Peace Activist’s Son Discovers Pain of War

The U.S. military has expelled the son of a leading peace activist for going AWOL after returning from a year tour in Iraq.

Specialist Shaun Manuel, whose father Michael McPhearson directs the organization Veterans for Peace, was given a bad-conduct discharge last month after failing to report for training for a second tour.

When Manuel signed up for the Army in December 2003, his father, Michael McPherson, tried to talk him out of it. A veteran of the first Gulf War, McPherson was a vociferous opponent of the second.

But Manuel wouldn’t listen to his father’s admonitions. He was assigned to the 101 Airborne Division and in September 2005 deployed for a year-long tour running convoys and warehouse operations in Tikrit.

As he dealt with the daily danger of mortar rounds and roadside bombs, Manuel said, he began to share his father’s perspective.

"It was like I was over there for no reason," he said. "We weren’t accomplishing anything. It was like we were doing the same thing every day and they wouldn’t tell us nothing about what was going on at the Pentagon."

Manuel said he repeatedly asked his chain of command, "Why am I over here?" but they didn’t provide him with an answer.

It was "like they were ready to come home too," he said. "What I was thinking – it was on their face."

While Manuel was in Iraq, his wife gave birth to their third son, Jeremiah. But the joyous occasion turned sour when Jeremiah was diagnosed with a genetic disease called Muscular Spinal Atrophy and died in January of this year.

Manuel said the situation was made even more painful when his superiors ordered him to begin training for a second tour in Iraq.

"My son passed away," he said. "You gonna’ send an emotionally distressed soldier to Iraq – who knows what he’s going to do? I’m ready to just blow the whole world up because I didn’t see my son being born and then he just passed away on me with no warning."

Manuel never filed paperwork to medically excuse him from the deployment. Instead, he withdrew and buried himself in alcohol. He estimates he drank three fifths of liquor a day. At one point, his wife had to call the police during a domestic disturbance.

In response, the Army threw him in a local county jail and kicked him out of the military with a bad-conduct discharge, which will deny him medical benefits he might have been able to use to get his life back together again.

It’s a common story.

In the first four years of the Iraq war, for example, 1,019 Marines were dismissed with less-than-honorable discharges for misconduct committed after overseas deployments.

Navy Capt. William Nash, who coordinates the Marines’ combat stress program, told USA Today last week that at least 326 of the discharged Marines showed evidence of mental health problems, possibly from combat stress.

Nash told the paper he hoped that "any Marine or sailor who commits particularly uncharacteristic misconduct following deployment…be aggressively screened for stress disorders and treated."

"If a Marine who was previously a good, solid Marine – never got in trouble – commits misconduct after deployment and turns out they have PTSD {Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and because of justice they lose their benefits, that may not be justice," Nash said.

David Walker is a Vietnam veteran and police chaplain who’s been helping returning soldiers work their way through military bureaucracy. He notes that most American soldiers are only being given six months in the United States between deployments – five months of which is generally spent training for the next tour.

Cases like Shaun Manuel’s, he said, are increasingly common.

"It’d be like sending out your first-string football team and there’s no defense, no offense, there’s no kickoff team, there’s no punt return team – everybody that’s on that line is on the line for the duration of the game," Walker said. "When it’s over with, you get an hour break and you play another team with the same string of guys."

"It’s burning people out," he said.

Like many soldiers who have returned from Iraq, Manuel has never seen a military psychiatrist. He never asked to see one and now that he’s been chaptered out of the Army he won’t be able to see one in the future.

His father, Veterans for Peace Director Michael McPhearson, is helping Manuel file an appeal to regain his medical benefits.

In the meantime, McPhearson sees the glass as half full.

"I feel relief," he told OneWorld. "I was so concerned about him going into the military in the first place. Then he goes to Iraq, so there was a year of me saying ‘Oh my God, is my son going to come back? How guilty am I going to feel if something happens to him?’ Now I’m through all that. The worst thing that could happen now is that he does what many young people do, which is not to follow a good path in life."

"But he’s not going to be killed in Iraq," McPhearson said. "I know that. So I’ve just got be a good father and help him as best I can."