Breaking Ranks to Shun War
An Army sergeant who refuses to return to Iraq seeks a discharge as a conscientious objector. He may instead face a court-martial.
By David Zucchino
Times Staff Writer
February 7, 2005
HINESVILLE, Georgia — His sergeant called him a coward to his face. His chaplain sent him an e-mail saying he was ashamed of him. His commanders had him formally charged with desertion.
Sgt. Kevin Benderman, who has served one tour of duty in Iraq, is refusing to serve another. When his fellow soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division packed their gear and left nearby Ft. Stewart for Iraq last week, Benderman stayed home. He says he has chosen to follow his conscience — not his commanders.
After 10 years in the Army, Benderman has applied for a discharge as a conscientious objector — a heresy to many in the military at a time when the country is fighting two wars overseas.
Today, Benderman, 40, will attend a military court hearing at Ft. Stewart that will determine whether he will face a court-martial for desertion and failure to report for a unit deployment. He could face up to seven years in prison if convicted.
“War is the greatest form of wrong,” Benderman wrote in his seven-page conscientious objector application. “I believe that my moral obligation to humanity is to not allow myself to be a part of this destruction.”
In the six months he spent in combat in Iraq in 2003, Benderman said, he was badly shaken by what he witnessed. He saw a young Iraqi girl with her arm horribly burned and blackened, standing helplessly on a roadside as Benderman’s convoy rushed past. He saw dogs feasting on civilian corpses that had been dumped into pits. He saw young U.S. soldiers treat war like a video game, he said, with few qualms about killing or the effects of the invasion on ordinary Iraqis.
Benderman said he begged an officer to stop and help the girl, but was told that the unit couldn’t spare its limited medical supplies. “I had to look at that little girl, look into her eyes, and in her eyes I saw the TRUTH. I cannot kill,” Benderman wrote in his application.
Only a handful of conscientious objector applications have been filed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are being fought by professional soldiers, not draftees. Vietnam, a war that bitterly divided the U.S., produced 172,000 conscientious objector applications from draftees and 17,000 from active-duty soldiers.
For the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, applications increased from 23 in 2002 to 60 in 2003 and 67 last year, according to Pentagon figures. Of those applications, 71 — almost half — have been approved. Unlike Benderman, few applicants have spoken publicly about their beliefs.
After seeing the civilian corpses, Benderman said, he made a point of befriending ordinary Iraqis, only to be warned by officers not to fraternize with “the enemy.” He had long talks with an English-speaking schoolteacher. He began reading the Koran and realized that the religious and moral values of most Iraqis were similar to his. Everything he had been told about the rationale for the U.S. invasion, he said, seemed misguided and destructive.
Benderman said he now believed the war in Iraq — and all wars — were immoral. His conscience would no longer allow him to fight or kill, he said, even if that made him a pariah.
“War robs you of your humanity. It makes people do terrible things they would otherwise never do,” Benderman said in the living room of his home in Hinesville, his wife, Monica, by his side and his dog, Carl, at his feet.
When Benderman returned from Iraq to Ft. Stewart a year ago, he began studying the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He engaged in long discussions with his wife. He weighed his options before deciding to file his application Dec. 28. Benderman said his military superiors tried to shame him and talk him out of it. But he said he was willing to endure the contempt of his peers, and even go to prison.
“I’m not going to run from my convictions,” he said. “I believe what I’m doing is the right thing, whatever the consequences.”
Monica Benderman, whose essay on a faith-based pacifist website about the immorality of war helped crystallize her husband’s views, said she was proud of him. Many soldiers and their families have told the couple they share their opposition to war, she said, but were afraid to speak up for fear of being ostracized. Several Vietnam veterans have stepped forward to support them.
“We believe in speaking the truth. You put forward the truth and the right things will happen,” she said.
The couple said they have received e-mails and letters of support from people around the world, including Iraqis, Guatemalans and Germans. They have also received e-mails and phone calls branding them cowards and traitors.
“All because a man has chosen to speak out against war and violence, and his wife has chosen to stand with him,” Monica wrote in her essay, “Catching Flack — A Military Wife Speaks.”
Kevin Benderman looks and talks like a soldier. Tall and solidly built, with close-cropped brown hair, he speaks with a Southern drawl in the jargon-laden argot of a career soldier.
His father served in World War II, his grandfather in World War I. Members of his family served on both sides in the Civil War, and one ancestor, William Benderman, fought in the American Revolution, Benderman said.
Raised in a Southern Baptist family in Alabama and Tennessee, Benderman grew up wanting to be a pro football player, not a soldier. At age 22, Benderman decided he wanted to follow family tradition and join the Army. He served four years, then worked laying hardwood and tile flooring. In June 2000, feeling patriotic, he decided to reenlist.
