“ ‘I will not compromise my integrity, nor my moral courage.’ These words come directly from the NCO creed, which I swore to uphold as a member of the US Army. When I filed for Conscientious Objector status, it was after careful consideration of my duty to my wife, my step-children, my country and the soldiers I served with. But before I could consider all of this, I had to consider myself. I had to ensure that my actions did not compromise what I believed in and what I stood for. I had served in Iraq, and I had seen the destruction war brings. After careful thought, I knew that I did not believe in war as an answer, and I would not participate in it any longer.
We are learning hard lessons this week. The devastation brought by Hurricane Katrina is teaching us something important. As a country, we cannot take care of others until we have taken care of ourselves.
As a soldier, to continue to participate in war would have violated my own principles. I would have destroyed myself and others if I had not chosen to maintain MY integrity as my first consideration. To continue on the destructive path of war would have made me unable to help anyone to grow in positive ways, because I was not growing in positive ways.
I believe that we, as a country, need to return to our constitution, the foundation of America. This country has compromised its integrity and lost its moral courage. We can’t help others until we have fixed ourselves.” – Sgt. Kevin Benderman, Conscientious Objector to War.
Not long ago, two American soldiers were confined in prison for two months for having abused detainees in Afghanistan. A member of the US Army took the life of an innocent Iraqi civilian struggling in a river and received no confinement at all for what he had done. The US Army has a regulation that allows soldiers to follow their conscience, and the oath that Sgt. Benderman took when he became an NCO dictated that he “not compromise his integrity nor his moral courage.” Sgt. Benderman was given 15 months confinement for refusing to compromise his integrity and for maintaining his moral courage by filing for Conscientious Objector status against the wishes of his command.
When Sgt. Benderman asked the officers in his unit to uphold their oath and follow the Army regulations, they would not. His commander violated the regulation and said that he would recommend disapproval, admitting in court that he did not even know what the regulation for Conscientious Objection was. He stated that this was “one soldier in his unit, and he had 181 more to worry about. I don’t have time to worry about this one.” They did not respect the regulations, they did not respect this soldier’s service, and they did not respect this soldier’s humanity. What were they afraid of? What was it that these officers could not face?
One officer was an Army chaplain, a “man of God.” For almost a year, Sgt. Benderman tried to meet with this man to discuss his feelings about war and his desire to file for conscientious objector status. This man should have been the support, the facilitator for the entire process. Instead, this Army chaplain disregarded all of my husband’s requests, giving lipservice to everything my husband asked. At one point, in an email discussion of my husband’s feelings about war, rather than try to counsel him and assist him with his application, this chaplain said, “Now I am not a Yes man, I will mix it up with anybody. If you would like to meet to debate with me, we can. We can talk about abortion and the atrocities that are committed every day in our country. I love debate.” He saw his position as one in which he should try to change my husband’s beliefs, not accept them. But for SIX months leading up to deployment, this man would never meet with Sgt. Benderman.
In a letter to Sgt. Benderman this Army chaplain wrote regarding my husband’s application for conscientious objection, and decision to no longer participate in war; “I am ashamed of the way you have conducted yourself. I hope you will see your misconduct as an opportunity to upgrade your character and moral behavior for your own good and the good of your fellow man.”
That chaplain is still serving in Iraq, with many young soldiers seeking answers to their own questions, and facing death every day. How will he counsel them?
The commander who said that he “did not have time to worry about this soldier” is still in Iraq, with many young soldiers expecting him to lead them, and to keep them safe. How many more does he not have time for?
Sgt. Kevin Benderman did think about his country, the soldiers he served with and his commitments. He gave it careful consideration, and he did so for over a year. He tried to seek counsel from the one man who should have understood and supported him as he developed his beliefs. His commander didn’t think this soldier mattered.
Almost 2000 American soldiers and thousands of uncounted innocent civilians have died in this conflict. When will “integrity and moral courage” begin to matter?
Kevin Benderman is currently serving his sentence at Ft. Lewis, WA. He has been declared a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International.