The Power of Telling One’s Story
By Diedra Cobb
Dear God, please hear me. I need to hear my spirit guides. I need to quiet my mind chatter. I need to soar like the Goddess that I am. I need to write. I need to create. I need to build with myself and with others. I need to have fun. I need to eat well. I need loving, attentive affection. I need strong, loving, focused, affirmative community. I need my femininity to be honored. I need the trees and the water. I need straight forward and productive communication with those around me and beyond. I need Mother Nature’s strength and guidance. I need the truth. I need you. I need myself. Thank you. I love you. I love me.
Sacrifice for the Greater Good
Sometimes I don’t know if I want to visit this story again. The experience of writing this story represents the psychosis of my interactions with this society as a woman, as a black woman, as a thinker, as a spiritual being. Telling this story represents reliving, reawakening, re-evaluating, re-envisioning, renewing what has been all along — creation. Knowing that telling this story is what I need, trying to be thorough, knowing that I will probably fall short of my most critical expectations, and knowing that everything is in balance — always — I write. Little by little I tell my story to myself. Little by little I tell my story to others. And little by little I heal, I gain clarity, and I love my beautiful self unconditionally, so that I can love others unconditionally.
I began my journey with the military in June 2001. I joined the Army Reserves with the understanding that I was uniting with a community of people that believed in sacrifice for the greater good. I joined the Army Reserves with the understanding that I would be building safe and more free futures for my fellow humans, whether near or far, and with that understanding, I felt invigorated and alive.
My father and uncle had served in the military, and in my interactions with them then and now, never would I characterize them as malicious men. They are loving and giving, focused and present. In 2000, I decided to attend New Mexico Military Institute, a military academy prep school, but after a semester I came to understand that the cliquish authoritarian nature of academy life was not for me. I left and went to college at a couple of community colleges in Illinois before deciding that I wanted to explore the world, meet people from many different life experiences, and exercise my passion to nurture and protect. Where could I find all three of those qualities and still sustain myself as a young woman in society? The military … or so I thought.
I joined in June 2001 and left for Basic Training, which is the initial training phase that teaches military discipline, formations, and weapons training, in January 2002 at Fort Jackson. From Basic Training, I went to Advanced Individual Training (AIT), which teaches the job skill that the soldier was hired for, in March 2002 at Fort Huachuca. It was in these initial training stages that I began to understand that the foundations necessary for ensuring a safe and freer society anywhere were absent. Without at least a basic understanding and/or knowledge of others’ history, language, customs, and sources of happiness, one could do nothing but act as a scared robot, waiting to be told what to do next when placed in a foreign environment.
At basic training I heard, and was instructed to sing, chants such as “Hi! Ho! Captin’ Jack, meet me down by the railroad track, with that weapon in my hand, I’m gonna be a shootin’ man, a killin’ man..,” “The bright red blood makes the green grass grow,” etc. We did bayonet training, learned to use hand grenades, semi-automatic rifles, anti-personnel mines, rocket propelled grenade launchers, and many other weapons of mass destruction. Upon graduating from training, I was thoroughly disturbed by the lack of direction and foundational knowledge provided about the societies for which we had been trained to enter and impact. To ensure that these skills are not abused, but used in the most disciplined, reserved, and strategic fashion one must have an understanding of the people that they are interacting with. This was too much thought apparently because I was told upon requesting information about this component, “Specialist Cobb, where do you think you are?!” as the drill sergeant laughed at me.
Starting of a Conscientious Objection Process
After Basic Training and AIT ended, I spent about six months at an Army Reserve unit in Decatur, Illinois, before I began and finished reading a book called, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. At the end of the book I had an epiphany. What I had signed up for does not match my spirit. To remain a part of an organization that forcibly occupies countries to secure business and power interests that can and will never create the peace that it markets as its motive, would be to self destruct into a long, slow and torturous death. I was visibly disturbed, so much so that a female sergeant at my unit came up to me at the next drill and asked me if I was OK. I told her what I was feeling and she said that I had to say something, and emphasized a sense of urgency about this task.
