In December 2016, we received a call from a sailor who wanted our support as she applied for conscientious objection. Petty Officer Allen’s* story provides a powerful example of a military member who was transformed through her experiences and found the courage to state publicly and emphatically her opposition to war. We share her story here in gratitude for all of our donors who make it possible for us to support Petty Officer Allen and others like her.
By her own account, Petty Officer Allen grew up sheltered and relatively privileged, but by 18 knew she wanted to contribute something meaningful to society. Skilled at learning languages, she enlisted in the Navy as a translator and reported for duty in November 2013. Smart, ambitious, and dedicated, she threw herself into her training as a linguist at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) and later in Georgia at her permanent duty station. Her teachers at DLI, many of them native Arabs, shared stories about their once-beautiful homes and countries that had been destroyed by war. For the first time, she was exposed to other cultures and ways of life. She felt a strong desire to see more of the world and to meet new people.
Highly successful, Petty Officer Allen promoted quickly. Near the end of 2015, she also began volunteering with the United States Naval Sea Cadet Corps, a nonprofit youth organization that recruits youth to the sea-going military services. Petty Officer Allen loved the work and quickly became a recruiting and public affairs officer. She got to know her cadets well, establishing close bonds with them: We would joke together, talk about their crushes, their first car, how “mean” their teachers were. I was their mentor, but I also bonded with them. I was extremely passionate and dedicated to the Sea Cadets, often referring to them as “my kids.” Local enrollment numbers tripled due to my extensive recruiting efforts.
Most of the first nine months of 2016 were taken up with more training. She became a little disillusioned by the politics and sexism she experienced in military culture and decided that she would not reenlist after her six-year contract. Late that summer, she also traveled with her best friend to New Orleans, where she felt spiritual stirrings. She returned from that trip sensing a connection between all living things and realizing that love and beauty could be found in everyday life. Then things grew difficult.
Back from leave, Petty Officer Allen began working as a cryptologic technician interpretive (CTI) to provide linguistic support to forward-deployed troops. The classification of her work prevented her from disclosing specific details, but working at her desk in Georgia, using the technology that allowed her to support deployed troops without ever seeing combat herself, she had a horrible revelation.
In the course of my work that night, I became aware for the first time of children being involved in what we were working on overseas. “Enemy” children were being forced to fight for ideology that they simply were not mature enough to understand, much less support. I was thoroughly shaken to the core and wound up sobbing in the bathroom. I remember staring in the mirror, feeling distant from myself, wondering how old the kids were and how they got involved, and how I got involved in this. I felt bad and guilty, because we had people over there, one of them I knew personally. I wanted all of them to make it home safely, but that meant “eliminating the threat,” which I now knew included children. I had vaguely been aware that this horrible act of conscription occurred in the world, but actually witnessing it for myself made me question everything: the cost of war, the inherent good of mankind, my role in all of this as a member of the military. I found myself asking, “How could people make their kids do this? How are we okay with all of this? How do we stop it, change it?”
That same week, the “enemy” launched an unwarranted, unprovoked attack. No one was injured, but I listened with a heavy heart as my coworkers joked more than once about “blowing up the bad guys.” I found myself curious what “the bad guys’” names were, if they had a wife waiting anxiously for them to come home, if they were following in the footsteps of their fathers, if they did those things because they’ve never known a different way of life. I had to stop thinking about these questions because it was too painful. A few days later, I learned that we had “eliminated the threat.” I wondered what happened to those children.
Afterward, the entire month of October 2016 became especially difficult for me. My personal and professional motivation declined. Some of my friends and co-workers noticed the change in my demeanor. When I realized the way children were compelled to participate in armed conflicts, that children were “the enemy,” the stakes became too high for me, the trade-offs in lives being taken no longer seemed acceptable. I began asking myself if war really was necessary and if these lives really did have to be taken.
I realized the closeness in ages between the child soldiers and my Sea Cadets. I realized that I didn’t want to hear five or ten years from now that one of my former Sea Cadets was killed in action. Finding my heart was no longer dedicated to the US Naval Sea Cadet Corps, I quit. I knew I couldn’t continue to encourage children to join the military.
At this point, I felt that my role in the military was no longer a way to make the world better. I now saw my participation in death and destruction as something that was making the world worse. I was working night shift, and when I would finally get home as the sun was rising, I laid in bed for hours, unable to sleep, my heart racing. When I finally passed out, I had a recurring dream of being surrounded and stared at by faceless, emotionless children. It became hard to drag myself out of bed, even on my days off. For over a month, I was only eating once a day, usually junk from the vending machine at work. I couldn’t find the energy to meal prep anymore.
I knew that something had to change: I needed out of the military, out of the negative bubble I was in, out of feeling like I was an awful person because of the work I was doing. But I didn’t know what to do. A different mission or a different rating wouldn’t change how I felt about participating in a war-fighting organization, because it would still be in support of “winning wars,” and I didn’t agree with war as a whole.
Petty Officer Allen’s grandmother came to visit her that fall and helped her realize that she fit the description of a conscientious objector. Petty Officer Allen did some research, contacted Quaker House counselors, and decided to apply. Over the course of several weeks we went over the process with her and helped her put together her written application. She submitted it to the Navy and began the slow process of waiting for an answer. During the wait, she sent us several bars of beautifully crafted soap, that she had made herself, with a note of gratitude. She wrote in her application:
War, in my opinion, is not morally acceptable; the end does not justify the means. I believe that it is a crime against humanity, and there are never any winners—everyone loses. In my job as a CTI, I learn the targets’ names, I see them as individual people, and that makes it personal to me. I feel connected to them as fellow beings on this Earth. I’ve studied their culture, their language, their religion, and I see what they are, unfortunately, taught from a very young age. I’ve also been taught things as an American from a very young age that I am trying to overcome. People are forced to fight for causes they don’t believe in, or ideology they’ve been indoctrinated since birth to accept. I cannot hate them for that. I cannot hate them for doing what they have to for survival. I cannot hate them for not knowing any other way of life. We have no control over the circumstances of our birth, like what country we happened to have been born in. I believe that we are all creatures of the same planet, and we are all connected to one another. To me, all human life is precious, and therefore, I cannot kill another human being in war, or contribute to their murder.
I was moved and reassured that I am making the right choice when I read these words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for love or hate? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or the extension of justice?” A life of love, peace and happiness is the life I wish to lead, not one of hatred, violence and negativity.
Last December, Petty Officer Allen was honorably separated from the Navy as a conscientious objector. She immediately left Georgia and traveled to Europe, returning home in time to be with her grandma for Christmas.
~ Lenore Yarger, Quaker House GI Rights Hotline Counselor
*Petty Officer Allen’s story, words, and name used with her permission. We vigorously protect the confidentiality of people who call into the hotline.