James M. Branum has a Southern drawl that stretches words like warm taffy. You might suspect this big guy with a big mustache of having a worldview shaped by sweet potato pies, American flags and Bible study.
You'd be at least partially right.
Branum was raised a conservative Christian and an unquestioning patriot. But about five years ago, he began examining his long-held beliefs.
"I had been challenged by a Catholic at that point about being pro-life, and this person said, 'How can you call yourself pro-life if you support the war and support the death penalty?'" Branum says.
Branum began gravitating toward passivism, and rejecting the idea that your own country is superior. Now, Branum is a Mennonite minister in Oklahoma. He's also an attorney, representing soldiers who want out of the military conscientious objectors, and those with health problems, family hardship or harassment claims. Every case is different.
"I've had clients who had broken bones, and they were given Advil," he says.
He has about 200 cases under his belt, including that of Robin Long, who was stationed at Fort Carson before getting 15 months in prison for desertion. Like Long, many soldiers Branum represents are already in trouble, having deserted or gone absent without leave.
A year ago, the Associated Press reported soldiers were deserting at the highest rate since 1980. As the wars drag on, desertion cases have become routine at Fort Carson. They're not epidemic, but certainly not rare.
A day in court
On Monday, Nov. 17, paralegals stand outside a Fort Carson courtroom, looking pathetically bored. The trial of Pfc. Anthony "Tony" Anderson, the first of two desertion cases today both handled in part by Branum was scheduled for 9 a.m. It's now past 10.
Finally the judge, Col. Debra Boudreau, military lawyers (or JAGs) and civilian attorneys emerge. Anderson is 19 but looks younger. His blue eyes shift nervously, and his uniform drapes over his lanky body.
He has pleaded guilty to desertion with the intent to avoid hazardous duty, and failure to obey a lawful command, so his trial is mostly a formality. Only the sentencing really matters. The judge (Anderson has waived his right to a jury) can reduce the sentence in his plea deal, but not increase it. That means Anderson, who could have been imprisoned 10 years, won't get more than 15 months.
Anderson enlisted at 17, hoping to become a firefighter. But when his unit was set to deploy, he fled to his parents' home in New York. He turned himself in at Fort Drum about 20 days later and was returned to Fort Carson, but again refused to go to Iraq.
Anderson testifies from his seat next to Branum and defense JAG Capt. Robert Guillen. Shaking with sobs, the soldier speaks about his father.
"I never did anything to impress him before [joining]," Anderson says, his voice quivering.
Anderson says he adjusted to the military, but was assigned to police instead of fire. As his deployment neared, he was tormented by moral questions. But chaplains, military mental-health professionals and his commander discouraged him from seeking conscientious objector status, he says.
"I know in my heart that it is wrong to willfully hurt or kill another human being," he tells the judge. "I only ask you to remember that I was trained to do the right thing."
Branum, in his closing argument, says Anderson was too young to understand his moral viewpoints, and plenty young enough to make a mistake.
Later, in a break before sentencing, Anderson is scarfing down cheese and crackers. Tears have dried under his eyes. He says once he's out of prison, he can work with his dad in his oil-change businesses.
"He's upset with what I did, but he wants to see me happy," Anderson says of his father. "We're just going to put it behind us."
Boudreau sentences Anderson to 14 months in prison, a bad conduct discharge, no benefits and a demotion. Branum initially seems pleased, but later his mood changes.
"I wish Tony had gotten a better deal," he says. "I mean, you think about it, he's just a baby."
There's barely time for lunch before Pvt. Daniel Sandate's 1 p.m. court-martial. All day, there's been courtroom whispering about Sandate, who didn't leave for reasons of conscience. He was losing his mind. People say Sandate's attorneys couldn't get him to shave or cut his hair.
When Sandate does enter, clean-shaven and composed, it's somewhat anticlimactic. He has pleaded guilty to desertion with intent to remain away permanently. He'll get no more than 20 months for leaving the Army to live in Canada for two years.
The defense warms up with social worker Beverly Jahn, who has talked with Sandate. Branum works carefully; she is a strong witness, if not eloquent. She says Sandate has potential for rehabilitation, with some love, training and therapy, and then she survives a cross-examination.
Sandate takes the stand and deliberately lays out the details of his life. An abusive mother beat him with wires and TV antennas. A father isolated and neglected him and then died when Sandate was a teen, leaving the son to live in the father's empty country dwelling. The house stunk because Sandate's father's body had decomposed for days before being found.
Sandate tried suicide countless times, using drugs, rat poison, even slicing his tongue in half, hoping he'd bleed to death. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder. He never finished high school. He did a lot of drugs.
He says he told everything to military recruiters. The Marines wouldn't take him; the Army gave him a waiver. He was 24.
Later he went to Iraq, where he survived three attacks and cleaned up masses of dead bodies. Along the way, he herniated a disc in his back. Instead of immediately treating his injury, the Army put Sandate through a bureaucratic nightmare. He became suicidal again. Then he took an online friend's offer to desert and live with her in Canada. Together, they grew marijuana to help Sandate with his physical pain and mental instability. But Sandate says he felt guilty for abandoning his comrades, and blamed his girlfriend. The relationship crumbled. Alone again, Sandate slit one of his wrists in his Canadian apartment.
He was bleeding to death in the bathtub when his coagulating blood caused a leak in the plumbing. His blood began to drip into the apartment below. The neighbor called the landlord, who called the police. Finally, Canada agreed to ship Sandate back to America.
The courtroom is silent. Boudreau looks troubled. The prosecution will argue Sandate made a commitment and didn't live up to it. Sandate's defense JAG, Cpt. Seth Cohen, will argue quite effectively that the Army failed Sandate and, by not treating his health problems, abandoned a fallen comrade.
Boudreau hands Sandate an eight-month sentence (with 137 days already served), a bad-conduct discharge, and forfeiture of pay and benefits. It's better than the defense could have hoped.
"On this one, I'm tickled pink," Branum says. "Oh my word, eight months!"
Now, he says, there's just one problem. What happens to Sandate once he's released?