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Dignified or dirty: leaving the fight as a conscientious objector

Mideast edition, Sunday, June 10, 2007

HEIDELBERG, Germany - Want out?

Spc. Chris Capps of the 440th Signal Battalion did.

After one deployment in Iraq and what he assumed was soon to be another in Afghanistan, he went on leave one day and never came back.

"I was a deserter," he said.

But Capps wasn't prosecuted, just as most deserters aren't, according to the Army. Instead, after he turned himself in last month at Fort Sill, Okla., one of two Army personnel processing centers, he was out of the Army in 3 1/2 days with an "other-than-honorable" discharge.

Now he's living in Hanau with his German wife, looking for a job and protesting the wars he was once a part of. He's lost all military benefits and said he knows that some, perhaps most, of his former company members view him with distaste.

"My family looks at me as an oath-breaker. I've been pretty much ostracized," Capps said. "But I'm OK with that."

Capps had done his homework on how to leave the Army, ” breaking his contract but honoring his conscience, he says, ”without having charges brought against him. He is one of about 110 U.S. Army Europe soldiers who last year sought guidance from the Military Counseling Network.

"Want out? Find out. Get out!" one of MCN's fliers says.

Michael Sharp, a 24-year-old Mennonite and pacifist from Chicago who runs the organization from a cramped office some 10 miles from USAREUR headquarters, said the group provides a legal, necessary service to soldiers who can't always rely on the Army for facts.

"We're a source of information," Sharp said. "We're helping the military function as its regulations suggest it should.

"In the same way the Department of the Army has the right to extend a soldier's active duty, so, too can some soldiers get out under certain circumstances.

"We definitely don't encourage anyone to go [absent without leave] or do anything illegal. But if they're asking, 'What happens if I go AWOL?' we can tell them what happens. We provide a service that's hard to argue with."

Sharp said his organization, which offers free, confidential advice on a variety of discharges -- 14 types are listed on the group's Web site -- benefits and rights, has nearly doubled the number of clients this year. In 2006, the network saw eight to 10 new cases monthly. "Now it's 15 to 20," he said.

The biggest increase has been in soldiers asking about what's regarded as among the most principled of discharges: conscientious objector. From January through last month, Sharp said, his office talked with 12 new potential conscientious objectors, the same number as in all 2006. To be a conscientious objector requires a "firm, fixed and sincere objection to participating in war of any form or the bearing of arms," according to Defense Department regulations.

The network's most high-profile client was Augustin Aguayo, a medic who was denied conscientious objector status, deserted just before he was to be sent for a second time to Iraq, and wound up spending a year in the military confinement center in Mannheim before being discharged earlier this year.

But most of its cases make no news at all.

Sgt. DeShawn Reed, formerly a human resources specialist with the 64th Medical Detachment, served five years before he was discharged as a conscientious objector in 2005. He is one of eight COs on the MCN Web site, but little known outside of pacifist circles.

In his CO application, posted on the Web site, he wrote that he started questioning whether war accomplished only death and destruction after taking a European history class. His beliefs crystallized, he wrote, after a friend who had been deployed to Iraq and had come home on emergency leave because his 12-year-old son had died, told Reed about a convoy in which he’d almost opened fire on a child who turned out to be holding a rock, not a grenade.

"The irony that he almost took a child's life shortly before returning home to realize his own child was dead was not lost on me," Reed wrote. "The Army asks you if you're willing to die for your country, but they never ask if you're willing to kill for it."

Last year, 12 USAREUR soldiers who went to the network qualified for conscientious objector status, in Sharp's opinion. "Seven went through the process and all seven were approved," he said.

The other five opted out of the arduous process, which is supposed to take nine months but can take a year or more, Sharp said. They were discharged with general, medical, or other-than-honorable discharges. "Augustin Aguayo is the only one of our guys who got a bad conduct discharge," Sharp said.

Maj. Anne Edgecomb, a Department of the Army spokeswoman, said the Army respects conscientious objectors.

"We have a lot of respect for people whose values and beliefs are that they don’t want to fight or don't believe in war at all," she said. "We don't want them in the Army if they don't want to fight."

The numbers of COs, after nearly tripling between 2002 and 2003, have remained steady minusculesmall, according to Army statistics.

In the first nine months of the last year, 33 CO applications were approved and nine disapproved, according to statistics Holcomb provided.

Gaining conscientious objector status — which brings an honorable discharge — is not easy, according to Sharp and others who work with such soldiers.

"You're saying you don't believe anymore what everybody else around you is doing," Sharp said. "People are not going to understand."

To convince Army officials that you now feel war is wrong requires extensive written statements explaining the change of heart, interviews with chaplains, psychiatrists, an investigating officer, review by at least three commanders, all of whom make recommendations to the Army, and actions that back up the words.

"But he better obey orders," said Jim Miller, an American living in Germany who works with the network.

"If they refuse to handle a gun, they can get an Article 15. There are lots easier ways to do it. Anybody who goes through this process and makes it out that way is either serious about it or a con man."

Capps said one reason he didn't pursue a CO discharge was because while he opposed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, "I'm not a complete pacifist. Everybody knows that," he said.

Plus, Capps knew a soldier in his battalion who sought and won CO status and didn't want to go through the process.

"The chain of command treated him like [crap]," Capps said.

Sometimes it's the command that doesn't want to wait for the CO process.

"We had a staff sergeant from Schweinfurt. A staff sergeant goes to the firing range and the soldiers see him refusing to fire his weapon?" Sharp said. "The command didn't want to wait. They gave him a general discharge."

Sharp said commanders' responses to having a soldier apply for CO status vary from those who will part gladly with reluctant or unwilling soldiers to those who view such applicants as cowards and shirkers. Retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, formerly commander of the 1st Infantry Division and V Corps, denied all three applications he reviewed, Sharpe said, writing only as his reason: "Timing is suspicious."

Many of the network's CO clients,” who comprise about 15 percent of all its clients,” have already deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they say that changed them.

Among them is former Spc. Vincent La Volpa, honorably discharged as a conscientious objector in 2005 with a Purple Heart earned during his Iraq tour as a 1st Armored Division combat engineer.

When he returned to Germany, La Volpa wrote on the MCN Web site, he thought about his experiences.

"I contemplated the cause and its value. Feeling that the means was not worth the sacrifice for the uncertain end, I felt that I had to make a decision," he wrote. "Am I for this or am I against it? I decided I am against it."


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