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.
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 762 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
"When people hear about that [bait and kill teams] they say 'that
would never happen,'" says Parrish. "The GIs are simply not believed."
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."
As of May 20, 4,079 American soldiers had died in "Operation Enduring
Freedom," the official title of the U.S. invasion of 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
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."