A Minnesotan would rather go to prison than go to Iraq as a possible MP, a role for which she says she wasn't trained.
by Randy Furst, Star Tribune, October 12, 2006
The day before she was to fly to Kuwait for military assignment in Iraq, Specialist Melanie McPherson walked away from Fort Bliss, Texas, and hitchhiked home to Minnesota.
"Please fly without me," said the note she left behind in her barracks locker. "I love my country. I was hoping to use my God-given talent, not just be a bullet catcher."
In September, a little more than 40 days later, McPherson, 28, a graduate of Woodbury High School, turned herself in and was charged with desertion. She said her act could land her in military prison for up to eight years.
McPherson went AWOL in July, she said, because she believed she would probably be assigned as a military policewoman in Iraq, rather than as a photojournalist, the job for which the Army trained her.
"I understood that I would be trained in the country with the bullets flying around my head," she said in a telephone interview from Fort Bliss. "I think it would be putting myself and those around me in grave danger."
The Army won't talk about McPherson's case, but says that soldiers frequently get MP assignments without specific training. But a spokesman said every soldier gets enough training to do the job safely.
As she awaits prosecution, McPherson works in a restricted area of Fort Bliss, assigning rooms to patients with medical problems.
Her father, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, said he understands why his daughter went AWOL.
"I'm not really happy about it, but from what I can tell, it was the only recourse she had at this point," said Robert McPherson of Woodbury, who instructed Vietnamese troops in 1964 and 1965. "She should have MP training. She should be schooled for it. … She is sticking up for what she believes in."
Said Melanie: "I need to get out. I don't fit the mold. I'm not as flexible as they want me to be."
A deserter is defined as someone who is AWOL for 30 consecutive days. The desertion cases for all services totaled 4,494 in fiscal year 2005, almost a 50 percent drop from 2002, according to the Pentagon.
Only 176 Army deserters were tried by court-martial in fiscal year 2004, Sheldon Smith, a public affairs specialist with the Army, said in an e-mail.
McPherson joined a public affairs Army Reserve unit at Fort Snelling in 1999. And during the past few years she has had an eclectic history.
She earned a degree in fine arts photography and worked as an artist and as a graphic designer for an upstate New York newspaper. For a time she was employed helping juvenile sexual offenders in Vermont, and collaborated with Indian tribes on salmon restoration programs in northern California.
Along came the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In April, four years after she last wore a military uniform (she had been on inactive status since 2002), she was called up for duty.
She thought that the invasion was wrong and that the war was all about getting oil. Nevertheless, she said, she was ready to serve in the role she had been trained in.
"I was willing to do hazardous duty as a journalist," McPherson said.
But she learned from Army journalists that they were being assigned to other jobs in Iraq. McPherson said she became concerned that she might wind up as an MP or a truck driver. Then she learned she was to be issued the 9-millimeter handgun that MPs use. Her Fort Bliss superiors, she said, were unable to assure her that she would receive a journalism assignment.
The day before she was to board a plane to Kuwait, then ship out to Iraq, where she would have joined a National Guard brigade, she went instead to Minnesota, where she stayed with friends and relatives. In September, tired of living on the run and ready to take responsibility, she turned herself in at Fort Snelling.
Returned to Fort Bliss, she rejected an offer for a summary court-martial, which would have sentenced her to a month in prison and then shipped her off to Iraq to "face the same situation I originally fled."
She said she would rather go before a general or special court-martial and get full legal representation. No date has been scheduled.
The Army's Smith said that he was not acquainted with McPherson's case but that the Army takes training seriously.
"I can tell you in general terms that we're not going to send someone out there as an MP who doesn't have adequate training, because they are not only a danger to themselves, but a danger to those working with them," he said.
"Conceivably she could be sent out to escort convoys," he said, but added that all soldiers go through that training. He said she might also get assignments such as manning a traffic control point or doing basic guard duty.
Bill Galvin, counseling coordinator for the Center on Conscience & War in Washington, which operates a national hot line for AWOL soldiers, said many soldiers in Iraq have jobs for which they have not been adequately trained. He said that the hot line gets about 20,000 calls a year from AWOL soldiers and that lack of training is one reason morale is low.
Staff librarian Roberta Hovde did research for this article.