A Proud Deserter


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By Stephanie Atkinson

I am not a conscientious objector. I am not someone who has had to defend my beliefs for not participating in war. I am someone who when called upon to participate in a war that I thought was unjustifiable for many reasons, refused to go. I went AWOL (absent without leave) from the US Army in opposition to Operation Desert Storm. I am only a small part of a long continuum of war resisters, but I am proud of the decision I made to refuse.

If you are legally accepted as a conscientious objector by the US military, you are dismissed honorably. But conscientious objectors have gone through a very difficult and formal military process in which they have defended their actions, usually based on religious or strongly moral opposition to war. I define myself as a war resister for many reasons: I never submitted an application for conscientious objector status, and if I had, I don't think that I would have been able to defend my opposition. My reasons for refusal were predominantly political, and murky at best. I think of myself as a proud deserter. I think there are a lot of people who are like me, maybe not so proud, but definitely deserters or people who go AWOL, who may not have solidly defined reasons, but do have a cumulative set of experiences and feelings that add up to a feeling of "not quite right".

I struggle considerably to tell the story of my experience. I have no noble sense of opposition based on deeply held religious beliefs, as I’m not a religious person. At the time of my resistance, I had no eloquent or well-reasoned argument based on research or political study. (That education came later, substantiating and validating my feelings.) I did however, have feelings and experiences that indicated to me that my participation in the first Gulf War would be wrong. I was not swayed by the arguments of loyalty or patriotism, and going AWOL wasn't a moral or amoral dilemma to me that had to be justified by a religious or moral reason. I did not feel the pressure of “my country right or wrong”. In fact, I felt something completely opposite: “This is wrong, for a multitude of reasons, and I'm not going to do it. People on both sides will die, money and resources will be wasted, nothing about this will do anything to advance the human condition.”

My Way into the US Army

I enlisted in the US Army reserves at the age of seventeen in September of 1984 with my mother’s permission. It was a very quick and casual decision. I had no plans to enlist at that age; I had very little plans at all. Although I was an honor student in high school I didn’t have much guidance. My home life was emotionally and financially troubled. In my senior year of high school, I began easing my way out of home with only murky ideas about my future. I had dropped out of all extracurricular activities, started working part-time jobs, and only going to school half a day. More than anything I wanted to be independent, responsible for myself financially, and move on with my life.

I grew up in small town America. There are many communities like the one I grew up in — agrarian and working class, politically and religiously conservative, and with limited economic opportunities. (Later when I met other resisters, a lot of us shared similarities of circumstance, whether we were from rust belt cities, small towns or inner cities. A lot of us came from single parent working class households. Most commonly we didn’t quite know who we wanted to be or what we wanted to do. And really, at 17, 18 or 21 years old, who does?)

These are ideal communities for recruiting young people to the military. For young adults without defined life paths, the military is presented as an opportunity up and out of their present circumstances, to a college education, steady employment, financial independence, travel, experiences that they wouldn’t have if they stayed in their communities. With my good grades, earnestness and naïveté, and fierce desire to leave home, I was an ideal candidate.

On a visit to a recruiting station with my stepfather (who wanted to enlist in the Navy) and mother, I was an easy mark. I had taken the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) because I enjoyed standardized tests in high school. Conveniently, my scores were available to the recruiter in the office. I was bright, healthy, young, with no plans for the future and an enthusiastic parent who would sign the age waiver for enlistment immediately. I could learn valuable job skills! Travel the world! Get a college education! The recruiters reinforced for my mother and me everything we wanted to hear to make enlistment appealing, and didn’t dissuade us from any misinformed perceptions about what being in the military really meant. Within a couple of hours, my preliminary enlistment was done. I remember feeling really excited, a little nervous, but that I had something to look forward to in less than a year. I had made a grown up decision and was close to becoming an independent adult. I was swirling in a haze of deceptive daydreams. I was a teenager with limited information who had made a very adult decision certainly, one of life and death. The remotest thing I had considered was that being in the US Army meant one very concrete thing — War. I had no particularly strong feelings or information about world or national events or even feelings of patriotism or “a higher calling”. I had never considered war or violence other than as a part of “ancient history”. Both my grandfathers had served in World War II, but that was the stuff of “old people”. Like most other teenagers I had no sense of mortality or concern for the world at large, only changing my own immediate circumstances. Is that selfish? Yes. Is it uncharacteristic of most young people? No.

