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.

Statement by Sergeant Travis Bishop

Read by Sgt. Travis Bishop at this court martial. August 14, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Panel,

The prosecution raised the point that ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse for the crime.’ And here is proof of that. Case presented, verdict rendered, Sgt. Bishop is guilty. I have been convicted of the crimes that I committed, and I cannot argue that.

All I can say is this: If I had a Soldier that acted on impulse and did something illegal that I, his Sergeant, could have trained him on, there is no doubt in my mind that I would be in the First Sergeant’s office the next morning explaining how I ‘failed’ the Soldier, leaving this Soldier untrained and, ultimately, unprepared.

Since the day I was promoted to this rank that is now in jeopardy, the idea of the Sergeant being responsible for even the individual actions of the Soldier has been drilled into me; especially on the issue of training your Soldier. My rank would be in jeopardy if my Soldier was doing things that I could have, according to my superiors, prevented, as long as I had taken an interest in my Soldier’s life, and trained my Soldier as best as I possibly could.

But today, I stand alone. My actions and decisions, based on a seemingly unapproachable command structure, and a lack of training of my rights as a Soldier, remain defended by myself only. I have defense counsel, but the ‘buck’ stops with me and me alone, and I don’t believe that this would be true in any other situation in the Army.

So why is that? Why is there such a stigma around the words? Conscientious Objection. To me, for the longest time, it was only an archaic term from somewhere back in the Vietnam Era; not something that applied to me, the modern Soldier. COs were the butt ends of jokes; they were punch lines. But why?

Maybe it’s because since day one of anyone’s career in the military, fierceness and bravado are pounded into every potential Soldier, and fear and doubt are viewed as weaknesses. This leaves Soldiers that feel as I feel in quite a predicament.

Does a Soldier who feels as I feel tell someone in their Command? Or a peer? And risk persecution and ridicule? I have never heard the word ‘coward’ used more than when I say the words conscientious objector around a group of Soldiers.

But what most Soldiers don’t realize is that CO is not only a regulation, it’s a right. To file for conscientious objector status is an individual right of every Soldier in the Army. This right ensures that Soldiers with the beliefs that I share have the opportunity to request to be discharged due to said beliefs. But, unlike other regulations in the military, this one remains unpublicized.

Ladies and gentlemen of the panel, there are many regulations that offer Soldiers individual rights that without these regulations, they might not ultimately have, even though the average Soldier has no idea these regulations and rights exist. And yet, regardless of knowledge of these regulations, they still fall under these rights given to them by the military.

My key point is this: AR 195-6 covers Army polygraph procedures. If a Soldier doesn’t know their rights covered and protected under this regulation, does this give persons giving the polygraph test free reign to ask whatever they want? Just because they don’t know the regulation?

If a Soldier doesn’t know that, under AR 600-8-22, they are entitled to receive a Good Conduct Medal after 3 years of outstanding service, does that mean that it is ok to not award this Soldier?

If a Soldier doesn’t have a clear understanding of AR 600-8-3, Unit Postal Operations, does that mean that the Soldier isn’t entitled to receive mail in theaters of combat?

It is my firm belief that the Conscientious Objector regulation is not a regulation only, but an individual right of every Soldier, and that the responsibility to teach this regulation falls on Unit Command Teams. There are plenty of regulations that we do teach Units about, sometimes quarterly even. Why not this one?

In closing, I am not trying to say that I did not commit these crimes. The point I’m trying to convey is that, had I known that the process for applying to be a CO was still alive and well in the Army, I would have applied to be discharged as such a long time ago.

The truth is, as soon as I discovered that the process existed, I acted upon it. I left because I did not feel that I would have a sympathetic, understanding command structure to fully take my problems to, and also to give myself time to prepare for my CO application process, and the legal battle I’m currently fighting.

These are not excuses. These are explanations. My hope is that you truly treat them as such during your sentencing deliberations. Godspeed.

Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist, is the author of “The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan,” (Haymarket Books, 2009), and “Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq,” (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from occupied Iraq for nine months as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last five years.