By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
An Internet search put Denofa in contact with the nonprofit GI Rights Hotline, which has been crowded with inquiries since the run-up to the Iraq war. Following its advice, Denofa mailed in letters supporting his case and received an automatic one-month extension of his reporting date until October 27. A military panel in Washington, D.C., is charged with making a determination.
One letter comes from a friend he met while stationed at Oahu in Hawaii. “He is a very gentle soul who would capture a centipede and walk it a block to let it be free rather than kill it,” wrote Suezete Geer. “He gets upset over the fact that a cat would kill a mouse just for fun rather than to eat and survive. I believe that if James is confronted with a life-or-death situation he would be killed before he would kill another living thing — no matter what the species, age, race or circumstances.”
“When September 11th happened,” wrote Denofa in a September 21 letter to the Army, “when I saw all those people dying on TV, I was angry and scared at the same time. I knew it wasn’t over. People were going to want revenge and revenge would mean killing more and more people. I didn’t want to be part of the people’s revenge. I don’t believe in revenge.”
Army brass appears concerned about the breadth of such resistance. At first, officials started talking about threatening soldiers with AWOL status. They’ve since backed off. A spokesman told the Army Times that each case is being “worked individually” and “handled delicately.”
“We’ve not done something of this magnitude before now,” a brigadier general told the Army Times. “We’re basically in new territory here.”
An Army spokesperson told the Weekly that not one of the currently re-called soldiers has claimed to be a conscientious objector. But it looks as though the Army just hasn’t done the tabulating yet.
If Denofa avoids service in Iraq, it won’t be because this former competitive power lifter doesn’t look the part. He’s got the physical equipment — with his taut, muscular build, and brown hair that’s short, straight and obedient.
But he doesn’t exactly sound like a refined killing machine on Friday mornings, when he’s surrounded by eight children, all about 2 years old, give or take, at the My Gym on La Cienega, south of Pico Boulevard. Last week, as usual, he was taking them through their own basic training: singing silly songs; maintaining a near-nonstop patter; teaching them about shapes, body parts and following directions.
Denofa also teaches older kids. He shakes his head at what he’s heard about Iraq, about how children sometimes carry guns or explosive devices. He says he couldn’t shoot a child. He says he’s not sure he could shoot anyone, even if his own life or those of his comrades were at stake.
Denofa’s hardly alone in confronting a situation he didn’t expect. About 7,000 current soldiers have had their tours of duty extended by the Iraq war. These include members of the National Guard and career soldiers eligible to retire after 20 years of service as well as enlistees who’ve completed their eight-year commitment.
All told, the United States has about 130,000 troops in Iraq operations. About 40 percent are reserve forces. Before the summer call-up, the Army had mobilized about 2,500 soldiers from the Individual Ready Reserve since the September 11 attacks; about 1,100 were volunteers. The latest involuntary muster is by far the largest since the first Gulf War.
This mobilization could be just the beginning, no matter who wins the presidential election. Democrat Kerry, for one, has talked about needing more troops in Iraq. Meanwhile, Bush administration sources have leaked discussions about a post-election offensive against the insurgency. About 100,000 ex-soldiers could be vulnerable.
Denofa chose his specialty, generator repair, because it meant he could barrack in Hawaii. But basic training in Kentucky immediately sowed doubts. “Kill, kill — that’s what you had to say while practicing with the bayonet,” he says. “Kill! Kill! It freaked me out, but I didn’t say anything about it. I didn’t want to be the guy who didn’t want to kill.”
His overall misgivings manifested themselves in wisecracks he made about Army lingo in front of officers. He went AWOL once for three days. He excelled on the first day of rappelling training to prove he could do it, then dropped out to show he didn’t want to.
Denofa has a countdown feature on his watch. He set it to mark the day that he could leave the Army for good. That day arrived in February 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war.
Eventually, he followed his girlfriend to Los Angeles, where she made a stab at acting and where they now live L.A.-style lives. They share — with a cat and a dog — a simply furnished one-bedroom in a West Los Angeles complex with a pool for $1,000 a month.
Winning conscientious-objectorstatus is a hard go, and in recent times, few soldiers have even tried, according to Army numbers. In 2002, the Army approved conscientious-objector status for 17 soldiers and denied it to six others. In 2003, the numbers were 31 approved and 30 denied. In 2003, another 2,782 soldiers simply deserted.