ImageVeteran serving time for refusing to deploy

by Katherine Tam, The Olympian. February 12, 2006.

FORT LEWIS — About two dozen activists, including eight from Olympia, called Saturday for the release of a soldier imprisoned here for refusing to deploy to Iraq a second time.

The activists held a banner that read “Free Kevin Benderman from Fort Lewis Brig” over the Interstate 5 overpass at DuPont near the military installation while drivers honked from below.

“He served in the military very faithfully and went to Iraq,” said Wally Cuddeford, who was in the Navy for a year and a half. “The military, instead of honoring the service he has given to his country, is locking him up.”

Benderman was deployed to Iraq from March to September 2003. He filed for conscientious objector status in late 2004; his application was denied. Conscientious objectors are morally opposed to war.

Benderman was to leave for Iraq again in January 2005, but he refused. He was charged with desertion and intentionally missing movement for not boarding the plane for Iraq when his unit left. He was found guilty of the second, lesser charge and sentenced last summer to 15 months in prison. He is serving that sentence at Fort Lewis.

Many activists at Saturday’s vigil said they have never met Benderman, but they support his right to be a conscientious objector.

The group included veterans and those who have never been in war all from Seattle, Olympia and Tacoma.

“I feel it’s a crime to imprison him for doing what his conscience dictates,” said Alice Zillah of Olympia.

“You don’t have to kill someone to be a hero,” added Phan Nguyen, also of Olympia. “A conscientious objector is a hero, and I support people who risk their careers to do what’s right.”

At least three people did not share those sentiments and came to the overpass to hold a counter-rally.

“It’s a disgrace,” Shelley Weber of Olympia said as she waved a large American flag. “I rally here every Saturday and, upon arrival, I see these people on the bridge. I decorated this bridge. I bought the yellow ribbons and flowers.”

“This is the weekend our troops come in for drill. Their protest demoralizes our troops,” added Terry Harder, whose 23- and 26-year-old sons are in the military. Harder is a member of Operation Support Our Troops.

A number of drivers on the overpass wore military uniforms. Some waved, but it was unclear if they were waving at the Benderman supporters or the people holding the counter-rally, because both sides were clustered at the east end of the overpass closest to Fort Lewis.
Meanwhile, the two sides exchanged words.

“Do you know who Kevin Benderman is?” an activist said.

“I couldn’t care less,” Weber said, while another man added, “Kevin’s where he belongs.”

Legal recognition of conscientious objectors dates to the Civil War.

Opinions remain mixed and strong. Some respect a soldier’s right to change his or her mind, while others see the soldier as a coward who leaves when called into harm’s way.

During the Vietnam War, the military granted 172,000 applications for conscientious objector status from draftees who saw the war as unjust.

In exchange, they worked two years in an alternative service, as hospital orderlies, conservation workers and such. About 17,000 soldiers sought the status during that war.

Every year, the Army receives requests from soldiers seeking conscientious objector status. In 2001, when the war in Afghanistan began, the Army processed 21 applications, according to its figures.