Sign Of Peace
Journal of The Catholic Peace Fellowship
All Saints 2002, Vol. I.3


With war looming on the horizon, there has been a lot of talk in recent months about conscientious objection (CO). Most of this talk is focused on civilian COs, i.e., people who apply to be exempted from the draft on CO grounds or who simply refuse to cooperate with the Selective Service (for more info on civilian COs and the draft, see The Sign of Peace, Vol. 1, n. 2 [Ordinary Time]). But there is another more pressing form of CO: military COs. That’s right: military COs. Each year a small but steady number of people in the military receive legal status as COs and are reassigned to non-combatant duties or discharged from the military on CO grounds.

Not surprisingly, this fact is not enthusiastically publicized by the military. After all, if it were to become widely known that military personnel are coming forth as COs, the idea of becoming a CO would suggest itself in the minds of more soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women, and before long COs in the military would be a story in the evening news, a growing trend, a movement. From a military perspective, this would not be good. But from the perspective of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, a mass movement of conscience in the military would be a good thing indeed. So it is also a good thing to disseminate some little known but important facts about COs in the military, which is what this article is designed to do.

Much of the information that needs to be disseminated is legal. It is based on Department of Defense (DoD) Directive 1300.6 (on Conscientious Objectors) and on the military regulations derived from this directive. Each branch has its own set of regulations: for the Army, the pertinent regulations are found in AR 600-43; for the Navy, in MLIPERSMAN (NAVPERS 15560 C), for the Marines, in MCO 1306.16 E; and for the Air Force, in AFI 36-3204. (The citations of military regulations found below are drawn mainly from Army Regulations.) This legal information is also based on the federal court cases that have tried to clarify the nature of these regulations. Other information that the CPF wants to disseminate is moral and religious and is based on a variety of sources: the scriptures, traditional Catholic teaching on peacemaking and waging war, recent popes’ and bishops’ statements on war and peace, contemporary understandings of total war, the emerging importance of movements of conscience in the modern world, and so on. In the following pages, this legal, moral, and religious information is presented so as to support Catholics in the military who are thinking about coming forth as COs. But this raises an immediate question:

What is a Military CO?

DoD Directive 1300.6 and the military regulations derived from it define a CO as a person who has “a firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and belief.” It is important to note that in court cases, this notion of religious training and belief has been expanded to include beliefs that occupy a place in the life of the adherent that is comparable to religious beliefs, namely, moral or ethical beliefs. But it is also important to note that a person does not qualify as a CO if his or her objection to war is based “solely upon considerations of policy, pragmatism, expediency, or political views.” Also, a person does not qualify as a CO who objects to participating in a particular war, but not to all wars. Thus, just as with civilian COs, in order to be legally recognized as a military CO, he or she must meet three standards: his or her objection must be based on religious, moral, or ethical beliefs; it must be an objection to war in any form; and it must be sincere. But here, another question arises: if a person is a sincere conscientious objector to war in any form on the basis of religious and or moral beliefs, then why did he or she join the military in the first place?

How can a CO be in the military?

This is an understandable question. When a person joins the military, either as an enlisted person or as an officer, he or she is required to check a box indicating that he or she is not a conscientious objector. So how can a person in the military claim to be a CO?

The answer is simple: when it comes to a CO in the military, a person must have become a CO after he or she has signed an enlistment contract. This bears repeating: in order to be legally recognized as a CO in the military, one must have become conscientiously opposed to participating in war after signing an enlistment contract. This means that a military CO, while in the military, must have undergone some form of conversion about the morality of war. In military regulations, the phrase used for this conversion process is “crystallization of conscience.” It is this “crystallization of conscience” that must have occurred after entering the military.

But then, once a person undergoes a crystallization of conscience and becomes opposed to participating in war, what should he or she do? The answer, according to military regulations, is that he or she should apply for CO status.

Applying to be a Military CO

The process for applying for CO status in the military is long and complicated. But at bottom, it is designed to determine one thing: whether or not a person is sincerely and genuinely a CO. The procedure for determining this is basically the same in each of the branches of the military. It can be broken down into seven steps.

