This past September my husband and I spent time in Washington, DC meeting with members of congress, talking with members of organizations who had supported us for the past two years, and listening to those who would advise us as to the road ahead for a veteran of war who took a public stand of conscience against a war of choice.
Kevin had been home from military prison for only two weeks. He had spent the last fourteen months in confinement at an obscure military prison on Ft. Lewis in Washington state. He was guilty of having a conscience, and a strong desire to speak the truth about the military, war and the treatment many members of the military received at the hands of commanders who believed themselves accountable to no one.
Kevin's commanders chose to punish him for his actions, but first they had to create the illusion of his having committed a crime worthy of a General courts- martial, the most serious of all.
Kevin filed a conscientious objector application and requested that he be released from further service in the military. His firsthand experiences gave him the information he needed to stand strong against the challenges he faced from his command. His position never changed, he did not waver. Even as a military judge sent him to prison for an act he did not commit, after a courts- martial in which the government was not able to present any firm evidence or fact against him, Kevin held his head high and served his sentence with self- respect.
During Kevin's incarceration, Army commanders continued to make things difficult for him. Whether it was due to disorganization, incompetence or an effort to influence him against publicizing the truth of his firsthand experiences is something that only justice will show, and justice takes time. Regardless, it took an incredible amount of pressure before the army commanders gave Kevin his right to speak with a chaplain of his choice, to have a conversation with his attorney, and to have confidential communications with his Congressional representative -- all rights afforded to him by our constitution.
It was interesting to witness the Army's handling of Kevin's case -- he was a dedicated soldier who had received commendations for his years of service, including his service in Iraq. In the course of almost ten years of service, he had never received a derogatory counseling statement, quite the contrary; he had received superior performance evaluations from every level of command. He had served honorably in defense of the laws of this country, its constitution and the principles on which our country was founded -- principles he had come to incorporate in his own way of living. When it came time for the Army commanders to show respect for those same laws, principles of humanity, and the life of a soldier who had honored his call to duty with respect, the Army's commanders failed.
In a motion filed by the government during my husband's courts-martial proceedings, prosecutors sought to prevent my husband from using his beliefs as a conscientious objector, his firsthand experiences with war, and his constitutional rights as a defense in his own case. As stated in a "Motion in Limine" by the prosecution, to allow my husband the right to defend himself according to the law would "allow soldiers a defense that would open a Pandora's Box never anticipated by the military code."
Kevin was not given due process in the handling of his conscientious objector application. He was not given due process in the handling of his parole request, and he has not yet been given justice for a conviction he faced with dignity and respect, handed down by a judge who ruled without being shown any evidence to support the military's claims beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Just a few short days ago, we learned of the death of a soldier in Iraq. This soldier represented three thousand military personnel who have lost their lives in a war of choice.
Choice -- a right given to us all simply by being human.
We choose the course our lives will take. We respond to the responsibilities we are given in the manner we have chosen. Some choose to follow the laws meant to be served by all. Some run from the laws, blaming the actions of others for their own lack of responsibility to walking a talk they speak so boldly. Still others believe themselves above the law, able to simply interpret the meaning to suit their needs.
A president chose the course he took.
A soldier chose his path.
A nation of citizens has chosen the direction their country now heads.
Some choose to move forward, seeking solutions by working together with those who may disagree with their philosophy, but willing to compromise to reach a common goal.
Some choose to live with the past guiding their present, looking for vengeance, having little trust that truth does show itself in time.
In a few days a new Congress will take its seat. The promises of an election year filled with controversy, dissent and distraction no longer matter. It is not the words that count; it is the actions taken once an opportunity is given.
The citizens of this country will watch as their representatives choose a course and set a direction for the year to come; a course we should expect to be grounded in the principles of our constitution, the foundation of our country.
There are many who seek revenge, many who seek restitution, and many more who simply have faith in the system our country has relied on for over two hundred years.
Justice wins, in time. Even as two sides seem to expand the divisions in this country with actions of extremists living an illusion meant to achieve publicity and fame, there is a middle road and it is the road of hope, of resolution and of truth. It is a road that requires patience to travel. It is a road that requires trust, faith and compassion. It is a road that requires understanding and a willingness to work with others who may have a differing perspective. It is a road that requires strength of principle, morality and values which demand respect and require discipline -- not in others, but in ourselves.
Three thousand soldiers have died in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands have died in the two hundred years of this country's heritage. Every soldier served believing in the stand they freely chose to take. Every soldier died believing their action would make a difference. Every soldier served expecting our country to support their stand with a commitment to life as strong as the commitment they have given to defend life and the laws that govern it.
How many soldiers have become conscientious objectors in the same time that hundreds of thousands have died? Why is there not a number for them? Why is it that conscientious objectors are criticized, ridiculed and expected to hide? Why is it that a discussion of conscientious objection is forced on the back pages away from public view?
When I visit a bookstore and ask for the location of books addressing conscientious objection, the staff doesn't even know what the phrase means. Why?
When I visit the offices of members of Congress and present my husband's position and ask for their assistance, they haven't the first clue how to respond. Why not?
When I talk to citizens about my husband's case, and explain his reasons and mine for supporting him, they respond with a lack of understanding, disbelief that conscientious objection is even possible in a volunteer military.
Have we lost sight of our conscience?
Could this be why we continue to struggle to achieve peace?
In September in our nation's capital, my husband and I walked past the war memorials and the monuments to leaders from the past two hundred years of this country's history, reading the tributes engraved in marble. The pervading theme was Peace, not war. Every quote read told of a vision -- that this great country would one day stand on conscience and live for life, giving others the opportunity to live in peace.
The pain of war is a heartache that will not go away until war is no more. As painful as the year of my husband's imprisonment seemed at times to be, there was always the knowledge that no matter what the Army commanders tried, together Kevin and I were taking steps to live in peace.
Where is your conscience, America?
Why do your people continue to divide for vengeance rather than unite in hope?
When will we let there be Peace?
Monica Benderman is the wife of Sgt. Kevin Benderman, a ten year Army veteran who served a combat tour in Iraq, and returned to file a Conscientious Objector request based on his firsthand experiences. To learn more, please visit www.BendermanDefense.org. Monica and Kevin may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Kevin and Monica Benderman
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