If I could serve our country without being expected to kill people, I never would have considered conscientious objection. I enjoyed the challenge and the satisfaction of knowing I volunteered for some of the most demanding training, like jumping out of airplanes and repelling out of helicopters. It is impossible to encapsulate in words the feeling of camaraderie you achieve when you train so hard and so often with people that you can trust with your life. There really isn’t anything else like it in the world.
Neither is there anything like the pain that comes with the realization that you are capable of killing another human being without question for people you have never met and have no reason to trust. It shatters any semblance of a positive self-image you might think you have cultivated.
When I came to that realization, it was too late. I had been on the battlefield for 11 months and I had seen my share of intense combat. I had smelled death, tasted the acrid carbon powder of the gunsmoke, and heard the cries of mothers outliving their children. Sitting outside a hospital in Samarrah in October of 2004, little did they know I wept with them, safely hidden from my platoon members, who would have seen the raw emotion as a liability. I had seen bodies outnumber available bags, draped over one another in an exterior storage room. My mind wandered recklessly and I saw my own father’s face peer out at me from behind a thick black zipper of an open bag.
For a while, maybe my training proved sufficient, perhaps it had adequately numbed me from the stark reality that I encountered in Iraq. I returned home and reflexively forced those experiences, and others like them, to the furthest reaches of my mind, hoping that time in fact healed all wounds.
It took me almost an entire year and a divine slap in the face to rouse me from the trance of unquestioning obedience and unthinking allegiance. But nothing could steal from me the trust and faith I had in my fellow brothers at arms. Five years on active duty had shown me heights of the human experience that many of you in the audience will never have the privilege of fully comprehending. Unfortunately, that privilege is not without a price, which comes as a realization of the depths of human depravity and callousness.
To be human is to be fully capable of the most awful acts of evil and the most audacious acts of charity. I both found and lost my humanity while I wore the uniform of a United States soldier. As painful as that has been, I would not trade the experience for anything. I would not be the man I am today had I not learned the lessons I did in service to our country.
For this reason, when I came to what the regulations call my “crystallization of conscience,” (which is a misnomer since our consciences are continually evolving), I had decided that I would not seek discharge. How could I? The esteem in which I held my compatriots prevented me from parting company with them. However, Christ bid me drop my weapon, and I had no choice but to respond. Facing a second deployment, in April 2006, I was literally between Iraq and a hard place.
My CO application in June of 2006 was an attempt to reconcile my principles with my patriotism. I was not convinced that leaving the military would absolve me of my fair measure of responsibility to prevent or end the wars fought in our name. Would I be any less complicit as a tax-paying civilian? Or could I seek alternatives to violence in the midst of war?
I was inclined to believe the latter, which is why I took the road least traveled. Fortunately, I had a few shining examples of noncombatant courage that paved the way, such as Desmond T. Doss and Joseph G. LaPointe, both conscientious objectors who were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. It is my distinct honor to have discovered that I had deployed to combat in the very same unit of a third, Thomas W. Bennett, of Bravo Company, 1st-14th Infantry Regiment, 25th ID.
After my commander berated me as a coward and insisted I was somehow aiding the enemies of America by asking to return to Iraq unarmed, I was forcibly reassigned to a unit that would not deploy. One of the most tumultuous days of my life was spent watching my unit leave for combat without me. Ten members of my unit would not return from their tour.
Despite being denied the opportunity to serve nonviolently in Iraq, I eventually found my way to warzones as a peacemaker. First, with Christian Peacemaker Teams to Israel/Palestine while on terminal leave before my discharge in November 2006, and again just two months ago with friends to Rutba, Iraq. In each combat theater, my heart felt as though it was being forced through a rusty paper shredder as I heard so many stories of indescribable grief and pain; stories in which others in uniform had a leading role.
Just as I had before, in the hospital in Samarrah, I waited until I had some time alone to restore my weary soul. In Iraq, I stumbled across some song lyrics that spoke directly to my situation. I grabbed my notebook and began to scribble, altering the lyrics slightly and adding a verse of my own. I immediately felt one heartbeat closer to redemption.
Adapted from “The Flame Deluge,” by the band Thrice:
I feel that I was meant for something more
My curse, this awe-ful power to unmake
And ever since they found their taste for war
They’ve forced me onto those whose lives they’d take
To Baghdad, I and mine have brought
Ugly sights, so few before hast borne
Tho deceived, uniformed and uninformed, we fought
Once alone, like you and yours, we mourn
Thank you for listening tonight.