Podcast: “Why are we guarding an oil field?” – Kevin Benderman
Former Sergeant Kevin Benderman shares his experiences in Iraq, the inconsistencies of the US mission in the Middle East, and his attempts to reconcile his military career with his clearly defined development as a conscientious objector. In his attempt to follow the letter of the law of the UCMJ, Kevin served 15 months in prison for his actions, a punitive move by the Army to make an example of him to other soldiers.
“So you can imagine the disconnect that I had, with the image of what I thought I was, and what I was being told to do. It threw me for a complete loop.”
“I told them, ‘I’m not going back over there, but I’m going to do it this way.’ They couldn’t stand it, because I was trying to follow the Army regulations to make sure I did it all right. Everything I did was right.”
“We were being … told to shoot children, all based on a bunch of lies. So there was no way in any kind of good conscience that I could go continue to take part in that.”
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Here I was thinking, “I’m a professional soldier, going to follow all the rules and do what’s right, and they’re out there, telling me to shoot unarmed children.” So you can imagine the disconnect that I had, with the image of what I thought I was, and what I was being told to do.
This is the Courage to Resist podcast. Since 2005, Courage to Resist has worked to support military resistance to illegal and unjust wars, counter-recruitment, draft resistance, and the policies of empire.
This episode features a guest, the 30 years of current US military intervention in the Middle East. Army veteran Kevin Benderman is the guest today. Kevin was a longtime service man before his deployment to Iraq in 2003. His experiences there quickly led him to a place where he could no longer participate in that senseless combat.
Upon returning to the US, Kevin filed to become a conscientious objector. Refusing to be deployed to Iraq a second time, the army court-martialed Kevin, and eventually sentenced him to 15 months in prison.
Kevin, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast with us today. What did it look like for you growing up, before you entered the military? What were some of your thoughts, when you decided to sign up for the military, in your case?
As far as I know, and from my uncle tracing family history, William Benderman fought in the American Revolution, back when this country was first founded. I’ve had a family member in some branch of the military, from that day on, up until my time, and instilled, I guess, or not really spoken much about in my house, but just the general area and the general attitude was, “It’s a really good thing to do, if you decide to serve in the military.”
So a long history, a long family tradition, of military service.
Yes. My uncle served in Korea, my father served during World War II, both my grandfathers served in World War I. So it’s just generally steeped in that kind of tradition, family tradition, I guess.
Are you high school age when you decided to enlist, or is this something that came a little later in life for you?
No, no, it was later. I didn’t go in the army until I was 22, initially. After you go in, you don’t really know what to expect, so I just kind of rolled with the flow until I got through basic training.
My first term of enlistment was the 91 Romeo, which is like a food inspection specialist. It’s like a USDA food inspector that makes sure the food is safe to eat, and all that kind of thing. It was a pretty normal, mundane job to have in the Army.
It was pretty much uneventful until the Persian Gulf war broke out. Some of the people that were in my unit were deployed over there, and they had us all standing in line, waiting, were to be deployed.
But by the time my number was ready to come up, it was over with. I mean, it only lasted a couple months, anyway.
So you were able to avoid any sort of active duty over in Iraq, during the Persian Gulf War?
Yes. I didn’t know what to think about it, really. My number was up, and I was standing there, like, “Am I ready to do this? Am I ready to go to war, and to be shot at, and have to shoot back?”
At that time, I thought that I was, but it never came to pass. So I just ETS’d out of the Army, and went back to civilian life for about 10 years.
Okay, so you exit the Army for 10 years. Did you then re-enlist, or were you part of a National Guard, or how did you get back into the military?
I just decided that I wanted to re-enlist. So I went and talked to a recruiter in 2000, and went back in, in June of 2000.
Here we are, a number of years after the first Persian Gulf conflict, and it’s deja vu all over again. We have another Bush in the White House. We have another conflict erupting over in Iraq. This time, you are called up to active duty, and to go over to Iraq. Walk us through that experience.
As I said, I re-enlisted in June of 2000, and we were just doing our normal every day basic training on September the 11th. And I was working at Fort Hood in the motor pool, when the news came on, and we all just kind of gathered around there, and was watching the news.
I was attending what they call PLDC, which is Primary Leadership Development Class. This is in 2000 and early 2002. I was being told then, “Well, get ready to deploy to Iraq, get ready to deploy to Iraq.”
