Many people contact the GI Rights Hotline with questions about conscientious objection (CO). This discharge is one of the few that you can actually request, and although it can take six months to a year to complete the process, applicants often leave the military with an honorable discharge and their benefits. Unfortunately, many military members who would qualify as conscientious objectors have been discouraged by misinformation about who can qualify and about the process itself. Read on to find out why conscientious objection might be just the right discharge for you.
Conscientious objector discharges are nearly impossible to get.
Fact: While the military does not simply hand out CO discharges or make it easy to apply, most people who work with the GI Rights Hotline and follow the necessary steps are granted the discharge. There have been some highly publicized and political cases where qualified applicants were turned down, but these have been exceptions to the normal pattern where well-documented applications are recognized for approval. It is important to make sure that your beliefs and the path by which you came to them is well documented, both on paper and in the interviews required by the process. Working with a GI Rights counselor can be very helpful in documenting a case.
A person had to oppose participating in war prior to joining the military to qualify as a conscientious objector.
The regulations pertaining to conscientious objection actually require that you were NOT opposed to participating in war prior to joining. The discharge exists to give those who undergo a legitimate transformation of belief after they join the military the chance to opt out of military service. In fact, every mililtary member signed a statement when they joined that said they were not a conscientious objector at that time. Only those who can prove that their beliefs against war developed after they entered the military will be recognized for discharge.
A person who has seen combat or who has confirmed kills cannot get out for conscientious objection.
In order to qualify for CO status, you have to show that your beliefs against participating in war were formed by your experiences since joining the miltary. Many experiences can change a person’s beliefs and lead them to oppose war or participating in war. Often, a military member’s combat experiences and/or the actions they took in combat are exactly what changes their beliefs about war. For others, their transformative experiences occur during basic or specialty training before they ever deploy. For still others, just hearing about their fellow members’ war experiences can be enough to convince them that they don’t want to participate in war. When applying for CO status, you are required to describe the occurances that led you to your current beliefs. The most convincing stories are those given in the most detail–whenever and wherever they occurred.
A person needs to be religious to be a conscientious objector.
The DoD Instruction 1300.06 on conscientious objection defines a CO as someone with “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” (Section 3.1, italics added). However, the instruction goes on to define religious training and belief as “Belief in an external power or “being” or deeply held moral or ethical belief, to which all else is subordinate or upon which all else is ultimately dependent, and which has the power or force to affect moral well-being. The external power or “being” need not be one that has found expression in either religious or societal traditions.” (Section 3.2, italics added) This means that religion does not have to form the basis of your beliefs about war. Your beliefs can be moral or ethical in nature, but you have to be able to articulate them convincingly and demonstrate that they play the same role in your life that religion might for someone else. Atheists, agnostics, and many others who do not define themselves in relation to God have been approved as conscientious objectors. Some of the strongest applications aren’t even based primarily on rational or theological reasons, but focus instead on strong feelings of revulsion toward the idea of killing or harming others. A GI Rights counselor can help you put together an application based on your reasons.
A person must be a pacifist to be a conscientious objector.
Fact: Some conscientious objectors define themselves as pacifists, but many do not. While many people in the military are confused about this (including some of the chaplains and investigating officers who interview applicants), the regulations are clear that the issue is participation in war and not what a person might see themselves doing in personal self defense. You do not have to be opposed to personal self defense (i.e. someone attacking you or your loved one) or to police force, or be a vegetarian to qualify as a conscientious objector. GI Rights counselors can help applicants sort out their beliefs and describe them in a way that is consistent with the regulations.
Applying for conscientious objection shortly after the beliefs crystallized hurts a person’s chances.
For a conscientious objection claim to be succesful, a person needs to demonstrate that their beliefs are firm and fixed and not likely to change. It is a good idea for each person to feel confident that their objection will not easily change. Usually this is the point at which a military member knows in their heart that they have to get out of the military, even if they do not yet know how. Once a person has reached this point, their beliefs are said to have crystallized. Once a person’s beliefs have crystallized, there is no need to delay in applying for a conscientious objection discharge. On the contrary, a delay before applying can undermine a claim by suggesting that the beliefs were not strong enough for the applicant to take action. A delay may also suggest that other priorities are the controlling force for the applicant. Sometimes, when facing a deployment or other major transitions, applying quickly is crucial for a desired outcome. GI Rights counselors can help potential applicants figure out the best time to apply.