The misperceptions of my decision to enlist were quickly adjusted during the reality of basic training in the summer of 1985. The fundamental mission of basic training is to create soldiers — to break down psychically, emotionally, physically the person one was before and remold her into a “lean mean fighting machine”. The transformation from naive teenager to soldier was difficult for me. Even in the emotionally troubled household I had grown up in, I was accustomed to yelling and flaring tempers. This was the first time however, that being “good” or “smart” wasn’t a characteristic I could rely on to avoid being yelled at. Every day I asked to go home, every day, I was denied. It was pretty obvious from early on that I was a mismatch for the military. I kept hoping I could fail my way out of basic training. The funny thing though was that I became leaner, meaner, stronger and someone valuable to retain. My drill sergeant threatened me with “recycling” which meant repeating basic training again, rather than graduating and moving on to advanced individual training. Being recycled was the worst possible thing I could think of and an impetus for me to try harder each day to get through.

Gradually I started to get into my training. Sleep deprivation, the change in diet, constant group contact, change in living circumstances, and training, will wear a person down. But even then war was an abstraction. The drills, training with weapons, simulations and field exercises were still not within a context of meaning. This was just something I had to “get through”. By mid October of 1985 I had completed basic training and advanced individual training at Ft Jackson, South Carolina. In November and December, I came home and stayed there, retreated. It took my mother’s encouragement for me to enroll in the spring semester of college. The naive teenage girl I had been died. I was a changed person — harder, more fearful and cautious around others. Before military training, I was excited about trying new things, now I became reluctant for fear that if I didn’t feel safe, I wouldn’t be able to change my mind.

Growing Resistance

Like most young Americans, I didn’t have the interest or time to pay attention to the world and its events. Since the difficult part of my military training was over, being a reservist one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer was just another job for me. I soon adjusted to the liberties and responsibilities of being a college student. I worked multiple part time jobs, carried at least a full semester course load and tried to eke out a better life for myself even as I was committed to a 6-year contract with the US Army. Along the way, I tried to have some fun, make friends, and enjoy living as independently as I’d always wanted.

It wasn’t difficult to feel like the reservist soldier part of my life wasn’t significant to the rest of my existence and war certainly wasn’t a reality. The Vietnam War was an old issue that belonged to my parents’ generation, something discussed in history classes. In the mid 80s of the Reagan era, military conflicts were relegated to jungles in small Spanish-speaking countries or dismantling walls and ending cold wars. But still I kept noticing disturbing trends. It seemed like every holiday season, the US was invading another country. I remember feeling anxiety when the US invaded Panama.

Soon my experiences learning about the world and my role in it dovetailed with my experiences as a “part time” soldier. Between 1987 and 1989, I took two trips abroad, one to Japan, and one to South Korea as part of Operation Team Spirit, an annual joint military exercise. I became increasingly ill at ease with how we as individual people conducted ourselves outside of our country, behaving as the “ugly Americans”. I was frustrated by our lack of concern for the people and landscape who served as our hosts. These were the people who were working with us to defend our mutual interests and we treated them so poorly. These were my experiences on a personal level, not a global one. It would be years after my resistance that I began to educate myself and be able to understand intellectually what I only felt ill at ease with. (Scholars such as Cynthia Enloe, in her work Bananas, Beaches and Bases, eloquently explain the impact of a military base’s influence on a community and ultimately its country [1].) My experiences were limited to accompanying friends in my unit to nightclubs and strip shows, getting drunk and trying to keep them out of fights, and otherwise behaving badly.

Meanwhile as a student, in my “real life”, I started hanging out with friends in the small counterculture of Southern Illinois University, the punk rockers who wrote ’zines about music and politics. We participated in protests against nuclear weapons and really started to pay attention to events emerging in the Reagan era like Iran-Contra. My participation in my reserve unit became an irritation that I had to put up with. (I’m sure the feeling was mutual with my command.) I was becoming increasingly disobedient, irascible, and not behaving as a “team player”. I was essentially playing a waiting game, trying to expend the minimum amount of effort required to participate. I was a really lousy soldier. I would come to weekend drills with punk rock haircuts, refuse to qualify with my weapon on the firing ranges, and otherwise nurse a bad attitude. Some of this I attribute to being a young person, but also to my growing discontent with a long-term commitment to being a soldier. After all, being in the Army wasn’t a job I could just “quit”. I wish I had known that there were military counselors who could help people like me.

