Conscientious in Killeen

Interview with former Staff Sergeant Steven Stippich


Until May, 31-year-old Steven Stippich was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division. As he explained in a recent interview with the Observer, last year Stippich had what he describes as a moral epiphany. He realized that he could no longer do what he had been trained to do for 12 years as an active duty soldier–kill people. He described his transformation in methodical, almost scientific terms, as he calculated the projected impact of a single enemy death. To his superior officers, Stippich had been a model soldier. But several of them admired his courage in coming forward, and with their guidance he filed for conscientious objector status. When the Fourth Infantry Division–the Army’s first digital division–shipped off to Iraq, Stippich remained at Fort Hood and waited for word on his CO application. On May 8, 2003, he was honorably discharged as a conscientious objector.

My father was in the National Guard, but he never saw any service there other than in the armory in Lima, Ohio. But there were things growing up that made me want to join the military. I still remember pretty clearly being in the sixth grade. We’d get a little newsletter in science class and it talked about a MIRV, a multiple independent re-entry vehicle, which is basically the business end of an ICBM. It was scary–knowing that we were very likely in the crosshairs of–at that time–a Russian ICBM. That was my motivation for enlisting. It sounded a lot better than war: If you have a strong military, you give the bad guy a moment of pause before he pulls the trigger. There were still 10,000 Russian tanks ready to roll over Western Europe and there were still nuclear weapons aimed at my family. Enlisting was part of what I saw as the solution. I enlisted in March of 1990. In November ’93 I started training as a tanker. I found it pretty fascinating, mechanically and academically. Of course, the guns and armor–it’s intoxicating sometimes. Or it was then.

In 1999-2000, when my enlistment was up, my intent was to get out. But I was selected for positions of increasing responsibility. I was given my own tank and went to what’s called master gunner’s school in August of 2001. Academically, it’s the hardest school that the military has. It kept me on my toes. But while I was there I saw things as very clinical. There was no emotion involved in anything: The path of the round is from Point A to Point B, passing through this parabolic arc, and then at this velocity with so much force upon impact. There was no thought about what was on the other end. The word “kill” in military culture is–it’s hard to explain. It’s common; it’s very de-sensitized. You say it, but you don’t think about it. I was in this school at Fort Knox during September 11.

It didn’t occur to me right then, but it occurred to me later that the premise of my enlistment–deterrence–had failed. We were the biggest guys on the block. We had the biggest weapons, the most weapons. We had the best training. And it failed. We could no longer deter through sheer force.

But from then we focused on training quite a bit. I really started to feel something coming up because I’d been given increasing levels of responsibility. When we got the new tanks, we became digitized. Not too long after I came back from the school, I went to the National Training Center in California for a rotation that is a brigade-level training exercise. I saw things really start to change. This was the summer of 2002. It just seemed like we were getting ready to do something. And that leads me to October. We were at gunnery, which is about a month-long exercise. Up until then I had been thinking, kind of questioning things.

There’s no religious overtones to anything of this, but I guess the best word would be an “epiphany.” It was a nice, bright sunny Texas day…I was sitting on top of my tank, just looking down at the panels, where we zero the guns. Why am I so stressed out? What is the problem? Just a hundred things going through my head. And why is this guy [the first sergeant] on me so bad? It’s because I’m not being efficient enough for him. What am I trying to be efficient at? I’m trying to be efficient at gunnery, but what is “gunnery” ultimately? Gunnery is training to kill people efficiently. And it just started to build like that. One question led to 10 other questions. What happens when that bullet hits that tank? There’s four people on a standard Russian-style, Soviet tank, or Iraqi tank. Those four people each have a mother and father; possibly they have wives, children, brothers, and sisters. I conservatively estimated that every time I hit that tank or gave the order for my gunner to fire, not only would four people die, but also somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 to 200 people would suffer. They would miss those people–people who weren’t that much different from me. There was probably another guy who was a hot shot tank commander, a 19-year-old gunner, a couple kids in the driver and loader position, who are not that much different from these guys that I care about so much. And who gave me that power to decide if they live or die? I was really taken aback, but I kept it to myself. It’s so difficult when you’re sitting around the campfire with all the other warriors after a good day’s hunt to come up and raise your hand and say, “Hey, boss, I feel different. You know, maybe what we did was wrong.” There’s a stigma attached to it–a conscientious objector. A lot of people think, “Oh, hippies,” and people carrying signs and spitting on soldiers and things like that.

I knew that wasn’t me, but I knew that I was very quickly becoming opposed to war. And opposed to killing. We went through a platoon gunnery exercise. Four tanks up on line, a total of 60 targets presented within a certain amount of time. It was all over within about 15 minutes or so. And that many targets going down in that rapid succession–it just really started to drill it home: Look how efficient we are at murdering. They don’t stand a chance against us. They might as well just not show up because if they do, we’re going to kill them. We had an after-action review. The whole platoon was in a small building and we had a video tape of the targetry and so forth. My company commander was doing the debriefing. It was all I could do to not come out and say, “Look how efficiently we murder these people.” I remember him asking me, “Hey, Sergeant Stippich, how do you think we did?” For a split second my first reaction was, “Well, I guess we murdered the hell out of them, didn’t we? Each and every last one, they’re all dead now.” I wanted to say that so badly, but it just wasn’t the venue for it. So I said, “I think we did a fine job. We did what we were supposed to do.” And it hurt to say that.

