A Moral Obligation to Humanity

by Gabriel Urbina


The overwhelming presence of conscientious objectors during the Vietnam war was inescapable. The reader may be surprised to learn we still have conscientious objectors in our more recent wars, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Military ranks mentioned in this article are: Private First Class (PFC, E-3); Specialist (SPC, E4); Sergeant (SGT, E-5); Staff Sergeant (SSGT, E-6), First Sergeant (1SG, E-8). Loss of rank means demotion to Private (E-1), the lowest enlisted rank.

In every war in which the United States has been involved, there has been conscientious objectors. The most impressive statistics are from the Vietnam era. There were 172,000 applications for Conscientious Objector (C.O.) status, from draftees. There was a military draft, conscription, at the time, which, at the present time, does not exist.

While these applications have a strong association with conscription, compulsory service in the armed forces, during the Vietnam war there were 17,000 applications for C.O. status from volunteers already in the service. So, now that we have a volunteer army, the existence of C.O.'s is not something new.

The military definition of a Conscientious Objector is a person who has "a firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reasons of religious training and/or belief."

A somewhat positive progression in the handling of C.O. applications by the Army, can be seen by examining the cases of five conscientious objectors.

in 2004, SGT. Kevin Benderman, 40 years old at the time, and with 10 years of service, refused to deploy with his unit, for what it would have been his second tour in Iraq. Benderman had served 6 months in Iraq, and was shaken by what he had seen and experienced. He saw a young girl badly injured, and he wanted to help her, but he was ordered to move on. He saw dogs feasting on the corpses of civilians. He observed young American soldiers treating war like a video game. All of this, changed the beliefs of SGT. Benderman, who had re-enlisted in the year 2000, after a break in service. He had served on active duty from 1987 to 1991. He was what is called "a prior serviceman." He felt his country needed him.

Kevin Benderman felt a moral obligation to humanity. He did not want to participate in destruction and inhumanity. So, he applied for C.O. status. His First Sergeant called him a coward, and his chaplain sent him a email, stating he was ashamed of him. Benderman was convicted of missing a movement, failure to deploy, and sentenced to 15 months confinement, loss of rank, forfeiture of pay, and a dishonorable 2008, his dismissal was upgraded to a Bad Conduct discharge.

According to Army regulations at the time, C.O. applicants were still required to deploy, while their applications were considered, It was the responsibility of the company commander to initiate the .process.. Delays in processing the application were allowed if the company commander was busy with operational matters, i.e. deployment. In SGT. Benderman's court martial, the company commander admitted he was not familiar with the processing of C.O. applications, but this had no relevance in Benderman's conviction.

SSGT. Camilo Mejia served in the Army as an infantryman from 1995 to 1998. After that, he joined the Florida National Guard, in order to completed his 8-year commitment. Mejia had one semester left before graduating from the University of Miami, when his unit was activated, federalized, that is, under the command of the Commander-in-Chief, and not the governor of Florida. His unit was deployed to Iraq.

In September 2003, SSGT. Mejia, who had served in Iraq for six months, approached Captain Tad Warfel about ending his military service. Mejia stated he had fulfilled his 8-year commitment already, 4 months ago. His request was denied, The Army has a practice called "Stop-Loss," where soldiers are not permitted to leave military service at the end of their military commitments, due to mission demands, that is, the unit is deployed and it would be difficult to replace those who would leave.

Mejia was accused of cowardice by Warfel. Then, he asked for a 2-week leave, to which he was entitled,after 6 months in Iraq, and that was granted.

Mejia was affected deeply by his experiences in Iraq. He had to kill a young teenager who had a grenade; and he and his men killed 10 civilians in a crossfire. He saw weeping children standing by the corpses of their fathers. This is when Mejia decided he didn't want to be an instrument of death anymore.

After his leave ended, Mejia went AWOL for 5 months. In March 2004 he turned himself in, and applied for C.O. status. He was charged with desertion. He was convicted in May 2005 by a military jury, sentenced to one year in prison, with loss of rank and a Bad Conduct discharge, He was released from prison early, on February 15, 2005, after 9 months, for good behavior. Mr. Mejia went on to graduate from college, became an author, and an anti-war activist. He regrets not having stood for his moral beliefs earlier, for having gone to war in fear of the government and the Army; and for fear of punishment and humiliation. He stated, "I failed to fulfill my moral duty as a human being."

SPC. Katherine Jashinsky, at age 19, enlisted in the National Guard, as a cook, in April 2002, signing a 6-year contract. She believed killing was immoral, but war was an exception to the rule. In June 2004 she applied for C.O. status and an honorable discharge. Her beliefs had changed. Killing was wrong, and war was no exception. This was part of her transition from being a teenager who had never left home to being an adult. Her readings and travels helped reformulate her original beliefs. She came to believe in non-violence, and she felt she had a moral obligation, not only to herself, but to the world as a whole. While others had faith in God, she believed in Humanity. She had the obligation to stand by her beliefs.

Her request was denied a year and a half later. In 2005 she received orders for weapons training, in preparation for her unit's deployment to Afghanistan. She refused to participate in this training.

On May 23, 2006, SPC. Jashinsky was acquitted by a military court, or missing a movement by design. She pleaded guilty to refusal to obey a lawful order. She was sentenced to a 120-day confinement. With a credit of 53 days already served, and 20 days off for good behavior, she was released on July 9, 2006, and given a bad conduct discharge. Ms. Jashinsky went on to graduate from the University of Texas at Austin.

