Following his presentation at the Courage to Resist hosted workshop at the 2007 Veterans for Peace National Convention in St. Louis, Mark sat down with Aaron Glantz and David Cortright, author of “Soldiers in Revolt”.
Mark was a Army MP in Iraq. He talks about joining the military, the reality of the Iraq occupation, his five months in the Fort Sill brig, and how people can better support today’s GI resisters. At the time of this interview, Mark had just been released from the brig only days earlier.
Aaron Glantz: You just got, Mark Wilkerson, out of 5 months in the brig at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. How did you end up there?
Mark Wilkerson: It’s really a long story, but I enlisted in 2002 at the age of 18 years old. I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and I was in Iraq from March 2003 to March 2004. I went over there the way a lot of people my age do, you know, a little young, a little starry-eyed, and naive. I thought that—at the time, I supported George Bush. I grew up in a conservative family, so I went over, and I didn’t really know what to expect. I was nervous, but I thought we were going to do wonderful things for the Iraqi people. We got there– the first week we were there, the kids were waving flags. About a month in, they started throwing rocks. Then the IEDs started, and when we left in March 2004, they started the suicide bombings, and just—I had some experiences, throughout that. I grew up ten years in the year I was there, and I got back and I said, there’s no way. I left too much of myself there the first time. There’s no way I can do it again. I shared some of these feelings I had with my squad leaders, and some of them—one of them—suggested that I look into the idea of conscientious objector.
Aaron: What was it, in particular, that caused you to feel so uncomfortable?
Mark: Well, I think it was just that, like any guerilla war throughout the history of the world, I mean, we started to take on the people. We were told we were going to win the hearts and the minds of the people. I know the listeners have heard that so many times, but that’s what was drilled into us from day one, and we got there, and largely, I did not see that happening. You know, the enemy was not clearly revealed to us. It’s not like they ran around in uniforms with rifles sticking out of it—
Aaron: With a big “E” on it, right, for “enemy”?
Mark: Exactly. So, we got there, and that’s what we were expecting. But after the initial invasion, they went into hiding, and we didn’t know who was good and who was bad, who had attacked Americans and who was just trying to move on with life. We got caught up in the tribal warfare there, you know, the Sunnis and the Shiites and the Kurds, all the different tribes, living in the same neighborhood. They would snitch on each other; they would tell us because we were gathering intelligence, and as part of this intelligence, we would conduct house raids and sometimes neighborhood or block raids as well. A raid, for me, is very… it’s primeval, I guess.
Aaron: So you go in there, you tell everybody to get down on the ground, and then what do you do?
Mark: Well, it’s also done under the cover of darkness, especially in the beginning. We didn’t have translators, so we would be told that there was somebody in here conducting suspicious activity, and we’d check them out. So you’d get five people lined up at the door, you know, you’ve got security all around the block or the neighborhood to keep anyone from coming in or out. Basically, you knock down the door, you go in, you’ve got your rifles up blazing, and you aim it at all the people around the rooms. You go room to room, knocking the people down, zip tying them, keeping them restrained, and then once you secure the house you start looking for weapons. Sometimes we were very diligent and complete in these searches. Sometimes we would shred up floors, couches and beds. We’d take all the women, children and old men (that was mostly who was in these houses—women, children and old men), we’d take them outside and throw them into the grass ad we’d start yelling at them as to where weapons are, where the men are. Sometimes, all that we needed was a knife or a gun. It could be something as small as a pistol, to justify taking away all the men in the house.
Aaron: Because otherwise, it would all be for nothing.
Mark: Well, sometimes, yes, it was, and we didn’t want to admit that we were wrong or that the intelligence was wrong. So, sometimes, all we needed was a statement from a neighbor saying that they had seen this man dealing with terrorists or something. A lot of paperwork wasn’t done in the beginning, and we were very—we weren’t overly aggressive, but we were aggressive, especially in dealing with the men. Then we’d haul them into our trucks, haul them off to a holding cell, and that was it from our spots. And who knows how many of those men might still be there? And that, for me, was so hard to understand, because we’re trying to get these guys to be on our side, and we’re taking out their neighbors’ houses, and taking away all the men—all the boys, old men, and it just really started to change the way I viewed this war.
