you get through it, get back, wait out your time, pick up the college money and you’re outta here. That’s what I’m gonna do.”
Hostetter shook his head. “But it’s wrong, man. Why get killed in this damn war? Why kill Iraqis over it? It’s stupid. Pointless.”
“Sure,” Hank agreed. “But we signed up for it. Nobody put a gun to our heads.”
He looked at me. “What do you think, Chuck?” he asked. “You’re the GI counselor here. Counsel us.”
I sighed, feeling vastly inadequate. They both looked so young, I thought again.
At Quaker House we talked all the time to soldiers who want out of the military; that’s our job.
But it’s one thing to tell people about army rules and regulations, and procedures and paperwork, and quite another to sit with soldiers faced with going into combat. They were taking risks I didn’t have to take. It was their lives, their decisions. This was a moment to tread very carefully. I needed some counseling myself.
So after considering the question for a few seconds, I tried to duck. I turned to Hostetter: “Have you talked about this with Jonah Lapp?”
Jonah Lapp, Carolina’s activist Mennonite, in his mid-sixties, also originally from Indiana.
These days he spent half his time in Israel/Palestine, dodging bullets with the Christian Peace Teams; otherwise he was in Greensboro, organizing a peace-oriented religious community.
Hostetter had told me he also had a Mennonite background, with many relatives who had been conscientious objectors and others who were veterans. So I’d taken him to hear Lapp speak a few weeks earlier, after he returned from the West Bank.
“No, haven’t talked to him,” Hostetter said. “But that’s an idea. Do you think –- ?”
“– Got his number right here,” I said, reaching for the phone.
I was lucky; Lapp answered. When he heard what was up, he didn’t hesitate.
“I was gonna have a prayer meeting here tonight,” he said. “But that can wait. Meet me at the Five Star Diner in Sanford, soon as you can get there. Find a booth in the back.”
Sanford is about halfway between Fayetteville and Greensboro. We dropped Jenny off at their apartment, and the three of us sped up highway 87, a road that in those days cut right across Fort Bragg. We paid no attention to the rolls of shiny razor wire that lined the highway there, glinting in the streetlights, protecting the post from terrorists who so far had not bothered to arrive.
I thought we drove pretty fast, but Lapp drove faster: he was waiting in the diner. Conspicuous in the booth, his longish gray beard, black suspenders and a battered straw hat pushed back on his sunburned forehead made him stand out. He was sipping a glass of lemonade.
“The cheeseburgers are good here,” he said. “I’ll buy; a big church in Elkhart just sent a nice fat check for our peace community, so I’m taking a break from my vegetarian simple living.” He smirked. “Don’t tell my wife, okay?”
We chuckled and sat down. Over the burgers, the options were soon clear. “The way I see it,” Jonah told the GIs, “you two have three options: One, go to Iraq, and try to get through it. Two, refuse to go and resist. Three, go AWOL. Take off and stay underground, maybe leave the country.”
They nodded, but didn’t say anything. I was embarrassed at how relieved I felt that my personal options didn’t boil down to those three.
“Now if it was me,” Lapp continued, “I’d take number two: refuse orders, and let the chips fall.” He glanced at me. “They’d get court-martialed, right, Chuck?”
I nodded. “Maybe with jail time,” I said, “but probably only a few months. Then a discharge.”
That would be my preference too, I thought. Of course, it wasn’t our preferences that mattered.
“But if we refuse, or go AWOL, we lose the college money,” Hank put in.
Lapp raised his eyebrows and drained the last of his lemonade. “College money,” he murmured.
“Yes, war is hell.” He thought for a moment. “Well, what about filing to be conscientious objectors?”
Now Hank sighed. “We tried that,” he said. “I put in six months ago. They laughed at me. Turned it down.”
It was true. I had worked with Hank on his Conscientious Objector application; it had looked strong to me, but not, evidently, to the 82d Airborne.
Hostetter sniffed. “I put mine in two months ago,” he said. “Asked them about it just last week, right before the orders came down.” His voice rose. “They said they never got it. The freakin’ Liars!”
I raised a hand, to quiet him. We didn’t know who might be listening.
“And,” Hostetter continued more quietly, “I don’t much like the idea of jail.”
Hank shook his head. “Yeah– and AWOL – how would you live? You’d have to leave the country. And who would take in a deserter? If they catch you, can’t you get shot for being a deserter in wartime?”
“Well,” I put in, “that’s still on the books. But nobody’s been executed for desertion since World War Two. And –” my voice trailed off. Was that data supposed to make them feel better?
“When’s your unit set to leave for Iraq?” Lapp asked.
“The 504th ships out Tuesday,” Hank answered. “Four days,” Lapp mused. “Not much time.”
The discussion was pretty much left there, unfinished, like the last few ketchup-soaked french fries on our plates. Jonah and I reminded Hank and Hostetter that the decision was theirs. We’d support them in whatever they decided, in any way we could. I said the words, but I wasn’t sure what they might mean in actual fact.
Tuesday came and went, though, with no word from either of them. Calls to Hank’s apartment only reached their voice mail message; Hostetter didn’t have a phone. It was Wednesday night when the cell phone chirped, and it was Jenny. As soon as she was sure it was me on the line, she handed the phone to Hank.
“You’re where??” I shouted a minute later. “Montreal? Canada? Jesus.”
