Fla. reservist asks court to stop 5th deployment

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Army Reserve Sgt. Erik Botta has been sent to Iraq three times and to Afghanistan once. He thinks that’s enough.

Botta wants a court to block the military’s plan to deploy him for a fifth time Sunday, most likely to Iraq. He isn’t against the war – but he thinks he can serve his country better now by working for a defense contractor and pursuing his education.

“This has nothing to do with protest of the war … I have nothing but respect for the people on the ground,” Botta said Friday, one day after he filed his petition in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach. “But I feel I do need a fair decision and a fair review.”

Botta, 26, of Port St. Lucie, contends in his petition that the Army’s refusal to exempt him from deployment “constitutes unlawful custody.” Botta argues the Army did not consider the length and nature of his previous tours “to assure a sharing of exposure to the hazards of combat.”

He was granted an initial exemption last year, allowing him to pursue an electrical engineering degree at Palm Beach Community College and work as a senior technician on Blackhawk and Seahawk helicopters at Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. But now his exemption has been denied.

Botta said he was shocked when he received notice of his latest deployment orders.

“My heart sank through the floor,” he said. “I’ve sacrificed all my time into this new life I have now.”

Botta enlisted in the Army Reserves in October 2000. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, he requested transfer to active duty, which was granted the next month, according to the petition.

Botta was deployed to Afghanistan for about seven months in 2002. He then had three deployments to Iraq – about a month in 2003, three months in 2004 and 15 days later that year.

Army spokeswoman Maj. Cheryl Phillips noted that Army Reserve units deploy for 12 consecutive months, and that Botta had only accumulated about 10 nonconsecutive months of deployment. She also noted that Botta was under an eight-year service contract.

“The Army leadership acknowledges the hardships and sacrifices of our soldiers and their families and is aggressively pursuing means to lessen their strain,” Phillips wrote in an e-mail Friday. “We evaluate each request for deferment or exemption from mobilization independently to determine if a deployment will cause undue hardship for the soldier or the family.”

She said that out of 649 deployment delays requested by soldiers since the start of the Afghan war in 2001, the Army has granted 561 or 87 percent. Of the 5,708 exemptions that have been requested, 2,983 or 54 percent have been granted.

Botta’s previous deployments in Iraq were as a communications specialist with the 3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and were shorter than most tours because they were “emergency deployments,” said his attorney, Mark Waple.

After his release from active duty on Oct. 30, 2004, Botta has not been required to participate in any training, he said.

Botta now wants a federal judge to stop his deployment. If a resolution is not reached, he said he will follow orders and deploy Sunday to Fort Jackson near Columbia, S.C.

Waple said the Army’s decision to redeploy Botta and to deny his request for exemption is arbitrary and goes against actions in similar cases where academic exemptions were granted.

“We’re just concerned that they’re granting these exemptions in some cases and denying them in others without any real meaningful methodology in making that decision,” Waple said.

Waple also noted that Congress requires the Defense Department to “take into consideration the reservist’s prior military service to be certain that there is uniform exposure among reservists to the hazards of combat and the Department of the Army has failed to do that in Sgt. Botta’s case.”

There was no immediate word as to when the court would take up the case.

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