Former Santa Ana teacher and Air Force reservist John M. Dickinson, a conscientious objector who was imprisoned for refusing to fight in the Persian Gulf War, was unexpectedly ordered released from prison and reunited with his family Thursday.
“We’re in shock. It’s the greatest news we’ve heard,” said Joseph Basile, Dickinson’s 25-year-old stepson. “It was a very emotional reunion with my mom. Everyone was crying.”
In June, Amnesty International included Dickinson, a 34-year-old former second lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve, as one of 28 “prisoners of conscience” in the United States who were unfairly prosecuted.
The plight of Dickinson, who was a language specialist at Remington Elementary School in Santa Ana, had been taken up as part of a campaign by local peace activists.
The activists hoped that Dickinson could be released to tend to his wife, Carol, who has suffered an ulcer in the colon and whose weight has dropped to 64 pounds. His wife contended that the ulcer was due to stress brought on by the military’s treatment of her husband.
“I’m thrilled. This is what Carol needed,” said Marion Pack, executive director of the Orange County-based Alliance for Survival, a peace activist organization. “It’s also a win for the peace community in Orange County.”
“I believe if there hadn’t been a constant pressure put on the military, then he wouldn’t have been released. . . . Enough people showed their concern that we can not only move our elected officials, but also move our military leaders,” Pack said.
According to Lt. Col. Suzanne Randle, a spokeswoman at March Air Force Base, where Dickinson was stationed, he was granted clemency and released from Edwards Air Force Base, where he was imprisoned since his court-martial in May. Dickinson had pleaded guilty to charges of being absent without leave and failure to make a troop movement.
Dickinson was scheduled to be released on Jan. 9, but Randle said his early release on Thursday was approved Oct. 3 by a clemency board and later endorsed by Lt. Gen. Robert D. Beckel, commander at March Air Force Base.
Dickinson was brought to March Air Force Base late Wednesday and was released about 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Basile said.
According to the Air Force, Dickinson was released pending an appellate review of his case. Randle said Dickinson has a period of time to indicate whether he wants his case reviewed by the Court of Military Appeal in Washington.
His family said Dickinson is seeking to have his dishonorable discharge changed to either a general or medical discharge and his military benefits reinstated. He could not be reached for comment.
Dickinson joined the Air Force Reserve in 1988 in California and was told by a superior that he would never have to be in combat. He had spent five years with the Illinois Air National Guard Reserve.
But as a result of budget cuts and the military buildup in the Persian Gulf in 1990, his unit was changed from providing security for refueling aircraft to a combat unit. When his unit was called up to go to the Gulf War, he sought a conscientious objector status, but his wife has said the claim was never processed. When the Pentagon ordered his unit to ship out, he refused to go.