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Perry O’Brien pulled off what many in the military consider to be next to impossible. In November 2004, after three years in the army and a tour of duty in Afghanistan, O’Brien was granted an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector (CO) to war. This fall, O’Brien will attend Cornell University to continue his undergraduate study of philosophy and political science (with help from Uncle Sam, thanks to the GI bill) in hopes of one day doing what he can to make the world a more peaceful place.
It took O’Brien five months, brief by many CO accounts, to navigate a labyrinthine network of paperwork, interviews, and verbal dueling to convince his superiors that he believes all wars are wrong, that this conviction was born after he joined the military in August 2001, and that he could not have, in any way, remained in the ranks. In January of this year, O’Brien and a handful of conscientious objectors from around the country launched www.peace-out.com, a Web site with links to CO organizations, guidelines, and a directory of successful CO contacts which O’Brien hopes will help soldiers anticipate the bureaucratic pitfalls he and other COs were faced with. Today, O’Brien is active with the national group Veterans for Peace and gives lectures on a CO process he believes is largely decided by presentation, perseverance, and semantics.
The Phoenix sat down with the Peaks Island native this past week:
Q: You applied for CO status in June 2004 and were granted an honorable discharge as a CO in November of that year. When did you decide you had to leave? Was there one incident that turned you around?
A: I think it was seeing little kids wounded in Afghanistan. As a medic, of course, I saw some of the worst consequences of the war. When you see a three-year-old kid blown up, it forces you to ask yourself, "What would ever justify this happening?" How can you ever say, "Well, this is just collateral damage," especially when you have to deal with the kid’s parents? I started to think you could trace the current conflict in Afghanistan all the way back to World War I in terms of what’s influenced what. So I just came to the conclusion that war clearly wasn’t solving our problems and hadn’t over the last two to three thousand years of civilization and if it wasn’t working, it wasn’t right.
Q: How exactly did you do it? Did you just go up to your supervisor and say, "Hey I want to get out of the army?"
A: Basically. As advised by some of the [CO] Web sites, I got my whole packet together beforehand. I was ready for anything. They were very professional about it. My sergeant at the time was pretty understanding. They even shook my hand when I got it, they were really good. I had probably the best time of anyone I’ve ever met. Pretty much everybody I’ve talked to said they were at least threatened with jail. One guy who emailed me said his mother’s life was threatened. People get some pretty bad treatment.
Q: On peace-out.com, you wrote that for CO status you have to prove that you’re opposed not to just one war but to all wars. And even if you’re attacked you won’t defend yourself.
A: Well, that part, the self-defense issue, is a really gray area. The army says you have to be opposed to war in all forms but not necessarily to violence. There are COs who have said, "Yes, I’d defend myself but I wouldn’t go to another country." But then again, I heard about a guy whose status was turned down because they said, "What would you do if your unit was attacked, would you grab your weapon and defend your buddy’s life?" and he said, "Yeah, I’d probably do that, just out of instinct." And they denied his CO packet when it was clearly an issue of self-defense, so there’s a fine line.
Q: Did the army ask you about self-defense?
A: They asked me the exact same question, and I knew what that guy had said so I said I wouldn’t even go and put myself in that situation in the first place. It’s basically the same answer but mine was approved and his was denied.
This is why we launched the Web site. So much of it comes down to semantics and rhetoric. If you’re completely honest they will find a way to turn down your packet. You have to see what traps they’re setting up for you and answer in a way that is honest but doesn’t give them a massive loophole with which to deny your packet.
Q: Was there any person or resource that was instrumental to you successfully being discharged?
A: I basically think one of the reasons I got out was I was lucky enough to have the perfect set-up. I had friends and family back home who were supportive and were almost like, thank God he’s got his head screwed on straight. I had a background in philosophy already and that’s basically what the CO process is — a philosophical debate. They’re saying, What are your beliefs?, you answer, and they say, Well, what about this? It’s like a philosophical dance, essentially, the same thing I did in college for two years before I joined the military.
Q: Who were you debating?
A: They appoint an investigating officer. The investigating officer is usually in the rank of Major or higher. They at least have a Bachelor’s degree, many of them have a Master’s or the equivalent education and the average soldier barely has a high-school diploma. So these kids who maybe don’t have the vocabulary to express what they’re feeling are going up in a philosophical debate against these guys who are well prepared for it and have a better education. It’s a totally classist process.
Q: Do you get any negative flack for what you’ve done?
A: We get some great hate mail through the Web site. It used to bother me a little bit, all these personal attacks. But I was at a rally recently in North Carolina and I was talking to Mike Hoffman, the executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War and he was like, "Hate mail’s great, hate mail means you’ve arrived; your message has gotten outside of the movement. If these people, these right-wing nut jobs, have heard about you then hundreds of other people have who might tell a soldier." I’m glad we get hate mail. I hope it keeps coming.
Perry O’Brien speaks at the Curtis Memorial Library, in Brunswick, on Thursday, April 14, and at the Free Library, in Belfast, on Wednesday, April 20. Call (207) 371-2077.
Issue Date: April 15 - 21, 2005
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