Peace Talks Radio host Carol Boss talks with Dante Searcy, a former Navy linguist granter
Conscientious Objector status in 2013
Carol Boss: What experiences did you have that starting shifting your views about war?
Dante Searcy: It was when I began participating in weekly group counseling sessions with the alcohol treatment program at our base. It was a decision that I made for myself personally, to refer myself to these weekly counseling sessions, just because of my own issues with substance abuse. What ended up happening was that when I began to attend the counseling sessions I was around combat personnel for the first time. Up until that point, my experience in the military had only been interacting with the intelligence community so I had never really been around people that had actually been in “boots on ground” combat before. Being a part of these counseling sessions and seeing people struggling with substance abuse and hearing the reasons why they were struggling really opened my eyes because I saw that a lot of what they were dealing with emotionally with their struggle was because of the guilt that they felt for their participation in killings that they began to question after they were out of that war arena.
Boss: These were mostly veterans of what, Iraq?
Searcy: Iraq, Afghanistan, other places that they had been deployed to. It was very far outside of my experience of just being in a training environment where we were learning a language and learning about the intelligence community. The stories about combat I had never really heard before, especially with people that I was meeting with weekly. It was very, very eye-opening.
Boss: It sounds like this was actually, having been in the Navy for a while, a first picture of the impact of war on the participants. I’m wondering if you remember one particular story that really hit you.
Searcy: Well, I remember a particular story of a soldier who said this phrase that I had never heard before, but it really struck me. He said that he would “shoot first and ask questions later.” He talked about how guilty he felt about that and that was a lot of the reason for his substance abuse. It just struck me in a really interesting way because before, I had never considered the ramifications of war on the actual participant. I only thought of collateral damage for the people that we were fighting and I thought that there was justification for that collateral damage.
Boss: How did you justify collateral damage in your own mind?
Searcy: I didn’t think about it to be quite honest. I understood that it was a part of war. I suppose I justified it by saying that it was a “necessary evil” and it was just something that was just a part of war, but I didn’t really question it until much later, but I saw that these men, we were in arms together wearing the same uniform, I saw that these men were still struggling with their guilt three, four, five years later, still struggling with substance abuse and it was affecting all areas of their lives.
Boss: Well it sounds like what you saw in that program may have left you thinking if you continue in the service you’re more likely to struggle with substance abuse than not.
Searcy: That’s really good insight and that’s absolutely true. I saw that those men had gone and they had fought and they did what they were supposed to do. They fulfilled their mission and they came back with issues, with really, really deep-rooted issues of guilt and fear. My heart went out to them while at the same time realizing that I was wearing the same uniform essentially and there wasn’t that much keeping me away from what they had experienced.
Boss: So this was sort of the beginning of questioning?
Searcy: Yes, it was the beginning of questioning for me because up until that point, I felt as though my job was one in which I would be behind the scenes and I was not directly participating in war. I was doing my job and my job was somehow separate from them or people that were in combat, but being in this group and being neutralized by substance abuse and our need to heal from that showed me that we were all participating in the same system, in the same machine, just on different ends. It connected me to them in a way that I hadn’t really been connected to actual participants in war before.
Boss: I know that another experience that shaped your feeling and your views about war was your encounter with racism in the Navy. Would share with us, as one of the very few African-Americans in our company, what it was like for you?
Searcy: It was a very difficult experience for me and it was a significant paradigm shift in my life, one that continues to have an impact on me today. I’m grateful for it today and I’m glad that it happened because I think it’s necessary to see things as they are and not as we would like them to be. The real impact that it had on me during that time was feeling dehumanized in a way. I felt as though people did not see me as a person - that they only saw my ethnicity and what began to really shape my current feelings about war was when I watched the “Hearts and Minds” documentary, the documentary that was about the Vietnam War. And I saw other people of color; Mexican people, Native Americans speak about racism and the necessity for racism in order to be able to kill the Vietnamese people and when I saw the way that they struggled with dealing with racism, but then seeing it projected onto the Vietnamese people, I began to relate that to my own experience and I began to question; is this the same dehumanization that I feel as a person of color? Am I projecting this onto these people that we’re fighting? Am I perpetuating that same sort of dehumanization by utilizing technology and utilizing different skills to kill these people? Once I began to see that there were some similarities, then it really made me want to separate myself from any sort of activity that would perpetuate the dehumanization of other people solely based on ethnicity or skin color.
