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.
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.
He got better information this time around.
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-objector status 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.
Being a conscientious objector does not guarantee stateside safety. In the Vietnam War, for example, some conscientious objectors were trained as medics and served very much in harm’s way. That would be a difficult path for Denofa, who objects to the entire effort in Iraq.
“I joined the Army thinking I was going to help people,” he says. “Now I realize I should have joined the Peace Corps.”
In his letter to the Army, Denofa quotes Gandhi saying, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Denofa embraces the sentiment, but makes no claim to have emulated Gandhi, who was, perhaps, the quintessential conscientious objector — brilliant, pacifistic, willing to be beaten, willing to die for justice, unwilling to hit back.
Once you get past Gandhi, there’s the imperfect remainder of humanity, which includes Denofa, a mostly apolitical kid who doesn’t want to fight, doesn’t want to get hurt, wants to be left alone to build his life in a free country that he’d rather have others fight to defend.
Denofa says he’ll go to prison if necessary. The Army doesn’t send all refuseniks to the brig. What it really wants is for soldiers — even the deserters — to return to their units.
But it does make an example of someone every so often. Such was the fate of Sergeant Camilo Mejia, who failed to return to his Florida National Guard unit after a furlough and later filed for conscientious-objector status. Mejia’s reasons for wanting out included his allegations that soldiers were abusing Iraqi civilians and detainees. The military has not accused soldiers in Mejia’s unit of misconduct, though such charges proved true elsewhere. In May, a military jury in Georgia sentenced Mejia to a year of detention.
As for Denofa, the Army doesn’t care if he’s got a gift for working with young children. And it doesn’t care if losing a leg in war would cost Denofa his civilian career as a personal trainer. The Army needs soldiers. Jim Denofa signed away his peaceful soul for longer than he realized, and the Army would rather not give it back.