For Pvt. Joshua Key, the evolution from reluctant fighter to officially AWOL soldier began in 2003 on a war-ravaged street in Ramadi, Iraq.
That day, Key heard the distinctive boom of a standard American military M16 assault rifle, followed by a dull thud as the bullet passed through the head of a 7-year-old girl who was running across the street. She fell to the ground, her head exploded, only a few feet away from him.
He was then four months into his U.S. Army deployment in Iraq as a combat engineer, and already struggling to find meaning in the danger and trauma that confronted him at every turn. As he watched the girl’s family lift her blood-soaked body from the dusty street, he realized he could not make peace with carrying on.
"I started questioning everything," Key, who now lives in Canada and is being sought by U.S. authorities, told International Business Times over the phone. “We used to have conversations and everyone would have their own reason for [staying]. But I don’t think there would be anyone that wouldn’t have thought of going AWOL, even if it was just a thought in their head for a minute.”
The subject of going AWOL and the moral landscape of desertion have suddenly gained attention after a deal brokered by the Obama administration to secure the release of official prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl from Afghanistan in exchange for five senior members of the Taliban. Critics of the deal -- including some members of Bergdahl's Army unit, the 25th Infantry Division in the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment -- assert that he did not deserve such a strenuous effort to bring him home if he wandered off his base intending not to return, as some contend. Supporters of the deal say the traditional military code applies regardless: Soldiers do not leave their own behind, period.
But beyond the debate over the trade that brought Bergdahl out of captivity, the questions around his conduct are part of a bigger -- and largely unexamined -- legacy of America’s two most recent wars. An estimated 59,000 soldiers deserted the military during the 13 years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to figures from the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force.
The nation is grappling with value judgments about military loyalty that are in some ways unique to the two conflicts, though desertion has been part of every war since the beginning of human history. The ancient Roman legions struggled with the problem, historians say; for those caught deserting the emperor's army, the punishment was death by stoning.
What most cases of desertion have in common today is a loss of belief in the mission, a moment when disgust and fear combine in the face of combat and make continued service feel impossible. It isn’t always about simple cowardice or treason.
“It was really tough what I went through,” recalled Kimberly Rivera, a private who served in Iraq between October 2006 and early 2007 and was jailed for deserting while on leave. “My body was trying to deal with the emotional pain of being away from my family, the fear of being in a war, and the severe disillusion I was feeling from what was going on around me.”
For Rivera, the defining moment was seeing a mother with a crying 2-year-old child, begging coalition forces for compensation after a bombing campaign destroyed their home.
Most soldiers who go AWOL do so at the end of a tour of duty, said Jeff Paterson, a spokesman for Courage to Resist, a national support group for military personnel who have refused to fight. “While they are in that situation they sort of make a pledge with themselves that if they survive they are never going to return, based on what they see,” Paterson said. “Either, one, they don’t feel their life is worth giving for a futile cause, or, two, they actually become very against what’s happening on the ground there. Most of the people that call them cowards are people that didn’t volunteer in the first place, who didn’t see first hand the results of war, regardless of whether it’s just or unjust.”
Often, soldiers decide to flee while on leave, when their absence will not be readily noted at first. Comparatively few walk away from active conflict zones, as Bergdahl allegedly did. Some leave their post for a day with few repercussions (which Bergdahl may also have done). Others can scarcely explain their actions even to themselves, years later. Key went AWOL during a break from combat in 2003.
The defining moment, Key said, was the death of the little girl, which horrified him. Then, after he saw fellow soldiers kicking dead Iraqis, he resolved to escape. Today, Key said, he still grapples with the effects of what he saw -- and did. “After what I witnessed in Iraq, I couldn’t deal with it,” he said. “I live everyday knowing that I walked away from it, you know. I live with half my sanity left. I have PTSD.”
In the American Civil War, the desertion figure for rebel soldiers was around 100,000; the Union figure may have exceeded 270,000, according to American Civil War records. Desertion has been a factor in every American war since, but spiked during the politically charged Vietnam conflict, when around 450,000 deserted the military. The maximum U.S. penalty for desertion is death, though the only record of that sentence having been imposed since the beginning of World War II was when Eddie Slovik was executed by firing squad in 1945.
The reasons soldiers cite for abandoning their posts range from practical considerations like family emergencies to complex psychological struggles. Often the cause is unclear even for them, said military attorney Paul Karns, who has represented AWOL personnel and deserters for more than a decade. “People aren’t always honest, either,” Karns said. “They are often lying to themselves.”