Boss: Let’s back up a little bit. How did the racism manifest for you? When did it all begin? When did you notice it?
Searcy: I didn’t really notice at the beginning of my time in the military. The environment that I was raised in in Sacramento, California was a very diverse environment. It was never really a part of my consciousness. When I joined the military, it was sort of regular daily conversation; racial jokes, racial slurs, and it was just the culture that I walked into. It was definitely culture shock for me, but it was something that I tried to get used to because I thought that was just part of being in the military and interacting with your comrades.
Boss: So there was a lot of joking around on their part?
Searcy: A lot of joking around, lots of back and forth, not only to me, but also towards whatever mission the people may have been working whether it was towards Middle Eastern people or not. It would kind of extend to those people as well.
Boss: Did you find yourself resigned to the fact that you were going to have to live with it or did you find yourself having some anger and resentment at the very beginning?
Searcy: I really, really tried to live with it. I really tried because my purpose of being there was to take care of my financial situation with school, but I also had become really attached to the military. I had become attached to my shipmates and I really enjoyed my job. It was something that I really tried to deal with, but after about three years, it came to a point where I just wasn’t really able to take it anymore and I ended up speaking up, I ended up submitting paperwork to my chain of command, letting them know what was going on. Thankfully they handled the situation well, but it still left me disillusioned with my comrades and with my job and really left me with a sour taste. Understanding the reality that I was not seen as equal and I was not treated as equal.
Boss: So you kind of reached the boiling point?
Searcy: Yeah, I reached the boiling point one night at a party actually with some of my shipmates in which there were lots of jokes and just lots of things being said that I didn’t appreciate. I’m not entirely sure what it was about that particular day, but I think everybody has that point in their lives when they’re dealing with something over an extended period of time and then it just boils over. So once it boiled over after that party and just being put on display that was the true beginning of my shift because I really began to question the environment that I was in. What was I doing that was causing people to treat me this way and once I began to think about my own experience, I would relate it to the documentaries I was watching about war and then I saw that my experience correlated with a lot of conscientious objectors in the past or people that would speak out against war and they would talk about the necessity of racism as an element for getting regular people to be able to kill other people.
Boss: You read a lot of books too didn’t you. I know that you have read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Is that how you felt, invisible?
Searcy: Yes. I had read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man when I was in high school and it was a completely different book from when I read it as a 29 year old having dealt with those same experiences that the main character of the book dealt with. And I related directly to exactly what Ralph Ellison was speaking of in that book about feeling invisible, feeling like people didn’t think that I felt emotions, that I didn’t hurt and that I didn’t have dreams wanting to maintain my dignity and serve my country proud; I felt like people didn’t see me that way. They only saw my ethnicity and the stereotypes associated with that.
Boss: So this whole period of watching the documentaries and reading it sounds like some African American literature –
Boss: Was there a point that you actually saw yourself connecting the dots, seeing the connection between racism such as you had experienced and war?
Searcy: Yes, during this time, along with African American literature, I read a lot of that. I also connected very deeply with Howard Zinn. I loved the way that he spoke about his own experience as a WWII bombardier and it was through Howard Zinn that I learned the term “cognitive dissonance” which was a term that I had heard before, but I didn’t really understand it until I read him. He talks about his experience in WWII as a bombardier where he said he was five miles above his target and he’s not paying attention to where the bombs were going. He was just doing his job which is to fly and just drop the bombs. It wasn’t until later that he began to really analyze it and question it. That was what happened with me when I saw his metamorphosis, his shift in consciousness. I began to have a shift in consciousness as well. He says a quote that I really took to heart. He says, “Once you’ve convinced yourself that they are the enemy, then you can commit whatever atrocities you need to for the purpose of completing your mission.” And I saw that that was the situation that I was in. I had convinced myself that they were the enemy and I was just fulfilling my mission without really analyzing what I was doing.
Boss: You’ve talked about two pivotal experiences for yourself, why don’t we talk about your job. We’ve been making reference to your job, but tell us what you did in the Navy.
