Ain't gonna study war no more

Sgt. Kevin Benderman, a veteran of a tour in Iraq, refused to return. Why did a 10-year military man become a conscientious objector?

Published January 17, 2005 8:42PM (EST)

It was Friday, Jan. 7, 2005, 1500 hours. Sgt. Kevin Benderman's company, a unit of the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., had been ordered to assemble and begin preparations for deployment to Iraq. Their plane was leaving for Kuwait that evening. Benderman wasn't with his unit.

Instead, the sergeant was waiting at Brigade Headquarters outside the office of Sgt. Maj. Samuel Coston, one of the battalion chiefs, to say whether he was going to follow orders and get on the plane. One week had passed since Benderman had filed for conscientious objector status, claiming he was morally opposed to war and could not, in good conscience, participate on the battlefield.

For an active-duty soldier, C.O. status is tough to substantiate. After all, Benderman had volunteered to serve and was aware that the Army was not the Peace Corps. He'd been scrambling all week to try to get the necessary visits with a military chaplain and a psychiatrist: According to Army regulations, his claim to be a conscientious objector and his mental stability needed to be evaluated so that his application could be considered. But the chaplain wasn't returning Benderman's phone calls, and the psychiatrist wouldn't see him until the chaplain had.

A spokesperson for the 3rd Infantry Division, Lt. Col. Clifford Kent, couldn't comment directly on Benderman's case, citing privacy issues.

If Benderman couldn't get his C.O. application considered before takeoff time, he would be faced with a difficult choice: Accepting redeployment, during which time his application would be considered, or disobeying a direct order and facing court-martial.

While Benderman waited in a vacant hallway with his wife, Monica, outside Coston's door, his unit was packing M-16s and 9 mm assault rifles and double-checking the contents of duffle bags against a manifest that specifies everything from the number of pairs of underwear to tubes of toothpaste.

Kevin Benderman, formidable at 6 foot 2 inches and 240 pounds, has a deep Southern voice and 10 years of decorated military service. He began having misgivings about war in general, and the Iraq war in particular, during his six-month tour of duty in Iraq in 2003. It's difficult for him to pinpoint exactly when it happened. Maybe, he said, it was when Iraqi children repeatedly climbed onto a wall and threw pebbles at his unit, and his commanding officer ordered the troops in the area to shoot them if they climbed back on the wall. Maybe it was when he was posted to the supposed site of the biblical Garden of Eden, and over a period of weeks watched green corn shoots sprout after a fellow soldier spilled a cooler of water on the parched soil. "I thought it was amazing that the seeds took root," Benderman said. "That showed me that the land was fertile, and that God's hand had not forsaken that land. Corn was growing in the middle of the desert."

Or maybe it was simply witnessing war itself. "When you see people having to drink water out of a mud puddle, and you see all of their homes destroyed, and when you're going up the main highway and you see young girls on the side of the road with their arms burned all the way up to their shoulders, you really have to say, Do I want to be responsible for that kind of action?"

In a letter he posted on the Internet, Benderman expanded on the story of the little girl with the burned arms. "Somewhere along the route there was this one woman standing along side the road with a young girl of about 8 or 9 years old and the little girl's arm was burned all the way up her shoulder and I don't mean just a little blistered, I mean she had 3rd degree burns the entire length of her arm and she [was] crying in pain because of the burns. I asked the troop executive officer if we could stop and help the family and I was told that the medical supplies that we had were limited and that we may need them, I informed him that I would donate my share to that girl but we did not stop to help her."

In October 2004, Benderman was informed that his service was being extended for eight months, as part of the military's "stop loss" program. He was also informed that his unit would be reposted in Iraq in January 2005. He could be in Iraq for 18 more months. That's when he went public with his views, giving interviews (including one with this reporter) and posting antiwar pieces on the Internet. He officially applied for conscientious objector status on Dec. 28.

A skeptic might question Benderman's sudden application for C.O. status, just after he was ordered to return to Iraq. But Benderman denies any connection. "No, my conscientious objector application is not a reaction to the stop-loss order," Benderman said. "Over a period of time I had been contemplating filing for C.O. status. You have to be 100 percent sure that's what you want to do. It takes time to think it over. I can't meet anybody else's expectations as to when I should have filed. You can't shoehorn me into a little box and say what I should have done."

Clearly, Benderman did not want to return to military duty in Iraq. But just as clearly, that is not inconsistent with genuine conscientious objection. Soldiers on the battlefield are known to have developed moral opposition to war: It happened many times during the conflict in Vietnam. A handful of soldiers have filed for conscientious objector status since the current Iraq war began.

Stauton Lynd, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights who handles military cases, says that direct experience with war can instigate genuine moral transformations. "It's a legitimate basis for one's claim for conscientious objector status," Lynd said.

But duty and loyalty weigh heavy on Benderman, who comes from a family that boasts a proud military tradition. "You can count back the generations of Bendermans that fought in the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam," the sergeant said. "It's kind of a family history of service in the military."

To be granted conscientious objector status, one of the most important considerations is whether a soldier's "asserted convictions are sincerely held," according to Army regulations. A soldier must be able to convincingly explain his ethical transformation. Benderman said it comes down to firsthand experience. "When you see war for yourself, that's a profound effect. It's not an abstract thought process. You don't know what your thumb feels like smashed with a hammer until you do it. Somebody could tell you all day long, but you don't really know until you do it yourself."

