Going AWOL, Trees of Life, Life, & AWOL life in trees.
As a kid I used to go hiking in the mountains and cliff jumping and fishing at the lake I used to live near. I remember people would share food from their gardens, and they would play bluegrass in the middle of town three days out of the week. As a kid I remember thinking I would never leave. But in backwoods Arkansas there are few opportunities for young people trying to get started in a professional life. My mom was single most of the time and poor all of the time, and I didn’t know where to go when I left the house. I naively joined the Army; I didn’t know what else to do. That was back in 1999, and I promised myself I would not do anything that I disagreed with; that was my personal ultimatum for joining, and I was way too trusting of our government to use good discretion behind what they told us to do. When I joined I was looking at the need for a military as being in a sense of immediacy as if I would be expected to act in immediate defense of our country.
Some time after I joined, that ultimatum was compromised. I’m not proud of it, and I rarely talk about it. But there are things that happened in places I was deployed that will be with me for the rest of my life. I have to be vague; its much easier to talk about things you didn’t do sometimes.
Since then, I have been drawn to anything that could be an attempt to explain the circumstances behind the situation in which I and so many other people found ourselves. I became interested in anything that addresses the dynamics of how culture and religion lead to wars and other conflicts, and that inevitably led to a largely academic type of interest in religion and philosophy as would any critique of all the encompassing aspects of a political paradigm. Retrospect has treated the situation I was in much better than it treated me while I was involved.
In the military there is this type of conditioning you go through beginning in training that is intended to break you from acting upon your conscience, and many people go through things later in their service that cause that separation to widen further. Honestly, that training is very affective, and it ostensibly works for its intended purpose. It starts with desensitization and can eventually move to actualization, but despite its intensive psychological purpose and implementation there are many known residual affects of this conditioning and many more upon implementation. Your conscience will always come back to you; in some situations you can die due to a conscience, but you can never live without it.
The months leading up to the Iraq War almost seemed surreal. It was an encroaching reality of which I could not justify being a part. It was a taboo around our Army post with the exception of faint rumors that some private, specialist, or other low ranking person had seen a shipment of DCUs (desert combat uniforms) come in. No one talked about it. People talked about Afghanistan, but not Iraq. It was too sensitive of a topic. Per procedure we knew we were on 24 hour notice. Twenty four hours notice and we would have to report and start packing our gear. After a while there seemed to be less of a question as to if, and more of a question as to when we would go.
The situation kept getting more volatile. I felt the fear and paranoia keep growing all around me and throughout the rest of the world. I would walk back onto post from the little German town I lived near and my backpack would be sniffed by dogs. F16s and Apache helicopters would patrol the airspace above the barracks where I lived, and the Germans, usually very courtly and obsequious, now treated me and other Americans with an unusual apprehension or disregard.
Something was going badly wrong, and I knew it. I watched the news relentlessly, and I looked around at all the new soldiers that were coming in and thought to myself, “They’re stocking up, oh shit.” I would see them come in from the bars and in their rooms playing video games, and I couldn’t help but to think, “You can’t know,” and I could see that in the eyes of any other veteran as well, but no one ever talked. I was only 21 then, and maybe I was still too innocent to be quiet.
I broke and started talking. I called bullshit on the war in front of everyone. I was so vocal that my company commander pulled me aside and told me that I needed to stop talking about it. He was a little mystified by it because throughout the unit I was respected and had never caused a problem. I asked him to allow me to be placed on conscientious objector status, and he reminded me that I had signed an agreement to be a part of a combat unit, and also of the clauses in the UCMJ where it says, “the willful disobedience of an order or regulation,” and, “conduct prejudicial to the good order and discipline of the armed forces, or that will bring discredit upon the service,” was against military law. I told him that legality doesn’t define morality and that going to Iraq would be prejudicial to the ‘good order’ of the of the unit,” and I walked out of his office without being dismissed.
This exemplifies the obvious paradox about being in the U.S. military. In theory you are defending, and are a part of, a democratic country where you have the right to question anything, but you live in a totalitarian segment of it and have little room to question authority as you should be able to in a democracy. You relinquish many of your civilian rights when you enlist. Freedom of speech is often litigiously impeded by issues of national interest, and the general morale of the soldiers is of enough importance to an officer that they will reprimand anyone raising the right questions.