Searcy: The job that I did in the Navy was one in which I utilized the foreign language that I was trained in for various missions. The one mission that had a profound impact on me, it was the last mission that I was doing before I turned in my packet, was one in which drones were utilized. There was one day when I went to work when I was working for this particular mission in this drone shop in which one of my coworkers, a civilian contractor, calls me over to his computer and he points something out to me and I ask him what it is and he says, “These are my kills.” I thought: my kills? We’re in an air conditioned computer warehouse, where would there be kills from? He played this video for me of about seven or eight men being annihilated by a drone and just something in the look in his eyes was very icy; without conscience, without remorse, just very proud of the ability to show me this video. The only way that I can describe it is there is something that sort of tarnished my soul when I saw the place that I was working in and saw that this man was sitting next to me and this was what he was doing which meant that that was what I was doing as well. After I saw that video, I contacted Center on Conscience and War. I had played with the idea a lot of submitting a conscientious objector packet, but after I saw that video I said to myself, “I do not want that blood on my hands. I do not want to participate in any sort of system that perpetuates this type of killing; indiscriminate killing of people that I just didn’t feel as though it was right and playing judge and jury for these people that I had no idea about.’
Boss: So one doesn’t have to hold a gun, one doesn’t have to be five miles above dropping bombs to kill someone.
Searcy: No, if anything I felt even more guilty for the position that I was in because of the fact that I was safe and because of the fact that the people, I was able to see them, but they couldn’t see me and there was something about that. Obviously it’s ideal to be safe. You don’t want to be attacked either, but it didn’t make it better. It made me feel worse in a way. Our technology today provides us that safety, that individual safety in which we no longer have to physically participate. Some of us don’t. I was fortunate in the fact that I did not physically have to participate. I knew people that did and I heard their stories and I was able to empathize with them, but I was not able to personally relate. But then with my own realization of my own conscious and my own education about war, I understood that no, it doesn’t have to be a gun. There are much more efficient ways to do it. Being more efficient doesn’t make it better and it wasn’t something that I had wanted to continue to be a part of.
Boss: If more people followed your advice, that people research the realities of military service more, would there be a military? What do you think?
Searcy: Well, that is a tough question to answer.
Boss: And should there be a military?
Searcy: That’s a tough question to answer only because I am really careful about not projecting what I believe onto other people. I have lots of friends that are still in the military that still serve and they don’t have a moral conflict with it and I respect them for being able to continue with it. I also think that there are some parts of our society that need to be fixed and unfortunately those aspects our society encourage people to join the military and for myself in particular, it was student loan debt. I think until a lot of those issues are resolved, I think that people are always going to see the military as an option, not necessarily because they want to fight, but because of other things that the military provides which are good, but in exchange for receiving those financial benefits or whatnot, then it puts you into a position where you have to kill people.
Peace Talks Radio host Carol Boss talks with Maria Santelli, Executive Director of the Center on Conscience and War.
Carol Boss: Maria, many listening will wonder how there can be cases of conscientious objection in countries like the U.S. which hasn’t had a draft since 1973. In general, how prevalent have conscientious objector cases been in the U.S. in the more recent era of an all-volunteer army that we have?
Maria Santelli: Well, every year there are hundreds of cases of conscientious objectors, folks who have voluntarily joined the military and then in the course of their service have a crisis of conscience because of something that they’ve seen, something that’s immediately right in front of them or something they’ve experienced whether in combat or in military culture in general. They have a crisis of conscience and they realize that they can no longer be part of the armed forces and there is a process by which they can legally apply for discharge as conscientious objectors.
Boss: People might ask “Didn’t they know what they were getting into”?
Santelli: Well, our culture, the major institutions, the major pillars of our culture go to great pains to hide the real consequences of, not just combat, not just the effects of war, but actually the effects of military culture in general and the act of training to kill, not just killing, but the act of training to kill. It is something that is so contrary to our human nature, to the way we’re wired, that folks who join the military voluntarily haven’t really had the benefit of an honest and open discussion in our culture of what that means. So when they get into the military culture from basic training, from boot camp alone, that training, that extensive and scientific training, that is meant to expressly circumvent the human conscience. It can be enough to tell someone “No, my participation in this system is wrong.”
Boss: You mentioned a little while ago crisis of conscience. Is that the commonality amongst conscientious objectors? Can you explain?