Aaron: So you raised that with other people in your unit?
Mark: Absolutely! A lot of us—it got to the point where I said, “I’m not going to go into the houses anymore. I’ll cover, I’ll do security.” They understood, and I was not the only one who said I wasn’t going to participate in them anymore. Towards the end, our mission changed to where we weren’t doing so many raids anymore; we were in Tekreet and Samara, the Sunni triangle. Things were very rough. We could say we had to do this because it was a hostile environment, but I think it was a little too random, and we would just kind of take everyone’s work for it.
Aaron: At a certain point, the kind of idea of stepping back and not taking part in certain activities that you felt were upsetting—that was not enough for you.
Mark: No. It did not justify in my mind—there were several other situations, including every morning, we would receive an op order, or an AAR (active action review), and hear about other attacks all over Iraq, and there were some days it would go, “Oh, this convoy was attacked by people on blue motorcycles, so look out for blue motorcycles. If you see someone on a blue motorcycle and they pass us, I want you to shoot them.” As paranoid as we would get, you know, you do get a rush of adrenaline every day when you go out into the streets. There were days when I got up and said, “If I see a blue motorcycle, I’m going to blow them away.” And for me, just to take a step back at night, you know, you’re winding down, looking up at the stars, going, “My God, I would have totally shot up a guy on a blue motorcycle for no reason, other than he’s driving a blue motorcycle.”
Aaron: Mark, you were talking about your frustrations being in Iraq, not knowing whether the people being shot or killed were actually the enemy or just innocent civilians, the frustration of going house to house searching people’s houses, and just kind of the harshness of that. And I guess you must have ridden that out until you got back to the States?
Mark: Well, certainly. I discussed many of these issues with a lot of other soldiers there; a lot of them just didn’t want to think about it at all. And then when I got back, to see the way the media portrayed the war and the way many people thought the war was going on, and then finally, after a few months, seeing some resisters coming on television—I remember seeing Camilo Mejia in an interview and thinking, “Wow, there are people out there like me, who are confused and angry and upset.” This “conscientious objector” that I applied for, it was a very rough patch for me. It was a period of—I ended up applying for conscientious objector in June. I took the rules for conscientious objector home, and in the course of one night, I answered all the questions. I filled out my form. It was mostly seething. I was very angry, so I put all that emotion into what should be a very proper, very well thought-out document and application. I turned it in. I was told that I had a week to fill it out. And then over the next several months, I sometimes got in many arguments and heated debates with my chain of command—my first sergeant, my platoon sergeant, some military chaplains, military investigators, military psychologists…
Aaron: This is a very involved process.
Mark: Absolutely. They’re all trying to decide, some of them, am I fit enough to make these statements? Some of them ask, “Is this well-thought out, does he qualify, or is he just trying to find a quick way out?” And I guess I was guilty of being too honest with these people. I’ve done my best to do it the right way. You know, I joined the military as a military policeman, and I always wanted to do the right thing. When this started happening, a lot of younger soldiers my age were saying, “Yeah, dude, you’ve got to keep going with this. We’ve got families, we’ve got other issues, but good luck to you.” And eventually, throughout this entire process, my application was denied in November of 2004, and we had orders to redeploy in January 2005.
Aaron: Well, because of the issues is that you need to prove that you not only think that the war is screwed up and you don’t want to go fight in it. You also have to prove that you have a religious, moral conviction that all war is wrong. They don’t let you say, “The Iraq war is wrong.”
