Letter from Ft. Benning
When I graduated from high school in 2001, I moved to Austin to study engineering at the University of Texas. I grew up in Wisconsin: My father repairs houses and my mother is a factory worker. Except for my older sister, none of my siblings finished high school or went to college. I always liked school and decided that when it was time for college, I wanted to go someplace warm and far away. Like many teenagers who leave home for the first time, I went through a period of growth and introspection that was all part of my search for my identity. Where I eventually “found” myself is where I am today—engaged in a long, arduous battle with the U.S. Army.
I am a Specialist in the Texas Army National Guard. In April 2002, at the age of 19, I enlisted in the Guard, something that I had thought about doing since high school. I really didn’t know much about the military, but thought that to live a really full life I would try to experience as much as I could. I called a number in Austin that I had found online and was put in touch with a recruiter. Our first meeting was at a Jack in the Box near campus. He seemed surprised that I had called him first and we met several times after that. He talked about what a good thing I was doing and talked about the educational benefits. It wasn’t until after I had enlisted for six years and picked my job and my unit that he mentioned that the enlistment bonus was so high because that unit was usually among the first to be deployed. The United States was already at war in Afghanistan, of course. Before I went into the military, I hadn’t paid much attention to politics or foreign policy at all. I had always considered myself a Christian and believed that killing was wrong. But I also believed that it was a necessary part of life; that war was an exception to the rule and I was prepared to go to war.
In January 2003, I started Basic Training, which I actually liked. The night before I graduated from Basic Training President George Bush announced that we were going to war in Iraq. By the time I graduated from Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training, it was almost June of 2003. The war in Iraq was in full swing. And I was willing to fight in war.
Over the next year my attitude toward U.S. involvement in the Middle East began to change. As I observed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from my television and computer screens, I became skeptical of their morality. So many civilians and innocent people were becoming casualties of cruel and unnecessary force. In late 2003 and early 2004 I spent some time traveling in the South Pacific. An Australian friend whom I had met in Austin invited me to visit. Except for Canada, I had never been outside the United States. While traveling through Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand, I met people from all over the world and would get into heated discussions with them, as I was a U.S. citizen, a soldier representing my country. But I found that they knew more about our policies than I did. When I got back to Austin, I decided to educate myself. I started to read the news a lot more, to read more history, more books about war in general. In particular, I read a lot of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. All of this led me to form new opinions of the world, which came together with what I was studying. (I had decided to change my major to hydrogeology as I was interested in water as a natural resource.) My naïve notion that war was a sacrifice that people had to make in order for the world to be a better place began to crumble. (I can remember being in elementary school, reading about the Civil War and thinking that it must be so great to feel so passionately about something that you’d want to go to war for it, to kill people and possibly be killed.) I was questioning the morality of all wars, past and present, questioning my religious beliefs. Eventually my beliefs about humanity and its relation to war changed, and I began to see a bigger picture of the world. I started to re-evaluate everything that I had been taught about war as a child and began to believe that taking human life was wrong and war was no exception. And then, in April 2004, my unit received activation orders to go to Afghanistan.
The week before we received those orders, we were at a weekend training when someone asked if I was a conscientious objector (CO). As it turns out, everyone was asked that question. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were preparing us to mobilize and were getting information together—pregnancy tests, financial information. At the end, they asked the conscientious objector question. I didn’t know what that meant, so I said no. Later I looked it up and saw that I had a lot of the convictions that conscientious objectors hold. I also learned that people who are morally or ethically opposed to war could seek a discharge from the military on these grounds. When my unit was given activation orders, this led to an intense internal struggle between my beliefs about war and how they affected my ability to participate in the military—especially in a war.
I believed that my participation in war would be morally and ethically wrong, but I agonized over the fact that I had taken an oath to the Army for the duration of my contract. Isn’t our worth measured by our ability to keep our word? I also believed that if I was discharged and someone went to Afghanistan in my place, that I would be partially responsible for anything that happened to that person. But eventually I came to the conclusion that wars will only stop when people stop fighting them and that my moral obligation to myself and to the world was more important than any contract that I had signed. I decided to apply for a discharge as a conscientious objector, to commit my life to non-violence, and to serve my country and humanity in ways that preserve and enrich life. I have a deeply held belief that people must solve conflicts through peaceful diplomacy and without the use of violence. Violence only begets more violence. Because I believe so strongly in non-violence, I knew that I could no longer perform any role in the military, as that would be contributing in some way to the planning, preparation, or implementation of war. When I filed for conscientious objector status in June 2004, I also knew that I could no longer accept educational benefits from the military. That fall, I was no longer able to pay for college and had to drop out.
For 18 months, while a decision on my status was pending, I honored my commitment to the Army and did everything that was asked of me. On October 6, the Department of the Army Conscientious Objector Review Board denied my application for CO status. I filed suit in federal court requesting that the judge order my release from the military. On November 10, U.S. District Court Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio denied my request for a temporary injunction, stating, “The interests of one soldier do not outweigh the interests of an entire country.”
On November 13, I was ordered to Ft. Benning to complete weapons training. I left Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, where I had been stationed since February, and went to Ft. Benning. But I have refused to train with weapons. I spend my days on the base working in an office. I make copies, shred paper, sweep up, and await my punishment from the Army for refusing a direct order. While still in Texas, I was helping to establish a GI Rights Hotline. On November 17, I spoke at the annual School of Americas protest outside Ft. Benning, explaining my reasons for refusing to go to war. Now I spend much of my free time reading—everything from the essays of Henry David Thoreau to the writings of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
When I first decided to apply for CO status, I knew it would be hard. It’s been longer and harder than I thought it would be. But I have come to my beliefs through intense personal reflection and study. They are everything that I am and all that I stand for. After much thought about the effect that my decision will have on my future, my family—the possibility of prison and the inevitable scorn and ridicule—I am prepared to accept the consequences.
What characterizes a conscientious objector is the willingness to face adversity and uphold our values at any cost. We do this not because it is easy or popular, but because we are unable to do otherwise. My biggest hope after all this is said and done, is that I become an example and prevent others from enlisting before they know who they are.
In addition to waiting for her punishment from the Army, Katherine Jashinski is waiting for a decision on her petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which is pending before U.S. District Court Judge Orlando Garcia.