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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 5.22.08

 

BACK TO IRAQ?

A Eugene soldier fights killing

BY CAMILLA MORTENSEN  

PFC James Burmeister enlisted in the military because he thought he would be doing "humanitarian work" in Iraq. But he was manning a machine gun, using ammunition so large his targets — humans — would "literally explode," the day in Baghdad that his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb. He was knocked unconscious, and bits of shrapnel were embedded in his face.

Burmeister went AWOL (absent without leave) and fled to Canada just months after the incident, no longer able to deal with the aftereffects of the bomb and his experiences allegedly setting up "small kill teams" and baiting Iraqis into approaching fake U.S. military devices like cameras, luring them in to be shot by snipers.

Now the 23-year-old soldier from Eugene waits at Fort Knox, Ky., to discover whether the Army will prosecute him, release him without access to medical care for his injuries or try yet again to send him back to a war he doesn't want to fight. His father fears the Army wants to keep Burmeister quiet about the "bait-and-kill" teams that he alleges have been used to kill Iraqi civilians. While James Burmeister awaits the Army's decision, his father is fighting to bring him home.

A soldier who deserts faces court martial, imprisonment and less-than-honorable discharge as a consequence. Many soldiers who have gone AWOL have chosen to return to Iraq rather than face a long stint in a military prison. Others, like Burmeister, say they are simply not psychologically able to return to a war zone.

If he is convicted of desertion and given a dishonorable discharge, Burmeister faces time in prison. And the soldier, who says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a brain injury as a result of the roadside bomb, fears he might not have access to veterans' medical benefits.

JAMES BURMEISTER IN IRAQ. PHOTO SUPPLIED AND EDITED BY THE BURMEISTER FAMILY
JAMES BURMEISTER IN IRAQ. PHOTO SUPPLIED BY THE BURMEISTER FAMILY

The Hippie from Oregon

Burmeister's father Eric, who works in food service at LCC, says his son James is "just a typical Eugene kid," so typical that other soldiers in his unit called him the "hippie from Oregon."

Born in Portland and raised in Eugene, the son of a white father and an African-American mother, James Burmeister found himself working dead-end jobs after graduating from high school. While on a trip to Germany to visit an old friend who had enlisted in the military, Burmeister began to consider the Army as a possible career. "My friend described the Iraq war as a humanitarian effort, and I believed him," Burmeister writes in a deposition to Canadian authorities while seeking asylum.

In June of 2005 he approached a recruiter and he writes he was again told "about the humanitarian efforts that the military undertook on behalf of the Iraqi people." He enlisted and was stationed in Germany, where he married a woman named Angelique, whom he had met on the earlier trip.

His father was against Burmeister's choice to join the military, "I'm an old Don Quixote tilting at windmills from way back," Eric Burmeister says. "But he bought the recruiter's line. He couldn't get a good job. I had to let him go."

After a year of training in Germany, James Burmeister began to question why he was only learning how to raid houses and secure buildings and not how to distribute food or develop "civilian infrastructure." He says he approached his commander and asked to become a conscientious objector, but he says the request was ignored.

Burmeister was sent to Iraq in September of 2006 as part of Unit 118 First Infantry Division and immediately deployed in Baghdad. His main duty was as a gunner. He manned the machine guns that sit on top of the Humvees used on patrol. "I was largely asked to provide protection for other soldiers" he writes of his duty.

But soon, he says, he realized his duties were less about protecting others and more about luring Iraqis to their deaths: "In many cases our platoon was required to engage in exercises that were designed to attract fire from insurgents." Army gunners would then return fire with 7.62 millimeter rounds that would "literally tear the limbs and appendages off the intended targets" or .50 caliber explosive rounds that when used against "human targets" would cause them to "literally explode or evaporate."

"Our unit's job seemed to be more about targeting a largely innocent civilian population or deliberately attracting confrontation with insurgents," he writes.

Small Kill Teams

Burmeister was also disturbed by the "small kill teams" for which he was asked to provide cover. On Sept. 24, 2007, the Washington Post investigated the story of the classified program of using "bait and kill" tactics in which sniper teams would scatter "bait" such as ammunition and detonation cords to attract Iraqi insurgents who would then be shot by snipers.

But Burmeister, who had deserted from the Army five months before the story broke, had been telling that story to the media for months.

In a July 2007 article in The Oregonian, Burmeister said he had participated in a team that placed fake cameras on poles and labeled them U.S. property to give the team the right to shoot anyone who to tried to move or take the equipment.

Burmeister writes in his deposition, "These citizens were almost always unarmed. In some cases the Iraqi victims looked to me like they were children, perhaps teenagers."

He told the same story to Canada's CBC news in June 2007, and allegedly to PBS's NOW, but that statement was not used in the portions of his interview used on air.

Ray Parrish, a counselor for Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) says that it's not uncommon for a soldier's story of war atrocities to go uninvestigated. "It's part of the Winter Soldier phenomenon," says Parrish, referring to the January 1971 testimony of veterans exposing war crimes and atrocities during the Vietnam War. In March 2008, Iraq Veterans Against the War organized a similar gathering in which veterans and Iraqi and Afghan civilians gave testimony about their experiences.

"When people hear about that [bait and kill teams] they say 'that would never happen,'" says Parrish. "The GIs are simply not believed."

