Podcast: “I’m requesting discharge-not noncombatant status” – Kyle Toon
Kyle Toon is currently awaiting a decision on his application for discharge as a conscientious objector from the US Army. In 2011, Kyle first deployed to Afghanistan and during the course of his experience began to have questions about his own values and his growing military career. Here he recalls the influence of his military experiences as they coincided with the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement and with his own emerging personal development leading him to prioritize his nonviolent beliefs over career as a warrant officer.
“I left Afghanistan with that feeling that, “Is what I’m doing just? Did I contribute to something positive? If they’re not feeling safe and we’re telling ourselves that we’re here to provide security, we’re here to provide stability and that’s not how they perceive it, then what are the true effects?” It really ate at me in my inner core because it places you in a confusing state of, “Is what I’m doing purposeful?””
Gulf War @ 30
This Courage to Resist podcast was produced to mark 30 years since the U.S. aimed its imperial sights squarely on the Middle East. These are the voices of veterans who’s lives were transformed by that ongoing war. Interview and edit by Matthew Breems. Production assistance, Stephanie Atkinson. Executive Producer, Jeff Paterson.
“I have suppressed my thoughts. I have suppressed my beliefs. I have placed the welfare of others, the values of the military, the ethos and the ethics and the creeds of the military before my own. And that was the moment where I said that I have to start living for me and not living for anyone else.”
Kyle is being assisted by the Center on Conscience and War in his Conscientious Objector application process.
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“I’m literally thinking about just how precious it is to live and to be able to breathe and to be able to make your own choices and decisions unimpeded. I started thinking about the fragility of life. I started thinking about how delicate life is.”
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 in the policies of empire. This episode features a guest and the 30 years of current U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
On this episode of the Courage to Resist podcast, current conscientious objector, Kyle Toon, is our guest. Like many, Kyle joined the Army in 2009 as a career advancement opportunity. However, his experiences while on active duty began to stimulate deep questioning on the validity of U.S. Military excursions. The 2020 national uprising surrounding the murder of George Floyd finally pushed Kyle past the breaking point and he soon filed to become a conscientious objector.
Well Kyle, really excited to have you on the podcast today. You’re a pretty recent conscientious objector. Why don’t you start off by telling us where you grew up Kyle and what transpired that made you find yourself joining the military?
So I grew up in Southern Maryland, so that’s where I grew up. I grew up in a very small town called Lexington Park, just like most small towns and small cities, not much opportunity, a lot of… there was some criminal activity and my frame of reference when I was growing up was very, very humble beginnings and my family, my grandfather, he served in World War II. I have an uncle who served in Vietnam. He did two tours in Vietnam as an infantryman. My brother was in from ’95 to 2000. He was a information technology specialist and then I also had my uncles who served in the Navy, Air Force, and Marines.
And so there was a full spectrum of folks within my family who have served, none of which who actually retired. When I was going through high school, just like probably how it is still to this day, you get that looming question of, “What are you going to do after senior year?” And then you hear that so many times so I was very, very uncomfortable about being in the suburbs of Northern Virginia so my brother, he continued to beat that question down, “What are you going to do? What is your plan? Have you thought about what you wanted to do? Have you thought about the military? Have you thought about college?”
So there was some, not necessarily pressure, but some questioning from family members as far as a military career?
There was because at this point I was the youngest young male adult in my family on my grandmother’s side. All my older… my first cousins and my aunts and my uncles and even my brother, they’re looking at me and they’re saying, “You’re about to be a man. What route are you going to choose? By the way, the military is a very good starting point for any life goals.” And so I didn’t really have a choice. I mean that’s, that’s kind of what I’m getting that I didn’t really have a choice on what I wanted to do. It was as if it was the only route that I had. I mentioned school but if I wasn’t getting a full scholarship, academic or an athletic scholarship, I wasn’t going to get the support that I needed from my family due to financial constraints.
