Sarah Lazare, Courage to Resist Project Coordinator

By Sarah Lazare, Courage to Resist for Truthout. May 21, 2009

“I felt like I was being robbed of everything,” Matthew Dobbs said over the phone from his home in Houston, Texas.

“I had visions of military police banging down my door and dragging me back to war.” Dobbs, a 26-year-old former soldier who served a tour in Afghanistan from 2003-2004, was recounting a story that has become familiar in the ongoing Global War on Terror. It is the story of a soldier who, after serving a tour overseas and being discharged from active duty, received involuntary orders to redeploy to Iraq or Afghanistan years later.

Dobbs was not a victim of stop-loss, the policy of involuntarily extending a GI’s term of service, sometimes after multiple tours in combat zones. This practice has recently garnered widespread negative attention and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates claims that it will be phased out.

Rather, Dobbs was a victim of reactivation orders from the Individual Ready Reserves (IRR), a lesser-publicized form of involuntary service that has been fueling troop supply for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While there has been a strong reaction to stop-loss, IRR recall has slipped under the radar, creating the illusion that the problem of involuntary military service has been solved.

The IRR is composed of troops who have finished their active duty service but still have time remaining on their contracts. The typical military contract mandates four years of active duty and four years in the IRR, but variations exist and an individual’s IRR stint might be longer or shorter. IRR members live civilian lives, are unpaid and are technically required to show up for periodic musters. Many have moved on from military life and are enrolled in college, working civilian jobs or building a family.

The catch is that, at any point, IRR members can be recalled into active duty to serve in a “state of emergency.” This policy has translated into the involuntary reactivation of tens of thousands of troops to fight the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since September 11, 2001, about 28,000 IRR members in the US Army have been mobilized, according to Maj. Maria Quon, Army public affairs officer. There have been 3,868 Marines involuntarily recalled and mobilized during that time, according to Major O’Connor, Marine Corps spokesman.

Dobbs was issued his reactivation orders in 2008, over four years after he had completed his tour in Afghanistan and been discharged from active duty. At the time, he was enrolled in school at Texas State University. The orders were sent to his mother’s house, and he says that hearing her read them over the phone was, “one of the scariest moments in my life.”

Dobbs says that his tour in Afghanistan left him with psychological scars that he struggled for years to overcome upon his return. He was deployed to Afghanistan as a communications specialist and bore witness to “firefights, rockets, and mortars,” with two people from his unit killed in combat. When he returned from his deployment, Dobbs learned that his father was gravely ill. He got compassionate reassignment to Fort Sill so that he could be with his dying father. Meanwhile, the rest of his unit was stop-lossed and forced to serve another tour in Iraq.

After his discharge from the military and his father’s death, Dobbs struggled with depression and alcoholism. He moved several times, first living with his mother in Texas, then eventually getting a place of his own and enrolling in school. He says he was finally getting his life “to a happy place” when he got the reactivation orders in the mail.

The IRR provides a ready supply of troops who already have military experience, many of whom have already seen combat. With US forces stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, this pool of GI’s has played a role in boosting military capacity. Even though recent reports suggest that the military is reaching its recruitment targets for the first time in years, likely due to growing unemployment, Army IRR reactivation rates remain “steady state,” according to Major Quon.

Critics charge that the IRR forces already overextended troops to serve yet another deployment, pushing them beyond exhaustion. “If people thought this was a just war, if soldiers believed that fighting these wars was making the world a better place, the Army wouldn’t have to involuntarily drag them out of civilian life,” said Seth Manzel, executive director of GI Voice, an advocacy organization for soldiers who are mistreated by the military, and an active member with Iraq Veterans Against the War, an organization comprised of military service people who have served since September 11, 2001. “The IRR is nothing more than a backdoor draft.”

But military officials say that recruits know exactly what they are getting into when they sign up for military service. “When you sign your contract, you know you have to serve time in the IRR and that there is a possibility you will get called up,” said Major O’Connor. “I would hope they read the contract that they signed.”

Veteran advocates cast doubt on these claims. “I can say, in my own personal experience, my military recruiter never went through the effort to explain what the IRR is,” said Jeff Paterson, former Marine and current project director for Courage to Resist, an organization that supports troops who refuse to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Military recruiters are expert at avoiding inconvenient details of the military agreement. In my case, there was no indication that recall during the inactive term would be a realistic event.”

Others say that the very premise of the IRR is unfair, regardless of one’s awareness at the time of signing the military contract. “No company in the world could make an employment contract like what the military has,” said Seth Manzel. “Could you imagine IBM indenturing its workers in the same way? The only reason the contract is upheld is because it is with the government.”

After returning from Afghanistan, Dobbs began questioning the ongoing wars. His own research led him to conclude that the war he had fought in was unjustified. “After a lot of reading and questioning, I found out this is not an honorable war, and I came to disagree with what I had done,” he said. “Afghanistan did not attack us. This had nothing to do with the people of Afghanistan.”

Dobbs became involved with a local chapter of IVAW, where he met his now fiancée. He became an outspoken critic against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and cites his activism as a key component that helped him get his life back on track.

It was in the midst of his burgeoning antiwar activism that Dobbs received his reactivation orders. He was furious. “Doesn’t the military realize that if I get deployed again, that could be the end of my life?” he asked, his voice booming. “I have already served in combat. I started living a life of peace when I got out. I didn’t ever think they would ask me to go back.”

Dobbs told his mom to rip up his activation orders, and he hasn’t looked back since. The military made several attempts to contact him, but he ignored them every time. On April 19, 2009, Dobbs was discharged from the IRR. He is still waiting to receive his papers.

GI counselors at Courage to Resist note that, up to this point, the US military has not attempted to apply the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) to IRR members who refuse to report. This means that the military has not had jurisdiction to go after IRR members who refuse recall. IRR members can receive a less than honorable discharge from the IRR, but so far this has not affected active duty discharge and has had no bearing on military benefits. Furthermore, the military does not arrest IRR resisters or force them to show up for activation, though they do resort to pressure via letters, phone calls and even home visits.

However, many troops are not aware of this, and tens of thousands show up for recall. This dilemma was made famous by Ryan Conklin of MTV’s “The Real World,” who, in front of millions of TV viewers, reported back to duty after receiving reactivation orders from the IRR. The recent case of Matthis Chiroux, an IRR resister who pushed for an upgrade in his discharge from the IRR, also garnered widespread media attention.

Many troops also join the military reserves, in hopes of avoiding an IRR recall that will land them in a combat zone. “The IRR ultimately is a tool for military retention,” says Jeff Paterson. “Many people are strong-armed into joining the reserves under threat of IRR recall.”

Dobbs said that now that he has been discharged from the military, he is prepared to speak out against IRR recall, a practice that he says is indicative of the military’s broader policy of using troops up and destroying their minds and bodies through multiple deployments.

“My heart goes out to all of those people showing up for recall,” said Matthew Dobbs over the phone. “When you are in a combat zone, you live through the hardest stuff you ever thought you would have to. It is not just physically exhausting, it is also mentally exhausting not to know if this tour is going to be the tour where you die. And now, after making it through alive, they tell you you have to go back.”

Sarah Lazare is the project coordinator for Courage to Resist, an organization that supports troops who refuse to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.