Maybe it was that first bayonet drill, in basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, that made Jim Denofa realize he didnt 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 hes been teaching gym classes for young children in Los Angeles, while also working as a personal trainer.
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 hed 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. Hes part of whats called the Individual Ready Reserve.
But this GI Joe wont go.
Hes 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 its 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, Ferriolas obligation to report.
Another call-up, ex-soldier Panha Vy, from Long Beach, says he didnt 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 hes also got custody of his 1-year-old son. Its grueling, but its not Iraq. Hes applying for an exemption as a single parent. But he also considers himself a conscientious objector.
I believe its unnecessary at this point to be over there, says Vy. I dont believe in the nation fighting a war if it doesnt have to, and I dont believe in going to war if I dont have to. Hed consider fighting in what he regarded as a just war.
Hed better hope he gets off as a single parent, because as a conscientious objector, his case is a loser.
You cant pick out a particular war and say its 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 theyre 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 whats going on in Iraq. I dont agree with the war, he says, and I dont agree with us being over there. Theyre 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 doesnt want to die in an Iraq war he opposes? Or maybe he just doesnt 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 cant a conscientious objector be a person who is opposed to this war? asks Morse. Why shouldnt people be able to say that?
Denofa was still in the Army during the invasion of Afghanistan. He says he wouldnt have fought in that conflict either. He didnt, however, follow through with his desire to be a conscientious objector, he says, because the unit chaplain discouraged him. The chaplain, says Denofa, wouldnt endorse his claim, because Denofa is an atheist. Denofa thought that he couldnt apply without support from the chaplain.