Step 1: Notifying Your Commander
[Note: We strongly recommend that you prepare your CO claim before you notify your commander, so you will be ready in case the process goes quickly.]
After undergoing a crystallization of conscience, a person in the military who wants to apply for CO status must notify his or her immediate commanding officer. In response, the unit commander should do three things. First, the unit commander should present the applicant with a form (DA Form 4187) indicating whether he or she is seeking classification as a Conscientious Objector 1-O and thus a discharge from the military, or a 1-A-O classification and thus an assignment to noncombatant duties. Second, the unit commander will inform the applicant that he or she must forfeit several rights in order to complete the application process, privacy rights, rights to Veteran’s benefits, and will ask for an acknowledgment in writing. Third, the unit commander will give the CO applicant a form (based on DoD Directive 1300.6) which, in effect, serves as the written portion of the CO application. The CO application process formally begins when a person submits this form to his or her unit commander.

Step 2: The Application
The CO application form requires about twenty-five pieces of information, most of which asks for name, social security number, permanent home address, educational history, employment history, and so on. But six pieces of information bear directly on the CO application and require extensive explanation. In the order they appear on the form (found in AR 600-43, Appendix B, 1, b, 2-7), they ask the CO applicant to explain:

(2) “The nature of the belief that requires the person to seek separation from military service or assignment to noncombatant training and duty for reasons of conscience.”
[It is up to the applicant to decide whether to apply for 1-O status (discharge from all military service) or 1-A-O status (noncombatant service within the military)]

(3) “How his or her beliefs changed or devel- oped, to include an explanation as to what factors (how, when, and from whom or from what source training received and belief ac- quired) caused the change in or development of conscientious beliefs.”

(4) “When these beliefs became incompatible with military service and why.”

(5) “The circumstances, if any, under which the person believes in the use of force, and to what extent, under any foreseeable circumstances.”

(6) “What in the person’s life most conspicuously demonstrates the consistency and depth of his or her beliefs that give rise to his or her claim.”

(7) “How the applicant’s daily life style has changed as a result of his or her beliefs and what future actions he or she plans to continue to support his or her beliefs.” In addition to providing this information, a CO applicant is invited to submit letters of reference or official statements of organizations to which he or she belongs or refers in the application. It is the applicant’s responsibility to provide this material.

Once this written material is submitted, the applicant must attend two interviews, one with a military chaplain and one with a military psychiatrist.

Step 3: The Interviews
The purpose of the chaplain’s interview is to assess the applicant as to the source of his or her belief, its sincerity and depth or lack of conviction, and the ways that the person’s demeanor and lifestyle bear on the claim. The chaplain is instructed to provide a written report for the record but not to recommend approval or disapproval of the claim itself. The purpose of the psychiatrist’s interview is to assess the applicant’s mental status and report on the presence or absence of any psychiatric disorder that may warrant medical treatment or any personality disorder that may call for administrative action. The psychiatrist also is instructed to provide a written report for the record but not to recommend approval or disapproval of the claim.

Step 4: The investigative hearing
Once these interviews are held and the reports submitted, the unit commander will deliver the application, the chaplain’s report, and the psychiatrist’s report to the commander exercising special court-martial jurisdiction over the applicant. This latter commander will appoint an officer knowledgeable about CO policies and procedures to investigate the applicant’s claim. The “investigating officer,” as he or she is called, must not be in the applicant’s chain of command, nor be in the same company or battery-size unit, and must be senior in grade to the applicant if the applicant is a commissioned officer. It is the main task of the investigating officer is to conduct a hearing on the application.
The primary purpose of the investigative hearing is to create a comprehensive record to aid the investigating officer and other officials in arriving at an informed decision. It is not a formal hearing and is not governed according to the rules of evidence of a legal proceeding, nor is it conducted in an adversarial fashion. The applicant is allowed to make a personal statement in support of his or her application and to present witnesses to speak on his or her behalf. Moreover, the applicant is permitted to question any other witnesses who appear, e.g., the unit commander or other superiors, and to examine all items in his or her file. The applicant is also entitled to be represented by counsel, but at no expense to the government. In addition, the applicant may arrange to have a verbatim record of the hearing (e.g., a tape recording), but here too, this must be done at his or her expense and a copy of it must be made available to the government at the conclusion of the hearing. If the applicant decides not to provide a verbatim record, the investigating officer’s summary suffices as the official record of the hearing. After the hearing, the investigating officer will prepare a written report including the documents, statements, and other material gathered in the investigation; his or her assessment as to the nature, underlying basis, development, sincerity, and validity of the applicant’s CO claim; and a recommendation for action, either a denial of the CO claim, or classification as a 1-A-O or a 1-O conscientious objector.

