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March 13, 2007

A mother’s love

Anita Dennis: Photo by Geoff Oliver Bugbee When her son, Darrell Anderson, showed doubt about returning to Baghdad, Anita Dennis helped him flee to Canada. He eventually returned to the United States and received an “other than honorable” discharge from the Army. HisDarrell Anderson left the Army two years ago and hitched a ride to Canada with his mother, the woman who would eventually negotiate his surrender and release. Their message: military good, Iraq War bad.“I was ordered, at a traffic stop, to fire upon innocent civilians. We turned away three cars. A fourth car  came, there were women and children in the back. My procedure was open fire but I couldn’t, and I was yelled at. I was like, ‘There were two kids in the back, I did the right thing. I didn’t kill those people.’” —Darrell Anderson, a former soldier, recounting one of the incidents that led him to flee the Army in 2005. Having a burning-hot shard of metal rip through the tender skin of his abdomen at hundreds of miles an hour was not why Darrell Anderson left the Army and became a war resister, although one could certainly make the case that absorbing the explosion of a 200-pound roadside bomb from the front hatch of a Howitzer is reason enough to go home and stay there.No, Anderson blazed to Canada just before his second Iraq deployment because of the other things he saw: war crimes, he says, things he couldn’t be party to.Sitting today in America, in Lexington, Ky., at a booth in a Panera Bread that seems to be the cornerstone of a newish strip mall, Anderson has the distinct look of a Vietnam-era dissenter: His black hair is gelled by a two-day grease sheen and treads all over the lines of his face; his bushy, finger-length beard is divided into various columns — the twisting is a nervous tic. His wardrobe fits the hippie stereotype: canvas flip-flops and a braided-hemp anklet on his right leg, dark-khaki cargo shorts despite a chill in the air, a forest-green long underwear shirt under a baja with a red-pink-maroon pattern of fat stripes, the sleeves clipped off neatly at the shoulders, and a thick, self-styled hemp necklace with a pendant of a harvest god — a lion-looking creature with a full beard and flop of hair — dangling at his collar line. The cargo pockets are a staple now, Darrell says. He has become an organizer, a nitpicker, and he needs specific pockets for the things he carries.His face channels experience that betrays his 24 years, and his oak-brown eyes are at once zealous and mournful. He tends to lose focus when he’s not the one talking. A few times he cranes his head over the horizon of the booth and scans the room. He says he scans a room differently now than before his seven months in Baghdad.Anita Dennis sits directly across from her son, dutifully annotating the story he tells in chunks — of his time in the Army, of the day he almost instinctively shot a little boy were it not for leaving the safety activated on his M-16, of watching the savage killing of innocent civilians and torture of war prisoners, of being ordered to shoot a car-full of innocent civilians and refusing to do so, of his hasty move to Canada after deciding he could take no more, of coming back to the United States and facing down the Army.Darrell’s reason for enlisting is classic. He grew up poor, first in Southern California and by sixth grade Lexington, without knowing the modern extravagance of things like health insurance. His daughter came when he was 19, suddenly everything was more expensive, and he needed better than a warehouse job at minimum wage. By the time he graduated from boot camp, there was a war in Iraq.The first thing that stands out about Anita is her teeth. The 44-year-old’s natural whites have the slight translucence of plastic, perfectly shaped and prominent, a $30,000 job. The natural question is why Anderson would have such expensive teeth, and the answer is not vanity. She ground them down, plagued with a mother’s worry while Darrell was in Baghdad. Teeth began to rotate in place. Some were chipped. The braces came later. Holding. It. Together. Anita’s eyes are the same as Darrell’s, or maybe they were before his took a darker, affected tone. Hers are like hot chocolate, and they well up with tears here and there, though she’s not sad anymore: She got Darrell back and in one piece. Today she is dressed in a black hoodie zipped about halfway up and dark gray sweatpants that end in a bunch just before her New Balance cross-trainers. She wears button earrings, two in each ear, and no makeup. Her hair is an elegant dark brown, clean and cropped neatly around her face and ears. It was Christmas 2004, with Darrell home in Lexington, that Anita figured to make a move. Though she’s a longtime opponent of war who comes from a family where the men fought and the women raised the kids, Anita had held her tongue when Darrell first talked about enlisting. He’ll smirk and remind her that she couldn’t have stopped him anyway, but it just rolls off her, like the couple other times he is critical about something she says. So when a sliver of doubt came through from Darrell, she was at the ready. That Christmas, when he talked about not going back to Baghdad, she produced a stack of news clippings about soldiers hiding out in Canada. There had just been a CBS News report about the subject. AWOL. Absent without leave. It was a serious prospect. Within days Anita was driving him to the border. “I wouldn’t have gone AWOL and stayed in the U.S., because then I would’ve just been saving myself,” he says. “I could’ve went to Canada and hid out — I could still be hiding out up there — but I wouldn’t be stopping the war or doing anything to help the other soldiers.”He spent the next year and eight months trying to organize a G.I. Resistance movement in Canada, with some success. About four months after arriving in Toronto, Darrell met Ivan Brobeck, a 21-year-old marine who’d decided not to return to Fallujah. Along with trying to find ways to help other AWOL soldiers, the pair did normal things: went to bars, watched football, skateboarded. Darrell showed Ivan the ropes. “It was a pretty cool environment,” Ivan says from his hometown of Arlington, Va., where he’s awaiting discharge after serving two months in a military brig for desertion. His prison term ended Feb. 5, five days before the birth of his son. “I had just gotten back from war. When I was in Canada I finally got a break. I got time to relax.” Ivan surrendered on Election Day (the timing was inadvertent, he says), and wrote a highly publicized letter to President Bush asking that he order a troop redeployment. His reason for leaving was the same as Darrell’s. It is not unusual for a deserter, as they’re known in military parlance, to receive an “other than honorable” discharge from the Army. That means they lose veterans’ benefits and access to certain types of loans afforded to the military. More than 90 percent of soldiers who return to Fort Knox — one of two special processing companies the military operates in the United States set up to deal with deserters whose units are deployed overseas — end up walking away without serving prison time, according to Gini Sinclair, a Fort Knox spokesperson. The matter of desertions has always been of concern to the military — and a PR issue, as with the current case of Lt. Ehren Watada, who’s being court-martialed now a second time by the Army for refusing to deploy to Iraq on the grounds that the war is illegal — though not a crushing problem. Hundreds of thousands fled the service during Vietnam, largely a result of the draft. In fiscal year 2006, the Army reported 2,343 deserters. More than 8,000 are unaccounted for military-wide since the start of the Iraq war; some say that figure is too low. After seven months of staying up all night watching CNN — night here is day in Baghdad — grinding her teeth, sleeping only after Darrell’s weekly Sunday-morning phone call, Anita needed a reprieve. Darrell’s move to Canada was it, but he was growing tired and disillusioned, saying he’d rather do prison time in the States than be stuck in Canada, away from his family and friends. “Up until two days before he came back, they were telling me that they were going to send him to Germany and that he was facing five to seven years in prison,” Anita says. “I went ballistic. I literally went ballistic on Fort Knox, and I was there three days that week, and the third day they pulled me aside and said, ‘We are going to let your son go.’” The Army doesn’t discuss specifics; Sinclair said that each deserter case is decided on its own merits. Anita and Darrell think good will has something to do with it: His surrender at Fort Knox, where they shaved his head and dressed him in a uniform, was relatively quiet and orderly. He spent three days on the base. About a month later, on Veterans’ Day of all days, Darrell’s discharge papers arrived in the mail. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com