PFC. Michael Barnes, was a member of a paratrooper unit, based in Fort Richardson, Alaska. He arrived in Iraq with his unit in 2006, While serving in Iraq, he applied for C.O. status, based on his religious beliefs. He spent a lot of time reading the Bible. A representative for the U.S. government, Major Josh Toman, pointed out Barnes did not attend chapel services. Barnes stated his religion was his private affair. The board did not believed him. They believed he was not sincere. His request for C.O. status was denied.

Barnes appealed the decision in federal court. A federal judge, on September 23, 2008, ordered the U.S. Army to grant Barnes C.O. status and an honorable discharge. The sincerity of Barnes was supported by the testimony of a chaplain, a psychiatrist, fellow soldiers, and Barnes himself.

SPC. Daniel Birmingham enlisted in the army at age 18. He grew up in extreme poverty in Michigan. He grew up living with his grandparents, in a 2-bedroom house with 10 or more family members. He had few options for college, and, at the time, Michigan had a high rate of unemployment. He basically enlisted because he was poor. He was based in Fort Lewis, Washington, and his unit was deployed to Iraq in 2009. Upon the return of his unit to the United States in 2010, he filed for an honorable discharge as a C.O. While in Iraq he saw innocent people being killed or injured. He saw that the poverty there was worse than the poverty he had experienced. He saw people lacking water, or having to use contaminated water. Birmingham's case established some important precedents. His beliefs were not based on religion, but personal morals. Killing another human being was wrong; killing a person who had a life worse than his own was out of the question. Birmingham went further, he had a moral opposition to participation in U.S. foreign policy. While his application for C.O. status, his unit received orders for Afghanistan. He refused to deploy with his unit..

On February 27, 2012, Daniel Birmingham received an early honorable discharge from the Army, as a conscientious objector. This case set a precedent because the application was not only based on personal morals, but also based on moral opposition to participation in US foreign policy. It affirmed the legal rights of soldiers.

The brief summaries about these five individuals are useful to illustrate not only the difficulties C.O. applicants may encounter, but also make evident the difficulties in the evaluation of these applications.

The most important consideration is to determine the sincerity of the applicant's beliefs, by an impartial evaluation. Sincerity cannot be objectively evaluated.. Impartiality may be obscured, if the applicant has been called a coward by his superiors, like Benderman and Mejia. That opinion will be known to the evaluators, and may be shared by them.

There is heavy reliance on institutionalized religion. The entire life of an applicant is to be evaluated. This is an enormous task. In addition to the C.O. application, the applicant must provide additional information, a curriculum vitae which is longer than an application for a federal job. This CV must include all schooling; all places of residence and dates; name of his/her church; name of pastor; description of religion; the religion of his/her parents; name and address of parents, indicating if they are dead or alive. Michael Barnes just read the Bible; he didn't participate in organized religion. There was also the sincerity factor. The military board did not believe him, so his application was denied. This decision was overturned by a federal judge.

Ethical or moral beliefs are problematic for evaluators. They are hard to document. All 4 servicemen served in Iraq. What they experienced was obviously a big factor in their feeling compelled to apply to C.O. status. Beliefs change. While in the military, Katherine Jashinsky modified and solidified her personal beliefs. She didn't need to deploy with her unit to Afghanistan to develop similar beliefs as Kevin Benderman: a belief in Humanity. The 18 months it took for a decision on her application, illustrate how things were handled in the past. A positive change has occurred. Army regulations have been amended, with the expectation of expeditious handling of C.O. applications.

What helped Daniel Birmingham to receive an honorable discharge as a C.O was the fact he became very well informed about the legal rights of soldiers. These rights exist, but rarely discussed, perhaps overshadowed by other rights, Human Rights, GLBT Rights, Rights of the Unborn, Reproductive Rights, Animal Rights, and so on. The Constitutional Rights of Military Personnel is a 52-page document, part of the Congressional Record. The U. S. Army has a field manual entitled Legal Guide for Soldiers. These are just two sources. There are organizations that advice soldiers about legal matters. Birmingham became an anti-war activist while he was still in the Army. He felt an obligation to inform others soldiers about C.O. applications, and their legal rights.

In our wars prior to Vietnam, soldiers served for the duration of the war, they did not come home until the war was over. That changed with the Vietnam war. Soldiers served a one-year tour, and they did not come home until the end of their tour. They were sent on R&R (Rest and Recreation) for 5 days to another Asian country, such as Japan or Thailand. There were no repeat tours or extensions unless they were requested by the soldiers. For most, it was a year and they were done. There was a military draft or conscription. A draftee was unlikely to serve beyond the 2-year obligation.

Nowadays, with an all-volunteer Army, units may be sent to war more than once. They may be sent back to the same war, or sent to a different war. But, now soldiers come home after a deployment, or on a 2-week leave. There is time to reflect, to think about their war experiences. This is when the moral dilemmas begin to appear or become stronger. Conscientious Objectors emerge,

Ironically, the five individuals of this article, exhibit many of the qualities of a good citizen. They are honest; they have integrity; they assume responsibility for their actions. They have compassion, self-discipline, and moral courage. We are fortunate to have them as fellow citizens. They are individuals who think, read books, study religions, and other cultures. They keep themselves well-informed. They have developed a philosophy of life, and have firm, solid, moral and ethical standards. As long as we have this kind of individuals, there is hope for all of us, not only in our home country but in the world.

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