One month ago, Chris Parks found himself in a small mess hall in an unmarked cinder-block building inside the military base at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Around him were a dozen or so military deserters, including one man who had walked out the front door of a training camp at Fort Knox and hiked 40 miles to Louisville, and another who had ditched his post in Iraq and hopped a plane back to the U.S. The building is part of what's known as a "personnel control facility"—essentially, a holding pen for enlisted men who have failed in their attempts to go AWOL.
Parks, a 27-year-old construction worker from Capitol Hill, says he didn't belong there and the way he arrived raises questions (at a minimum) about military record keeping. Weeks before, Parks had been heading back to Seattle after a trip through Central America with a group of friends. As he passed through customs at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, agents from the Department of Homeland Security, in a scene reminiscent of the arrest that kicks off the 2007 movie Rendition, pulled Parks out of line, handcuffed him, and detained him for several hours before taking him to the Mecklenburg County Jail without a word as to why.
"That was pretty intense, being escorted out of the airport handcuffed," Parks told The Stranger. "They searched me four times. I was handcuffed to the floor. One of the guys insisted I was hiding dope in my ass."
Parks spent a week in the county jail. After two days, he found out why: At customs, a computerized database had flagged Parks as an AWOL U.S. Army soldier who'd been missing since 2002. Because of his "fugitive" status, he would eventually be transferred to the personnel control facility at Fort Knox. The problem: Parks says he was never in the army.
"Years ago, I signed up to enlist in the army," Parks said. "Before I actually flew out to basic training, I talked to my recruiter and explained to him I didn't want to go." He was just out of Freeman High School in Rockford, Washington—a suburb of Spokane—at the time and had been drawn in by the offer of a $10,000 signing bonus. But ultimately, he says, "All I wanted to do was just snowboard and screw around and be a kid for a while."
Major Cameron Cashman, a high-ranking member of the Washington Army Battalion, was unaware of Parks's case and could not ascertain whether Parks had, in fact, unenlisted (or, for that matter, whether he ever properly enlisted in the first place). Parks says he was never sworn in and filled out paperwork to withdraw his application for military service, an application he now believes must have gotten lost somewhere in the system. It's not a far-fetched idea; Major Cashman said he was familiar with at least two other similar incidents and that clerical mistakes related to enlistment status were much more frequent in the army until recently.
"You can be considered AWOL and not know it for a long, long time," Cashman says. "Somebody may have mistakenly not filed the right documents. Now that everything's automated, things are a lot smoother."
Nevertheless, Parks was sent to Fort Knox's personnel control facility, where his head was shaved and he was issued fatigues and a blanket, given a bunk, and instructed not to talk to any of the women in the facility or other soldiers on the base. "I basically had to play army," Parks says. "You have to fall in and stand in line. I had no idea what the hell I was doing."
After a total of two weeks, Parks met with a military attorney and within a day was given an erroneous-enlistment discharge. He hasn't received any official word on what happened, but he says the paperwork he received while detained at Fort Knox said he'd gone through basic training in South Carolina before going AWOL from a base in Georgia in 2002. Parks says he was never on a base in Georgia; he never got far enough in the enlistment process to even get to a military base.
Since his release from jail, Parks's family has contacted his congresswoman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Spokane and a member of the Armed Services Committee, and Congressman Jim McDermott of Seattle, and asked them both to investigate. McMorris Rodgers's office has contacted the army requesting information about Parks's AWOL status, and McDermott's office has spoken with Parks about the details of his case. "We take it seriously," says McDermott's spokesman Mike DeCesare.
Parks still has a lot of unanswered questions about his arrest, and he's worried his discharge could impact future employment or make it harder to get a student loan. He's also worried about one more bit of correspondence he expects from the military. "When they flew me from Charlotte to [Fort Knox], they bought the most expensive ticket ever," he says. "They're supposedly sending me a bill."