Gone AWOL to save their lives

Giovanni Roberto spoke with the families of two soldiers from Puerto Rico about their struggle with the U.S. Army.
THEY DIDN'T know each other in the U.S. Army. Their families weren't friends or acquaintances, nor had they lived in the same town. But since last June, their stories have become linked as a result of the traumatic events that they experienced before and after going into the Army.

Orville Gómez Santiago and Santos López Morales are two Puerto Rican soldiers who went absent without leave (AWOL) and into hiding after serving in the military for at least two years. Their families began speaking out about their experiences after the Puerto Rican police, presumably under orders from the Army or the FBI, began aggressively looking for Morales in June.

The soldiers' families have common stories about the lies and pressure tactics used by military recruiters.

"The first thing that the recruiter told [Orville] was not to get good grades in his English exam so he could be admitted into English classes [in the Army], and that way, adapt to military life," an upset Maria Santiago, Orville's mother, said in an interview. "That was the first lie."

Prior to joining the military, Orville was a special education teacher in the Department of Education (DE) in Puerto Rico. After five years, he became disillusioned at the lack of resources and bad school infrastructure, and considered a different career. Because he was college educated, military recruiters told him, he was assured that he would be rapidly promoted to a higher rank. They also told him that he would be a teacher at an Army base.

Orville's father, José Gómez, said, "Unfortunately, the injustices started once he arrived--in my understanding, for being Puerto Rican. He was stripped of his rank because he didn't know good English. So they mocked him because he was Latino, and he couldn't teach because he didn't have good pronunciation. He was becoming disillusioned and was even making less money than in the DE."

Morales' mother and grandmother, Luz Eneida Morales and Luz de León Sánchez, said that the recruiters, in addition to promising him a lot of money and a house, pressured him. "He felt sick when he left, and even though he was sick, he left because he had a dream that they instilled in him, and he left because the recruiters told him that it had to be that day, and that he had to leave quickly," said de León Sánchez.

Naturally, Santos' mother and grandmother are very upset with the Army recruiters and say that if Santos sees his recruiter, "He won't be scared to say how he feels because he has a lot of anger inside...Everything that happened there was the opposite of what the recruiter told him. The recruiter lied and misled him, and he is very upset. So if he sees the recruiter, he will tell him whatever he has to say to his face, regardless of the consequences, because he doesn't care."

For Santos, military training and life in the barracks made him realized what the Army was all about. "He reconsidered being in the Army when he was there and said to himself, 'I don't believe in killing people,''' said his mother, Luz Eneida. "He was extremely hurt by that situation, and he said to himself, 'I am not prepared for war. I am not a machine to kill anyone."

"In my mind, everything that happened was like a violent film where I always saw myself killing myself and others," said Orville in an interview in the local newspaper El Nuevo Día. "What he saw in his mind was death," his grandmother said.

Orville suffers from a deep, life-threatening depression. Army doctors described his mental state as "extreme." He suffers from a nervous syncope, a condition in which he loses consciousness after his heart suddenly stops. This means that Orville wasn't fit to continue in the military, a recommendation made by both private and military doctors.

On many occasions, Orville tried to seek a military leave, but when he did, he was insulted, taunted by fellow soldiers, and threatened with imprisonment and being shipped to Afghanistan before his scheduled tour.

According to his mother, Maria Santiago, the doctor at the Army base told her "the officials have the last word. It is up to the officers of his battalion to make a final decision concerning his discharge. I was told the same when he was discharged from his first stay in the hospital...that they [the doctors] don't approve Army discharges...The officers have the power over the soldiers, the Army is their owner."

Meanwhile, Orville devised five different plans to either maim himself or commit suicide. Among the ones he talked about were "cutting off my finger so I won't be able to shoot, drowning myself in the shower, hanging myself in a tree that I like which was located where I used to live, and even crashing my car."

The military didn't care about Orville's life. It only cared about the soldier killing people on the battlefield. More than 3,000 soldiers have committed suicide over the last five years of war. The treatment that the Army provides for soldiers who suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts is a joke.