According to Karns, a deserter sometimes comes up with a storyline that seems to explain his or her actions -- such as that the Iraq War was illegal -- and then sticks with it. Key, for example, said he questioned whether the Iraqi army’s supposed weapons of mass destruction existed.
Different branches of the U.S. military have their own practices for dealing with soldiers who go AWOL. The Navy, Marines and Air Force typically use an administrative procedure rather than a court-martial, giving deserters an “other-than-honorable” discharge and revoking their benefits, according to Karns. The Army, however, is more likely to hold courts-martial and incarcerate those who are found guilty.
Rivera deserted while on leave in Texas in 2007, after being told that her tour of duty would be extended from 12 months to 15 months -- a “devastating blow,” Rivera said. She spent five years on the run in Canada. She successfully fought a deportation order in the Canadian courts so that she and her family could stay, but after a second order in 2012, decided to go home and face the consequences.
“It was in the best interest of the kids that we move back,” Rivera told IBTimes. “When we drove back, my husband took the kids in one car and I went another way so they wouldn’t have to see me being arrested at the border.”
After her arrest, Rivera was separated from her children, two of whom had been born in Canada, and was confined to military barracks in Colorado for eight months. She had sporadic contact with her children and husband Mario. After her court martial on April 29, 2013, Rivera was sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment and given a bad conduct discharge. That blot on her record makes it hard for her to find work, she said.
Rivera’s case became famous when she requested early release: Pregnant at the time she began serving her sentence, she wanted to be able to spend time with the soon-to-be-born child. The request was denied and she was separated from the baby two days after she gave birth.
Rivera was released two weeks later -- 45 days early -- for good conduct.
During Vietnam, more than 125,000 U.S. deserters and draft resisters fled across the border to Canada. The influx from recent wars is far lower. But Canada is still a sanctuary for some, despite the fact that the Canadian government supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nearly 7,000 military personnel went AWOL in 2003, the year Key fled. He said his own desertion was prompted by a conversation with a military lawyer. Key told the man he was willing to stay in the military but not go back to Iraq, “and they said I had two choices: Either go to prison or go back to Iraq. At that time I decided to run. I took my wife and three children, ran to Philadelphia.”
After 30 days AWOL, military personnel are classified as deserters and a warrant goes out for their arrest. Key went underground in Philadelphia, moving from hotel to hotel before he got a job as a machinist. The company helped him get a house where he lived for about eight months.
“I knew that it was either move to another place in the States and have to do that same stuff a year later, or move north,” he said. He chose the latter, and crossed into Canada with his family on March 5, 2005. “I’ve been here ever since,” he said over the phone from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Getting into Canada was easy, but supporting his family proved difficult. After a divorce, his wife and children moved back to Oklahoma. Key’s life since has been fragmented. He has moved from place to place -- Ontario, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba. He has remarried and had three more children, and is allowed to remain in Canada while his battle against a deportation order works its way through the courts. He is not allowed to work (he supports himself with odd jobs) and cannot travel to the U.S., where he would face a prison sentence of up to 20 years, his lawyer said.
In a very real sense, Key is still running from that day in Ramadi when he disengaged from the war, first mentally, then physically. When he arrived in Canada, he immediately applied for refugee status. His case has been pending for nearly nine years.
Rodney Watson, a former U.S. soldier who spent about a year in Mosul, Iraq, in 2005, first went to Canada in 2006 and worked as a carpenter before marrying a Canadian woman. His request for refugee status was rejected in 2009 and he has been avoiding deportation ever since. He lives in a Canadian church building, which confers protection. Authorities respect an unwritten prohibition against removing someone from sanctuary. His only hope, according to Key, who is a friend, is that the Canadian government will change its stance toward U.S. military deserters.
As the Iraq war has officially ended and the Afghanistan war draws to a close, desertion and AWOL rates have come down significantly, according to the military’s figures. But the damage done by those who walked away -- to their comrades and to themselves -- will continue.
According to the four military services, more than 1,000 deserter cases remain open, with at least half of those going back to Vietnam -- and a handful from even earlier.
While Rivera faced up to the consequences of leaving her unit, Key and Watson remain on the run.
Army investigators have begun to examine Bowe Bergdahl’s actions. He’s already spent five years as a prisoner. But his choices may yet cost him even more.