Santelli: Yes, absolutely. It generally starts with something in front of them, something that they’ve seen, something that they know in their heart, in their conscience is wrong and a lot of times for people, they push it aside. They’ve made a contract. They themselves echo what the culture says; “You volunteered.” “This is what you signed up for.” They also echo what the culture tells them; “Well, there are bad guys and I have to be a good guy and get the bad guys before they get us.” They’ll often push it down, push it down, ignore their conscience, set it aside, but it always comes back. It continues to nag because of something else that they witnessed or something else that they are prevented from doing, or that they failed to do. These little – or for some people they are big - transgressions against the conscience that eventually build up and come to that moment of crystallization where they know they can no longer deny their conscience and they must apply for a discharge. Unfortunately a lot of folks who have volunteered for the military don’t understand that conscience objection is an option that is available to them. It was something people think of as happening in the draft area, in the days before a voluntary military, but the military knows this very well and has provided for this option, for this legal option.
Boss: Why do you feel Maria that this work is important?
Santelli: I feel that, in the greater movement for a more peaceful and just world, we can learn so much from our conscientious objectors in the military. These are folks by and large who joined the military to do something good. We look at the military in our culture almost as a religion. It is called “The Service,” so people go into the military to do something greater than themselves. For all the reasons that we feel are very cynical or self-serving reasons that we might toss around why people join the military; college money, see the world, health insurance, all those types of things economic and more individually driven motives, it is still, in the end, a very altruistic act that most of these folks are making. And so they’re coming in here to do good and then when they see the dehumanization that must take place in order for war and war-making to be possible, it changes something in them. It inspires that one proactive step; that act of non-violent compassion, that act of reclaiming your conscience. And then we see that that then filters through the rest of the person’s life. Whether the first step is realizing that war is wrong and their participation in war is wrong or maybe something else has happened. Maybe they have experienced something in the military that felt dehumanizing to them personally or maybe they saw, in a country where they were stationed, something happen to an individual there. It doesn’t have to be an act of combat or an act of war. Some of our clients became vegetarians in the military and that act of non-violent compassion towards animals then began to filter through the rest of their lives and they realized that war is wrong. So what we see in our clients, in each individual conscientious objector, is this study in non-violence, how taking that one proactive step to reclaim your conscience and follow your conscience, it then is what governs the rest of your path.
Boss: So the applications for conscientious objection is a rather comprehensive form, application I assume. This is the opportunity for the applicant to really become very deep. Is than not right? They need to be in-depth to some degree in their responses.
Santelli: Absolutely. When you think about it, if you were asked, or any of the listeners were asked, to talk about what you believe, express and explain what you believe and then prove that you believe it through evidence in your life. That would be a very difficult exercise for most of us to do. Now think about something in the military. Generally they’re young people and they may have been thinking that the military was going to be part of their lives for their whole lives. And the military doesn’t encourage a lot of debate or dialogue or going really deep with your feelings and now they’re having to put down on paper what they believe, where those beliefs came from and how those beliefs control their lives. It’s an incredibly powerful exercise and you see the growth that happens and the change that happens in these individuals as they work through this process, but it is incredibly challenging for these folks.
Boss: So what’s the role of Center for Conscience in War in this process?
Santelli: We try to look at the application for each applicant. We try to look at it the way the military is going to look at it because the burden is on them. Being it is a voluntary military now and we don’t have a draft, folks who enlist, when they sign their enlistment papers, they check a box. They literally check a box that says “I am not a conscientious objector,” and so when they make their application to be discharged as a conscientious objector, they have to prove that something in them is different, something in them has changed. They thought war was okay or they thought their participation in war was okay or most of these folks obviously think war is a necessary evil, the way we’ve all been conditioned to believe in our culture; war is a necessary evil and I would participate if called to and then they have to explain what their process was, how their beliefs began to change and then the moment at which they knew military service was not something that they could participate in any longer in good conscience. So we help them make sure they’re meeting their burden. We help them to bring their words into life in this application and really tell their story. So their burden is to show that they believe that their participation in war is wrong, that these beliefs changed or developed since they joined the military and that these beliefs are a controlling force in their life. That’s their legal burden, so we help them to tell their story in a way that successfully meets their legal burden and then it goes through the chain of command.
