Objectors’ Sincerity Doubted : Protesters: Military points to the timing of 1,700 soldiers’ application for conscientious objector status.
Marine Cpl. Tahan K. Jones’ problems with the military began Oct. 26, when he dropped an application for conscientious objector status on his commanding officer’s desk.
Jones’ application, which was filed on moral and ethical grounds three years after he signed up for a six-year stint in the Marine Corps Reserves and two months after Iraq invaded Kuwait, was preliminarily declared “insincere” by an investigating officer.
Rather than risk having to fight his case in a Persian Gulf combat zone, the 21-year-old Oakland man failed to report for duty when his unit shipped out earlier this month for eventual assignment in Saudi Arabia.
Now, “I’m a fugitive looking at serious time in the brig,” said Jones, who has abandoned his home to live with friends in an effort to avoid arrest. “A dishonorable discharge will ruin me economically, but at least I’m standing up for my beliefs.”
Jones, who contends that he naively joined the reserves at the age of 17 to learn a trade and “become a man,” is among an estimated 1,700 military men and women across the nation who have filed for conscientious objector status since the crisis in the Middle East began.
Military spokesmen say, however, that they have doubts about the sincerity of the beliefs expressed in many of those applications. They point to the timing of them--after the crisis began in August--and question whether the soldiers’ beliefs involve anything deeper than the desire to save their own skins.
“Some have found that simply filing an application for conscientious objector status did not stop the inextricable movement toward the sand pit,” said Air Force Maj. John Odom, a military lawyer in Shreveport, La.
“They found their commander didn’t say, ‘Oh, this person is a future saint and should be discharged,’ ” Odom said. “But one has to look at the timing of the appearance to these individuals of what we Christians call the blinding light on the road to Damascus.”
Unlike the Vietnam War era, when soldiers seeking such a discharge remained in the United States pending review of their requests, military officials are requiring would-be conscientious objectors to pursue their cases after being shipped to the war zone.
Dozens, like Jones, have chosen instead to disobey military orders and face a dishonorable discharge--or worse--rather than follow military orders and pursue conscientious objector status from the Saudi Arabian desert.
Their irrevocable steps have led to serious charges of missed troop movements, absence without leave and even desertion, the punishment for which can be years of confinement or, rarely, death.
With the country in the midst of a relatively popular war, some of these war resisters also have found their motives suspected by friends and neighbors at home. A few have even had loved ones turn their backs in shame.
Many have sought help from a small number of counseling groups or from churches scattered across the nation that have opened their doors to military conscientious objectors with offers of room and board, and even legal advice.
“These cases are all too common--the cards are stacked against conscientious objectors,” said Michael Marsh of the 65-year-old War Resisters League, which has counseled hundreds of military personnel seeking discharges in recent months.
“There is only one person I know of since this crisis began who has received a conscientious objector discharge,” said Marsh, 30, referring to Tom Cullerton of Orlando, Fla., who won his discharge Oct. 15--the same day he burned U.S. Coast Guard reactivation orders in front of the Orlando Federal Building.
Indeed, the results of the handful of such cases that have so far gone to trial indicate that typically conservative court-martial panels intend to play hardball.
Three Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., recently convicted of missed troop movements and desertion, each received sentences of at least eight months in prison, dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and reduction in grade, said Lt. Edward Spivey, spokesman for the base. Another 14 Marines at the base are awaiting trial on similar charges.
“Typically, court-martial panels are made up of pretty conservative, well-educated people, and it’ll be difficult to pull the wool over their eyes,” said Air Force Maj. Dwight Keller, chief circuit trial counsel at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio. “They’ll be skeptical about a person saying they found Jesus.”
On Feb. 7, an American soldier serving a five-month prison term for refusing to go to the Persian Gulf was designated a “prisoner of conscience” by the human rights organization Amnesty International.
In a prepared statement, the organization said it had so designated Army Sgt. George Morse, 25, of Grayling, Mich., because it believes his claim to be sincere. Several other such designations are pending. Amnesty International’s findings have no legal bearing on the cases but are simply a statement of the organization’s support.
Separately, at least three U.S. Army soldiers stationed in Germany who had filed for conscientious objector status reportedly were handcuffed and put on planes bound for Saudi Arabia since Dec. 28. “There is no way to reach those soldiers now,” said counselor Cord Brugmann of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objection in Philadelphia.
The military is unsympathetic and defends its divergence from Vietnam-era practice.
“This is a different war and a different time, and the urgency of this situation dictates that once you get your orders you must go,” said Master Sgt. Jerry Hansen, spokesman for the U.S. Army office in Los Angeles. “The trouble is, many of these people didn’t file their applications until after the war started. Once their orders came, it was too late to say ‘No, I won’t go.’ ”
But the war resisters, particularly those in the reserves, insist that they never dreamed they actually would receive orders to go eyeball to eyeball with an enemy soldier. It was only the imminence of war, they say, that crystallized their rejection of violence as a solution to problems.
