INTERVIEWS: VETS AGAINST THE WAR
From Soldier to Objector:
Interviewed by Francesca Fiorentini and Steve Theberge
Born in the Bronx, Jose Vasquez grew up in San Bernadino, Calif. In 1991, a junior in high school, he enlisted in the Army’s Delayed Entry Program. During his four-and-a-half-year tour of duty, Vasquez was stationed in Hawaii, Louisiana, Thailand, Florida, and California. After completing his tour, Vasquez trained and began working as a medic and a nurse. In spring 2003 he received his bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York in Harlem, and by fall he began studying anthropology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.
In January 2005, just days before his unit was to be mobilized for deployment to Iraq, Jose Vasquez turned in an application for conscientious objector status. In June 2005, he became a member of Iraq Vets Against the War (IVAW). He is currently the president of its New York City chapter and represents IVAW on the steering committee of United for Peace and Justice.
NVA: What prompted you to enlist in the army?
The way that the recruiters got a hold of me was they had brought a tank to the [high school] outdoor basketball court. I was in the tenth grade it was career day, and pretty much the only careers they were offering were Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. That was career day. They had a tank out there and guys were rappelling off of the gym, so it was just like a big show.
I went up to the table where the Army guy was and I filled out a postcard and forgot about it. I was probably 15 years old. I had no intention of going to college. I wasn't really sure where I was going to work because there wasn't much work to be had in San Bernardino, California.
Then the summer after my junior year, a recruiter called me up and said, "Why don't you come down to the recruiting station and we'll talk about your future, your options." So I did, and took a practice ASVAB [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] test and all that, and I signed up for the delayed entry program a year ahead of time. I graduated in 1992, and two weeks later, I was shaved bald, left-right-left, at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
The job that I picked turned out to be one of the worst jobs you can have in the military, Reconnaissance, in Cavalry. Basically what we do is go out and find out where the enemy is, which is not a good job. So that's what I did for four-and-a-half years. By the end of it, the only reason I didn't re-enlist was I didn't like my job all that much, and I hated my platoon sergeant, so I thought it was time for me to go. So I got out, and was in inactive reserve.
When I got out, I knew I wanted to go to college, I had my GI Bill. It was a big change from the time I left high school, when I had no desire to go to college. But by the time I left the military I knew I didn't want to do anything but go to college.
The problem was that, being a Cav Scout for four-and-a-half years, I had no marketable skills unless I wanted to be a cop, security guard, or a mercenary. But that's not what I wanted to do; I wanted to go to college. So I started working in security, which sucked. I was working at a retail place and the hours were terrible, and it was me guarding the door all day. And I was like, this is not going to work out well for very long, so I started to look into my options and I realized that I can get a skill quick if I join the reserve. So I called a recruiter and I said, "Don't try and sell me anything; I'm prior service. But if you can find me a unit that will train me to be a medic, I'll sign up tomorrow."
A few days later he calls me up and says, "I found an infantry battalion. They're ready to send you to medical training tomorrow. So I quit my job and I went off to Texas to learn to be a medic. I came back from Texas to Hawaii, started working in the medical field as an EMT, and I was going to college full-time in Hawaii. I finished my bachelor's at City College up in Harlem.
On September 11, 2001, I'm still in the military. And the combat support unit hospital I was in was called up and there was a chance that we were going to go to Afghanistan to set up a hospital. But it turned out it was a false call and they had found another unit that was more ready to go than we were. That was my first false call in the reserve. I had plenty of other times when I could've been deployed on active duty, but it was the first time that I felt like it was really going to happen. I don't know if it was because I was here in New York and I saw what had happened, but I felt like this was it.
NVA: What were your feelings about the attack on Afghanistan?
I was kind of ambivalent about it. I felt like the mission was us going to get revenge, that's the way I felt about it. I saw what happened down at ground zero, but I didn't think that killing more people was going to fix that, or would make that better. And I knew what we're capable of, and how many bombs we've dropped to prepare the battlefield, so to speak. So I was thinking, there'll be a helluva lot more than 3000 people that die if we go to Afghanistan.
I didn't say anything to anybody; I didn't do anything about it. But in the back of my mind, it didn't feel right. And I don't know if it was because I was older or if it's because I had an education by the time 9/11 happened, but I just started to connect the dots more. I thought, okay, there's going to be a lot of poor people and a lot of brown people that are going to get bombed. And is that going to make what happened here better?
I started thinking about the consequences of war, and what am I doing in the military, and what do I think I'm going to accomplish by being in the military? And do I agree with what the military is called on to do? No. I didn't think so. But I never talked politics to anyone in uniform. In March 2003 we invaded Iraq. So if you didn't get deployed to Afghanistan, you're definitely going to get deployed to Iraq. And I anticipated that there would be a lot more casualties in Iraq. So definitely there would be a need for a field hospital there.
NVA: What were your thoughts about the war?
