For Pvt. Joshua Key, the evolution from reluctant fighter to officially AWOL soldier began in 2003, on a war-ravaged street in Ramadi, Iraq. That day, Key heard the distinctive boom of a American M16 assault rifle, followed by a dull thud as the bullet passed through the head of a 7-year-old girl who had been running across the street. She fell to the ground only a few feet away from him.
Key was then four months into his U.S. Army deployment in Iraq as a combat engineer, and already struggling to find meaning in the danger and trauma that confronted him at every turn. As he watched the girl’s family lift her blood-soaked body from the dusty street, he realized he could not make peace with continuing to participate in the war.
The subject of going AWOL and the moral landscape of desertion suddenly gained international attention after a deal brokered by the Obama administration to secure the release of official prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl from Afghanistan in exchange for five senior members of the Taliban. Allegations that Bergdahl abandoned his post have highlighted the 59,000 U.S. military personnel that deserted during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and to the desperate and dangerous experiences of AWOL soldiers including Key, who is being actively sought by U.S. authorities and spoke to International Business Times by phone from his self-imposed exile in Canada.