I mailed myself some civilian clothes before I went to a field exercise, and six years ago when I got the package and I went AWOL. I hiked 20 miles through the woods at night in mountainous terrain to get to the nearest road, and I hitched to the nearest town with a train station. I had to leave the country in less than 24 hours because I knew the Army would put out an “All Points Bulletin” or an A.P.B. with the Interpol, also known as Europe’s International Police. I got on the next train leaving the country, and on the train I found myself on a car that was completely empty except for myself and a sinister looking upper middle aged man of middle eastern descent. It was quiet for half an hour except for the sound of the tracks, but I think this man sensed my anxiety and began asking me questions first in broken German and then in broken English. The state of mind I was in must have been so apprehensive that something about the way I just filled space raised his curiosity. “Wo Sie tat, kommt her,” or, “Where did you come from,” he asked suddenly. It seemed intrusive, but I tried to fight back any inclination that this man could be some form of a threat. “Ich bin eine Americanish soldat, und ich ous Baumholder,” or, “I am an American soldier, and I am out of Baumholder,” I answered because I knew he would figure it out due to the haircut and my accent. In english he asked where I was going, and I answered, “I don’t know where where I am going; I just went AWOL.” I didn’t expect him to know what that meant, but he reacted with a moment of rumination, and said, “I was a soldier, and I left also.” I knew better than to ask about what country or what kind of service in which he had been enlisted, but after another long pause he said, “I was in the Iraqi army.” “I fought in the Iran-Iraq War and what you call Desert Storm,” he said with retention in his voice. The train started picking up speed and the tracks started making more noise. Both were more comforting than the conversation we were having.
By the time he got off of the train in Uterect he had told me a detailed account of how he had to leave his family and move to the Netherlands to seek asylum because he didn’t support his county’s recent foreign policies with America. We were both defected soldiers from opposing sides of an impending war. The last thing he said to me was, “May peace be with you my good friend.” He was only the second person I talked to after I went AWOL.
I made it to Amsterdam, and stayed there for a couple of weeks in a hostel, Bob’s Hostel, for any of you who may know of the place. The rest of my experience in Amsterdam is a little hard to explain, but I can definitely vouch for the importance of psychedelic drugs in times of both personal and international crisis. It was a very meaningful experience. Psylocibin was definitely a good idea at that point. Everything that was going on in the world, and everything that was going on with me made so much more sense. Every fear, every hope, every insight, every premonition, every instinct, every facet of connectedness that I experienced in the world in the past or present at that time had reaffirmed itself with me and with what I was doing, or not doing. Somehow I gained a more encompassing vantage point on how my personal state of existence correlated with the rest of the world. It made me feel invulnerable to the ramifications of that situation, which affectively empowered me to live it out in a manner that allowed me to enjoy it. I knew I would never have another experience like it. I was going to make the most of it, and I reveled in that fact. Albeit that I was an international fugitive, I found freedom in where all the possibilities of that situation could take me.
I had no way to survive for long in Amsterdam or the rest of Europe for that matter. I needed to be in a place where people hated me as much as they hated themselves, and that place was not Europe at this point.
I didn’t know if the leave form I had forged would get me through an airport, and I knew that my name would most likely be flagged in any airport’s security system. Just to stay random I jumped a passenger train to Luxembourg dodging the train attendant the entire way. I made it to the airport and booked a flight from there to Newark, New Jersey with British Airways. I made it through security. Somehow the leave form with made up control numbers and account numbers along with my own name signed as my commander worked to get me through security, and as I boarded the plane I remember thinking, “This was too easy.” The “fasten seat-belt” light turned off and I took my carry on, containing the only things I owned at this point, and went to the restroom and changed clothes and put on a hat, and when I was done I sat down in a different seat. I didn’t know at the time if this was a precaution or just paranoia, but if they were going to find me I was not going to make it any easier for them. The plane landed at Heathrow airport in London where I was going to have to get off and transfer to the Gatwik airport. As we taxied to dock with the terminal, the plane stopped just before the gate, and a couple of minutes later the pilot said, “Will the person sitting in seat 86b with boarding pass number 5384606 please stay seated security reasons.” That was my assigned seat and boarding pass number. The plane took an eternal fifteen minutes to dock with the terminal; they were waiting on security to show up. When they did, the plane finally docked, and I got into the aisle with everyone else. When I walked by the stewardess, she very cordially said, “Welcome to London.” I said, “Thanks,” and kept walking with only a slight grin on my face I’m sure. At the end of the ramp there were two straight-faced British airport security guards standing beside each other just within the roped off area. I made eye contact with one of them as I walked by and concentrated hard on not increasing my pace after I had passed them; for some reason I had almost started laughing. At the ground transportation exit of the airport I exchanged some Euros for Pounds so I could catch my bus to the Gatwik airport.