In my final summer camp of 1990, I was looking forward to the end of my 6-year contract. I was 23, less than a year out of college and ready to move on. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I was pretty clear that I didn’t want to continue being part of the Army. It had been a mismatched relationship from the beginning exacerbated by my experiences and education. I was at this final summer camp in Wisconsin with another unit because I had missed my unit’s summer camp. On the final day of the military exercise, I had learned that Iraq had invaded Kuwait. Again, this event seemed like it had no relationship to my reality, I would be out of the reserves in a month. I had outlasted the waiting game.

Activated for Service

When I was activated for service in October of 1990, I was stunned and frustrated that what I thought was my end of service really had no end. President George H W Bush had signed a “Stop Loss” order meaning that no service personnel would be released from duty, there would be no attrition, no loss, as early as August of 1990 (even though the US wouldn’t invade Iraq until January of 1991).

Frankly, my desires for my future, concerns, misgivings, and confusion about my military experience and the world political stage were of no concern to the army, my moral ambiguities about the meaning of war were irrelevant. I was just one person who was part of a very large operation, the time to “quit” or be “fired” for poor performance had past.

When my unit was initially put on alert status, I made preparations as if to go. I felt like I had no choice. Soon after, I read about two conscientious objectors, Jeff Paterson and Erik Larsen. Both of them were Marines and after reading accounts of their opposition to war, something resonated in me, “I’m like that”, although I hadn’t the ability to articulate what “that” was. Paterson had sat down on the tarmac at Kaneohe Air Station in Hawaii, the photos of him showed a skinny Buddha in fatigues, immovable. Larsen’s writings and speeches were a checklist of concise reasons to oppose war and violence on both religious and political grounds. Both of these men demonstrated bravery in refusal, in saying “no”, in the quiet act of sitting down or simply saying “I am no longer a Marine”. I felt that I, too, could quit.

I decided that I would change my plans. Rather than reporting for duty, ready to ship to Kuwait, I would report for duty, ready to turn myself in and refuse service.

I received lots of bad advice from well intentioned people during this time, suggestions to become pregnant, declare myself a homosexual (in the pre-Clinton “don’t ask don’t tell” days it would be grounds for dismissal), suggestions that were unacceptable if I was taking responsibility for my beliefs and feelings. I had seen the example of Paterson and Larsen and felt that I should identify myself as a resister and face the consequences. I wasn’t really sure what the consequences would be, but I felt that facing them would be the better choice than going to war or lying about my reasons. At some point I made a simple decision, I would rather spend time in jail than go to the impending Gulf War. I had no idea how long I could go or where to, but it just seemed simple. War wasn’t an option. Of all the things a person can do and come to regret later, there is no way one can undo perpetrating violence and perhaps killing another human being.

Public Refusal

I contacted a group I had read about, Citizen Soldier, who encouraged me to go public with my situation and file for conscientious objector status, rather than report for duty to pre-emptively turn myself in. I was inadequately prepared for what this would mean, but the publicity of my case played a significant role in determining the outcome. Tod Ensign of Citizen Soldier is a very skilled advocate for soldiers and veterans who had a long history of organizing and working with the media. He and attorney Louis Font, a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War, took on my case. I spoke out publicly at events and was interviewed on television. I was very bad at being my own advocate, with very little media savvy. I was also legally AWOL and so my application for conscientious objector status, had I even filed one, would have been moot. The formal procedure to being declared a conscientious objector is not an easy one. The soldier must make an application, undergo evaluations by experts to determine sincerity of conviction and while waiting determination of status fully participate under order of one’s command. Being activated for duty and refusing to report to my unit immediately undermined any consideration for my case as a conscientious objector. It is for this reason that I think of myself as a war resister.

