Conscientious Objection Discharge
Everyone has a conscience. Few people wrestle with their conscience as much as members of the military, especially those in combat. Counselors with the GI Rights Hotline talk with military personnel every day who are questioning the morality of the orders they have received or jobs they are expected to perform.
If you are one of those people, you came to the right place. You should know that you are not alone. In fact, every year hundreds of military personnel apply for conscientious objector status. Conscientious objectors have been with us as long as there have been wars.
Definition of Conscientious Objection
Current military policy has defined conscientious objection as the following: “A firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief.” (DOD 1300.6) This definition has been further clarified by both military policy and our legal system. Here’s what some of the words or phrases found in the above definition really mean:
- The term “religious” also includes moral and ethical beliefs that have the same force in a person’s life as traditional religious beliefs.
- The term “religious” does not include essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views.
“Training and/or Belief”
“Training and/or belief” refers to the source of conviction or, more simply, the experiences and values you hold that do not allow you to participate in military service or the bearing of arms. This may come, for example, from a lifetime of involvement in an organized religion that teaches active love for the enemy (i.e. not killing) or from books, movies, or TV shows. It could also arise from experiences serving in the military or from other life experiences.
This term highlights the personal nature of the claim. Thus a CO claim cannot be an abstract critique of war. It indicates that your set of personal values is the reason you are requesting discharge or reassignment, not that you think war is illogical or bad policy, for example.
The term “In War” does not mean that a CO has to object to the use of violence by a police force or for self-defense, although many COs do hold nonviolent convictions. Additionally, it is important to note the difference between force and violence. Punching someone is an example of violent force, while pulling a child away from a moving car is an example of nonviolent force.
“In Any Form”
This means that you must be opposed to all real war at this point in time. Those who object to a particular war would be called “selective conscientious objectors” and they do not qualify as conscientious objectors under current US law. If you believe in “Just War Theory”, held by many religious traditions, then to be a conscientious objector under the current legal definition you would have to apply the theory and conclude that there is no just war.
To qualify for discharge from the military you must show that you do, in fact, conscientiously object to participating in war, and that your beliefs have changed, or “crystallized” since you joined the military. If you believe you might fall within this definition, read on.
If You Are Facing Deployment
Usually applicants for conscientious objection wait until their application is complete and ready to turn in before informing their command that they intend to apply. This ensures that they have as much time as they need to put together a thorough application with the best possible chance of winning approval without being pressured by the command. However, if you are facing imminent deployment, you may want to write a short letter to your command informing them of your intent to file for a conscientious objector discharge. While this statement may not protect you from deployment, going on record in this manner gives your command time to reassign you to a position that conflicts as little as possible with your values (per the regulations) and possibly to assign you to the rear detachment. Regulations do not require a command to reassign a conscientious objector applicant until a complete application is submitted, but typically commands will reassign conscientious objector applicants on the basis of notification of the intent to apply. The disadvantage of informing your command in this manner is that they may give you a deadline for submitting your application that doesn’t give you enough time to put together your best application. Your command does not have the authority to require you to submit an application for conscientious objection by a particular date, but they can wait to reassign your duties until the complete application is submitted. If you are facing deployment, please call the hotline immediately at 1-877-447-4487 or contact a branch of the GI Rights Network to talk over your situation with a counselor.
The Guide for COs in the Military
The Written Application
Those applying for CO status are required to answer essay questions about their life and beliefs, and it’s probably more writing than you normally do. Remember: you’re trying to convince the military to release you after they’ve spent thousands of dollars training you. You will need to write more than seven paragraphs to convince them!
There are over 20 questions you will be expected to answer. Many of them are not very relevant. There are six questions about your beliefs that get to the heart of your CO application. They can be summarized by these three questions:
· What do you believe (about participation in war)?
· How did your beliefs develop (what events, factors influenced you to believe this)?
· How does your life reflect those beliefs (or how do your beliefs influence decisions or choices you make daily)?
You should also submit letters of support from people who know you and can testify to your sincerity or to the truthfulness of what you have said in your written application.
Once you submit your written CO application, you will have 3 interviews:
· One with a psychiatrist (or mental health specialist) to determine if you are fit to go through the CO discharge process. They will be looking to see if your application is really the result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or some other emotional or mental issue.
· One with a military chaplain (even if you’re not religious) who is supposed to look at the basis of your claim, and make some determination about your sincerity.
· One with an investigating officer (IO) who will get all of the written material you have submitted in support of your claim, reports from the chaplain and psychiatrist, and then conduct an investigation. At the hearing, the IO is supposed to ask questions about your beliefs, things you said in your written application, and anything else that seems appropriate based on what was discovered in the investigation.
The IO will write a report describing the interview and other information s/he has discovered. The IO will also make a recommendation as to whether or not your application should be approved. At that point you will be able to see the report and recommendations and have the opportunity to submit a rebuttal.
The entire packet goes up the chain of command, ultimately getting to Headquarters where a CO review board will decide whether to approve or reject your application. Before the application is forwarded to headquarters, you should get a second opportunity to write another rebuttal if anything new has been added to the record.
If your application is approved, you will be discharged (or reclassified as a non-combatant if that’s what you applied for). Normally COs get an honorable discharge, the characterization is based on your military service record. You would also be eligible for all veterans benefits you earned, based on your length of service and characterization of discharge.
If your application is denied, a counselor with the GI Rights Network can help you figure out what to do next.