Upon arrival at Gatwik I hid in some bushes and changed clothes again. It occurred to me that I should do something with the rest of the weed I had picked up in Amsterdam. I rolled a spliff and smoked the rest of what I had; maybe it was due some existential want of mine, and for some reason it brought out the sheer sublimity and farcicality of that situation. From the onset of the whole airport experience I was dumbfounded about how it all seemed so amusingly diverted from the dire reality of it all; my freedom for months afterward depended on the outcome, but I still had an unheeded disposition despite the reality that I was at the whim of other powers at large. I walked up to the British Airways kiosk and presented my itinerary, my U.S. Army I.D., and the bogus leave form. The attendant took a quick glance at the I.D. then at me. She then turned her attention to the leave form and started typing in information. This hadn’t happened in Luxembourg. The typing stopped and she took a long discriminate look at the computer screen, and then she shifted in her seat a little and picked up a phone and called a manager with a fleeting and peculiar look in my direction. Several minutes passed while she was waiting on her supervisor and she continued to try to decipher whatever syntax her computer was spitting out. The line began to back up, and my flight was only twenty five minutes out, and I still had to either deal with security or they else they were going to deal with me. I was surprised she didn’t tell me to step aside so she could help other people; I stood there like a statue of a man in purgatory, and when she looked at me again our eyes locked for a moment. She looked at the I.D. again with more contemplation this time and gave it back to me as she began printing my boarding pass. Minutes later I was at customs explaining that I had nothing to declare.
Once my transatlantic flight was at cruising altitude I couldn’t resist asking the stewardess for a drink even though I knew I shouldn’t attract any attention to myself. One thing led to another, and I was given complimentary beer through the whole flight; benevolence seemed like just as good of a plan after a while. The flight was nearly empty, and I ended up talking to a couple of the stewardesses for a couple of hours with banter about the ridiculous state of affairs in the world at that point. Over my last beer before we started our descent into Newark, I told one of the stewardesses that I was a soldier and was going home for good. Airlines personnel in particular know the comings and goings of soldiers, and she had to have known about the stop-loss on American soldiers; no American soldier, in good health or good standing, had legally gone home “for good” in months, and that was all over the news as well as evident in their absence on her flights. “Was it a medical discharge or some kind of a chapter,” she asked. “Neither,” I responded. She started to say the word, “How,” with consternation, but decided not to pursue an answer. Instead she grinned and whispered, “You need to be more careful,” as she walked to the back. The plane landed and moments later I was showing the same worn out leave form to a tired looking customs agent who sent me on my way. I don’t know how that happened. I guess someone didn’t get the memo. I had just traveled internationally with a federal warrant for my arrest and was not even given a second look by inbound customs or security.
Culture shock set in sometime after I left the airport. I hadn’t been in civilian America since 9/11, and on top of that I found myself on a train to New York. I didn’t pay for the train ticket of course, and when the attendant came by I flipped open my wallet unintentionally revealing my military identification to grab ten dollars of the only hundred I had left. She said, “Don’t worry about it. Thanks for your service.” That made me want to pay for it anyway, but I couldn’t find the brevity to respond without complicating matters. My situation put me in a strange sort of suspension between a division in our society that had continued to widen with every step toward war in Iraq. I don’t look at the soldiers in my unit that invaded Iraq as having poor judgement in deciding to go; they were subjected to just as much if not more deception as anyone else. They were acting upon the misjudgment of a few misguided people, and their vitality was compromised regardless of any personal decision they could have made; our country had done them a disservice by allowing the invasion to happen, and for not being more critical of the prosecution of the Iraq War in its onset. I can honestly say that I respect and supported everyone I knew in the service, but I cannot say I respect and support the totalitarian organization of the military or its given directives as a whole. In every sense of the word I cannot say I did my country a disservice by not going; it was a blatant misrepresentation of the will of the public for the war to even begin. It has been very disheartening for me since this time to be criticized for being unpatriotic by people who have never done any more public service than to vote; shielded -per their own hypothesis- by combat operations of which I was a part. I knew I could run but not hide; I knew my vitality would be strongly affected by the public perception of the impending war.