It’s very interesting that conscientious objection is a threat to the military. Of course it is a threat to the military because if the training, if the scientifically developed, extensive, precise training that has been developed over the years to circumvent the conscience, if holes begin to get poked in that training, if a conversation begins to be had in a unit at the unit level in the military communities that people are doubting, that people are questioning war, that’s a very dangerous thing for military discipline and order if people begin to allow the conscience back in. The training has been developed expressly to keep the conscience out and if the conscience is allowed back in, that’s a very threatening thing to the military order because the military knows that the conscience must be distanced in order for a human being to kill. So the military doesn’t like conscientious objection. They like to shuffle it out as easily as possible if there are other ways to get rid of a conscientious objector, they’re going to try to do that first. But it’s also a decision that is not allowed to be made at the command level. This is such a powerful decision, the decision to discharge someone as a conscientious objector goes all the way up to the headquarters of that particular branch of the military. Conscientious objection is made at the level of the Pentagon.
Boss: Who are on these panels?
Santelli: There are review boards who look at these panels and generally they’re pretty professional. We’re pretty happy with the review boards. There’s a process, an investigation that happens at the particular service member’s unit level. An officer is appointed to investigate the case and to seek evidence and compile a case, but at the unit level there is only, or even at the base level, there is only a recommendation made and then it goes up to the CO, the Conscientious Objection Review Board, where higher level military officers are making this decision; reviewing the evidence and making the decision.
Boss: What are the percentages of people who get conscientious objector status?
Santelli: If people work with us, we have pretty darn near 100% success rate because we understand the law. Our organization has been around since 1940. We helped write the original draft law which is what conscientious objection today is still based on military policy on CO is still based on the old draft law that allowed for CO’s in 1940. So we know the law and we are very good at what we do and we enjoy what we do very much. So if people work with us, their success rate is very high.
The GAO did a study in 2007 and their numbers looking across the branches of the military showed that about 57% of people who applied for conscientious objector status were actually discharged as such. Now we analyzed those numbers and we feel like those numbers are clearly problematic because, as I mentioned earlier, someone may start a conscientious objector application, but their command will look for other ways to get them out first so that the discussion, the moral discussion against war, the moral debate about war, the morality of war does not actually go anywhere. It does not take place, so they might try to get that person out. Starting from day one all the way through to see who actually gets discharged, the GAO says that that’s about 50%, but a lot of those folks never continued with their conscientious objector packet. They were discharged for some other reason or they timed out. The process is lengthy. It can take anywhere from five months to about a year depending on how quickly your command moves on the application or the evidence that you want to bring forth, all those different factors go in. Sometimes people simply time out and they’re discharged for that reason, their contract expires, things like that. We believe that that number is quite low and folks that we work with have a much, much greater chance of getting out.
Boss: Out of curiosity, what does the help with the application process look like? Are you talking on the phone with the CO applicants? Are you emailing drafts back and forth of their application?
Santelli: Exactly, all of that. Generally what happens is someone calls us and thankfully they found us and they reach out and they’re struggling with their conscience. A lot of times we see people who are extremely depressed. I’m working with a young man right now who was hospitalized because of his trauma and his depression. Each of us knows what a transgression against the conscience feels like and most of us, only 1% of the population is actually in the military and knows exactly what that feels like. If you add veterans to that number, that’s only 7%. Very few of us actually have gone through what it feels like to be in the military, so that transgression against the conscience on that level, dehumanization and actually preparing for possibly taking another human life. That level of transgression against the conscience is beyond the scope of most of us, but still most of us can understand what a transgression against the conscience feels like and how that can manifest itself as symptoms in our lives. Some of these folks have been hospitalized, they’ve been medicated to try to deal with the injury, with the moral injury that they’re experiencing. Sometimes they’re very angry because they don’t know how to help themselves. They feel trapped in this transgression against their conscience.
They come to us in a variety of ways and then they realize that there is a way, there is a path that they can take where they can be true to their conscience and they start to put it down on paper and we go back and forth and sometimes we get rants or the most heartbreaking or troubling things written on paper, but the process is very cathartic and very therapeutic for each individual applicant and by then we’ve emailed several drafts back and forth. It could take a couple of weeks, it could take a month or so before the person has really been able to express themselves in a way that is clear and meets their legal burden. Then the investigation starts. We are there. We walk with them through this entire path. The military policy allows for them to have council through this, so we can attend the hearings either in person or by phone and we can help them to present their case in a way that is true to their conscience.
Boss: Do you ever turn an application down saying no, your case is too weak or it’s not convincing enough?
