One of the most exciting areas of our work is helping conscientious objectors (CO) obtain discharge from the military. We do not go out and convince people to become conscientious objectors. By the time they contact us, most have already had a sincere change of heart. There are not a lot of reliable places for people to get help in applying, so many find us through an internet search. The GI Rights Hotline is consistently listed on the first page of most search engine results.
Right now, we have at least six people in different stages of applying for CO status. Several of them are putting together their written application (the first step). Another applicant, at the opposite end of the process, has received informal approval and is waiting for the final paperwork that will complete her honorable discharge. Two of our current applicants are officers.
For many people, putting their beliefs into words is difficult. One recent applicant wrote:
“I think the hardest thing for myself filing for conscientious objection is what people would say and think about me as if I’m not being truthful and why did I even join in the first place. ‘You knew what you were getting into and how did all the sudden your views change.’ It’s hard to talk about things like these because I hate to feel judged in a bad manner but this is how I felt. It harder than most people think to talk about. Not everyone has the courage to say how they truly feel.”
A common myth people have about conscientious objectors is that they are “weak” people who cannot hack the serious mental and physical demands placed upon servicemembers. Our experience has been that the opposite is true and that some of these applicants had been among the most successful servicemembers prior to their change in belief. Many write about being highly motivated to serve when they joined. One applicant was a combat-decorated martial arts expert. Another was an ace pilot selected for special missions. Many have been promoted ahead of schedule and recognized for their leadership, including Honor Graduate and Soldier of the Month.
One Marine we worked with was recognized by her peers as the person who rallied them to get out of bed and go running in the rain. She was meritoriously promoted into an intelligence position and sent overseas on deployment to collect information on human targets. A crystallizing moment happened when someone she had been tracking was killed while she and others monitored the situation remotely. The rest of the people in the room cheered and did high fives for “taking him out.” Her command wanted her to recognize the good work she had done, but inside she felt lost and alone. Through her work, she had come to know this targeted person as a human being and she felt devastated witnessing him being killed.
At her Investigating Officer Hearing, the captain assigned to her case tried to argue that she had no connection to what happened. He said that she had not pulled the trigger and had not given the order to take his life. She respectfully replied that the roomful of people she was with at the time certainly made the connection between her work and the completed kill. He tried to explain that all she had done was provide information about illegal activity. According to him, doing her job and providing this kind of information was always the morally correct thing to do. She felt, if the others could high-five each other and cheer in pride over their contributions, then she had every right to feel morally troubled about her own. Later, she did receive an honorable discharge.
Her story illustrates the fallacy in the idea that conscientious objectors are weak. As fit and skilled as she was, she had no problem with the mental and physical demands of being in the military. It was the moral demands that were at issue. She demonstrated her strength in that component of character, as well. In the process of sorting out her feelings, she had discussed her concerns about her role with some of her coworkers and discovered that she was not the only one with hesitations. But, while others could set their moral concerns aside and go with the flow, she could not.
We are grateful to everyone for the resources and support you give to allow us to be there for these conscientious objectors and to help them navigate a way to a future where their hearts can rest outside of warmaking. They frequently express gratitude for your generosity to them.
~ Steve Woolford and Lenore Yarger, Quaker House GI Rights Network Counselors
This post was an article in our Winter 2017/2018 newsletter. Let us know if you would like to be on either our electronic or regular postal mailing list to receive our quarterly newsletters.