With that in mind, I looked around and listened in passivity to people on this train. English spoken in public had been a rare encounter for me for a long time, and I almost wanted it to be German, Dutch, Belgian, or French again. There was a sense of disquietude that seemed to pervade every public area, every thing I saw on the news, and everything that was said to me. I began to question why I had come back, but then I realized that, being a product of the American Dream turned nightmare, it would be a little irresponsible to expect non-Americans to be receptive to my immediate problems: American problems. If I was ever going to be any part of a dynamic for changes made to these circumstances I would have to be in America. After all, the international community often receives American influence and foreign policy involuntarily; I didn’t want them to have to receive another problem involuntarily: an indigent American fugitive.
I got off of the train in New York somewhere near the Greyhound station. Directions were easier to understand, but so were the vagrants in the street. It had always seemed more wholesome and fulfilling to give money to the people on the street in Europe. Maybe that was because I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and I could just let my imagination think they would use it for a rightful purpose. It was a little more burdensome to explain, “I’m in your situation,” to people that I knew could understand me. Vocalizing it made it sink in a little further at the time. I made it to the station, and I used my I.D. for the last time to buy a $99 military discount on a trip to San Francisco. I was completely broke except for the dollar in change. I went back outside while waiting on the bus and set the dollar bill on fire in front of all of the bums, and when they protested I just looked around at all of them and said with enthusiasm, “Live free.”
Later that night, after I had transferred from my original bus in Washington D.C. to another one headed to Oklahoma City, I woke up to red and blue lights behind the bus. As it came to a stop, I read the emergency exit label on the window beside me over and over, “Pull up and push out, use only in the event of an emergency.” I asked some people in the seats next to me what was going on and they said that people on the bus had been screaming at the bus driver to stop because he had been driving erratically. Someone on the bus had called the police on the driver, and they ended up arresting him for driving the bus at over three times the legal blood alcohol limit. They took witness statements on a voluntary basis so I was able to stay out of it. After the troopers had left the bus and it occupants on the side of the Beltway, a Greyhound driver showed up two hours later only to drive us back to the D.C. bus station, and when we got there I was a little appalled that there was a television crew and a reporter filming and questioning everyone that was exiting the bus. When I walked by them I said, “Kerl war betrunken,” or “Dude was drunk,” in German. I guess it was some attempt to force them to not broadcast my fugitive mug to the rest of the world. If I had said something in English or nothing at all they might have rolled it anyway. I waited twelve hours for a transfer out of D.C., and I took that time to take a walk by the F.B.I. building where I enticed a few drunk bums into flipping the building off with me for a while; surveillance cameras were rolling. It was a weird move I know, but at least it was on my own agenda that I was on camera.
It took a total of five days to get to San Francisco because I had to be rerouted through Atlanta and other parts of the south before I could head west on the what used to be Route 66. When I made it to San Francisco I walked to my sisters apartment. I hadn’t told my family anything at this point and even though it was risky I decided to make a brief appearance and to let them know I was okay. I just appeared unannounced at her front door very strung out from the road. I thought a phone call would have been a bad idea. She told me that Army investigators had called my mother’s house in Arkansas, and that everyone was very worried about the fact that I had been missing from my unit in Germany. Most civilians, including my family, seemed to treat the possibility of the war with what seemed to me to be disregard. Its implications seemed to be less of a reality than they were to soldiers, and with it being a foreign war of course this was the case. My sister was the only person in my family that was solidly anti-war at this point, and I asked her to explain to the rest of my family that what I was doing would explain itself eventually. She insisted that I stay there for a couple of days, and I did with some well-founded objection. When I left I told her that I had plans to travel to Vancouver, Canada, and I had even bought another bus ticket to get there with a small amount of money she had given me. But I was lying to her in order to protect her from withholding information from the authorities. Federal marshals showed up there to serve the warrant they had on me only days after I left.