Santelli: It’s not that we would turn someone down, but we have had people for whom their conscience has not crystalized yet and that takes shape in a number of ways. It’s happened to me a few times where somebody calls and says, “I want to do this. I think I’m a conscientious objector, but I’d like to wait.” Maybe they’re on a deployment and they want to wait until they get home. The military is very clear, the regulations are very clear; do not doubt someone’s sincerity because they’ve applied for conscientious objector discharge in haste, but you can doubt someone’s sincerity if they’ve dragged their feet. Again, we all know what a transgression against the conscience feels like and if you’re really compelled by conscience to act, if that is really a controlling force in your life, you will act. You will not hesitate, but if you hesitate, that is more of a reason to doubt your sincerity. Obviously your conscience is not the controlling force in your life. I’ve had occasion where I’ve talked to people and I say, “I’m not really sure that you have crystalized yet.” A couple of times that this has happened they have said, “I think you’re right. I need to see where this is going to go.”
Boss: Critics of the pursuit of conscientious objector status might say, “Well, who defends the country then against those who are able to kill innocence.” What do you say about this legitimate need in the military.
Santelli: There have been studies done on this. Edward Tick wrote a book about this called War and the Soul, about the differences between our veterans in the Vietnam War and the North Vietnamese veterans for example. A couple of things were different. They had rituals and ceremonies for their warriors returning back into the community and being cleansed and being healed of these unhuman, these inhumane acts, these acts against your conscience. That was one part of it which our culture does not really have by and large. We don’t have these healing ceremonies. We don’t have these ways of taking the warrior out, but additionally, moral injury; a transgression against the conscience comes when there’s not a clear purpose in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. There was not a clear purpose. There was not a clear enemy. Often times enemies are in the civilian population. The way warfare takes place now, 90% of the causalities are non-combatants. It’s the civilian population, so there’s no clear moral purpose whereas in North Vietnam, people felt like they were actually being invaded. There was an actual threat against which they could defend themselves, so certain defense; personal defense, self-defense, defense of one’s loved ones, that is something different. There is a clear moral objective. There is a clear line being drawn, but when there is no clear moral line and when you’re simply taught in your training to reflexively kill, to kill without conscience, the conscience will come back later and filter that through and see there wasn’t really a cause here. I can’t really justify what I’ve done or what I’ve failed to do and that’s when the trauma surfaces.
There’s a question in the conscientious objection application that says, “What do you believe is an acceptable use of force?” Most of our objectors will absolutely say personal defense, defense of my family or I myself if I was being attacked, I have to be honest, I would fight back if I saw a loved one being attacked, I would use physical force to stop that, but that is finite, it is related to an immediate cause and it is an act that you can see clearly that has a moral explanation. It makes sense morally, but war, a nation state against another is unlimited in its scope and its ability to kill civilians and that the conscience cannot rectify and find a moral justification for.
Boss: So what about the need of the military?
Santelli: Well our conscientious objectors in our organizations focus is not to decide foreign policy, so these are complex and debatable questions. What is not complex and debatable is what someone believes and what someone’s conscience tells them is right or wrong. So that is where we put our focus.
Additionally, this is what I’d like to share with people that we’re learning from our conscientious objectors. We’re learning from these case studies that humanity is predisposed to peace. There’s basically two ways we can look at humanity. We can look at humanity as predisposed to war or we can look at humanity as predisposed to peace. If we look at humanity as predisposed to war, then we’re going to choose to arm ourselves to the teeth whether that’s personally with your own personal firearms or as a country with an incredibly bloated military. So if you look at humanity as predisposed to peace, then you begin to look at creative ways to solve conflict, ways of bringing in non-violent conflict resolution.
There are conversations beginning in the “just war” churches that are looking at if it’s possible for a just war in modern warfare in today’s day and age. It’s like saying you have war in your tool box only as a last resort, but if it’s in your toolbox, it’s getting used and when we focus on using a violent force to solve conflicts, it takes resources away. It takes energy away. It’s actually a self-perpetuating cycle, so we actually fail to look at creative non-violent solutions when we know that war is an option.
Peace Talks Radio host Carol Boss talks with Fanny Garcia, former Army transport
operator who was granted CO status in 2013.
Carol Boss: So you were doing your job on a daily basis. Did anything change for you at some point?
