National Guard staging in Fayetteville, NC, in anticipation of
protests after murder of George Floyd.

Recently a young soldier called us from Ft. Benning, Georgia. Like many, he contracted the coronavirus during his first couple of weeks in basic training and was sent to Camp Kelly, the base for the COVID-19 quarantine unit for new recruits. Still in recovery, he described the horrible conditions in which he had been living for the past few weeks. He said that for the first couple of days in quarantine, they were not given sheets on their beds. Rooms were not disinfected from previous COVID patients and the pillows they were given were not washed. With the extra time to take stock of his situation, he decided he wanted out of the Army. He is not alone in coming to this decision. Quarantine at Camp Kelly has been a breeding ground for reconsideration of military service. We have been in conversation with him and many others at Camp Kelly about options for getting out.

COVID-19 impacted the US military as it did the civilian world, forcing shutdowns and delays at basic training sites, sending reservists to “perform” their monthly drills online, and implementing a travel ban restricting domestic and international movement. One overseas soldier we had been working with for months was scheduled to return to the US for disability processing. A survivor of military sexual trauma, this person was very anxious to get back stateside. But the original travel orders were suspended as a result of COVID-19. We discussed the hardship exception to the travel ban and the soldier was granted an exemption allowing the move. Upon arrival the soldier quarantined for two weeks and then began the disability evaluation process.

National Guard troops have been tapped for duty in a variety of ways since spring. Some who joined the Guard because they wanted to provide humanitarian aid to their community (as opposed to combat deployments) got their chance: in March the AP reported that over 4,000 National Guard troops had been mobilized in 31 states to assist during the COVID-19 crisis. These troops were slated to help pass out food, clean public spaces, transport medical care workers, and, for those with medical training, provide medical assistance. Some National Guard members needed help from us regarding problems with their short notice call up.

Reservist calls to the hotline really took off when the protests around the death of George Floyd intensified, and authorities started calling up troops to help control the demonstrations. Many callers were uncomfortable policing US citizens. Others strongly identified with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and opposed doing anything that felt like opposition to that cause. We spent hours on the phone explaining to callers what can and cannot be asked of them and what options they had for addressing their situation. Some decided not to report. Others used the opportunity to apply for conscientious objection. Still others reported and asked their commands to accommodate their request for different duties (which may or may not have been granted). After call-ups subsided, we expected another wave of calls from members facing consequences for not reporting, but that wave never came. There are indications that some had the sympathy of their commands, who chose to ignore the absences.

Leading up to the 2020 presidential election, there was a lot of talk about whether the outcome of the election and/or Trump’s behavior will encourage more civil unrest, and whether

National Guard troops will be put in a position once again of policing US citizens. Such orders could easily lead to another round of calls, and we are waiting to see how the transition will happen.

Throughout the spring and summer, we have continued to work with a number of conscientious objectors as their applications near final disposition. We are hopeful. They continue to inspire us with their conviction and determination. Kristofer Miller, a conscientious objector at Ft. Bragg, has been waiting over a year for his application to be approved. His words speak to us pointedly:

I am not willing to promote war any longer. This is why I have chosen to opt for discharge from the Army. For me it is not enough that I do not partake in war, I wish to see the end of war. For me this can only be done by eliminating the causes of war, one of which is a culture that romanticizes warfare. I believe that if all those tasked to wage war made the simple decision to go home, to exist with our loved ones, live quietly, and raise the next generation gently, all war could be avoided. This decision to pursue a peaceful life is one I am making, and I hope more people choose the hard path of nonviolence.

By Lenore Yarger and Steve Woolford, Quaker House Counselors to the GI Rights Hotline

Published in our Winter 2020 newsletter, News from the HomeFront.