Step 5: The Final Report
Once the hearing investigator produces a written report, the applicant has the right to rebut the report’s findings and recommendation. The rebuttal can bring up any number of issues, e.g., bias of the chaplain or psychiatrist during interviews, not being given time during the hearing to answer difficult questions, not being allowed to consult with counsel, and so on. The rebuttal must be submitted in writing within a prescribed time frame (the Army gives ten calendar days from receipt of the record to submit a rebuttal; the Navy, five working days; the Marine Corps, seven days; and the Air Force, fifteen calendar days.) Once the period for rebuttal has elapsed, the investigating officer will forward the final report to the commander exercising special court-martial jurisdiction over the applicant, otherwise known as the “appointing officer” (because he appointed the hearing investigator in the first place). The appointing officer will review the record for completeness and legality. If the record is not in order, it may be sent back to the investigating officer for more information. If it is in order, the appointing officer makes a recommendation and forwards the entire record up the chain of command to service headquarters. Officers in the chain of command are allowed to make recommendations as it passes through their hands. But the applicant is to be given the opportunity to rebut any additional evidence that is adverse to the claim (in the Army, any evidence at all), including later recommendations made by higher ups in the chain of command.

Step 6: The Final Recommendation
The final recommendation is made by service headquarters which must also provide the reasons for it. Ultimately, only the Secretary of the service branch has the authority to discharge a person as a conscientious objector. Each Secretary assigns a board in the Service headquarters to review each case, although the Secretary of the Army delegates authority to approve (but not disapprove) discharge to local commanders who exercise general court-martial authority over the applicant. Most decisions are made between six and nine months after applying. Sometimes it takes longer. After about two months, the applicant should investigate the status of the application. Members of Congress, legal officers, chaplains, even one’s own commanders can help move an application along. The applicant’s counselor or lawyer can help too by placing phone calls at various levels in the chain of command. During this time, the applicant should be assigned to duties that conflict as little as possible with his or her asserted beliefs. If the applicant is located in a combat zone, reassignment to noncombatant duties is still possible.

Step 7: The Appeal or Discharge
When a CO claim is turned down, the applicant is in a difficult position, but there are alternatives. For one thing, he or she can contact a lawyer to explore the possibility that the grounds for refusal are unconstitutional. For another, he or she can seek remedy with the Board for Correction of Military Records, which would take a long time but may be worthwhile, particularly for reservists. Both of these alternatives are lengthy and may not result in a change of status, but they still may be worth pursuing. And then there is the possibility of submitting a new CO application. This can be a promising course of action if a genuine change or deepening of one’s beliefs has occurred since the first application was submitted, which is not unusual. A second application may well be worth pursuing if: it asks for a 1-O rather than a 1-A-O classification, or vice versa [again, it is up to the applicant to decide what status they wish to apply for (see step 2, (2))]; it presents new letters of support; it is more clearly based in religious or moral beliefs; it includes more official statements of one’s church; it specifies how one’s beliefs have changed since the first application was submitted; it presents new evidence of the depth and sincerity of the claim. A second application may be rejected by an applicant’s commander if it does not substantially differ from the first application, but if it is a genuinely new claim based on new evidence, then it should be processed according to regulations.
When a CO claim is approved, the decision filters down the chain of command to the immediate commander who then notifies the applicant. The applicant is either reassigned to noncombatant duties or discharged from the military. The discharge is “honorable” unless the applicant has refused to obey orders or wear the uniform while the claim was pending, in which case it is “general.” Apart from not being permitted to reenlist, an honorable discharge on CO grounds is just like any other honorable discharge.

CPF’s Advice to Military COs

As you can see, the process of applying and being recognized as a military CO is long and arduous, but for those who receive final approval, it is well worth it. As a way to assist Catholic COs in the military and guide them toward a felicitous outcome, CPF offers the following advice.

Contact a CO Counselor or Lawyer immediately. Some military commanders will be supportive of a CO applicant, but many others will not be supportive. Most will be skeptical; some will be hostile. And some will not even know the procedures for dealing with a CO claim. So contact a CO counselor and/or lawyer immediately, if possible, before notifying your commander. This way, you can be informed of the procedures, the possible outcomes, and the best way to present your CO claim, and also the best way to avoid saying or doing something that may hurt it.

Remind Your Commander that You Should Be Assigned to Noncombatant Duties. This is important because if you handle a rifle or participate in other combat duties, it could be used against your CO claim later. The best thing to do is respectfully remind your commander of this regulation (based on DoD Directive 1300.6), in writing, so that there is documentation of your request not to handle weapons. If you are ordered to do so anyway, and do not wish to disobey orders, then write a letter to your commander saying that you are following orders but under protest because, in your understanding of military regulations, the orders are illegal.