Benderman's experiences in Iraq turned him against not just this war, which for the record he regards as unjustified, but war itself. "I am opposed to all wars," he said. "We should be doing more than teaching young people how to look through the sight of a rifle and kill someone else." In the letter explaining why he refused his second deployment, he wrote, " I was in charge of a group of soldiers that were in their late teens through their early twenties and I had to constantly tell them to keep their heads down because they thought that the war was like the video games that they played back at the barracks. War is not like that at all and until you have the misfortune to engage in it for yourself you cannot begin to understand how insane it all is. There are no restart buttons on reality and that is why I cannot figure out why now we are pursuing such a policy in this day and age. War should be relegated to the shelves of history, as was human sacrifice. If you stop to think about it you become aware that war is just human sacrifice. There is no honor in killing as many as you can as quickly as you can."

Not surprisingly, the Army took a different view. "Two days after I filed my conscientious objector application, the first sergeant of my company called me into his little office and called me a coward," Benderman said.

As Benderman's deployment date approached, and the high stakes became clearer, he wrestled with his convictions. The radio show I work for, "Weekend America," documented his struggle, taping conversations with him each day during the first week of January.

On Tuesday, Jan. 4, Benderman received his orders to report for deployment that Friday. On Wednesday he spent most of the day trying to meet with a chaplain, with no success. "It's like the man's avoiding me," he said. Frustrated, Benderman was leaning toward refusing to deploy. "The thought is running through my head of just telling them no, I'm not going to go."

But on Thursday, Benderman started wavering. A battalion commander, Capt. Gary Rowley, had warned Benderman that he could be charged with violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for making "disloyal statements" and for showing "disrespect toward a superior commissioned officer," charges that could come with severe penalties, especially in wartime. The military had found Benderman's Internet articles and his radio interview. After his meeting with Rowley, Benderman said, "I guess I'm going to have to deploy."

While Benderman was still trying to speak with a chaplain on Thursday, his wife got a call from Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, who was returning her call. They talked for an hour. On the next day -- deployment day for Benderman's unit -- McKinney sent a letter to battalion chief Coston: "Given that your upcoming deployment in Iraq is meant to support the establishment of a Constitutional Democracy there, I would hope that Sergeant Benderman's right to conscience, protected by the First Amendment to our own Constitution, will receive the respect it deserves, and that his application for Conscientious Objector status will receive due consideration."

After a long delay, Benderman was asked to step into Coston's office. By now, it was already past 5 p.m., and almost everybody else in the building had gone home. Benderman's company was nearing the time to assemble in a gymnasium to get manifests: envelopes with I.D. cards, passports and orders. After several more formations, the soldiers would spend a last five or 10 minutes with family members before walking out the doors to the plane.

It was Benderman's last chance to follow orders. Instead, he requested a general court-martial. "I refuse to deploy to Iraq," he told his commander. Coston tried to convince Benderman he was making a big mistake. According to Benderman, Coston told him that he would deploy him without a weapon to Kuwait -- a nod to Benderman's stated objection to war. However, Benderman also said Coston told him that he would then be deployed with his unit to Iraq, although he would not have to serve in a combat capacity there. Coston said that he would try to see if Benderman's C.O. application could be considered while he was deployed. But Benderman did not feel he could compromise: If he truly opposed war, he couldn't participate in it just long enough for the military to consider his C.O. application. Coston filled out a statement attesting to Benderman's refusal to be deployed. Benderman's wife signed it as a witness. Coston gave Benderman one more chance. He said he'd rip up the sworn statement and let Benderman ship out with his unit. Benderman stood his ground.

"I looked and thought about it and said that if I'm true to my beliefs, then my actions have to follow," Benderman said this week. "I can't just speak words and not follow through."

Benderman fully expected to be carted out of Coston's office in handcuffs. But, perhaps because of the publicity he had received and the letter from McKinney, nothing happened -- no MPs, no jail cell. He and Monica simply left and made the short drive to their off-base home in Hinesville.

On Monday, the deputy division chaplain sent Benderman an e-mail. "It is unfortunate you have chosen the course of action you have taken," he wrote. "You should have had the moral fortitude to deploy with us and see me here in Kuwait to begin your CO application." The chaplain scolded Benderman for giving him such short notice and for giving a reporter his e-mail address. "You should be ashamed of the way you have conducted yourself. I certainly am ashamed of you."

Kent, the 3rd Infantry Division's spokesperson, said the division has not yet begun court-martial proceedings against Benderman. The sergeant is now officially assigned to what's known as rear detachment, which consists of soldiers who are non-deployable and who perform support duty at Fort Stewart. For Benderman, rear detachment duty at Fort Stewart was acceptable but noncombat duty in Iraq crossed a line.

According to Kent, there are two separate matters before the Army: Did Benderman violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice by disobeying a direct order? And, should the Army grant Benderman conscientious objector status? Even though Benderman violated a direct order, his C.O. application is still going to be considered.

If the case of Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia is any indication, Benderman could be facing stiff punishment. Mejia, a member of the Florida National Guard, refused to be deployed to Iraq. He was sentenced to a year in prison for desertion, pending his C.O. application.

According to Kent, "In a deployment situation a soldier who misses movement (troop deployment) is automatically classified as a deserter, which is a punishable offense. It's still up to the chain of command as to how they are going to handle the case." In other words, the military could take immediate action against the soldier, or wait and give consideration to all the factors of a particular soldier's situation and reasons.

Benderman met with the assistant division chaplain Wednesday morning. He hopes to meet with a psychiatrist in the coming days.

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"Weekend America," produced by American Public Media, documented Sgt. Kevin Benderman's struggle over his decision by taping conversations with him each day during the week of Jan. 3-7. The segment broadcast on Saturday, Jan. 8. The story can be heard at Weekend America.

By Phillip Babich

Phillip Babich is an investigative journalist based in the San Francisco Area. His articles have appeared in Salon,, and Pacific News Service. His work as a radio producer has been heard on "Making Contact," Pacifica Radio, NPR, CBC, CBS, and AP. He's also a 2003 grant recipient from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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