They told us this for about a year before we actually deployed. Every month or so, it would be, “You’re not going to be here next month, you’re not going to be here next month.” So there was all this uncertainty.
We were originally going to go to Turkey, in October or November, and then get everything prepared, and then move south into the country of Iraq. Turkey and the US couldn’t reach an agreement. So we had to wait to be deployed, and went through Kuwait.
So this is March 2003. You finally are entering Iraq for the first time. Walk us through some of your experiences there.
One of the first missions they gave us was, I’m not sure exactly where it was, but it was somewhere to the west of Baghdad, was a oil storage and pumping facility. And we guarded that for about two weeks, and we were the only one out there.
I was like, “Well, this is a huge waste of time. And then, why are we guarding an oil field, when we’re supposed to be over here protecting these people?” That’s some of the thoughts that I had, while we were sitting there for three weeks.
So it didn’t take long for you to see firsthand, some of the differences between the rhetoric of helping the Iraqi people, and your real objectives, which is to protect oil interests.
Yes. I mean, that’s some of the thing. I didn’t really fully form the complete idea at that time, but there were just a little warning bells going off, like, “Why are we doing this? Why are we over here?”
One of the biggest things that started changing the way I looked at all what we were doing over there is when we were driving along some highway over there. I don’t know the number of it, can’t remember.
But we saw this woman standing on the side of the road with a young girl, and the young girl’s arm was burned. You could tell it was black. I mean, third degree, worse than that.
She was waving at us to, I don’t know, maybe get some assistance some way, and we just drove on past. I left her standing there with that little girl.
Later on, I had a chance to ask my captain, why we didn’t stop and at least try to give her some basic first aid, and get her some help some way.
And he’s like, “Well, that’s not our mission here,” just callous. But that same commander, later on in my deployment, tells me to shoot small children, because they were climbing up on a little brick wall around the compound that we had taken over and was using for a company command headquarters.
That was one of the big things that turned me against what we were doing over there is, they told me, and here I was, thinking, “I’m a professional soldier going to follow all the rules, and do what’s right, and they’re out there telling me to shoot unarmed children.”
So you can imagine the disconnect that I had, with the image of what I thought I was, and what I was being told to do. It threw me for a complete loop. Well, that never entered my head at any time. But if I was going to be a professional soldier and a warrior, I would never shoot children.
I guess that’s one of the biggest things that led me to say, “You know what? This is all a bunch of bullshit, what they’re telling us to do over here.”
Another part of it was, every time we went somewhere, you know how everyone was always complaining about the International Atomic Agency inspectors being denied entry? Well, we weren’t then.
We went everywhere, wherever we wanted to go, whenever we wanted to go. Every time we thought we’d found something that was a chemical or biological weapon, we had a team, a special NBC team, that’s Nuclear, Biological and Chemical, and they would come up and test whatever it was we came across, and it would just turn out to be some mundane, every day diesel fuel, or bug spray, nothing concentrated for warfare, but just normal every day items.
Every time we went somewhere, and it was a negative test for chemical or biological weapons on that, that was another thing that started me down the road, “Well, everything they told us about this whole endeavor is just straight up bullshit.”
The type of war atrocities you’re describing, were these isolated incidences? Or is this stuff that you were seeing repeatedly throughout your time there?
Oh, it was just basic SOP, Standard Operating Procedure. I mean, we were rolling up on people’s houses at 3:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m., breaking their doors down, and go on in, throwing them out of their beds onto the floor, zip tying their hands behind her backs, in some cases, throwing hoods over their heads, and taking them out.
I don’t know where they went after that. I mean, they got loaded into trucks, and I had no idea where they went, after we handed them over to the transporters.
I’m 6’2″, and currently weigh about 235 pounds, and I’m like, “Why am I over here, harassing these grandparents in their beds?” I’m like, “Why am I a big combat American soldier over here, harassing 90-pound grandma on her bed at 3:00 a.m.? I mean, what the hell has that got to do with American freedom?”
I found this out later, that people were just turning people in to get the money, on people they didn’t like, or had a argument with. That was just crazy. They just went and took people on unverified reports, and come to find out we’d been paying the people to give them the report anyway.
With a lot of the people in that country in dire financial straits, I’m sure some of them stooped to making up complete lies about their neighbors, just get them in trouble, and make a little money.
All told, how long were you over in Iraq?
I was there for about 10 months out of my 12-month tour, but I had re-enlisted, and was supposed to go to Fort Stewart, Georgia, and they were getting ready to deploy back to Iraq. They needed me to get put into their roster, so they can make sure that I was in their system, in their unit.
