By Dahr Jamail, Truthout. August 16, 2009
Sergeant Travis Bishop, with the US Army's 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, pled not guilty at a special court martial on Thursday to two counts of missing movement, disobeying a lawful order and going absent without leave (AWOL). Friday, in a trial full of theatrics from the jury, prosecution witnesses and the prosecution, he was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to 12 months in a military jail.
Sgt. Bishop is the second soldier from Fort Hood in as many weeks to be tried by the military for his stand against an occupation he believes is "illegal." He insists that it would be unethical for him to deploy to support an occupation he opposes on both moral and legal grounds, and has filed for conscientious objector (CO) status. A CO is someone who refuses to participate in combat based on religious or ethical grounds, and can be given an honorable discharge by the military.
Last week, Specialist Victor Agosto was sentenced to 30 days in a county jail for his refusal to deploy to Afghanistan. Agosto, like Bishop, feels the war is illegal, something that James Branum, the civilian lawyer for both soldiers, agrees with.
"The war in Afghanistan does not meet the criteria for lawful war under the UN Charter, which says that member nations who joined the UN, as did the US, should give up war forever, aside from two exceptions: that the war is in self defense, and that the use of force was authorized by the UN Security Council," Branum told Truthout in an earlier interview, "The nation of Afghanistan did not attack the United States. The Taliban may have, but the nation and people of Afghanistan did not. And under US law, the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution, any treaty enacted by the US is now the 'supreme law of the land.' So when the United States signed the UN Charter, we made that our law as well."
Bishop, unlike Agosto, applied for CO status due to his religious and moral convictions. Bishop told Truthout he was "opposed to all war," based on his religious beliefs, that "as a real Christian, I must be opposed to all violence, no matter what, because that is what Jesus taught."
After receiving his orders to deploy to Afghanistan, Bishop needed time to prepare his application for CO status, so he went AWOL for a week "because I didn't have time to prepare to file for CO status. So, while AWOL, I prepared a statement and filled out my application for CO [status]. Then I went back [to Fort Hood] with Branum and turned myself in. I never planned on staying AWOL. They gave me a barracks room and assigned me to a platoon and told me to show up to work the next day. That was it. They started the CO process, but they also started the Uniform Code of Military Justice process, and that's where it gets shifty."
Bishop told Truthout that he had serious doubts about his views on war for a long time, but was unaware of his right to file for CO status until just before he was scheduled to deploy.
One of the main points Branum made in defense of Bishop was that Bishop had never been given proper training that would have informed him of the CO option.
"Travis was never told about his option of conscientious objector status," Branum explained to Truthout. "If an enlisted soldier isn't informed that he has a right, then he effectively does not have that right. Just one to two days before he was set to deploy, in the midst of moral questions, he heard about CO status."
On Thursday, Bishop's defense called two witnesses to the stand, Pfc. Anthony Sadoski and Specialist Michael Kern, both of whom are active duty soldiers at Fort Hood who said that they, too, had never been informed that filing for CO status was an option.
Captain Matt Kuskie, the prosecuting attorney, argued, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse." The judge, Major Matthew McDonald, said that whether Bishop was notified or not about his right to file for CO status was not relevant to the case.
"If every soldier in the Army who disobeyed an order could claim it was because they weren't notified of conscientious objector status, we probably wouldn't have a military any more," he added.
Branum told Truthout he is attempting to establish a precedent with the trial, regardless of the outcome. "We want to change the law, and I would argue that when soldiers are informed of their deployment, which is generally two to six months in advance, they should be giving training about CO status. I will argue that if you don't do the training, you can't deploy."
Despite Sgt. Bishop's commander, Captain Christopher Hall's admission to the court that he had never provided CO training to Bishop's unit, the jury, who were all officers of much higher ranks (six to seven ranks higher) than Bishop, therefore, not necessarily a jury of his peers, appeared hostile to Bishop's plight.
For example, one of the jurors had to be woken up during the trial. Another, a Lt. Col. Atkins, rolled his eyes and shook his head throughout most of the defense's time of making their case.
The prosecution argued that Bishop's searching of his conscience that led to his decision to apply for CO status was "a misguided intellectual journey."
During mitigation of Sgt. Bishops sentence, Lt. Col. Ron Leininger, a chaplain at Fort Hood who recommended that Bishop be denied his CO status, was called as a witness in an unexpected move by the prosecution, in order to counter several witnesses by the defense who each testified to Bishop's character and sincerity in his pursuit of CO status.
Leininger stated that he did not feel Bishop had a deep enough or sincerely held religious belief to establish grounds for recommending him CO status. Leininger's written report of his interview with Bishop had several mistakes, including having called Sgt. Bishop "Sgt. Bush" in one section.
Leininger claimed that his interview with Bishop lasted 45 minutes, and that he did not receive phone calls while it was occurring. Sgt. Bishop appeared shocked by this, and later, when Truthout asked him about his reaction he said, "The Chaplain only spoke with me for 20 minutes, took two calls on his cell phone, and was texting the whole time."
One of Leininger's critiques of Bishop was that he was not a member of a local church, despite the fact that for a soldier to apply for CO status, they do not have to be affiliated with a local church. Atheists, for example, can apply for CO status and be granted the status, if they can prove deeply held moral convictions that oppose violence.
When asked by the defense what he thought of religions or causes like the civil rights movement that required people to follow their conscience - even if it meant they would have to break the law - Chaplain Leininger said, "perhaps, but that it would be sad for them to do so. Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, was executed for breaking Roman law in order to follow his conscience."
The jury had already found Sgt. Bishop guilty of all charges, and sentenced him to one year in prison, a rank reduction to Private, forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay for one year and a bad conduct discharge.
A disappointed Branum told Truthout that he plans to take the result of the trial to the Military Court, the US Army Court of Criminal Appeals, the US Military Court of Criminal Appeals and "then Habeus Review and take it to a civilian court, then, if necessary, the Supreme Court."
Branum added, "If Travis goes to jail, he wants it to be for something. He wants it to count." The attorney said he will continue to demand the Army provide CO training, "and my hope is that when troops are going to be deployed, they'll be read their Bishop rights."
After receiving his sentence, Sgt. Bishop met with a group of friends and supporters outside the courtroom and said, "It means a lot to me you are here in my support. This is not the end, by any means. This is the beginning. When I get out, I'm going to be louder, more active, and pissed off."
Shortly thereafter, he was shackled and escorted out of the building. While walking to a van to take him to prison he flashed a peace sign, while several soldiers, one of them active duty and most of them combat veterans, stood at attention and saluted him for his actions.