Fanny Garcia: Well for me it was a gradual change coming from basic training and learning how to use violence against others. In basic training I was a vegetarian. I was already a vegetarian when I went into the Army, I began to learn more about being a vegetarian for health reasons and animal rights and so I pushed it even further and became vegan. Now when I became vegan, that’s when I started putting the two together. Me being vegan no longer coexisted with me being in the military. I was suppressing a lot of feelings which made me very depressed because I knew I had no other choice but to continue working for the military.
Boss: At some point something changed for you where you probably started feeling, it sounds like, you didn’t want to be in the Army anymore.
Garcia: When it really hit me was when my command had told our company that we were going to be going to Afghanistan really soon.
Boss: When did that happen? What year was that?
Garcia: That was in 2013.
Boss: What were you feeling when you were told that because that’s absolutely what you didn’t want to happen?
Garcia: I started going to a counselor because at that point I was really depressed and I didn’t know what to do. The counselor was just trying to help me get through it and basically telling me that I had no other choice and so that’s when I started doing my research. I went online and I started asking Google what I could do to get out or if there was even a way to get out. I came across conscientious objector.
Boss: So you had never heard of a conscientious objector before?
Garcia: I had never heard, no.
Boss: At that point, after becoming a vegetarian, vegan specifically, it sounds like that was a very important milestone in your life in that it started impacting the way you thought about things, about war, about violence. Is that true?
Garcia: Yes, it did because if I wasn’t consuming any animals because I wasn’t supporting how they were being treated then why would I support violence against others? I became more spiritual and started meditating and I started having a realization that what I was doing in the military wasn’t right and that I needed to find a way out.
Boss: Was getting out of the Army a question of your belief systems changing? Was there some fear involved? The reason I’m asking is because maybe listeners who hear this who say she should have known what she was getting into.
Garcia: I think it was my age when I joined. I was very naïve. I wasn’t thinking about the bigger picture until I saw how we were trained and what we were going to do as far as going overseas. Even though I had a non-combatant job I was still going to put myself in danger because when we’re overseas, we do have to carry weapons in order to defend ourselves, so I knew the possibility was very high. It wasn’t until I went through the military that I grew and I started having all these realizations that this wasn’t what I wanted to do and that this wasn’t right.
Boss: You read about conscientious objection. What did you read that got your attention?
Garcia: Well I read that – it was basically based off of religious beliefs or your own personal beliefs and because I wasn’t religious, I kind of fell under what I believed in and that’s someone who is against all forms of war. I found an organization that was able to help me win my case.
Boss: I want to go back up a little bit before we talk about this. You said it wasn’t right. You were talking to a counselor and you said it wasn’t right for you. Can you talk about what you meant by that?
Garcia: It went against my beliefs, against harming anyone or any living thing which is pretty much required for you to train and to be able to fulfill if those orders came down.
Boss: Why do you think you were granted the conscientious objector status?
Garcia: I feel that I had a very strong case regarding my beliefs and I had a lot of support. The witnesses that were in the room with the investigation officers helped me out a lot. I had letters from my friends and family to support me as well and at the time, I believe the military was trying to eliminate or weed out people that no longer wanted to be in, so that also helped me out a lot.
Boss: In other words, they didn’t need people who really had no interest at all.
Garcia: Exactly, people who were injured or people who were just lingering.
Boss: I’m wondering, upon leaving the Army how these feelings, a lot of them stemming from you becoming a vegan, have transferred into your life.
Garcia: As far as right now?
Boss: Yeah, in terms of how you’re living your life now and your beliefs.
Garcia: Well, I’m actually working with an organization that’s called Military Speak Out and their main goal is to try to raise awareness among youth and try to convince people that they shouldn’t join the military. That’s basically what I want to do now as far as being active and supporting peace.
Boss: So what do you do for that organization Speak Out?
Garcia: What we do is we table at events. We go to the local high schools and we pass out brochures and they have me explain to them what my experience was when I was in the Army.
Boss: So you’re getting opportunities to share those experiences.
Boss: So what do you think the impact has been from what you’ve seen so far on younger people?
Garcia: I believe that it has given them the other side of the story versus what they see on television like I did when I was 18. I didn’t have anybody telling me the other side of the story.
Boss: So are you feeling that there is a real significance to you being a conscientious objector and the role that plays in the world?