His first sergeant called him a coward to his face. His chaplain sent him an e-mail saying he was ashamed of him. His commanders had him...
HINESVILLE, Ga. — His first sergeant called him a coward to his face. His chaplain sent him an e-mail saying he was ashamed of him. His commanders had him formally charged with desertion.
Sgt. Kevin Benderman, who served one tour of duty in Iraq, is refusing to serve another. When his fellow soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division packed their gear and left nearby Fort Stewart, Ga., for Iraq last week, Benderman stayed home. He says he has chosen to follow his conscience, not his commanders.
After nearly a decade in the Army, Benderman has applied for discharge as a conscientious objector, a heresy to many in the military brotherhood at a time when the country is fighting two debilitating wars overseas.
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Today, Benderman, 40, will attend a military court hearing at Fort Stewart that will determine whether he will face a court-martial for desertion and failure to report for a unit deployment. He would face up to seven years in prison if convicted.
“War is the greatest form of wrong,” Benderman wrote in his seven-page conscientious-objector application. “I believe that my moral obligation to humanity is to not allow myself to be a part of this destruction.”
In the six months he spent in combat in Iraq in 2003, Benderman said, he was badly shaken by what he witnessed. He saw a young Iraqi girl with her arm horribly burned and blackened, standing helplessly on a roadside as Benderman’s convoy rushed past. He saw dogs feasting on civilian corpses dumped into pits. He saw young American soldiers he believed were treating war like a video game, with few apparent qualms about killing or the effects of the invasion on ordinary Iraqis.
Benderman said he begged an officer to stop and help the girl, but was told the unit couldn’t spare its limited medical supplies.
“I had to look at that little girl, look into her eyes, and in her eyes I saw the TRUTH. I cannot kill,” Benderman wrote in his application.
Only a handful of conscientious-objector applications have been filed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are fought by volunteer soldiers. Vietnam, a war that bitterly divided America, produced 172,000 conscientious-objector applications from draftees and 17,000 more from volunteers already in the service.
For the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, applications have increased from 23 in 2002 to 60 in 2003 and 67 last year, according to Pentagon figures. Of those applications, 71 — almost half — have been approved.
Unlike Benderman, few applicants have spoken publicly about their beliefs.
After seeing the civilian corpses, Benderman said, he made a point of befriending ordinary Iraqis, only to be warned by officers not to fraternize with “the enemy.” He had long talks with an English-speaking schoolteacher.
He began reading the Quran and realized the religious and moral values of most Iraqis were similar to his own. The rationale for the U.S. invasion, he said, seemed misguided.
Benderman said he now believes the war in Iraq, and all war, is immoral. His conscience will no longer let him fight or kill, he said, even if that makes him a pariah.
“War robs you of your humanity. It makes people do terrible things they would otherwise never do,” Benderman said in the living room of his modest home, his wife, Monica, by his side.
When Benderman returned from Iraq to Fort Stewart a year ago, he began studying the works of Emerson and Thoreau. He engaged in long discussions with Monica. He weighed his options before deciding to file his application Dec. 28.
Benderman said his military superiors tried to shame him and talk him out of it. But he said he is willing to endure the contempt of his peers and even go to prison.
“I’m not going to run from my convictions,” he said. “I believe what I’m doing is the right thing, whatever the consequences.”
Monica, whose essay on an anti-war Web site about the immorality of war helped crystallize her husband’s views, said she is proud of him. Many soldiers and their families have told the couple they share their opposition to war but fear being ostracized if they speak, she said.
“We believe in speaking the truth. You put forward the truth, and the right things will happen,” she said.
Kevin Benderman looks and talks like a soldier. Tall and solidly built, with close-cropped brown hair, he speaks with an Alabama drawl in the jargon-laden argot of a career soldier.
His father served in World War II, his grandfather in World War I. He said his family served on both sides during the Civil War, and an ancestor, William Benderman, fought in the Revolutionary War.
At age 22, Benderman decided he wanted to follow family tradition and join the Army. He served four years, then worked laying hardwood and tile flooring. In June 2000, feeling patriotic, he decided to re-enlist.
“I signed up to serve my country,” he said. “I felt I had a commitment to fulfill.”
He was a Bradley Fighting Vehicle mechanic with the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq. While his application works its way through the military, Benderman has been assigned to the 3rd Infantry’s rear detachment at Fort Stewart, a few miles from his home. He reports daily for 6:30 a.m. physical-fitness training, then spends his days supervising soldiers held back from deployment to Iraq for medical reasons or family emergencies.
“There are no restrictions on him,” said a base spokesman, Lt. Col. Robert Whetstone.
Like all new recruits, Benderman signed a statement saying he was not a conscientious objector. However, the military accepts applications made by soldiers who, like him, say their beliefs have changed during their service.
Anti-war groups that offer counseling to soldiers say opposition to the Iraq war among soldiers is higher than the Pentagon acknowledges.
“Soldiers are finding that the military is much different from the way it’s sold to them by recruiters,” said Steve Morse of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors.
“When they get into combat, it’s suddenly not a video game. It’s no longer abstract.”