I didn't buy it from the beginning. People were asking me, are we going to invade Iraq? And I was just like, you don't understand, we're already there. We don't move battleships into the area unless we're going to do something. And as it turned out, we were already bombing Iraq-I found out from one of the IVAW members. The media was saying that we're negotiating with them or we're trying diplomacy, but he was in the Air Force, and he was loading bombs, and they were already bombing Iraq well before we were going to start.
I really didn't see what the hell the World Trade Center had to do with Iraq. And I was really upset that I was gonna have to go there. And I knew that [my friend] Ray was gonna have to go to Abu Ghraib. For me it was like of all the places on earth, why there? I kind of put myself in his place and thought, what would I do if I were stationed there? Would I go?
After the Abu Ghraib photos I really started to identify more with the Iraqi people than anybody else. I saw those pictures, and to me the guys in the photos who were being tortured looked like my uncles, you know what I mean? People in my family. I'm Puerto Rican; brown-skinned people, we grow facial hair, we have dark hair. I saw myself as the person being tortured. And that just really made me sick.
What else happened? The election, which was a mess. I called my dad the morning of-I remember this, I said, "Dad, I'm really thinking about refusing to go to Iraq if I get called up." I started to think about what am I going to do to show the military that I'm against this, what are my options?
I think also in 2004 was when we went into Fallujah, so I was watching that closely. And I was like, this is just like Vietnam. We're just leveling whole cities. Even though I'm a medic, no matter what job I do in the military, I'm supporting what's going on, you know? I'm supporting this green machine rolling over the people in Iraq.
And so, it was just these things-layer upon layer-that were making me think but making me angry and pissed off. I made up my mind that I don't need to get to Iraq to realize how bad it is.
NVA: What made you apply for conscientious objector status?
As a sergeant I have to go through leadership training in order to progress in rank. And one of the lessons was the ethics of warfare. And they wanted us to read a website which was basically an account of the My Lai massacre-I don't know why they did that-and then have a group discussion on what went wrong and what we can do better. I read the website, and as I was scrolling down I was getting more pissed off.
So we had the discussion, people started saying this, that, and the other. Then I raised my hand and told them that what really went wrong with My Lai was that the policy was set up in such a way that the troops had to dehumanize the enemy, and really that's the problem with war in general is that you have to dehumanize the enemy, and that's why we shoot at silhouette targets, and that's why we have names like gooks and chinks and ragheads and hajjis. And everybody kind of looked at me like, "Where's this guy coming from? What's wrong with him?" I was in such a different place from all the other sergeants.
That's when I knew, I can't do this anymore. So when I came home I started doing research, just like I do in grad school. I dropped everything I was doing and started doing research on conscientious objector status. I had heard about it, but I didn't really know what you had to do. I got the regulations, I found the Center for Conscientious Objectors website and downloaded the booklet that they had. I emailed the War Resisters League, I emailed everybody. I started to do all my homework and highlighting the regulation parts that I didn't understand.
Probably around December 29, 2004, is when I said, this is it. I had done my research and I realized I was going to be immobilized until I could get this off my chest. And once I started writing, I started feeling better. So I did a three-day marathon, writing my CO claim. And after that, I tell you it was like a weight was off my shoulders. I didn't need a therapist, it was a form of therapy for me, and it really opened up some part of my brain that had been closed off or disconnected.
NVA: What was the reaction from the military?
I called my unit the first week of January after the New Year. And we had our drill weekend coming up, 7th and 8th of January 2005. I called my commander and said, "Sir, I want you to know that when I come in Saturday for drill I'm going to be turning in a claim of conscientious objector status." And he was like, "What? You're one of our best troops, what the hell you talking about?" I said, "Well, Sir, I've been thinking about this ever since 9/11 and I've just now come to the conclusion that I can't do it anymore. I can't support what's going on in Iraq and I'm against war in any form-I'm done with the whole thing."
I had a meeting with my commander and Sgt. Major in February. And when we got to the end of the meeting, they asked me questions about the application. They basically had me reiterate the thing. Part of it was because they didn't believe that I actually could write it by myself. They were like, "Tell us again." So I reiterated it to them damned near verbatim.
At the end of the meeting they said, "Well, Sgt. Vasquez, the unit has been mobilized. And we're going to leave in March, and you're coming with us." And I said, "Roger that, when do I get my orders?" I didn't fight with them or anything. In the back of my mind, I remembered reading somewhere in the CO claim thing that if I turned in my statement before the unit gets deployed, I'm supposed to stay put. But I didn't say that to them there.
So I showed up for duty on March 4, to Fort Hamilton, and we shipped out to Texas. My orders said Operation Iraqi Freedom and all that stuff. I can't remember how many days I was mobilized, probably like 18 months. So I knew that there was no guarantee I'm going to stay in Texas. If they need a medic in Iraq, I'll probably be over there. And sure enough, as soon as we got to Texas they said, "Don't get too comfortable cause some of you might have to go to Iraq."