“I signed up to serve my country,” he said. “I felt I had a commitment to fulfill.”
He was a Bradley fighting vehicle mechanic with the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq.
Benderman said his father, Guy, who died in 2001, had discouraged him from joining the military. He believes his father would have supported his decision to seek objector status.
While his application works its way through the military, Benderman has been assigned to the 3rd Infantry’s rear detachment at Ft. Stewart, a few miles from his home. He reports daily for 6:30 a.m. physical fitness training, then spends his days supervising soldiers held back from deployment to Iraq for medical reasons or family emergencies.
“There are no restrictions on him,” said a base spokesman, Lt. Col. Robert Whetstone.
Filing for conscientious objector status is a long and arduous process. Benderman has been required to meet with a chaplain and psychologist and write essays detailing his moral and religious beliefs.
His chaplain did not respond to phone messages or e-mails, Benderman said, and refused to talk to him when Benderman went to see him at Ft. Stewart. After the chaplain had reached Kuwait en route to Iraq with other soldiers from the division, Benderman said, he sent him an e-mail: “You should be ashamed of the way you have conducted yourself. I am certainly ashamed of you.”
Benderman later met with another chaplain, who wrote a letter saying, “Sgt. Benderman is sincere in his moral and ethical beliefs…. His beliefs are deeply held to the point where he has no choice but to act in accord with them.”
Benderman also met with a military psychologist, who filled out a one-page assessment saying he exhibited no mental health problems.
His commanding officer filed a one-page form in which he recommended that the objector application be rejected, then told him, “You’re on your own,” Benderman said.
The final decision on Benderman’s application will be made by the Army Conscientious Objector Review Board, made up of three officers, including a chaplain. A Pentagon spokeswoman said the burden of proof was on applicants, who must convince the board of their moral and religious objections to war.
Like all new recruits, Benderman signed a statement saying he was not a conscientious objector. However, the military accepts applications made by soldiers who, like Benderman, say their beliefs have changed during their service.
Conscientious objection is a long-standing principle in America. As early as 1673, Rhode Island provided alternative militia service for conscientious objectors. In 1701, Pennsylvania under William Penn provided that anyone with a proven conscientious objection to war “shall not be in any case be molested or prejudiced.”
During the first federal conscription, in the Civil War, about 1,200 conscientious objectors were allowed to perform alternative service for the Union. The Confederacy exempted certain members of pacifist churches.
During World War I, local draft boards granted conscientious objector status to 22,000 draftees. In World War II, about 25,000 men were granted objector status and assigned to noncombatant duty. Alternative service was provided for people who opposed war “by reason of religious training and belief.”
Benderman said several soldiers who served with him in Iraq shared his views. Two members of his battalion attempted suicide after being ordered to return to Iraq, he said, and several more have gone AWOL to avoid deployment. A specialist from the division has been charged with having a friend shoot him in the leg as part of a staged armed robbery in an attempt to avoid returning to Iraq.
Antiwar groups that offer counseling to soldiers say opposition to the Iraq war among soldiers is higher than the Pentagon acknowledges. The GI Rights Hotline, run by a consortium of antiwar groups, received 32,000 calls last year, many from soldiers who have gone AWOL or complained of psychological or emotional problems after serving in combat. About 15% of the calls were from soldiers considering conscientious objector applications, said Steve Morse of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors.
“Soldiers are finding that the military is much different from the way it’s sold to them by recruiters,” Morse said. “When they get into combat, it’s suddenly not a video game. It’s no longer abstract.”
Benderman says his training did not prepare him for the brutality and often indiscriminate slaughter he witnessed.
“You can train all you want and watch training videos, but you can’t possibly know what combat is like until you experience it,” he said. “You can’t burn a little girl’s arm off in training, or have dogs eat human remains, or have soldiers actually shoot and kill real people.”
Young men who had never experienced combat were eager to fight in Iraq, he said, but were overwhelmed once they had to kill the enemy or watch their friends die or suffer grievous wounds.
Benderman said he saw 19- and 20-year-old soldiers hardened by killing. While under enemy fire, he said, one young soldier leaped up and began videotaping incoming rounds.
Monica Benderman said she sensed her husband’s view of war evolving in the letters and e-mails he sent from Iraq. He asked her to mail him small gifts to hand out to Iraqis, and told her he had come to realize how destructive the invasion had been for civilians.
Benderman said he believed he would prevail at today’s hearing, and insisted that he had not deserted his unit.
“I didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t run to Canada,” he said. “I’m still right here.”
If his application is denied and he is ordered back to Iraq, he said, he would refuse to go. He has turned a corner, he said, and he will not turn back.
“I’ve already refused once,” he said. “I will not change my mind, no matter what.”