So what ended up happening was that my brother, he took me to MEPS quite a few times throughout my senior year of high school, 2009. And then another strategic thing that my brother did was he illustrated to me what the military provides individuals who take full advantage of the opportunities. And he had a bunch of friends who worked at the Pentagon with him, making six figures, living in a two garage, three-story home. And he provided that graphical representation of all these individuals started off in the military.
So as a 17 year old, I’m sure that that sort of a success was enticing to you. So you end up joining the army, tell us about some of your early experiences in basic training.
So I went to basic training and in Missouri, but one thing about basic training… the one thing that stands out the most is how I was feeling internally. When it came down to doing any type of marksmanship training, any type of combat related skills training, I always felt out of place. And I always felt I wasn’t fully, completely invested in that aspect of the military. I never explained that to anybody when I was in basic training, I never talked about that openly when I was there, but I always just felt out of place. Everyone is pretty [inaudible 00:06:17] so motivated about shooting a rifle, or doing the bayonet drills. And me, I was just not into it. I was out and I had this gut-wrenching feeling that I’m like, “Man, the messaging here is just ‘kill’ and ‘blood’ and ‘hurt someone’ and I’m like wow, God, I am not that type of person.” And I don’t think that I would want myself to be engineered to be, to think like that. It never really sat right with me.
You advanced to basic training. What was the next phase of your military career? What did that look like for you?
I chose to be a human intelligence collector, a 35M. Those who are military intelligence went to Sierra Vista, Arizona, to attend advanced individual training at Fort Huachuca. Right after that I went to Fort Gordon in Augusta and within less than a year, I deployed to Afghanistan after reporting to Fort Gordon.
And what were your experiences over there? How did that form your opinion and your outlook on the military?
When I went to Afghanistan, I had my 20th birthday there so I was 19 when I was there, had my 20th birthday. I was out there with 5th Group Special Forces. Some of the things that I saw that I didn’t quite agree with, some things that kind of like you said, shaped my outlook on things. It was a reoccurring cycle out there to no real ending.
I noticed all the effort, all the time, all the resources that we were putting into providing security, providing safe havens, communicating, strengthening the interpersonal dynamic between ourselves and the security forces and even the local population. Even with all of that, the people were still scarred from all of the conflict, from losing their loved ones, from waking up and walking out of their door and they see U.S. forces with their Afghan counterparts, patrolling their villages.
I have the honor, the privilege to have a lot of direct dialogues with Afghan people, everyone from a police chief to the governor and a lot of their grievances and resentment stems from just the aftermath of the direct conflict between U.S. forces in the insurgency, from those Calder fire missiles. I mean, the people remember all of that. I left Afghanistan with that feeling that, “Is what I’m doing just? Did I contribute to something positive? If they’re not feeling safe and we’re telling ourselves that we’re here to provide security, we’re here to provide stability and that’s not how they perceive it, then what are the true effects?” It really ate at me in my inner core because it places you in a confusing state of, “Is what I’m doing purposeful?” And that’s what I just kept asking myself over and over again Matt, while I was there and…
Your tour in Afghanistan ended and around that same time, some other life milestones happen. You meet a lady and you end up getting married and also around that same time, the murder of Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Matter movement started. Explain how that began to really impact your thinking about your role in the Army.
Right after Afghanistan, yes, I got married to my childhood sweetheart. We’ve been together since we were 17. We had our first son, I enrolled into University of Phoenix for an undergrad in Psychology, the Trayvon Martin murder took place. And so when the Trayvon Martin killing took place, my wife, she began down her journey of self enlightenment and self-determination, recreating and reconstructing her identity. She started asking me questions Matt, very, very discomforting questions. And one question that my wife asked me, she said, “What do you really know about Black Lives Matter?” I couldn’t even provide a simple answer and I evaded the question.