People at our unit had not yet begun to be mobilized, but mobilizations were beginning to be spoken of on the local news. I started writing the reasons for not being willing or able to participate anymore to support my request to be released from my military contract. At that point, I did not know that there was an official way to do everything in the military, including resist. As I wrote and printed out documents describing the conflict between my beliefs and the goal of the military, I later came to find that these were being discarded just as fast as they were coming in — and if not discarded, then disregarded by those officials that I presented them to.
In February 2003, I was told that I had to go to Wisconsin to go through the SRP (Soldier Readiness Process). I asked about the status of my case, in addition to inquiring about the purpose of going through the SRP in Wisconsin. I was assured that my case was being looked into and that all soldiers were going through SRP, just at varying times, not to worry. When I got there, it seemed as though I was in elementary school again, sitting at lunch tables in a gymnasium that reminded me of the one I attended while growing up. When we finally got past the hurry up and wait part, I found out why my intuition was sending off alarms when I received the call to go to Wisconsin. I was instructed that no Conscientious Objector case had been started, that I was no longer assigned to the unit in Illinois, and that I had one week to pack everything and move to Maryland. I was to join a Military Intelligence Batallion, which was waiting for its last few soldiers to trickle in before deploying — I was to be one of those last few soldiers.
One week? I didn’t know where to start exactly, but I knew that I had to act. I withdrew from my classes at the local community college, I engaged the help of friends at The School for Designing a Society, and I prayed. I explained what was going on the best I could to my parents and friends, and I prayed. I packed all of the belongings that I thought I would want, while leaving behind things that might cause too much controversy or trouble, and I prayed.
Long story short, I arrived at Aberdeen Proving Ground on the night of March 3, 2003, and I handed in my official Conscientious Objector papers that morning. My friends at the School for Designing a Society assisted in gaining knowledge of the official conscientious objector process, and I made it known from the time I stepped foot onto that military post that I did not want any part of the military’s business. I knew that in addition to the submission of official written opposition with supporting recommendations, I would have to undergo a chaplain’s and a psychiatrist’s interview, an informal hearing from an officer on base, and then wait for the Military Review Board to make its final decision. Once I arrived at the unit, I was immediately blessed in that my Commander assigned me to the Rear Detachment of the unit. He did not want me to deploy with the rest of the unit for fear that I would lower morale and be a threat to the unit’s safety. I consider myself pretty nonviolent, but for the sake of my beliefs and the fact that I would have resisted deployment had I been ordered to, I had no complaints about being assigned to stay in the rear-detachment of the unit.
Effect of Military Life
As I spent more and more time on post, examples of deceit began to accumulate before my eyes, in addition to frustration and self-destructive behavior in troops due to not knowing why were being asked to deploy. I witnessed several people who had spent years in the military, as loyal believers and actors, were cut from the ranks a few years shy of their pension; military records, essential to proving eligibility for military-related disability claims, disappeared; a sergeant who had mistakenly been called onto active duty after his 20-year mark, was jailed and reduced to the lowest rank for becoming depressed and drinking in the barracks; even after the mistake had been identified and it was determined that he was to be released from service and awarded his retirement pension. Many frustrated, scared and confused young men and women had also taken to heavy drinking, and inflicting injuries upon themselves and others. In fact, I had never seen so many men cry in my life. It was in the military that I came to find that much like father, uncle, and I, up to the point of my change of consciousness, many of the men and women in the Armed Services had good intentions, it was the premise of these intentions that was often inaccurate or incomplete due to inaccuracies that have been indoctrinated in us from preschool on through our collegiate educations.