My platoon sergeant was very understanding. He’d been in the first desert war, and was decorated for that. I remember him one time saying, “I’d give it all back if I just didn’t have to see what I saw over there.” He was very intelligent, very caring, a smart NCO.

A few days later I requested to talk to my company commander. We were still out in the field. They wanted to do some more training and we were standing in front of his Humvee. He was a really nice guy. He just put his arm around me, and said, “What’s wrong. You can just go ahead and talk to me. You have something on your mind.” And I told him, “I don’t think I can participate in this. I don’t think that I have what it takes to kill people.” He was understandably a bit taken aback. It was not what he expected me to come talk to him about. I had a reputation as someone who was a very aggressive tank commander, someone who got things done. One of my motivations was that I’d rather do this now, make my decision now, than do it later and actually have people die for it. If I were in combat and decided, “I can’t do this,” it’s too late.

From there I went to the First Sergeant. He was not too happy with me, which I didn’t expect him to be. Once I told him I wanted to be a C.O., I wanted to do the proper paperwork, he brought me back and had me go immediately to a JAG [Judge Advocate General] lawyer. Then I went to the sergeant major’s office–he’d been in the army for probably 25, maybe 30 years, and he’s supposed to be the role model for other NCOs–he said, “OK, tell me what is it you want to do?” And I said that basically, being maybe still a little intimidated and unsure of what was going to happen to me, I said, “I don’t feel that I can do this anymore. What I need to do is apply for conscientious objector status.”

And then the lecture started. He said, “It’s your responsibility, and you need to feel like this, and you need to do this, and what if it happened in Austin, what if it happened to your family,” [referring to 9-11]. Basically, I got no compassion from this guy, and he had been one of the proponents of me moving up in the ranks with increasing levels of responsibility. So from there I went back to my first sergeant, and he’s like, “What do I do?” He wanted me to say it was because of him, that I’m having a nervous breakdown. He said, “It’s not too late to go back. You have the potential to do so much more; you could be a platoon sergeant one day; you’re going to get promoted,” and all this. I told him that it was really what I wanted to do, and he said OK. I was taken off my tank and rode around in the back of a supply truck serving chow for the next week, which was fine with me. The only demand I made was that we were discreet about it. I wasn’t out to incite some insurrection among the ranks. It was really a personal decision.

We came back from the field in early November, and that’s when I started the paperwork with the military and the government. I kept trying to push it through; my status was in question. It was never overt, no one ever said anything to my face. No one ever called me a coward. They just didn’t understand, or maybe they just were not sure if it was true. As a matter of fact, a lot of the officers actually commended me, and told me it took a lot of guts to stand up like that. They understood it’s really going against the grain. It’s not something you’d expect a soldier, especially someone with my background, my personality to do.

Martin Luther King Day was when we got the word that the Fourth Infantry Division was going to deploy to Iraq. It’s plain to me now that [the war] had been in the works for a while. I’m just realizing that now. It really kind of sickens me sometimes to think that I was a pawn to that. My battalion commander asked me what I was going to do when I got out, and I mentioned school and other things. He said that “Whatever you do, just don’t join that peace movement, because that would just insult me so much.” I said, “Why would it insult you if I was to try to bring you home quicker, to be with your family?”

I had effectively declared myself a minority within the army. Up until the last day I was there, I was still an NCO, taking care of soldiers. While I was on rear detachment I was in charge of supervising cleaning some buildings. I had guys who were working for me. My initial request was for non-combatant status. I thought that would be the best way to do it. It was easier to break a little bit than to break completely. After I thought about it, I decided that there really was no non-combatant job in the military. You’re going to have to pick up a weapon eventually. Even if you don’t. Say you were filling sandbags at a rifle range. Well, someone is going to use those sand bags to qualify their rifle, and if the sandbags are good enough, they’re going to qualify them better, and become more efficient killers. It’s six degrees of separation. Our military is geared to kill people. It’s not geared to be humanitarian.

All the guys were gone. About seven to 10 days prior to that I’d been through clearing, which is turning your gear in, turn in paperwork, all that. The guy who was the rear attachment commander, his name’s Captain Morris. He’s the husband of one of my best friends, Heather, and a very reasonable, intelligent man. I would do jobs for him while I was waiting for paperwork to clear. That last day I went into his office, sat down next to him, had a moment of silence, and he said, “Is it done?” And I said “Yeah, midnight tonight, it’s official.” It was emotional for me because you spend so much of your life doing something like that, you make friends. Sometimes it’s hard to leave them even if it’s for the best of intentions. So I said goodbye to him, we shook hands. I went from him to one other commander major–he’s the guy who when I was having trouble finding out about my paperwork, got more done in sixty minutes than anyone else did in six months. I thanked him. So I said thank you to some people, wished some people well, and I got in my car and came home. I came home to Sam the dog and that was about it.

Steven Stippich lives in Killeen, not far from Fort Hood, where his girlfriend is still posted. He plays in a band with several soldiers. Stefan Wray is a writer, filmmaker, and activist based in Austin. He is co-director of the Military Documentation Project and Iconmedia (