I was squatting in Golden Gate Park for about a week after I left my sister’s apartment. I was having fun hanging around the drum circles that would happen only when the sun was out, and I soaked up whatever subculture the city had to offer at that point. After talking to a few kids in the park I learned that there was an anarchist bookstore a few blocks down the Haight, a great street of cultural importance in the Bay area, and I walked there out of curiosity. Once inside, I immediately found the place to be a priceless resource for someone with such a history of transgressing state authority. There was free information about urban survival all over the place, and I also found a flyer about tree-sitting there. It explained that it was a nonviolent form of environmental activism that involved living illegally in redwood trees for long periods of time. I didn’t second guess the impulse I had to do it; it was something that would put me right in the middle of the radar. It was the perfect confrontation with authority that I had wanted for a long time. I didn’t care if I was arrested doing it; I had finally found something that I can honestly say that I agreed with wholeheartedly. The itinerary on the bus ticket I had included a stop in the town where the point of contact was to begin training for direct action and forest defense. After the January 18, anti-war protest that I was a part of in San Francisco, I used the ticket to get to Arcata, in Humboldt County.
Northern California treated me well. I found a lot of hospitality there; creatively motivated dissidents were well received. Days after I arrived there I was living a couple of hundred feet up in a 1,500 year old redwood tree named Jezebel. During one of my first nights that I spent in that tree, one of the tallest in the immediate area, there was a wind storm that came off of the Pacific with gusts upwards of fifty miles an hour. The tree was swaying twelve feet from side to side at the platform violently throwing me and everything else inside it around. I managed to put on some rain gear and climb to the top of the tree; first on the rope and then via free-climb. I don’t know if it was safer than the platform, but it definitely heightened my perception of what a windstorm in a 280 ft. tall redwood tree was like. It was more than just an adrenaline trip. After that, I was in love with it.
Initially, other activists had trained me to ascend a climbing rope with a rock climbing harness and prusiks, and later I began to learn to set platforms in the trees to set up as structures for small living spaces in the trees. I also was taught how to throw lines into new trees to climb and how to set traverses with trucker’s rope allowing us to set up with a pulley and traverse from one tree to the next. I turned into a more experienced climber after a couple of months of living in the trees, and I soon began volunteering to help train other people to climb even if they were just coming to climb for the day. It was an awesome experience to be able to share, and when we did this we often met people from all over the world that had heard of us and what we were doing.
During the entire time I spent there I had some of the most awesome, beautiful, and powerful experiences I have ever had in my life. Some evenings the locals would come out and start a drum circle down by the bases of the trees, and other nights there would be people that would play harmonicas, violins, and mandolins solo purely out of appreciation for what we were doing. Although there was ample support from within the group I was with and from the wider community, I spent long periods of time completely alone without the languishment that often accompanies a prolonged absence of normal amounts of sociality. At one point I had not come down from a tree I was in for a month, and it was, at first, hard to remember how to talk when I was around people again. The only vocalizing I had done is when everyone in the trees from all over the hillside would start howling at the full moon.
People appreciated the fact that we were protesting logging of old-growth redwood trees and donated food and supplies to us; that is how we survived. The community would give our ground-support, food, and supplies so that we could willfully trespass on an active logging zone that was private property owned by an unsustainable logging company, which has now imploded and gone bankrupt due to its own ill contrived logging practices. They cut down all of the trees over ninety percent of the county and had nothing left to profit from.
The fact that it was solely an act of the heart by anyone involved was the beauty behind the action. It was a way to transcend the indirection, or indirect actions, of a conventional lifestyle in our present society. So many of us have the right insights, the right ideas, the right amount of consideration, and the right amount of willpower to make steps toward living a sustainable lifestyle harmonious with the rest of existence, but there is little avenue for its implementation. This type of activism is in no way a panacea, but it is an outlet of expression unparalleled in modern society. Recognizing that humans are highly communicative this type of expression definitely has its function. I see it as a way to set a nonviolent example for people to respond to situations where and when the exploitation of resources proves to be a direct impediment to the local community. In so many situations people fail to organize, communicate, and stand up for what is rightfully theirs.