Another question that she asked me was what do I really know about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King beyond the textbooks? I didn’t have an answer for that. Another question she asked me, and this was the one that drove me to start going through this reconstruction process is, what are my viewpoints and what are my perceptions on the injustices and the negative experiences of those within the black community? And when she asked me that question, I’m a black man, I did not have an answer for that.
And so during this my wife is kind of upset with me, very upset, extremely upset. She was like, “You are extremely intellectual and you’re telling me that you’re not thinking anything beyond Army, your school, your soldiers. You’re not thinking about race relations. You’re not thinking about the divisiveness within a community. And I’m like, “No, I’m not. I really don’t.” I am so bogged down with all these different tasks that the Army has asked for me to deliver on. At that time I was a sergeant getting ready to be a staff sergeant. And then I was in school. I was taking three, four classes at a time. I was like, “No, I have never provided the critical thinking to even try to conceptualize any of that.”
I started thinking to myself and I said, “What can I do to strengthen my knowledge, to strengthen my… to expand my perspective and to have the insights and the understanding of what’s underlying?” And so what I started doing is that I started to embark down this path of committing myself to a rigorous self-study program. From that, that’s where I started reading Martin Luther King. I started reading about Marcus Garvey. I started reading about Martin Delany. I started reading about Mahatma Gandhi, David Thoreau. I started reading about Socrates and Confucianism and Plato and this spanned it over years until now. From that situation, Trayvon Martin’s life being taken away from us very early, that was a symbolic time that facilitated growth and facilitated development because I was so fixated and I was so nearsighted, I didn’t even have that capacity at that time to even expand beyond the present that I was in, I was so stuck in my bubble.
So over the months and years, as you’re having this sea change of perspective of worldview really, how did that work for you as you had men under your command, you were a sergeant becoming a staff sergeant and yet your whole perspective on the military-industrial complex is changing radically. What did that look like for you?
Initially, I was able to isolate my self-study program away from my military obligation, my military duties. So initially, it was very simple for me to keep the two apart, to keep it from one spilling over to another. It started becoming a conflict after I became a warrant officer, I thought that by me becoming a warrant officer that was going to reinvigorate my dedication, my commitment, my motivation to the military. It helped facilitate me finishing out my 20 years and so what I ended up finding out was after I finished Warrant Officer Candidate School, and then my warrant officer technical school was that I started at that point… what I started to do was saying okay, what are my values? What are my beliefs? What are the ethics that I hold? Now that I know all of this, What am I going to take from it?
That’s when I started saying ,”Okay, self-preservation, nonviolence, passivity.” I started actually start classifying what my beliefs, values and morals were. And so that’s when it started becoming a conflict for me because now at this point it’s part of my reconstructed identity. And now that I have enmeshed that with who I am and I have made a vow to myself that I am going to be very transparent and I’m going to try to reduce the incongruence and that dissonance, it started becoming an issue because I knew that the beliefs and the values that I hold and the morals that I hold, I started seeing that they were in complete contrast with the military culture. I started isolating myself because I was like I don’t want to say the wrong thing. And so if it wasn’t anything related to training, I wasn’t saying anything and so that right there caused some inner turmoil because A, I’m not living my truth. B, I’m suppressing all of my beliefs, I’m suppressing my ideas, my thoughts that then it was just draining. It was extremely draining.
So Kyle, what eventually happened that was the final straw, the final tipping point for you that said no, I can’t pursue a career with the military any longer. I now see myself as a conscientious objector?
So May 2020 when George Floyd was brutally murdered outside of that convenience store, I watched that video over and over and over again. I internalized that. I said, “That could be me. That could be my son. That could be my cousin. That could be my brother.” I’m literally thinking about just how precious it is to live and to be able to breathe and to be able to make your own choices and decisions unimpeded. I started thinking about the fragility of life. I started thinking about how delicate life is and that at any moment, your days can be numbered. I started to connect the delicacy and the fragility of life to how intentional and how purposeful and how deliberate have I been? Examining that and exploring that to its fullest led me to the conclusion that I have been going through the motions for quite a while in the military.
