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Three Brothers go AWOL
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune  |  June 06, 2007
CARLTON, MINN. -- Luke Kamunen began to wonder if he'd made a mistake the moment he arrived for basic training. He was still in the airport at Fort Jackson, S.C., with other members of his Minnesota National Guard unit, when an officer reprimanded him publicly for leaving a paper cup on his seat in the airport.

"I was thinking, is this what it's going to be like the whole time?" Luke said. "I'm not even on the bus yet."

His twin brother, Leif, started having doubts within weeks when a drill sergeant indicated they were probably headed to Iraq. Leif said that possibility had been downplayed by the recruiter who signed him up in Duluth.

On Jan. 2, the twins, age 21, and their brother Leo, 20, went AWOL from the Army. All three failed to return to basic training after Christmas break in northern Minnesota. Five months later, Luke has been released from the military, while Leif and Leo remain absent without leave. They say they plan to turn themselves in soon.

The Kamunen brothers are an example of a growing problem -- Army desertions have risen 35 percent in the past two years, according to Defense Department figures. The number rose from 2,450 in 2004 to 3,301 in 2006.

There are many more who go AWOL -- tens of thousands who leave without permission for anywhere from 24 hours to 30 days.

"In any large group of military, you are always going to have some people change their minds," said Dennis Schulstad, a retired Air Force brigadier general and a former Minneapolis City Council member. Soldiers who desert are only a fraction of the 2.5 million in the military.

But Ronald Krebs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, blames the sharp rise on the "unfathomable pressure" that recruiters are now under. He says that forces them to lower standards and recruit people who might be less stable.

"Lower-quality recruits desert at much higher rates than higher-quality recruits," said Krebs, author of "Fighting for Rights: Military Service and the Politics of Citizenship," published last year by Cornell University Press.

The Kamunens are typical of young recruits who go AWOL, said Sam Diener of the GI Rights Hotline, a national organization that counsels soldiers. "The recruits are disproportionately rural, mostly high school graduates who aren't sure what to do next," he said.

Still, the Kamunens' situation is unusual, simply because there are three of them. "I've talked to thousands and thousands of AWOLs," said the GI Hotline's Bill Galvin. "And I don't think I've ever heard of two brothers going AWOL at the same time."

A subdued reaction up north

The brothers' decision to walk away has made barely a ripple in this northern Minnesota county.

"I hadn't heard of it," said Robert Langenbrunner, commander of the Cloquet American Legion post. Recruits pledge to serve their country, he said. "I'm dead set against" anyone going AWOL "unless there's something traumatic, like a death in the family."

Bruce Ahlgren, mayor of Cloquet, noted that a couple of years ago, three soldiers from the area died in Iraq. "It hit our area very hard," he said. "I think young kids have a tough situation when it comes to war."

Ahlgren doesn't know the Kamunens. "They signed up for a reason, and for whatever reason they changed their minds and will have to suffer the consequences," he said. "But I am certainly not going to condemn them for it."

Carlton County's jobless rate is more than 6 percent. "It's really hard to find a job that's going to pay what you're worth," Luke said. "You either work for McDonald's or as a janitor."

Their father, Leo, suggested Luke join the Guard because he believed the military would help him pay for college. "It sounded really good," Leo said. "I encouraged him as much as I could."

In March 2006, Luke walked into the National Guard recruiting office in Duluth. The recruiter, Sgt. Chris Beron, told him about a $20,000 signing bonus and, according to Luke, said that deployment was unlikely.

"He told me that it's really a rare occurrence that I was going to war," Luke said. And if he did go to Iraq, "he told me I would be sitting in the barracks somewhere fixing a vehicle."

Beron denies that. "I tell them that we are in a war, you are in a branch of the military. ... I tell them that in 13 years, I have never been deployed ... anywhere. I spend a lot of time telling them there is a possibility, but I can't guarantee it one way or the other."

Leif was next to sign up. He had done telemarketing, worked construction, stocked grocery shelves and washed dishes. "I didn't know what direction I wanted to go," he said.