Hank spoke fast. He said he and Jenny had talked late into the night after he got home from the diner; much of their talk was about their baby, and its future. And when they woke up the next morning, Friday, they both knew what they had to do. Hank had the weekend off, plus Monday for New Years. He didn’t have to report for final pre-deployment processing until Tuesday.
As soon as it was dark, they stuffed their most precious and useful belongings into their old Honda, left the rest behind, and headed northwest: first to Jenny’s folks in Asheville, in western North Carolina, and then angling northwest through Ohio, to Detroit. There they crossed the border to Windsor Ontario early Sunday morning. Bleary-eyed but otherwise looking like any of the thousands of tourists that head for the big casinos there every day, they were out of the country before the army ever knew they were gone.
“Montreal is great,” Hank said. “The signs here are all in French; but people mostly know English.”
“Yeah,” I said, “merci beaucoup. But what are you going to do?”
“Glad you mentioned that,” he said. “I think we need some help. Do you have Jonah Lapp’s number handy?”
Two hours later, Jonah called. “Meet me at the diner at 5,” was all he said, and before I could ask what for, he was gone.
He sat in the same booth, sipping lemonade again, but sweat was shining on his red forehead under the pushed-back straw hat. I said, “have you heard from Hank?” but he held up his hand, shook his head, and instead asked if I knew anything about a theologian named Jacques Ellul.
“Who?” I asked. What did this have to do anything?
“Ellul was French,” Jonah said. “One of the best minds of the last century. He did especially fine work in a paper on Acts 5:29. You ought to read it sometime.”
What the hell is he talking about? I wondered, feeling irritated. Did he really get me all the way up here on a moment’s notice to talk about some theologian I’ve never heard of?
But as he said this, Jonah pushed a folded piece of paper across the table toward me, and then gestured for me to stuff it in my shirt pocket. “Let’s have a cheeseburger,” he said. “And can you buy this time?”
Headed home an hour later, I pulled into a gas station and opened the piece of paper. On it was a phone number with a 514 area code, the name “Moses,” and the sentence, “Ask about translating the paper by Jacques Ellul on Acts 5:29.” That was all.
As soon as I walked through the door at Quaker House, I went to my desk and opened the phone book: as I expected, the 514 area code was for Montreal. Then I pulled a Bible from the shelf, and looked up the verse, Acts 5:29:
“But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than man.’”
I closed the book.
It made sense now. The note and the verse were code: a signal to someone in Montreal, who might or might not be named Moses, or maybe Jacques, to help Hank and Jenny find a place to land in Canada.
Jonah was old enough to have friends who went up there in the Vietnam years to dodge the draft. Maybe he even helped smuggle them over the border, and still had contacts with sympathetic Canadians.
All this was guesswork, as it was meant to be. The only thing I knew for sure was a phone number in area code 514; and fortunately, I have a bad memory for numbers.
Jenny called not long afterward. I read her what Lapp had written. She thanked me and quickly rang off. Then I tore up the note, and flushed the pieces down the toilet.
The next time I heard from them, Hank had found a lawyer and had asked the Canadian government for refugee status. “It’s a long shot,” he admitted. “They tell us the US is a democratic country, abides by human rights and international laws, doesn’t persecute its citizens. So Americans aren’t refugees, and they don’t give us refugee status.”
“The US, Law abiding?” I shouted. “Except for an occasional illegal war, eh?”
Well, no use venting at Hank about it; after all, once upon a time the Canadian policy had been pretty much correct. “So what will you do,” I asked, “when they decide you can’t stay?” My voice was tight, nervous. If he was deported back to the states, the MPs would be waiting for him at the border, handcuffs jingling.
Hank was either nonchalant, or faking it very well. “Then we’ll try Sweden, or somewhere else,” he said.
Christ, I thought. That thin northern air has made him light-headed. He and Jenny will be international homeless persons; hell, they already are. But at least he’s safe for now; nobody’s trying to blow him up with a car bomb.
The first email from Hostetter came a couple weeks later. It was short. “Hey,” it read, “I figured I’ll play the odds, keep my head down and get through this, grab the college money. So far, so good, we’re mostly in camp out in the desert; can’t say where, but at least it isn’t Baghdad. Did I mention that the desert sucks? What’s up with Hank?”
That had been it, til the second one, which I had repeated to Hank as the phone connection faded.
I spied the morning paper, on the dining table where I dropped it. I pulled off the plastic wrapper and unfolded it.
The headline was below the fold, only two columns wide: “504th paratrooper is latest Bragg casualty in Iraq roadside bomb attack.” There was a small head shot, but my eyes slid past it to focus on a single word in the lead paragraph: Hostetter.
I dropped into a chair as if someone had punched me in the stomach, hunched over, eyes closed, head in my hands. I felt out of breath.
The phone rang. It was Hank, I knew it, trying the connection again.
I opened my eyes long enough to read the name again, and focus for a second on the photo.
And I let the phone ring; the voicemail would get it.
I’ll call Hank back tomorrow, I thought. Or maybe next week.
Let him sit with baby John, and Jenny, and breathe the intoxicating northern air in peace for a few more days. And I’ll have to call Jonah Lapp too.
But now, it was almost time for the vigil, and before leaving I had to revise the number in the “This Week” list again.
I have a poor memory for numbers, but this was one update I’d remember: changing it from 997 to 998.
– – – – –
NOTE: To repeat, this story is fiction that draws on actual events. And Quaker House is a real place busy with peace witness since 1969.