Well, so you ended up coming back to United States to join a different unit, before you get deployed back to Iraq. Is this the time when you really came to a point where you said, “I can’t do this anymore?”
Well, yes. I mean, after I came back and was able to reunite with my wife, Monica, and so, I didn’t have a lot of time to think of it then.
But after I got to my new unit, and started just setting down and had some quiet time, the more I thought about it. We were getting ready, going to NTC, going to field training exercises, and getting ready for another deployment into Iraq.
At that time, I’d started being set in concrete in my mind, that this is nothing that I want to be part of anymore. Because it’s all based on a bunch of lies.
They’re asking me to do things I’d never thought I’d be ordered to do as a soldier in the United States Army. And none of those chemical weapons or biological weapons…We never found any.
It was all an accumulation of all that information, that I had time to sit in there and stew, I guess you could say, till it gelled into my conviction, that there was no way they were going to send me back to that country, to harass people that had done nothing to us.
That country was not involved in 9/11. There was no reason for us to go into Iraq whatsoever, period. So that compounded.
We were being–harassing the population, being told to shoot children, all based on a bunch of lies. So there was no way in any kind of good conscience that I could go continue to take part in that.
So you come to this conviction, how did you act on this conviction? What was the first steps that you took, to basically say no to redeployment?
My wife and I had many conversations about that subject. We went back and forth for some months there, and we considered all the ways, and the best way for me to do this to file as a conscientious objector, for conscientious objector status, and to follow the laws and rules in the military, so I can do it legally.
That’s the path that I chose to take, and that was met with full-on resistance. I got some information on what would be the best way to do this. So I started following the regulations, and attempting to do it the right way.
In the meantime, all my gear was packed, I had my vehicle prepped, I showed up to work every day. I went and did the morning physical training, went back to work, didn’t just run from it, or anything.
I told them, “I’m not going back over there, but I’m going to do it this way.” They couldn’t stand it, because I was trying to follow the Army regulations to make sure I did it all right. Everything I did was right.
I mean, I had it signed off on by one of the chaplains, and he agreed with me. But once I took all that back to the chain of command that I was in, the 27 Infantry, they just rubber stamped everything on there, Denied, Denied, Denied.
It went from my basic rear detachment company commander all the way up to the rear detachment post commander. And they just rubber stamped it all the way up. I knew I was going to be in for a tough fight, with trying to do it that way.
So the process for you was very challenging, and there was no help, no consensus from your chain of command, to see you as a CO?
Oh, no. They were just going to make an example out of me, because I firmly believe one, I was 40 years old, two, I was an NCO, and three, in the Army had they had what they call a General Test Score, which is basically the equivalent of a civilian IQ score. And I scored pretty high on it, a 125.
They were upset, that they perceived me to be a more intelligent enlisted person than they’re used to dealing with. So that kind of upset them, and they didn’t want anybody else getting any ideas, so they were going to put me out there as a prime example, to deter anyone else from trying to follow that path.
You’re sticking with your convictions as a CO, but the Army is formally denying your request to become one. What happens next? When did this really come to a head for you?
The Friday before–we were going to be deployed the following Monday. We had a afternoon formation, and the battalion commander was there, and he was giving us his little speech and song and dance about, “We’re going to go, and we’re going to do this and that, great things.”
Anyway, I’m standing there listening to this, and I’d already gave them my CO packet. The battalion commander and lieutenant colonel come to me, and said, “Sergeant Benderman, you need to go see the Command Sergeant Major at 1500 this afternoon.” “Roger, sir. What is this about?” He said, “You will be discussing this, CO packet with him.”
So I go home for about an hour, and then I get my wife, and we go back up there. The meeting starts, and we stayed there for about an hour. At the end of this meeting, he said, “Sergeant Benderman, what you need to do is go home, finish working on your conscientious objector packet, and turn it into the Rear Detachment Officer, commanding officer, Monday morning.”
“Roger, Sergeant Major, that’s what you want me to do?” “Yes, Sergeant.” I asked him two more times, to verify that’s what he wanted me to do, and he answered in the affirmative all three times. So I go back home.
I come in Monday morning, and report to the rear detachment commanding officer, hand in my paperwork, and then he told me to sit there, and wait for a minute. And when they came back out, they had charged me with desertion, disrespecting a superior, non-commissioned officer, dereliction of duty, and grand larceny, because they said I stole money from the Army.