Prepare Your CO Claim Soon If Possible, Before Notifying Your Commander; If Not, Soon After. The written application asks for clear, well thought out, concrete explanations as to your beliefs about war. This may be your first experience in putting such thoughts into writing, as it is for many applicants. So it is best to show your written explanations to a CO counselor or legal advisor who can help you to clarify the nature of your CO claim, how you arrived at it, how it conflicts with military duties, and so on.

Make Sure Your Letters of Support are Reviewed by a CO Counselor or Lawyer. Letters of support are meant to testify to the sincerity and integrity of your claim, but it is quite possible that a supporter of yours might inadvertently write something that has the opposite effect. For example, he or she might write that ever since childhood you have shown signs of being a CO. A supporter might think this is strong testimony but in fact, it would undermine your CO claim which must show that you have had a change of moral view, a “crystallization of conscience,” after signing your enlistment contract. Therefore, it is important to have your letters of support reviewed by a CO counselor or lawyer before they are submitted to your commander.

Prepare to Answer Challenging Questions. The interviews with the chaplain and psychiatrist are supposed to be fact-finding in nature, not adversarial. Still, the interviewers may pose difficult questions, and if you do not answer these clearly and confidently, it might be taken as evidence of insincerity. This is even more the case when it comes to the hearing conducted by the investigating officer, who makes the initial recommendation. Questions you may be asked in the interviews or hearing include the following:
If you managed to be in the military this long, why not stick it out for a while longer? If you are concerned about not killing people, then why not work as a medic? Chaplains are in the military; are you saying that they are (that I am) breaking God’s law? The Catholic Church teaches that the military is an honorable profession; so how can you make your claim on the basis of Catholic teaching? What about when Jesus got angry and drove the money changers from the temple (John 2:13-17)? What about when Paul writes that Christians should obey all civil authorities (Romans 13:1-2)? Are you against having police? What would you do if your sister or mother or wife were being raped? If a crazy man were about to blow up a school building, wouldn’t you shoot him? What about Hitler? What about Osama? What about Sadam?
Each of these questions can be answered clearly, coherently, and convincingly. But it takes time to think them through. And it takes help from someone who has put a lot of thought into them—not so you can be “coached” on what to say, but so that you can explain to others the nature of your convictions in a thoughtful way. So again, we recommend close contact with a CO counselor or lawyer.

Think Through the Issue of Selective Conscientious Objection. A difficult question for Catholic COs has to do with Selective Conscientious Objection (SCO). Virtually all Catholics in the military subscribe to some version of just war theory, which entails the claim that some wars are unjust and some actions within wars are unjust. It also implies that people of conscience should refuse to participate in such wars and such actions. But the military (like Selective Service) does not recognize the right to refuse participating in wars or actions within wars that may be deemed unjust on just war grounds. This creates a moral conflict that requires the SCO to discern whether or not, or to what extent, he or she will cooperate with the military. Adhering to one’s conscience in these situations is commended by the Church (see this issue’s editorial), but one must also be aware of the consequences resulting from this stand, such as dishonorable discharge, court-martial, and imprisonment. Here again, we recommend close contact with counselors, lawyers, and others who will support you in your struggle to follow your conscience.

Contact a National Organization. There are several organizations geared to assist Military COs. Some have a network of counselors and lawyers to help COs in the military. Others have the latest information on regulations and policies in the different branches of the military. The following four organizations are good places to start.

CCCO (Eastern Office)
Tel: (215) 563-8787
Fx: (215) 567-2096

CCCO (Western Office)
Tel: (510) 465-1617
Fx: (510) 465-2459

Center on Conscience & War
Tel: (202) 483-2220
Fx: (202) 483-1246

The GI Rights Hotline
Tel: (800) 394-9544
Tel: (215) 563-4620
Fax: (510) 465-2459

In addition to these organizations, the Catholic Peace Fellowship stands ready to assist military COs. In particular, it will assist Catholics who want to base their CO claim on the teaching and example of Christ and the traditions of the Catholic Church.

On the night before he died, in the Garden of Gethsemane, while surrounded by people armed with swords and clubs, Jesus said to Peter, “Put away your sword” (Mt 25:52). Ancient Christian tradition holds that when Jesus disarmed Peter, he disarmed all soldiers. We in the CPF stand ready to assist any and all soldiers who are ready to be in this way disarmed.