An Army sergeant who is seeking military discharge as a conscientious objector will face a general court martial for refusing to join his unit when it deployed to Iraq in January.
Sgt. Kevin Benderman is charged with desertion to avoid hazardous duty and missing movement through design, the Army said Friday. He faces penalties including loss of pay, dishonorable discharge and up to seven years in prison.
Benderman, 40, who was raised a Southern Baptist but now says he is “more spiritual than religious,” spent eight months in Iraq in 2003. It was there, he told NPR on Monday, he came to the conclusion that “war is the greatest form of wrong.”
An Army mechanic with 10 years in the military, Benderman never fired a shot while in Iraq. But while there, he says, he saw things for which his training never prepared him, like a young girl standing by the road with third-degree burns all up her arm to the shoulder crying in pain. When he asked the troop executive if they could stop and help her, he says, he was told that medical supplies were limited and the troops might need them.
Another moment was when he was posted to where the Bible says the Garden of Eden was located, and over a period of weeks watched corn sprout where a solider had spilled a cooler of water on the parched ground. “I thought it was amazing that the seeds took root,” he said. “That showed me that the land was fertile, and that God’s hand had not forsaken the land.”
In an essay on the Internet, Benderman said he came to the conclusion that “there are no valid arguments for the destructive force of war.”
Without war, he said, America could afford positive things like affordable prescription medications for seniors and college grants for young people. Rather than resolving differences through violence, Benderman said he believes it is time for humanity to “teach our children not to hate or be afraid of someone else just because they are different from us” and for “the children of the world to learn war no more.”
“Can’t we teach our children to leave war behind in history where it belongs?” he wrote. “We have come to realize that slavery was an obsolete institution and we realized that human sacrifice was an obsolete institution and we left them behind us. When are we going to have the same enlightened attitude about war?”
Benderman’s contract with the Army was supposed to be up last October, but he learned that his service was being extended for eight months as part of the military’s “stop loss” program, which some criticize as a “back-door draft.” He also was informed that his unit, the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., would be reposted in Iraq in January, and he could there for 18 months.
After going public in interviews and posting antiwar pieces on the Internet, Benderman officially applied for conscientious objector status on Dec. 28. Two days later, he says, the first sergeant of his company called him into his office and called him a coward.
On Tuesday, Jan. 4, Benderman received his orders to report for deployment that Friday. He spent most of Wednesday and Thursday trying to meet with his chaplain, hoping to get his objector claim considered before his unit left Jan. 8. “It’s like the man is avoiding me,” he said in frustration at one point.
At the last minute, Benderman refused a compromise that would allow him to obey his orders without having to carry a weapon and requested a general court martial while his CO application was processed.
The following Monday, the chaplain, Captain Matt Temple, wrote Benderman from Kuwait calling his request for an interview so near to a major deployment “unreasonable and quite inconsiderate of my own time.”
“I would have gladly helped you once we got here,” the chaplain continued. “As an NCO in the US Army, I expected a greater display of maturity from you.”
“Furthermore, for you to have media personnel contacting me at my personal e-mail address without first acquiring my permission was very unprofessional of you,” Temple continued.
“You should be ashamed of the way you have conducted yourself,” the chaplain wrote. “I certainly am ashamed of you. I hope you will see your misconduct as an opportunity to upgrade your character and moral behavior for your own good and the good of your fellow man.”
Another chaplain later said he thought Benderman was sincere in his beliefs, and “his lifestyle is congruent with his claim of conscientious objection.”
But that doesn’t matter to the Army, which says he should have reported for deployment while his CO status was being determined. “In a deployment situation a soldier who misses movement (troop deployment) is automatically classified as a deserter, which is a punishable offense,” said 3rd Infantry spokesperson Lt. Col. Clifford Kent.
The date of Benderman’s trial has not been determined. His CO application, which is a separate process, will be ruled on in the coming weeks.
Conscientious objection is rare and hard to prove in an all-volunteer military, yet applications have tripled since 2001, according to NPR. Sixty-seven soldiers sought CO status last year, and the Army approved nearly half.
That compares to an estimated 200,000 COs in the Vietnam War, 4,300 in the Korean War, 37,000 in World War II and 3,500 in World War I, according to the Center on Conscience and War.
To win CO status, a soldier must prove not only opposition to a particular war but against war in general. Army regulations require that “asserted convictions are sincerely held,” and a soldier must be able to convincingly explain his ethical transformation.
Benderman’s wife, Monica, told EthicsDaily.com in an e-mail that he was raised as a Southern Baptist and she as a Northern Presbyterian. “But we have become much more spiritual in nature, and revere all faiths now, believing that God is one, and that the Universe is His foundation and His world.”
After going to Iraq the first time, Benderman told the Associated Press, he picked up the Quran and was struck by similarities between Christianity and Islam.
Benderman told NPR that some fellow soldiers have expressed privately that they support him. He acknowledged that others probably feel betrayed and believe he is protesting the war because he is afraid of combat.
“Ultimately, I want everyone to get out of combat and never go back to it again,” he said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.