A May 22 Metro article about Dana Jensen, a real estate agent who deserted rather than go on active duty with his National Guard unit, incorrectly reported that he started a Re/Max real estate office in Winchester, Va. The office is not a Re/Max franchise, and Jensen's realty license is inactive. He does administrative work for his wife, who is a Re/Max agent. (Published 6/8/04)
Three years ago, Spec. Dana Jensen was a rising star in the Virginia Army National Guard. Then 25, with a perfect score on his physical fitness test, he was named his company's Soldier of the Year, and his superiors were offering promotions.
Today, Jensen's colleagues in the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry regiment, are training at Fort Bragg, N.C., without him. While they prepare for an 18-month deployment in Afghanistan or Iraq, he works in his real estate office, having traded fatigues for a tie and a new title: deserter.
When the 570 other members of his battalion pulled out of the Winchester armory March 4, Jensen stayed behind, saying he couldn't leave his nascent business and pregnant wife. His refusal to go has elicited a fierce reaction in this conservative city in Virginia's far northern tip. Members of Winchester's large military community -- the city's American Legion post is one of the largest in the Pentagon's home state -- have organized a boycott of his firm and speak about their former golden boy as if he had taken up arms for the other side.
"Here's a guy who willingly shirked the obligation to his comrades as well as the state and federal government. You tell me if that's someone you want to do business with? He's enjoying a cafe latte while all my friends are sitting at Fort Bragg awaiting their fate," said Bill Germelman, 37, who was in the Army and then the Guard for nearly eight years. "We are seething."
As disgusted as they are with Jensen, some people are equally angered and confused by the Army's decision, after declaring him a deserter, to grant him an administrative discharge -- a category military lawyers say doesn't even constitute a punishment and is used to wrap up a broad range of minor cases. When Jensen's battalion went on active federal duty, jurisdiction moved from the National Guard to the Army, which declined to comment on his case.
"I wonder what the soldiers at Fort Bragg think," said Sgt. 1st Class Vernon Matthews, the National Guard recruiter in Winchester. " 'If it's okay for him to do it, why can't I?' Or, 'Should I do the same thing?' "
Jensen, who was serving an extra year after completing a six-year Guard term, said he will have little to say about the case until he has his discharge paperwork in hand. In the meantime, he said, his biggest problem isn't "the comments on the street from random people. It's been in the real estate community."
After running a restaurant together, he and his wife recently started a Re/Max office. "It's a pretty competitive industry, and that's where I've felt the crunch the most," he said, adding that other agents are using his desertion "as leverage."
There are thousands of desertions each year in the Army alone. The few that rise to public notice usually involve higher drama -- soldiers who are court-martialed for taking a stand against war, for example. Jensen's unsensational argument is much more common. But he is making it at a very uncommon time, when the slur of "unpatriotic behavior" is let loose daily across the country and the roles of the Army's National Guard and Reserve are changing radically.
Mention of the case prompted a strong reaction last week among men having lunch in the bar at the Elks Club. Scott Aikens, 50, who handles maintenance for apartment buildings, first joked that Jensen should "be shot," then said he never should have joined the Guard if he wasn't willing to go.
"I feel sorry for all those people over there dying in Iraq," Aikens said. "They have to be away from their families and businesses."
Across town at Salon Cheveux, a hair salon on the pedestrian mall in Winchester's Old Town near Jensen's second-story office space, there was a measure of sympathy, if not support.
"I don't think we should have been over there to begin with," said hairstylist Terri Kerns, 41, "but I understand his reasons. His job would have folded." Salon manager Alicia Robinson is the daughter and sister of soldiers and was married to a Marine, and she said she draws a distinction between being enlisted and being in the reserves or the National Guard.
"If you make that as your career choice, you should go, but National Guard are backup," said Robinson, 34, who moved to Winchester last fall. "To pack them up and send them off when they don't want to go -- that's not right."