Really, the whole situation was just a straight setup, saying, “Go home for the weekend, come back on Monday with your application filled out.” And then, when you did, “Bam, we’re charging you with all these offenses.”
Yeah, exactly. They lied so much. They had said they had tried to call me all weekend, which, I’d never got any calls. They said that I went AWOL. Then they said that I’d deserted, and all this other crazy stuff.
I’m like, “I’m a half mile away from post. If I was such a deserter, why didn’t you send the MPs over to my house?” They could have got there in about two minutes, and they could arrested me, because that’s where I was the whole weekend, and reported in.
At the time, I was told to report in on Monday morning. I went in, and was doing the right thing, and they couldn’t stand it.
They throw all these offenses at you. You’re given a general court-martial. What did that court proceeding look like for you? Was this a pretty quick affair, or was it a long and drawn out experience for you? Walk us through that.
I’m sure you’ve heard the term, kangaroo court? That’s all it was. Because the judge, after we got the initial, the ratings done, charges read, and it got started good, she looked at me, and she said, “Sergeant Benderman, will you just take a general discharge under honorable conditions, just to go about your merry way?”
“Well, yes. I’ll take that. That’s what I want, anyway.” When the rear detachment commander heard that, he immediately left the courtroom, and got on the phone, and called the garrison commander.
That’s when they put their little plan into motion, that they weren’t going to let her just give me a general discharge, and let me go my merry way. I was going to be punished.
The total for the offenses they were charging me with was seven years, and they wanted to see me sitting in prison for seven years. But the best they got out of it was 15 months, and I was convicted of missing movement by design.
After your time in prison ended, what did you do about this new conviction, and these strong reactions to the horrors that we’re doing over in Iraq at the time? What were some of the ways that you became an activist about this?
Well, I mean, we did have quite a few speaking engagements, and I went to a few different locations, and received a lot of mail from a lot of people all around the world. One of the best things that I received was a bunch of letters from kids in Japan who strongly supported me.
I don’t want to get too far off for our point, but this whole thing where it blew up to where I was known worldwide, and people were praising me, I thought that was surreal, because I’m just an old country boy from Alabama.
I mean, why are all these people in the world praising me? But I guess I affected them in a way that was positive for them, or they just agreed with what I had to say.
Yeah, because at the time, there was a considerable amount of media attention around this, and you ended up even doing a pretty exclusive interview with Dan Rather, so there was a lot of coverage on it. Did that affect your personal life or your married life in any way?
I thought it might do some good there for awhile, after I got out and got back home. And that’s why I agreed to do these things. I told somebody the other day, I said, “Look, everybody was trying to appoint me to be some kind of great leader of some resistance.”
I’m like, “Look, I don’t want to be no figurehead leader.” I said, “I’ll walk with you, but I don’t want to walk in front of you, and I don’t want to walk behind you. I will walk with you.” But nobody wanted that. They wanted, I mean, they needed to have somebody to look to.
There was a very successful documentary that also came out about, not only your situation, but conscientious objectors. It’s called “Soldiers of Conscience”. What part did you play in that documentary?
First, it was going to be about me. So I had a big part to play in it, and they did a lot of interviews, a lot of filming. We went around the different things. They asked a lot of the questions that you’re asking about my background and family history, and just the general attitude that I had about military service.
But then they brought in Camilo Mejia and Joshua Casteel. They brought them in, and I think it was a very well put together documentary, called “Soldiers of Conscience”, and they all had their story to tell with mine, and I think it reached a lot of people.
Kevin, any final thoughts for the podcast listeners that you’d like to share?
Well, I have no regrets over what I’ve done, because, as I’ve said, it was the right thing to do. It was right then and right now.
I just wish that we would become more objective, and stop being so militaristic in this country. That seems to be the only thing that is the criteria to make you a good American were, “Hurrah, let’s go to war.”
Most of the people in this country had no idea what it was like. I just think we need to move away from being such a militaristic society.
Well, Kevin, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast, and reliving some of those, kind of horrific and hurtful memories, but I thank you for sharing your story of activism, and for standing up and doing the right thing in very difficult circumstances. So thank you.
Well, thank you for having me on.
This podcast is a Courage to Resist production, recorded and edited by Matthew Breems, with special thanks to executive producer, Jeff Paterson. Visit couragetoresist.org for more information, and to offer your support.