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This GI Joe Won’t Go 

Ex-soldier resists backdoor draft into Iraq war

Thursday, Oct 28 2004
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Maybe it was that first bayonet drill, in basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, that made Jim Denofa realize he didn’t belong in the Army.

“You had to stab a dummy shaped like a person,” says Denofa. “I hated it. I hated it. It was like you had to stab a person.”

Denofa got through the minimum tour — three years — and got out in early 2003. Since February he’s been teaching gym classes for young children in Los Angeles, while also working as a personal trainer.

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Then, in late July, he got the call. Uncle Sam wanted him back to fight in Iraq. Denofa, 24, has become a casualty in what critics — including Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry — are calling a backdoor draft caused by the stagnating war.

Denofa thought he’d left military service behind. The Army, however, has the right to call him back for up to eight years from the time he first enlisted. He’s part of what’s called the Individual Ready Reserve.

But this GI Joe won’t go.

He’s filed paperwork as a conscientious objector, joining a hard-to-calculate number of other uneager warriors. Army statistics list only a few dozen soldiers per year who claim to be conscientious objectors. About half of these achieve official conscientious-objector status. Others avoid combat through exemptions for education, health reasons or family necessity. And then there are deserters, those who just stop showing up.

Numbers from this latest call-up suggest a lot of would-be soldiers want to remain civilians. About 40 percent of the 4,166 summer call-ups of ex-active-duty soldiers — such as Denofa — have already requested that their military service be delayed or canceled for a variety of reasons. That seems a high percentage, but it’s difficult to compare because ex-soldiers have so rarely been called back. The most celebrated call-up to date is that of 31-year-old Captain Jay Ferriola of New York. He submitted retirement paperwork in June after completing his full eight-year obligation. Ferriola has responded to the military summons with a lawsuit alleging “involuntary servitude,” and a federal judge this week suspended, for now, Ferriola’s obligation to report.

Another call-up, ex-soldier Panha Vy, from Long Beach, says he didn’t understand that his three- or four-year commitment could stretch as long as eight years. And the killing and dying part never sunk in, he admits. Vy was trained as a chemical-weapons specialist, and the Army wants him back. As a civilian, Vy is working two full-time jobs, one at a phone store and the other at Home Depot, and he’s also got custody of his 1-year-old son. It’s grueling, but it’s not Iraq. He’s applying for an exemption as a single parent. But he also considers himself a conscientious objector.

“I believe it’s unnecessary at this point to be over there,” says Vy. “I don’t believe in the nation fighting a war if it doesn’t have to, and I don’t believe in going to war if I don’t have to.” He’d consider fighting in what he regarded as a just war.

He’d better hope he gets off as a single parent, because as a conscientious objector, his case is a loser.

“You can’t pick out a particular war and say it’s immoral, and I object to this war,” says Martha Rudd, a spokesperson for the Army at the Pentagon. “Your objection has to be to any killing and fighting.

“When people enter the Army,” says Rudd, “they sign a statement indicating they’re not a conscientious objector. The Army does recognize that sometimes someone will have a change of heart. The burden of proof is on the individual. That person must demonstrate that his sentiment is genuine, that his change of heart is genuine.”

 

Denofa, like Panha Vy, also dislikes what’s going on in Iraq. “I don’t agree with the war,” he says, “and I don’t agree with us being over there. They’re fighting to get us out of their home by any means necessary. It makes my blood boil.”

So is Denofa a legitimate conscientious objector or a young man who doesn’t want to die in an Iraq war he opposes? Or maybe he just doesn’t want to die in warfare at all.

The Army makes too fine a distinction in these cases, says Steve Morse, GI Rights Program coordinator for the Oakland office of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. “Why can’t a conscientious objector be a person who is opposed to this war?” asks Morse. “Why shouldn’t people be able to say that?”

Denofa was still in the Army during the invasion of Afghanistan. He says he wouldn’t have fought in that conflict either. He didn’t, however, follow through with his desire to be a conscientious objector, he says, because the unit chaplain discouraged him. The chaplain, says Denofa, wouldn’t endorse his claim, because Denofa is an atheist. Denofa thought that he couldn’t apply without support from the chaplain.

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