It was the military’s disregard for honest and truthful consideration for those who were so loyal to them that alerted me to the fact that it was imperative that I seek sources to turn to should I need counsel. Shortly after my unit deployed to Iraq, my Commander began seeking to obtain the Full Bird Colonel rank, and in doing so, noticed that explaining my non-deployed status, as a fully able-bodied soldier, would be a problem for him. It was at this point that he threatened the use of legal consequences for disobeying a direct order; malingering, and conduct unbecoming of a soldier were tried against me, in an attempt to scare me into deploying. Thanks to the help of the GI Rights Hotline, the Military Law Task Force, and DC lawyer Jim Klimaski, I was able to deflect this threat as false, for my Commander had assigned me to the rear detachment himself and had signed an official contract with me to ensure that I would remain there until the end of my Conscientious Objector case.
While in Maryland at Aberdeen Proving Ground, I met a woman by the name of Claribel Torres a.k.a Claire or Jewelz, who became a dear friend of mine for that season of militarism in my life. She allowed me to stay at her home in Delaware, when we were allowed time away from the barracks, and in the barracks and on base, we stuck together very tight in sisterhood. When she deployed, I sent her care packages and we exchanged letters, and upon her return, I was even a bridesmaid in her second marriage. Although our friendship has since turned sour, she was very instrumental in my happiness while stationed at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Many people in my unit, both enlisted and officers alike, openly shared similar beliefs about war and were supportive of my position, however, most were not willing to resist as did I, fearing the repercussions of doing so. The sexual assault that I experienced in the barracks, of which the legal resolution has still not been shared with me by the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) or the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) office of Aberdeen Proving Grounds, was one such matter that many in my unit were extremely supportive around.
Preventing another Person from being Swept under the Carpet
God, along with my friends and family, will always be steadfast pillars of support throughout my life. In addition, there were a whole host of men and women from the activist community that provided the brotherly and sisterly love that I required in order to make it through this experience. Damu Smith, Jonah House, Joe Morton, the American Friends Service Committee, Not Your Soldier, the War Resisters League, the Anti-War, Anti-Racism Effort (AWARE), Not in Our Name, Anarchist People of Color, Suncere Ali Shakur, the Women of Color Resource Center, the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), Alixa and Naima of Climbing Poetree, and a wonderful group of student activists at Towson University (rest in peace Jordan) stood by my side throughout the process. It would be less than honest, to say that I felt that all were altruistically concerned with my interests. As a matter of fact, there was a point where I became disgusted with 90% of the activist groups that I came into contact with, for being treated as though I was a promotional opportunity rather than a human being. However in hindsight, I realize that all interest and invitations to participate in the various anti-war movement events were tools by which my case received the collective publicity necessary to prevent being another person swept under the carpet by the military bureaucracy. And for that I am grateful to all. To those that sincerely saw me as a person, in addition to the value of what my case represented, I love you and thank you.
Amy Goodman at Democracy Now!, Eunice Buckner-Boone at WEFT, Ryme Khatkouda at WPFW, The Chicago Tribune, and The Guardian provided the personal and media support that allowed me to survive the threats of being imprisoned for 2 years due to my beliefs. While I was misquoted in The Chicago Tribune, I am grateful to all for allowing resistance from within the military to be heard. Through these experiences, I learned the power of media, and the power of telling one’s story.
In December 2003, my conscientious objector case was denied, as the final decision was rendered by the Military Review Board. I returned home to Illinois, where Chicago lawyer Charles Nissam-Sabbat assisted me in preparing and identifying a strategy to file a writ of habeus corpus appeal to uphold my position as a conscientious objector, despite the review board’s decision, should I be mobilized and ordered to deploy again. After leaving the military, my dear friend Cecil Smith, Jr. was beautifully open and committed to helping me see/dream past my traumatic military experience and move forward in the spirit of my strengths. All in all and forevermore, my faith in God has allowed me to see my way past demons and on toward the blessings that lie within. I move forward in the light and harmony with which the world was created, and I give thanks to those who believe in and seek righteousness.