James Circello is a wanted man. The 29-year-old’s name appears in every law-enforcement database in the country. Yet he is not on the run or in hiding. Attend a major peace demonstration anywhere in the country and you’re likely to bump into him making a passionate case against the war in Iraq. His feelings are grounded in firsthand experience: Circellodespite his outlaw statusis an Army sergeant assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, one of the first units deployed to Iraq in March 2003.
In 2001, Circello was attending junior college in Lake Jackson, Texas. Ten days after 9/11 he enlisted. “I was angry and got caught up in the fever that was sweeping America,” he says. Even so, he always believed that the invasion of Iraq was a military and foreign-policy blunder, a belief that only hardened as the war progressed. Circello completed his year’s tour and returned to his base in Vicenza, Italy. But over the next few years, he grew increasingly angry about the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan and started thinking seriously about whether he wanted to remain in the military. When, in January 2007, the Democrats took control of Congress but offered no clear timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, he put his plan for going AWOL in motion.
The night before Easter in 2007, he abandoned almost everything he owned, packed a backpack, and walked off the base. The following day Circello took a train to Milan and boarded a plane to New York, where he had friends who were willing to let him hide out. Several days later, he traveled to Ohio to visit his parents, who had received a letter from the Army seeking information about their son’s whereabouts. They did not respond. To date, that letter remains the only effort the military has made to find him. But his family did receive calls from strangers who claimed to be inquiring about Circello’s Visa bill. As Circello doesn’t have a Visa card, he speculates that these calls were from “rogue” members of his unit.
Circello is one of more than 20,000 American service members who have gone AWOL since the beginning of the Iraq war. Some lost faith in the management of the war; others no longer support the war itself. Still others simply got fed up with repeated deployments that took a toll on their families and personal lives.
Michael Sharp has seen a steady increase in the number of soldiers wanting to quit the service in his two years with the Military Counseling Network, a group that provides free advice on how to leave the armed forces. “Choosing to go AWOL is one of the more extreme options, but it’s also becoming a popular one among those who have decided they don’t want anything more to do with the military,” Sharp says.
According to the Army, the number of desertions began to fall after 9/11, from a high of 4,399 in 2001 to 2,450 in 2004, before creeping back up to 3,301 in 2006. Through March, 1,710 soldiers had gone AWOL in 2007, putting the number of desertions on track to be more than double the number from last year. But people at organizations like the GI Rights Hotline and the Military Counseling Network believe that the government’s official tally of 20,000 military desertions is too low. They estimate that the number is higher, by a factor of two or more.