Now, hundreds of the more than 200,000 Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and Coast Guard reserve troops activated for duty since the Gulf operation began in August are learning that conscientious objector status in time of war is easy to request, but difficult to win.
Military regulations for filing for such a discharge are straightforward and clear-cut.
Applicants are asked to provide written answers to 25 questions about training, personal and religious beliefs and then submit them to their commander, along with letters of support from friends and relatives. The applicant is scheduled for separate interviews with a psychiatrist, a chaplain and an investigating officer. Finally, all paperwork related to the case is sent to Washington for final approval or disapproval.
Ideally, the applications take two to four months to process.
“Instead, we are seeing it take four to 12 months and even longer because the military is hostile to conscientious objector claims,” Marsh said. “The military is placing every obstacle it can in their way.”
Unlike the Vietnam era, when mostly young male draftees fully expected to wind up on a battlefield, up to 80% of the war resisters filing for conscientious objector status today say that they never thought they would find themselves faced with the possibility of killing another human being, Marsh said.
In an effort to avoid the possibility of being placed in the position of having to take up arms, which could undermine their conscientious objector claims, some war resisters are refusing to deploy with their units.
But absence without authorization, which carries a maximum punishment of 18 months confinement, forfeiture of all pay and dishonorable discharge, can complicate a conscientious objector case in the extreme.
“Once a soldier goes AWOL (his) application for conscientious objector status is suspended,” said Army spokesman Maj. Joe Padilla. “My advice is, don’t do it. There are many avenues a soldier can take before going AWOL and throwing everything away, which is a shame.”
Nonetheless, thousands of men and women are bypassing normal military channels and chains of command to seek advice instead from a growing network of anti-war organizations, including the Central Committee for Conscientious Objection, the Veterans Peace Action Team, the National Lawyers Guild and the American Friends Service Committee.
Stephanie Atkinson, 24, of Murphysboro, Ill., who joined the U.S. Army Reserves six years ago never thinking “anyone would be stupid enough to start a war in my lifetime,” joined that network of anti-war counselors in January.
On Oct. 10, Atkinson was activated for duty in Saudi Arabia after spending most of her time in the military harboring split feelings between her contractual agreement to stay in the service and a growing political commitment against the use of violence to solve political problems.
“When the new orders came down, I walked around in a daze and made a will, thinking, my God, I’m 23 years old and not prepared to die for a government that can’t even take care of its domestic problems,” said Atkinson, who works as a counselor for the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia.
Two weeks after she failed to report for duty on Oct. 15, a state trooper showed up at her doorstep with a warrant for her arrest. On Nov. 10, she received an “other than honorable discharge” in lieu of a court-martial.
“My dad and I don’t talk now--he is totally pro-war and thinks we should be over there kicking butt,” Atkinson said. “I’m not going to change my mind, and he’s not going to change his.”
As for the impact the discharge will have on her career opportunities, Atkinson said, “I probably won’t ever be able to get a federal job, but who wants to work for the government anyway?”
Maj. Keller, the chief circuit trial counsel at Randolph Air Force Base, took a dimmer view of the job prospects facing those with less than honorable discharges.
“It is a lifetime mark on your record,” Keller said. “Oh, you can get a job selling hamburgers, but any job requiring an in-depth character review or security clearance will be tough to land.”
In the meantime, some war resisters with pending conscientious objector claims are finding haven and sympathy at a small but growing number of churches throwing open their doors as “GI sanctuaries.”
One of them is the University Baptist Church of Seattle, where 17 men and women from military bases across the Western United States have found temporary room and board and free legal advice.
A church in Los Angeles was temporary home this month for a Navy religious program specialist who left his job at a naval recruitment station in New York without authorization after waking up Jan. 15 with “a profound feeling of despair and strong sense that God was saying: ‘Go, learn war no more.’ ”
In an interview at the USC campus, the tall, lanky 38-year-old ordained Protestant minister with a neatly trimmed beard was visibly nervous and frequently glanced over his shoulder for the “FBI agents who are probably looking for me now.”
He said his only regret was the shame and embarrassment his actions have had on his loved ones.
“My girlfriend said, ‘Don’t you see this could separate us forever?’ ” recalled the minister, who asked that his name not be used out of fear of reprisals against his friends and family. “And my family, which feels I’ve put them on the spot, asked, ‘Don’t you see what you’ve done to us? Our name will be mud; you’ll be considered a traitor.’
“Right now, I’m preparing to go public, which will eventually lead to my imprisonment,” he said. " . . . I am not running away from anyone. I’m running toward what I believe is the call of the Gospel.”
Marine Cpl. Jones also plans to take refuge in a sanctuary church in the Bay Area--at least until he decides the “right time to turn myself in.”
“The Marine Corps will look real bad if they try to come after me there,” Jones said. “Ultimately, I will turn myself in and face up to the charges. It’s the price I have to pay for having a conscience.”