Like a lot of young people, Matthis Chiroux thought the Army was his best option after finishing high school. An admitted lackluster C student in search of some discipline, Chiroux joined the military shortly after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and served five years of his eight-year commitment before getting an honorable discharge in 2007.
Then, just days after enrolling in college in January, Chiroux was ordered to un-enroll (and swallow $7,500 in just-taken-out loans) and report for duty in Iraq in March as part of the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). He decided his conscience wouldn't let him go, and now the former military journalist is waiting to see how his own story will end as he braces for the Army's response to his refusal to serve in a war he calls illegal.
"The IRR are basically civilians. It's a catch pool for guys getting out of the military with the idea that if your country needs you for a legitimate reason — a national emergency or state of war — you can be called back to active service," he said. Even if, like Chiroux, you've finished your active-duty obligation — and, in his case, voluntarily served a year longer than the typical three-to-four-year stint — the government can call up members of the IRR under certain circumstances with little notice.
When Chiroux's number came up earlier this year, he said he decided to resist the call. And though the fight against redeployment has felt like a one-man battle at times, he said he knows he's not alone.
Chiroux said the military claims that he is one of only 700 IRR members who have failed to report for duty so far for a variety of reasons, some of them medical. But according to research he did in Washington, D.C., recently while pleading his case to members of Congress who also oppose the war, military figures show that since the beginning of the Iraq war 15,000 members of the IRR have been sent reactivation orders and only half that number have shown up.
Major Maria Quon, a public affairs officer for the Army's Human Resource Command denied the figures Chiroux gave, saying that 16,000 mobilization orders have been issued since September 11 and of those, 7,400 have asked for a delay or exemption, with 6,300 getting them for reasons ranging from medical and family care issues to financial hardship. So far, she said, there have been around 700 no shows, half of which are under investigation and the other half resulting in either general or other than honorable discharges from the military. "Anyone who feels they have a case can make it and have it reviewed by a panel," she said. She also stressed that IRR members are not civilians, but soldiers who are still considered part of the military — until they complete their eight years of service — even though they are currently living a civilian life.
Chiroux, 24, was never deployed to Iraq, but spent time in Afghanistan in 2005 as a military reporter. "On active duty, a lot of my job was to suppress the stuff that could make the Army look bad by controlling facts," he said. As a result of his reporting, he said he was also able to gain a larger picture of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an image that inspired his anti-Iraq-war views once he returned to civilian life last year.
After moving to Brooklyn and working a succession of odd jobs in 2007 — including short stints as an international representative for a South African platinum company, a barista at an organic coffee shop and a canvasser for an environmental organization — the Auburn, Alabama, native enrolled in Brooklyn College in January, knowing in the back of his head that there was a possibility that he might get called back to active duty.
"It's a real concern for every soldier in the Army," Chiroux said. "We like to talk about how we have an all-volunteer force, but at its core it's untrue, because if it was true we wouldn't need these kind of stop-loss actions." Chiroux, who enlisted out of high school looking for "personal progress" and "self-discipline" as well as the chance to serve his country and earn money for college, said he learned that the U.S. was preparing for a possible war in Iraq a week after he got out of basic training.
After the Army, he assumed the GI Bill benefits he earned would help pay for college but was "horrified" to learn in January that because of his salary in the Army and his stationing overseas, he was going to be denied federal and state tuition assistance. He also found out that he was not eligible for subsidized student loans because of his GI Bill benefits.
In the end, his benefits as a veteran totaled around $1,000 a month, not even enough to pay for his apartment in Brooklyn. If Chiroux had not served in the military, he said he would have been eligible for Pell Grants that might have helped him pay the $7,500 he laid out in January for school. A Veterans Administration representative at his college told him that his struggle to pay tuition was a typical story for young veterans.
"Then, three weeks after school started, I got hit with my forced-reactivation orders, just three days after I took out my loans for school. I was told to withdraw from classes and report to Fort Jackson on March 8," he said. When he first read the order, Chiroux — thinking he might be able to do some good in Iraq by getting the word out about stateside anti-war veterans groups to those on the front lines — fully intended to fulfill his duty.
"But then I realized that what I was thinking about was extraordinarily dangerous," he said. "Deploying for peace is almost suicidal. If Iraq is an illegal war — which a lot of veterans I've met, and people in the military, think it is — then by keeping my oath of enlistment I would do no good by going there, and I'd only be adding to the problem despite noble intentions." Chiroux called the military to explain his loan situation and said he was told that while the Army could not get his loans nullified, they could delay his redeployment until June 15. By the end of April, he felt he couldn't go to Iraq and began hatching a plan to flee the country and hide out in Spain.
As he put his studies on hold to spend several months speaking to members of Congress in Washington about his plight, Chiroux's second deployment date came and went. Technically, he said, he's not AWOL because he feels he's essentially a civilian, and he's heard nothing from the Army since he failed to report.
The Army sees it differently, though. "The way he's going about it by not showing up puts him as a deserter and someone who is AWOL," Army spokesperson Major Nathan Banks said. "We won't go after him, but if he applies for a federal grant or school loans, certain jobs or gets a traffic ticket, he will be arrested and processed for being a deserter, and he will probably get a dishonorable discharge. He's digging his own hole." Banks said Chiroux's best bet is to file as a conscientious objector and explain his reasons for not wanting to serve. Quon added that if a soldier wishes to claim conscientious objector status, they must first report to their mobilization site and submit an application, which is then reviewed by a General Court Martial.
While they won't go after him, Chiroux knows the Army has noticed his actions. "There were several stories [about me] in the Stars and Stripes [newspaper], which every soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan gets," he said, with a touch of nervousness in his voice. He hasn't filed for conscientious-objector status because he said he doesn't qualify for that designation by the Army's standards.
"I'm not against all war, period," he said. "In fact, I'm very pro-military. I see a great need to have a highly professional, well-trained and well-equipped defensive force that can also participate in international humanitarian operations, including peacekeeping operations. However, I'm highly opposed to illegal war, which is what I see the occupation of Iraq as."
For now, it's a waiting game, one whose end Chiroux can't foresee. "I will continue to try and educate myself and stand for justice and the rule of law," he said. "I have no fear of the military or what will happen here. If I'm jailed for my actions, they will never be able to strip from me the reality that I hold close to my heart that what I'm doing here is morally and legally right and in keeping with the values that were trained into me while in the military."