Jensen's attorney, Matthew Freedus, said Jensen joined the Guard in 1996 "for the desire to serve and the excitement of it." He completed his six-year term in 2002, took a year off and then returned in 2003 under a program called Try One, which allows a year-long commitment.
"It's a decision he dramatically regretted immediately after having done it," said Freedus, a military law specialist. "He didn't think there was a great risk he'd be overseas." Freedus said Jensen didn't do it for the money -- about $3,000 a year for a young specialist -- but for the camaraderie.
"He enjoyed the people. He had friends in the command," the lawyer said.
Jensen was six months into his extra year when his unit was called up, extending his obligation for the length of the deployment. According to Freedus, Jensen first argued that his family and work obligations were too much. After finding no sympathy, he briefly made, and then withdrew, a claim that he was a conscientious objector. Then, according to Michelle Nelson, wife of the company commander and vice president of the battalion's family support group, Jensen argued that he should not serve because he was gay. Freedus said his client obviously was making "a complete joke."
Shortly after failing to register March 1 for his active-duty tour, Jensen was declared absent without leave. On March 8, four days after his battalion left for North Carolina, he was declared a deserter. Three weeks later, he was arrested by Frederick County sheriff's deputies and then sent to the Army's desertion center at Fort Knox, Ky., where he remained -- though not behind bars -- while his case was processed.
Military lawyers say more soldiers are asking to be excused from duty, but Army statistics show that the number of desertions from the Army, including the reserves and National Guard, is down since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In fiscal 2000, about 4,000 soldiers deserted, 1.1 percent of those on active duty. In 2001, that figure climbed to 4,600, 1.3 percent, but it fell in 2002, to 4,000 (1.1 percent), and again in 2003, to 2,800 (0.7 percent). As of February, about halfway through fiscal 2004, the figure was at 800, or 0.24 percent, Army spokeswoman Cathy Gramling said.
Gramling said that punishment for convicted deserters ranges from no penalty to death and that the average is five years in prison. But there are no comprehensive figures. Army research on 2,417 cases from 2001 to 2003 found that 966 ended in administrative discharges.
According to Lt. Col. Chester Carter, a Virginia National Guard spokesman, there have been three desertions, including Jensen's, since Sept. 11, 2001, among the 7,500 Guard personnel serving in the state. A second person from Jensen's battalion deserted after the call to active duty, though Carter said he did not know the soldier's identity.
The third soldier was from the 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry, and was court-martialed after failing to go with his unit to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Carter said. Carter did not know his name or reason for deserting but said he was incarcerated for eight months and given a bad-conduct discharge.
Department of the Army officials referred requests for information about all three cases to U.S. Army officials at Fort Knox, who would not provide further details. But several lawyers who represent soldiers said Jensen's case isn't unusual.
Military prosecutors "have a huge degree of latitude," said David Sheldon, a lawyer and military law expert. "They may have just given him a break. [Guard personnel] aren't expecting to go to war. They checked out a long time ago, and all of a sudden they're in the middle."
Such comments enrage families of the Winchester-based 3rd Battalion, who say a National Guardsman who isn't prepared to go to war is an aberration.
Paula Golladay, 54, noted that her husband, 1st Sgt. Robert Golladay, went to Fort Bragg even though she had just had her right foot amputated because of osteoporosis, having already lost her left leg below the knee for the same reason. He returned to help in her recovery, she said, but took only five days of a possible 10-day leave because he wanted to prepare with his unit.
"I sent him back willingly," Golladay said, crossing her arms and hardening her expression. "They want to serve their country. They train for being called up. Yes, there were tears, but they got on those buses knowing they were going to do something positive."
Freedus said his client "respects the people who are able to make those decisions. . . . He wasn't able to reconcile his competing demands the way they were."
Jensen said it is difficult not to respond to the criticism. But he and his wife have agreed that talking about it will only increase the unwanted attention.
"I'm not seen as the good guy," he said, "and I never will be."