Evan Knappenberger is like many young post-Sept. 11 Army enlistees who went from high school into the military for patriotic reasons. He wanted to spread democracy, to topple Saddam Hussein, “to do something to affect the world in a good way,” the freckled 22-year-old says.
Today, Knappenberger is a disillusioned Iraq War veteran, four months out of the military and on a one-man mission as a peace activist campaigning against Defense Department policies that he believes unethically support the continuation of the war.
He is not so much protesting as standing guard against the Pentagon’s so-called “stop-loss” and “inactive reserve” policies, both designed to maintain troop strength in light of failed recruitment goals. His platform is a makeshift six-foot-tall guard tower that he erected Sunday next to the Washington Monument. There, outfitted in his battle dress uniform, Knappenberger is holding a vigil for seven nights and eight days.
The policies have, in effect, created conscripted service in an ostensibly voluntary military, he said.
“How do you tell a 17-year-old or a 55-year-old grandpa that [he’s] part of a voluntary military and yet he’s being involuntarily extended?” Knappenberger asked as he stood in front of his guard tower, filled with sandbags, covered with burlap netting and decorated with a “Funding the War is Killing the Troops” placard.
“It makes no sense, and it’s wrong.”
Knappenberger conducted a similar seven-night vigil in Bellingham, Wash., in June, partly as a political protest and partly as self-help therapy, he said. He had been having nightmares of his 97-consecutive-day tower guard stint in Taji, Iraq, where he served for a year. It was in Taji, as a member of the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Hood, that Knappenberger said he became disillusioned with the U.S. involvement in Iraq. He said he was working as an intelligence analyst, involved on occasion with the interrogation of suspected terrorists.
“I’m not a trained interrogator, and there was one time I’m yelling a lot at this guy who’s a chicken farmer, and that set up moral alarms for me,” the young veteran said. “I thought, when did fighting for democracy come down to yelling at chicken farmers?”
“I ended up doing things that were pointless and unconsciously malicious,” said Knappenberger, who graduated from high school in Charlottesville. “That scared me.”
Knappenberger said he was fired from his job as an analyst while in Iraq but that he served in the Army for almost four years. He was given a general discharge under honorable conditions in April.
Since then, he has been advocating a campaign to “Stop the Stop-Loss,” a policy that extends the service of troops beyond their contractual terms in order to maintain military strength in Iraq. He is also speaking against the Pentagon policy that calls up Army reservists to serve in Iraq, including members of the Individual Ready Reserve, who do not participate in regularly scheduled training.
Knappenberger said many of his Army friends who had completed active duty contracts were being sent back to Iraq for third and fourth tours that had been extended from 12 to up to 18 months. Other acquaintances had been called up for active duty after years of civilian life. “Stop-Loss is an unethical policy,” Knappenberger said.
His vigil this week is being supported by the Washington, D.C., chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, the Washington Peace Center and Veterans for Peace, a national organization. The National Park Service permit allowing temporary construction of the guard tower was obtained by the Washington Peace Center, said director Jay Marx.
As was required when he was on guard duty in Iraq, Knappenberger must remain awake during his vigil. Neither sleeping nor camping is allowed on the Mall. By yesterday afternoon, he had been spelled at the guard tower by other peace activists for only three hours, during which he left the Mall to shower, shave and rest.
His protest coincides with a candlelight vigil scheduled for last night at the Capitol Reflecting Pool. It was one of more than 500 vigils planned across the country to urge Congress to end the war in Iraq.