I have suppressed my thoughts. I have suppressed my beliefs. I have placed the welfare of others, the values of the military, the ethos and the ethics and the creeds of the military before my own. And that was the moment where I said that I have to start living for me and not living for anyone else. At the time, I didn’t consider myself a conscientious objector, I did think about it, it did come across my mind.
What I did was, I opened up a Google and I actually typed in “conscientious objector advocate”. That’s literally the words that I typed in. I typed that in and that’s when the GI Rights Hotline popped up and so I gave the number a call. They linked me up to a counselor here in Colorado. The woman that I was talking to initially, she said, “From what you’re telling me, you may need someone who specializes in conscientious objection.” I had no idea what she was really talking about but I respected her expertise. And so she put me in contact Maria [Maria Santelli, Executive Director of the Center on Conscience and War] and I talked to Maria on the phone and at the end of that conversation she said, “Kyle, everything that you’re telling me right now, you fit the mold of a conscientious objector,” and I was speechless.
So you didn’t necessarily have that language for it as you’re explaining your feelings and your personal beliefs she’s saying, “Well you are one whether you are labeling yourself or not.”
So what does that process look like for you that this began not quite a year ago, it’s still ongoing. Just briefly walk us through the process of becoming a CO in the army in 2021.
Yeah, I started in June last year. I started in June and then I let the suppressive nature take a hold again. And then I shelved it in October and I didn’t touch it again until January of this year. And so for those who are in the army, there’s one regulation for the Army and that’s AR 600-43, but then there’s also a Department of Defense instruction.
The very first thing to initiate the claims that you have to complete your application and the application is the extensive and robust write-up that is very descriptive and very illustrative of everything from basically what we talked about, everything from the inception of those feelings and those beliefs to when it actually crystallized. And so that application gets done. It’s like I said, it’s a very extensive, robust write-up where you’re talking about your journey and you’re talking about pathway to crystallization.
After that, you have to do your command channels, send a DA Form 4187 to formally request conscientious objector status. There’s a few steps. You have the chaplain’s interview. Then you have an interview, I’m sorry mental health examination with the clinical psychologist. And then you have a hearing with an investigative officer. Once all the vet is done, your application with the 4187, with all the reports from those interviews are packaged, sent to legal where there’s a legal review.
And so for me, I’m requesting discharge and I’m not requesting noncombatant status. So my packet has to go to the Department of Army CO review board for a final disposition. It gets packaged up and it gets sent to the Army, to the review board. And so that’s where I’m at right now. My claim with all the supporting documentation is with this review board. And I’m waiting for the review board to actually place it on the desk and look at it.
And any indication of how long that’s going to be for you yet?
I asked Maria that same question, she told me that I could hear something as early as July. Typically, the review board meets every month. And so the earliest that they might see mine is either June or July and maybe I should hear something by July or August time frame but it’s really no definitive time period. It’s really no definitive time period and that’s something that is mind-boggling. When you’re talking about a process and you’re talking about timelines and you’re talking about something that has to be done based on… it’s going to shape the trajectory of someone’s life. There’s really no definitive, concrete date but I have my hopes up that I should hear something within a month.
Well Kyle, I wish you the best of luck in the rest of this process and just commend your integrity on standing for your truths and taking radical action for your truths and in a way that can be very costly. So thank you for taking the time to be on the podcast today.
Thank you so much for having me. This has been a grand opportunity.
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.
I had the same feelings as Mr. Toon when I went through basic in 1967 at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., which is where I imagine Mr. Toon took his basic.
I could never get psyched up over any of the combat training, like hand to hand, pugil stick, bayonet, etc. I am basically a non-violent person, and the military could never change me. The only difference between Mr. Toon and myself is that I never thought about applying for conscientious objector status. I just went through the motions and got by, and the next thing I knew my ETS had arrived, and I was once again a civilian.