"The therapy sessions are another mockery," Orville has said. "They are for 5-year-old children in that you are done with the session, and then the Army goes, 'Okay, you're done, we gave you arts and crafts. Okay, you passed the art and craft session, you don't want to kill yourself,' and you go, 'No, no, I'm not going to kill myself.' And then you're discharged."

That first treatment lasted less than a week. Orville's mother explained, "They [the doctors] tell me that they stabilized him, and if he attempts to kill himself, they will admit him to the hospital for three to 10 days at least. That's the game."

Tired of being told that what Orville had was "simple depression that affects every soldier," his mother decided to take her son from the Fort Campbell base in Kentucky on March 14, four days before he was supposed to leave for Afghanistan. Orville told his mother that there were seven suicides the previous week, according to the local papers. Other soldiers at his base, many of whom suffer from depression, advised Orville to leave and helped him to escape.

Since then, Orville has received psychological treatment, according to relatives who have been in contact with him. About a month ago, a letter sent to his parents' house said that he owed the Army $8,000 for equipment he didn't "return" since he left without signing out. He thought that was another really bad joke from the Army.

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WHEN SANTOS López Morales went AWOL, he arrived home by himself without telling anyone. His mother, Luz Eneida, said that before he left the Fort Carson military base in Colorado last February, Santos "left a note saying that he didn't believe in the war, and that he didn't want to continue being part of the military."

Before he went into the Army, Santos was studying to become a draftsman at a local university. Right around the time he enlisted, he was having problems getting his scholarship and was unable to study. He was also unemployed. Santos wanted to find a job so that he and his partner could start a family. The Army recruiter assured him that the Army was the alternative that he was looking for.

"He did his best in the Army," Santos' mother said. "He struggled in the Army, he struggled a lot. He would do everything they told him to do. He took humiliations, punishments, a lot of things, and because of that, he was breaking down and couldn't take it anymore."

As with Orville, Army officials refused to accept the depression diagnosis for Santos. He was told that "the Army didn't believe in depression, that is it was totally not true, and that he didn't have anything, but he wasn't feeling well," his mother said.

The day that Santos López's son was born, June 16, members of the police's Criminal Investigative Center went to his job to look for him. "He was working then, he had a good job, and he had found an apartment," his grandmother said. "They [the police] went to his job, but he had left since the baby was about to be born on that day...Then, they went to the hospital. They invaded it, there was a police agent in every door of the hospital."

The agents were there the entire day. Santos managed to evade them and escape without being seen. A week later, the agents arrived at his mother and grandmother's house.

"We got upset from seeing so many of them," Santos' grandmother said. "Our house was turned into a battlefield. The agents entered the house without a warrant. They also didn't give any explanations. It was when they were leaving they said that they were looking for Santos López 'because your son is a fugitive of the U.S. Army.'"

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THE REALITY is that these two stories could be anyone's. According to Hiram Lozada, the lawyer defending Orville Gómez Santiago in his fight for conscientious-objector case, more than 80,000 soldiers remain AWOL from the Army. Of those, around 100 are Puerto Rican.

Ever since these two families started to speak out, other young Puerto Ricans have begun to call the group Mothers against the War in search for help.

Maria Santiago, Orville's mother, asks, "Why is it that you become a delinquent when you refuse to kill?" But that's precisely the point. Instead of treating soldiers who refuse to kill like delinquents, we should put on trial and treat like delinquents those politicians, military officials and Army recruiters who started the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are wars that are fought outside the U.S., but as these stories show, there is an internal front.

These two families and their children have done the right thing by refusing to participate in the military war machine.

Jose Gómez, Orville's father, tells young people to follow his son "and don't feel alone, don't have any fear, talk and look for help." Santos' grandmother tells young people "to not let the recruiters convince you because they are liars. Look for alternatives to the military."

The fact that these families are not alone in their fight gives them strength. In fact, they have found in one another the necessary strength to denounce the injustices that the Army continues to inflict on their children and which prevent them from having normal lives outside of the military.

As María Santiago said, "Fear is the biggest psychological weapon that the Army has. If you allow yourself to be afraid, the fear will paralyze you and you won't act. Any little thing that one can do as a person, as a human being--that is, you and your family combating and defending you beliefs and the value of life--do it because you and another person plus another one, when you realize it, we are one thousand."