Beron "was telling us all the benefits and what we would be doing," Leif said. "He made it seem too good to be true. All the money, we would be together through our career. He said there was always a chance [of Iraq], but he kind of minimized it."

Over the summer, younger brother Leo signed up too. "I was sick of this town," he said.

The recollections of the brothers and Beron diverge on another issue. Luke said Beron told them not to disclose any medical problems or juvenile records that might bar them from enlistment. Beron denies it.

Luke said Beron told him to conceal his scar from surgery to insert a rod in an ankle and even sent someone to Wal-Mart to buy a fake tattoo to cover it. Beron denies that vehemently. "I knew nothing about this," he said.

Second thoughts

Once at basic training, Luke said he hated the way drill sergeants yelled at recruits. And then he started hearing rumors about deployment to Iraq.

He thought, "You can't do nothing now. You're in the Army, you're screwed."

He also learned that his unit, which was supposed to be fixing Army vehicles, would carry weapons. He was trained to use M-16s and grenade launchers.

The drill sergeant told them, "Don't think you are not going to war," Luke said.

Maybe this shouldn't have been a surprise, he conceded. But, "I have been living in a small town, trying to get a job," he said. "I don't know what's going on."

Meanwhile, the week before Leif left for Fort Jackson, his girlfriend gave birth to their daughter. "Halfway through basic training, I didn't want to be there anymore," he said.

At home over Christmas, Leo started dating a local woman. "I decided there was no way I could be apart from her for long periods of time when I didn't feel so strongly about fighting for George Bush's war," he said.

On Jan. 2, Luke slept in and missed the plane back to his military base. Leif missed the flight, too. So did Leo.

"We saw each other a couple days later," Luke said, "and we're saying, 'What, you didn't go back, either?' "

Months passed, and the brothers began getting calls from military officers, demanding they return. About a month ago, Luke was spotted by a police officer, who told him he had a military warrant for his arrest. He was jailed in Carlton County for a week and then flown to Fort Knox, Ky., where he was given an "other than honorable discharge."

Leif and Leo remain AWOL. "I realized I made a mistake, and I am sorry about wasting their time and money," Leo said. He wants to move to the Twin Cities and get a job. Leif is looking for work. Luke enrolled last week in Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet. None got their $20,000 bonus; recruits get half after finishing training and half after four years, Beron said.

The repercussions

It is not unusual for the military to be slow about catching AWOL soldiers. Galvin, of the GI Rights Hotline, said the Army has few people tracking them down. After 30 days, officials can get a desertion warrant. He said the military figures that most of them will eventually be picked up during traffic stops, as with Luke. Or the AWOL soldier will get tired of looking over the shoulder and surrender.

If AWOL soldiers are still in training, such as the Kamunens, a common penalty is an "other than honorable discharge." Diener, the counselor for the GI Hotline, said people with that kind of discharge can have a difficult time getting a job with police, government or major corporations.

"For smaller companies, it does not make as much difference," he said.

Department of Defense statistics show that while the number of AWOL Army soldiers climbed by 35 percent over two years, desertions dropped in the Navy, Marines and Air Force. Overall, AWOL numbers were up slightly, from 5,259 in 2004 to 5,361 in 2006.

Schulstad, the retired brigadier general, said it's understandable why the Army's numbers were up. "They are the guys on the ground fighting the war," he said.

Don Olson of Minneapolis is an anti-war activist who has counseled hundreds of soldiers, going back to the Vietnam War. He also counseled Luke Kamunen.

"Luke was recruited on the basis he'd be a mechanic for the Guard in Duluth," said Olson. "He told me he really didn't want to kill people."

But Beron is perplexed by the brothers. He said he has recruited nearly 200 people over seven years, and the Kamunens are the first to go AWOL.

"I don't understand it," he said. "The reason the three brothers joined was for the educational benefit. Their goal was to try and do something with their lives."

He said the brothers made it sound as though their lives had pretty much stalled. "I accommodated them. I provided them the opportunity to serve their country."

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Copyright 2015 Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


 


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