Mark: Yeah, certainly. They don’t let you pick your wars, but the issue I tried to bring up was that I have only been alive long enough to see the first Gulf War and this one. I’m not a historian, I’m not highly educated. I didn’t go to college and find out all the historical texts of the past wars, and I tried to say, “I can’t sit here and say I’m opposed or for these wars, because I don’t necessarily believe what the historians have to say about them.” The victor always can change the texts of some past wars, so I didn’t want to do that much research. All I knew was what was in my heart, and I knew that I didn’t feel right being there, serving in any capacity with my uniform on. And they couldn’t quite grasp that, they thought I was worried about my personal safety when it was denied. When they asked me if I would be okay working on a headquarters platoon working on the fort base and not going into the towns. I said, “You don’t get it. This isn’t about my safety or my life—this is about the symbolism of me being in a foreign country with my uniform on, serving in any capacity, because I’m the enemy then, to a lot of fighters there.
Aaron: At what point did you say, “I just have to leave this base?”
Mark: You know, when I saw someone like Camilo on tv, I thought, “Wow, that takes some guts. It takes some courage.” I heard about resisters in Canada, and I thought, “But I don’t want to go AWOL.” I thought for sure, for this period of months when I was waiting for my application, I thought for sure it would be accepted. Surely they wouldn’t make soldiers go over there against their will. Surely, if I went through this entire process, they would be okay with me leaving, and then when I found out they weren’t, I was crushed. I was twenty years old. I panicked, and really, it wasn’t all that well thought-out. At the end of December, me and my wife, we packed up everything we had in our apartment in Fort Hood, and we packed up a U-Haul and left for Colorado Springs. I ended up being gone for a year and a half. There were good times, there were bad times, but it was preferable to serving in Iraq again.
Aaron: So, you grew up in Colorado, right? Did you head to Colorado?
Mark: Absolutely. It was my home, I knew. There was nowhere else for me to go.
Aaron: And what did your family think?
Mark: Well, my family, I mean, there’s a large military history in my family, and I didn’t share a lot of my feelings with them. I ended up disconnecting myself from them, and they knew that I wouldn’t do something too rash. When I told them everything, they started to support it. There were even some distant family members that I didn’t tell, or I did, and they didn’t want to have anything to do with me. They didn’t like the mention of my name. It’s all smoothed over now, and they’ve understood. When they see people stand behind me and stand behind fellow resisters, they’re like, “It’s okay to support this.”
Aaron: The public support made a big deal not only in terms of your fight with the military, but also in terms of your family.
Mark: Well, you know, during the year and a half I was gone, I saw a complete turn-around in public opinion of the war. People actually started to talk with veterans and find out what the conditions were really like, and the death toll started to climb. Money, which isn’t nearly as important as the lives, started to get out of control spending there, and people are going, “Wow, whoa, hold on here. What’s going on?” I was gone for a year and a half, and I knew if I’d gone back when the war was still very popular—Camilo spent close to a year in prison—a year!—and I spent five months. Just in the period of a year and a half, public opinion changed so much that there was so much more support behind me a year and a half later that there wasn’t for Camilo.
Aaron: That’s the voice of Mark Wilkerson. He just got out of five months of prison at Fort Sill in Oklahoma for going AWOL in protest of the war in Iraq. You actually got out early for good behavior. They sentenced you to seven months, and you got out after five. What was so good about your behavior?
Mark: Well, there were certain work details we could sign up for, and I ended up working seven days a week in the kitchen washing dishes. For every—you know, if you work a whole month of weekends, you get two days, and signing up to paint something or this or that. So I did all that, and pretty much every inmate there writes a clemency letter. You can write a letter to the general of the post you were at, in my case Fort Hood, and I received a letter back about a week and a half later, granting me a month’s worth of clemency. So kind of a month extra added to the time I’d already earned. And there were five or six AWOL soldiers from Fort Hood there, and they were consistently receiving a month or two off, so maybe somewhere deep in his heart, the port general thought that we were either being punished too harshly or, due to our experiences in Iraq, we were somewhat justified in what we felt was right.