The way my resistance played out in the public arena is both a blessing and a curse. On a positive side, because I was so very public in the early build up to the war, I think the army wanted to shut me up and be rid of me quickly to avoid a morale incident that would affect other troops. From a public relations standpoint, one person against a very large credibly regarded organization is an easy battle. I would be treated as an aberration, not representative of the army and its soldiers, a one-off, a mistake. (This resulted in my fairly quick release.) My resistance enraged those who didn’t support me, but also earned the trust and help of a small group of people who sympathized and supported me. I was confused and frightened by the reaction of people I didn’t know to my decision. It seemed unsettling to me that my very personal decision for which I would suffer the consequences would cause such public controversy. I was flabbergasted that anyone would really care about my personal opposition to the war. Members of my unit who I considered friends weren’t really surprised nor were most of my friends at the university. But still residing where I did, the backlash and anger at being so nonconformist in a traditional community really ended the life I knew there. I received threats by phone and mail and didn’t feel safe as a “fugitive”.

Arrested and Discharged from the Army

I was arrested in late October, on a Friday evening at home. A state trooper served a warrant at my house and took me to the county jail. Shortly thereafter, I was picked up by a military police unit from Scott Air Force Base and held over the weekend. Eventually, I was transferred to Fort Knox personnel confinement facility in Kentucky while waiting for charges. The facility wasn’t really jail, but a temporary barracks for other people awaiting discharge … bad apples who had run afoul of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This would be my last experience in the Army, similar to basic training: uncertain about the outcome of my future, separated from everything I knew. After a couple of weeks, I was offered an administrative separation under “Other than Honorable Conditions” from the Army. My rank would be busted down to E-1, I wouldn’t receive veterans’ benefits, I wouldn’t be buried with a flag on my coffin and I was forbidden to enlist again. This was all fine with me. I would be happy to end the relationship. I was a very fortunate person. Even as my unit was just settling in at Kuwait, I was no longer a member of the army.

Even before the war started in January of 1991, my life was completely different. I couldn’t just pick up where my life had left off before. I worked at a small business but had to leave the job when the boss explained to me that people in the community threatened to withdraw their business if I continued in his employ. After having received threats by phone and mail, I was constantly paranoid whenever I felt someone looking at me “funny”. Neighbors and people who I thought had been friends weren’t so friendly anymore, even some extended family didn’t really know how to interact with me. I was very fortunate that I was soon offered the Jim Bristol Fellowship at the Youth & Militarism Program of the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, PA. Harold Jordan, the director of the Youth & Militarism Program had been an early advocate and provided a concrete opportunity for me to take my experience and apply it to a positive direction. From there I met people who supported me, who were conscientious objectors and war resisters from previous eras. An especially active group who took others and me under their wing during this time was Veterans for Peace. I was befriended by a woman named Nancy Clarke, a member of the very active Boston Veterans for Peace group.

Community of War Resisters

For war resisters who have come to reject participation in war, we all arrived at the same decision but through such different circumstances that no two stories are the same. The consequences of our experiences however, are universal: knowing that somehow we are different, “other”; the sense of isolation we initially feel; the ostracism from our peers, strangers and even loved ones for articulating our difference. That feeling occurs before one initiates a request to be recognized as a conscientious objector or decides to desert. Becoming a war resister or conscientious objector isn’t a decision that one makes suddenly, it occurs as the tipping point of accumulated experience. Even when pressed to articulate this “a-ha!” moment, some of us struggle, others are eloquent, but we are together in our refusal.

The only true thing I can tell war resisters and conscientious objectors is this: It’s okay to be scared of the consequences. We live in a scary world. Not everyone will understand or support you, some people may threaten you and you may spend time in jail. But other people will support you. There’s a whole community of people who believe that what you are doing is right. It’s okay to not be able to fully articulate your reasons for why you think your participation in war is wrong. You don’t have to solve the conflicts or propose a diplomatic solution to the problem just because you think war is wrong. You don’t have to have all the answers. No matter what the outcome, hold in your heart — for the rest of your — life, confidence in your decision. You did the right thing.


[1] Cynthia Enloe: Making Feminist sense of international politics. Bananas, beaches and bases. London, Sydney, Wellington, Pandora 1989

Published in Women Conscientious Objectors - An Anthology


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