After a couple days of processing I went in and saw the new commander. He had a chance to read my claim and he had the personnel sergeant involved. And he [the sergeant] was really on the ball, he was a by-the-book kind of person. So when the commander said, "I want you to handle this [CO claim]," the guy read the regulations, you know, and sure enough, Chapter 2 Paragraph 10 says if the solider turns in the statement before they get mobilization orders, the solider is supposed to stay there and the unit moves forward. So he's like, "Sir, this guy's not supposed to be here."
That was it. I went in on Tuesday, and Thursday I was back on a plane and at LaGuardia. I was off active duty.
NVA: Where does your claim stand now?
I've been in limbo ever since. March of last year till now, I'm still pending. I've gotten through the interview with the shrink, the chaplain, and I'm waiting for the investigative officer to do his thing. And so then I'll be a discontented sergeant. And I still have to show up for drill on weekends. It's unfortunate that I'm not going to be able to retire, which is what I was headed for. But I feel strongly enough about it that if they say no to my CO claim, and they try to deploy me, I'd rather either go to Canada or go to jail. 'Cause I will not step foot in Iraq, until I can do so with my passport and go there with some kind of NGO doing good things.
NVA: What happened to the unit you were in?
They are now stationed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. So had I stayed in that unit, I would be at Abu Ghraib right now. My buddy Ray just came back. He said there are about 5,000-6,000 detainees; they have them separated by threat level, but they also have adolescent kids, women, and they're just like barbed wire concentration camps is all it is.
NVA: How did you get involved with IVAW?
There was this event called Put the War on Trial and they were reading excerpts from Pablo Perez's CO claim and also his court martial hearing. So I was like, cool; I already knew about them after reading websites about them. I went to check it out and I met one of the Iraq vets, Alex Ryabov, who was speaking. He told me about IVAW and said you don't necessarily have to have gone to Iraq or Afghanistan, just if you've been in the military since 2001, that's who we want.
So I signed up right away, I think it was in June. I sent off my membership and then I went to-well pretty much anything Alex was speaking at I would go to. Then the first time I got to see them [IVAW] as a group was at the march in DC last year. And then I got to meet 40 or 50 of them.
I helped start a chapter in New York City. Right now there are only four of us, but we're looking to change that. We're going to try to do a tour of all the CUNY campuses. Yeah, we just know that when troops come back from anywhere, whether it be active duty or combat, the first thing they want to do is go to college or get married or whatever. And if they're going to go to college, and they're using the GI Bill, NYU is out, Columbia is out, so they're going to be at the CUNY campuses.
Another mission is to get more people of color, because right now IVAW is a pretty white organization. And I know that doesn't reflect what the military looks like, and I know that there are a lot of people like my dad, who went to combat, came home, and just wanted to forget about it. Unfortunately, political activism comes second when you're not able to find a job.
One of the first things we did here in the city was the New York Times had a big job fair for vets at the Javitz Center and it was enormous. They had all of the federal, state, and local agencies, but then they had all these big contractors-Halliburton and the whole thing.
And what'd we do? We got a bunch of IVAW fliers, printed up 300 of them, and I had my field jacket on, so I was easy to spot and I just picked them out, easily, by the haircut and the ill-fitting suits, and started handing out IVAW fliers. Surprisingly, I only had one guy look at it and give it back to me. Some people stopped to talk, some people said, "Hey, man, I think it's cool what you're doing." Some people said, "I disagree with you but I respect you, and that's what we're fighting for."
NVA: What's it been like for IVAW members as former soldiers now becoming political organizers? What's the air of political consciousness?
There's a spectrum of political consciousness in IVAW. Not everyone in IVAW is against war in any form. But there is a handful of conscientious objectors. There are some folks on the other side of the spectrum who were gung-ho Marines when they went over there; they were ready to blow shit up. But when he got there and found out who's actually getting blown up, and looked at the bodies it was like: old person, baby, woman … so that caused one of the members to really think, okay, every time I send artillery down range, I don't know who's actually getting killed. So that woke him up when he was there.
We're not encouraging people to sabotage the army or anything like that, but as a solider, why can't you have free speech like everybody else? That's why I'm here talking to you. A lot of people say, "I don't want to talk to the media 'cause that will get me into trouble." But I'm in civilian clothes, I'm an American citizen, I do whatever the fuck I want. I'm on my time, you know? I don't go to parades or rallies in my uniform. Although when I'm discharged there's no guarantee that I won't do that.
So, you know, what would it take for us to do something on the scale of the GI movements in Vietnam? I think that having a blog is our generation's way of having underground newspapers, and that's why the Army is cracking down on them now, 'cause they cant' control it.
NVA: How has it been working with other antiwar organizations?
I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for somebody who organized that thing over at the Community Church, you know? So I think so far, the antiwar movement has been smart about putting the troops up front and putting the military families up front. Because it's like, what can the pro-war people say about us? They can't just dismiss us.
Francesca Fiorentini is editor of the Nonviolent Activist. Steve Theberge is WRL’s Youth and Counter-recruitment coordinator. They interviewed Jose in January.