Aaron: David Cortright, author of Soldiers in Revolt. You’ve been sitting here listening to Mark Wilkerson’s story. What are your impressions of it?
David: Well, it’s a powerful story. It’s one that we also experienced in the Vietnam era. Mark said a number of important things: one that really struck me was the fact that it takes so much courage and conviction to speak out for truth and to resist war, especially when you’re in the military. Sometimes they create this air that soldiers are opposing the war, they don’t want to go to Iraq, because somehow they’re concerned with their own safety. Not at all. The soldiers who’ve been there, they put their lives on the line, and it’s not a question of their willingness to sacrifice and serve their country. It’s a question of understanding, from direct experience, that this war is wrong, that we’re being lied to about the nature of this war, that it can’t work, we need to end it. To have the courage and conviction to say that publicly, to apply as a conscientious objector, against all of this pressure from the command not to do so, takes tremendous courage. And I’m reminded of something Dr. Martin Luther King said. He said that non-violent resistance was only for the courageous and the strong and the brave. If you’re weak of heart, don’t even try it. It takes real conviction, and Mark, and so many of the other soldiers who are taking these acts to speak out, acts of resistance, are really reflecting the very best of human nature, the very best of the American spirit, to stand up for what is right. And they deserve our support. All those who are listening who are moved, as I am, by this testimony and that of Liam and the other soldiers, Eli, we need to do more to support these soldiers. We really need to help the Iraq Veterans Against the War movement, help support the appeal for address. This is the way we can end the war—by supporting the soldiers, the service members who are now more and more understanding that this war is wrong and who will speak out against it.
Aaron: Talk about this issue of support, because we just heard Mark say that he went AWOL because he felt like he had no other choice, and he felt comfortable turning himself in once the public had turned in a very real way against the war. Can you talk about the interplay between the public at large and how its feeling about the war and the feelings about the war inside the military?
David: That’s a very important point, and I feel like we’re coming to a point of greater maturity in the country and society and in the anti-war movement, as Mark said. Now we have a majority of Americans who want the troops withdrawn, who feel that we were lied to, that it was a mistake to go in there. Increasingly, those Americans who oppose the war also realize that many in the military share that sentiment, and we’re willing to support the troops and really support them in the right way, which is to provide psychological and other forms of material support, for soldiers like Mark and others who speak out, who resist. We need to increase that effort and do everything we can, possibly, through working with groups like IVAW, to provide material, psychological, political support for the service members who are speaking out.
Aaron: What kind of support was most helpful to you, and what kind of support did you not get that you would hope that other people really would get?
Mark: That’s a really good question, because so many people ask, “How can we support the troops? How can we support the troops?” It’s so difficult to give an answer because every soldier requires different support, but for me, one large help was: I had many people who referred me to certain attorneys who were very knowledgeable in military law, because I knew I wanted to speak with an attorney. I found a very good one in Colorado Springs. It wasn’t pro-bono. A lot of money was raised for me to where I was able to afford a civilian attorney who helped my whole turn-in process. It was really nice to be given a stage on which to speak. I went into high schools, and I spoke with students about joining the military—
Aaron: And did you do that while you were AWOL?
Mark: I was. I tried not to—there were some times when I didn’t trust a lot of people, so I couldn’t tell them I was AWOL. To me, that was irrelevant, because my experience there speaks so much more for itself than anything I’ve done before or after and defines me as a person. So, some of the support is monetary, some of the support is… if you find out there’s a soldier who’s AWOL, give them a hug and tell them that everything is going to be okay, and you’ll be there for this person. Pass them over to another veteran, especially if they have feelings against the war, and just give them a voice to speak out. Help them feel safe, comfortable, and give them housing if they need it, help them to get a job so they can still sustain themselves while they’re AWOL.
Transcript by Elizabeth Simonsen for Courage to Resist.