In contrast with indirect action, direct action is action based upon the basic human willingness to share, to have gratitude, to be giving and generous in a manner that is not transactional, or done with the direct expectation of something in return. It shares the ideology of sustainable living; it is to have a direct and meaningful connection and interaction with the immediate resources and community that sustains you. Indirect action can still withhold the right values, for example, if someone votes or recycles it can still be indirectly beneficial to the rest of the community, but the vast majority of indirect action is the involuntary participation in a transactional infrastructure where what is given is just as meaningless to the individual as what is taken. In this kind of sustainment people lose sight of, and respect for, the natural resources and the community effort behind what they consume as well as the services they provide. The ideological makeup of sustainable living is the same as it is in direct action, but direct action is a way to oppose unsustainable living. This was the first time in my life I had participated in something I can say I fully agreed with.
I learned of the start of the war while I was in a tree.
In the weeks prior, loggers had been moving into the area clear-cutting the entire mountainside. I woke up every morning to the seismic activity generated by one of those trees hitting the ground. In the weeks following this time a good friend of mine in the trees got to meet Starhawk; a widely known proponent for nonviolent environmental direct action whose influence was felt throughout the movement. Recognizing that things were getting intense she came to express gratitude and admiration for what all of us were doing. On March, 21st the extractions began. The company, Pacific Lumber, had hired trained Arborists to extract us from the trees. They would spend all day girthing the trees in order to get high enough to reach us. Once they were into the branches, they would set a belay point and haul up a generator and a grinder to cut us out of cast iron lock-boxes which were cast iron pipes in the shape of a ‘V’ that had a piece of re-bar welded to the center of the inside. This would allow someone to put their arms around the tree and chain themselves to the piece of the re-bar while their arms were inside the piping. Twenty of the twenty-four of us in the trees were extracted. I saw most of them happen in trees that were very near me. I was one of four that never got arrested for some reason. The extractionists came up the tree I was in and cut down the platform, but they realized when they climbed higher that there were too many people in the tree and not enough daylight to get us all out. I spent the next few weeks living on a web of parachute cord that I had woven between a couple of branches. I had also hung a tarp above it to stay dry. I was eventually relieved from the tree by a good friend who was seemingly glad to be arrested in it only a few days after I left. The arrest is an important part of an action for most because it brings out the tenacity and determination of an activist where it otherwise cannot be achieved. This is an enigmatic part of activism that is hard to explain. We were happy to do what we did, for what it was, when it was.
Recognizing my situation, my friends had made sure that I would not get arrested because they did not want to see me get extradited back to Germany. Everyone that got arrested was not only charged with trespassing. They were also civilly sued for sums of $45,000 each for the obstruction of interstate commerce. That was the amount of money that the arborists’ labor costed Pacific Lumber.
I went to Siskyou County to help set up for another action in a national forest, and I also stayed on a commune in the area for a couple of weeks that had an organic farm and orchard; it was 98 miles out on a dirt road. They were 75% self sustaining, and did sharecropping and work-trade for the rest of their food and supplies. I had the option to stay there indefinitely, but I could not justify it somehow. I wanted to be more involved in the wider community and not as isolated. If I was intent on evading the authorities that would have been a perfect option for me, but I, as usual, chose the path of most resistance. I wanted to go to school for journalism eventually and take part in reporting about permaculture, environmental activism, environmental ethics, and environmental science. I wanted to be able to contribute to that movement on a professional level.
After I went on a 2,500 mile hitch-hiking trip around some of the most amazing parts of the West, I turned myself in to the authorities on the fourth of July, and I spent a year in military custody. Seven and a half months of that time I was in jail, but I never was convicted of being AWOL. At that time I learned that six of my friends from my old unit had been killed in Iraq, and I now know that two more have been killed in later deployments to the region. I was given a general discharge from the Army, and was allowed to keep my honors from my deployment to Kosovo, which I have since mailed to my congressman along with a letter about the ability of service members to obtain a conscientious objector status after they enlist.