The doors have opened on another holiday season. Utility workers have spent hours hoisting holiday decorations to the tops of buildings and attaching lights to all the telephone poles in town. It won’t be long before the entrance displays of massive armored fighting vehicles that represent the muscle of the Rock of the Marne at Fort Stewart, Georgia are covered with lights.
A few hundred yards down the road from the main gate of Fort Stewart, the newly built Chapel Complex was recently christened. Red brick, with angled lines and a pristine white steeple; looking more like a courthouse than a place of worship, the building stands ready for the soldiers who will be returning from their year long deployment to Iraq next spring.
Across the street, on the grounds of the PX shopping mall stands another display of shiny pinwheels planted in the ground. The sign behind the display reads, "These pinwheels represent the 138 cases of spousal abuse confirmed at Fort Stewart in fiscal year 2007." In 2006 the sign read "131 cases of spousal abuse" and another read "191 cases of child abuse." What will 2008 bring?
My husband filed a conscientious objector application in 2005. He did so because of his firsthand experiences with this war, and with the abusive treatment the soldiers and veterans faced as they struggled to fulfill the oath they took to serve their country. He did so to call attention to the threats and intimidation military personnel faced, and the lack of respect they received for their service.
The military command refused to accept the application, choosing to find a way to put my husband in prison as punishment for his choice instead. As we worked to see that due process was given to my husband’s choice, I had the opportunity, one evening, to be in the same room with the command sergeant major of my husband’s battalion. I took the opportunity to ask this senior NCO if he would mind my asking him some questions, civilian to civilian. He said "No" so I asked.
"Have you ever had to kill anyone?"
The man put his hands behind his head, stared up at the ceiling and responded: "Yes I have had to shoot to kill many times."
"Didn’t it bother you at all to know that you had killed another man?"
With his hands still behind his head and one leg crossed over another, he leaned back in his chair and said "You know I’ve got 22 years in the Army. You learn that you don’t think about what you do, you just do it. I’ve never seen the results of my shooting. That’s the problem with the ‘boys’ they’re bringing in today. I tell them and tell them in training, don’t look back just shoot ‘rat-a-tat-a-tat’ (holding his hand out as a weapon) and don’t look back. When we was first starting out, the soldiers I came in with and me, we all learned in training, shoot and look away walk away but don’t look at what you’ve done. If I could get anything across to these new ‘boys’ it’s that they can’t look. I see them; they shoot and then look to see if they hit their target, if they did good, if they followed orders. I see their eyes and there’s fear, and I know right away if there’s going to be trouble with that one or the other by their face after they see the result of the explosion. We’ve got to teach these boys to shoot and look away, and they wouldn’t be so bothered by what they did."
"What do you think of the war?"
The man didn’t move much. He hunched his shoulders a little, looked across the desk and said "That’s political stuff and I don’t get involved in none of that political stuff. I do my job. If I have to go back to Iraq I go, and I take care of my soldiers. I care about my soldiers, but I don’t have no business paying attention to whether the war is good or bad, or if the president did right. I have 22 years in, and I have to do what I’m ordered to do so I don’t ask no questions."
"What do you think about conscientious objection?"
This time he leaned forward a little, stretched and took a breath before he re-crossed his legs and folded his hands back behind his head. "There ain’t no true conscientious objectors. I’ve been in a long time, and I’ve seen only one or two that might have been real religious. It’s been my experience that when a soldier brings in an application, I always sit and talk with them and ninety-nine percent of the time he’s not a conscientious objector he’s just got major problems with his command. Whenever anyone brings in one of those applications it’s because there’s a bad command and we got to do something about fixing that. If we do the soldier ain’t got no more problems and he can go on doing his duty, but we got to get him to talk and tell us what the command is doing wrong, ’cause it’s not religion, it’s a bad command."
Throughout the conversation my husband was standing beside me at parade rest, having invoked his right to not respond to any questions the sergeant major wanted to ask him. At the time he was under investigation by the command which claimed his conscientious objector application was simply a protestation of the war, not worthy of their time. The command sought to charge him with "making disloyal statements" and "disrespecting a superior officer’ for having spoken out in an effort to find help for the soldiers in his unit being threatened and abused by his command.
My husband went to prison. The sergeant major went back to Iraq.
Now, suicide rates are increasing among military personnel. Spousal abuse is becoming more of a problem and no doubt more children are afraid of the empty look they see in their returning parents’ eyes.
We tell the soldiers to do what they can to get out of the military to avoid returning to Iraq. It will not solve the problem.
Building a multi-million dollar chapel complex on one military installation is not going to fix what has been broken inside a man or a woman who has been to war.
The anger and rage of those who have been in combat will not go away simply because we tell them to get out while they can, to "walk a different road" without showing them where that road will lead.
Going to prison to speak out about what is happening to our military personnel is not going to make things right, not unless we, those of us who claim to care about our "troops" find a way to work together to do our part.
We can’t think that simply taking someone out of the war also takes them out of combat. In war, the rage makes sense and the killing of an enemy can be easily justified. War doesn’t end when the soldier comes home, and the nightmare of combat only grows darker when the battle waged is waged inside; intended to protect a place and loved ones that once meant peace from the anger of an experience that cannot be left behind.
When these men and women return home and face those they love, that anger can become a seed inside which feeds and grows off of memories of the horrors, the nightmares and the need for release but at home there’s no battlefield on which to let go, there are only children, a spouse, or themselves when they come to fear the damage they could do if left uncontrolled, and when "help" is only a word, too many will lose the battle.
People say they understand trust me you don’t; not if you haven’t felt it inside, or stood helpless wondering what more can be done to simply bring peace to the heart of the person you want so much to heal.
Holiday lights are far from bright enough to light the path of those who need the peace this holiday is meant to honor.
The pristine steeple on Fort Stewart’s new chapel complex may see the day when every seat in the building is occupied. Experience tells me that those in attendance may find sanctuary but they will not find peace, even if the room is full.
Men and women volunteered to put their lives on the line to defend the peace our laws were meant to give. Their service has been abused by everyone who has stood and watched this travesty of war unfold; offering words of help only to turn and look in another direction when more than words were needed.
People will write and say, "They volunteered. They got what they deserved."
The war is coming home and if Americans are not willing to stand together to fix what we are all responsible for breaking, they will know firsthand what it means to "get what is deserved."
It’s time to stare into the eyes of what we have allowed to happen.
Peace is not simply a word, and war does not go away when you look in a different direction.
What do you know of war?
MONICA BENDERMAN is the wife of Sgt. Kevin Benderman, a ten-year Army veteran who served a combat tour in Iraq and a year in prison for his public protest of war and the destruction it causes to civilians and to American military personnel. Please visit their website, www.BendermanDefense.org to learn more.
Monica and Kevin may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org