PTSD

Burmeister was involved in firefights only a month after arriving in Iraq. In his deposition he tells of the first time he killed an Iraqi. "I tried to fire warning shots," he writes, "but the sergeant in my Humvee began yelling at me to shoot to kill." One of the insurgents he shot died, and the other was wounded. In the same fight he says that he remembers watching another gunner use .50 caliber rounds against two unarmed civilians, "which literally made them explode."

Parrish says such experiences are what are contributing to the PTSD he sees in the troops. "The most severe part of PTSD has do with a guilty conscience," he says. "They are repeatedly put in the position of doing things that they know in their gut are wrong."

Soldiers like Burmeister "are at a loss as to what they can do to stop their personal slide into hell," says Parrish, who fought in Vietnam and has been counseling veterans since 1976.

Burmeister's convoy was hit by roadside bombs on three different occasions, he writes. On the third he was briefly knocked unconscious, had ringing in his ears and got two pieces of shrapnel buried in his face. But when the platoon leader asked if everyone was OK, "I responded that I was OK. I believe I was in shock at this time."

When he later reported the injury to his sergeant, he writes, he was told it was too late to report, and he would be declared healthy. He was ordered back to his Humvee.

It was after this that Burmeister began to have nightmares and feel faint. After passing out in his room, he was sent to Germany for rest, where it was discovered he was suffering from chronic high blood pressure. He was also diagnosed with PTSD and a possible traumatic brain injury, and he was given sleeping pills and anti-depressants, he writes. By May of 2007 he was told to return to Baghdad despite his PTSD.

"Mental injury is just so hard to document," says Parrish. "People who are literally unfit for deployment get deployed anyway. Doesn't matter if it's a broken pelvis and you're in a body cast because there is a desk for you to sit at in Iraq."

Eric Burmeister agrees. "They need the bodies."

AWOL

As of May 20, 4,079 American soldiers have died since the beginning of "Operation Enduring Freedom" and the war in Iraq. Estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties range to over 90,000, according to Iraqbodycount.org (EW updates the numbers in our paper each week). More than 100 of the soldiers who have died are from Oregon, according to statistics kept by Gov. Ted Kulongoski's office. Burmeister's father, Eric, chokes up when he talks about his fears that his son would be one of those statistics, "I knew for sure he was going to die over there," he says.

But Burmeister is still a statistic: He is one of 4,968 Army soldiers who deserted in fiscal year 2007, according to Army figures. After a soldier has been AWOL for 30 days, he or she is considered a deserter. Like Suzanne Swift, a soldier from Eugene who was "command raped" in Iraq, and Ehren Watada, an officer who refused to deploy to Iraq, Burmeister is fighting the military to allow him to leave the war.

Army desertion rates have risen 80 percent since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, an Associated Press investigation said last November. It used to be that most deserters listed dissatisfaction with Army life or family troubles as their reason for going AWOL, but now PTSD has become a reason to leave the military for soldiers like James Burmeister.

Burmeister went AWOL in May 2007, fleeing from Germany to Canada in hopes of getting refugee status. He remained there for almost a year with his pregnant wife and son, who have since gone back to Germany. But in November 2007 the Canadian Supreme Court refused to hear the case of two American deserters, opening the way for the deportation of American AWOL troops. On March 4 of this year, homesick and struggling with PTSD, James Burmeister turned himself in to the Army.

Bring Him Home

Burmeister is now at Fort Knox waiting for the military to decide what to do with him. One of his original cellmates, who had also gone AWOL, has already been sent back to Iraq.

The Army has prescribed what Eric Burmeister calls a "drug-induced lobotomy" for his son. According to an emailed evaluation from Jon Bjornson, a retired psychiatrist and former major in the Army Medical Corps consulted by the VVAW, the drugs prescribed for James Burmeister are not for PTSD but for "bipolar disorder, mixed, type 1."

The combination of the prescribed medications, which include Desyrel, "a sedating antidepressant," as well as Seroquel, Celexa and a drug for hypertension, "will restrict an individual from driving, working with machinery, performing any activities requiring hand-eye coordination," writes Bjornson.

"Any physician clearing this individual taking the pharmaceutical regimen above, for military duty, much less combat, should be liable for malpractice," says the email.

But Parrish of the VVAW says drug prescriptions for troubled soldiers are not uncommon. "They are given a pill to go to sleep, speed to wake them up." Other troops and veterans, he says, are self-medicating with alcohol to try to sleep. The inability to sleep, he says, is common to veterans with PTSD.

Politicians don't want to talk about PTSD, says Parrish, or about suicide. "There's never been a situation where just as many veterans are committing suicide as are dying [in combat] in Iraq and Afghanistan," he says. "The numbers have hit 4,000," he alleges.

All Eric and Helen Burmeister want is for their son to come home. The Burmeisters asked Congressman Peter DeFazio's office to launch a congressional inquiry into James Burmeister's case, but so far they have heard nothing from the military. They hope their son will simply be discharged "in lieu of court martial."

Burmeister still faces possible redeployment to Iraq. If court martialed and given a less-than-honorable discharge, Burmeister will not be able to access to medical care for his injuries unless the Veterans Administration grants him an exception.

For now, Burmeister is "unable to heal," says his father. His wife has returned to Germany, and Burmeister has not seen his newborn child. And because Fort Knox is an armor training school with soldiers firing from tanks day and night, he can hear the sounds of gunfire from his room as he awaits his fate, worsening his PTSD, says his father.

It's not just about his own son, says Eric Burmeister. It's about all of the young soldiers in Iraq, "I can never be quiet until they all come home. It seems like they are all my children now."