Soldier Who Chose Jail Over Iraq Goes Home

Last week, a 41-year-old U.S. Army sergeant from Hinesville, Ga., was released from prison after serving 13 months of a 15-month sentence for refusing to board a plane bound for Iraq.

Born in Alabama and raised in rural Tennessee, Sgt. Kevin Benderman first joined the Army in 1987 out of a sense of purpose and tradition. His family has a history of fighting wars. Both grandfathers fought in World War I. His father served in World War II. His uncle served in Korea.

Benderman had served 10 years in the military before refusing to obey orders. He filed an application for conscientious objector status after serving a tour in Iraq in 2004. The military turned him down.

He spoke to IPS this week following his release.

IPS: You’ve just been released from 13 months in a military prison. Did your opinions on the war in Iraq change or develop at all during your incarceration?

K. BENDERMAN: After I made my decision to file as a conscientious objector, my opinion hasn’t changed on the [Iraq] war or any war that may come along afterwards. It’s all the same. If you go back and look through the history of wars, you can see that they’re all the same. There’s violence. It’s young men killing each other for whatever reason, and I think we should have learned that a long time ago and been working toward eliminating war from our daily lives.

IPS: Were there any experiences that you had while you were over in Iraq that helped lead you to this conclusion?

KB: A lot of people have asked me if I’ve had an epiphany, and I can’t say that I’ve had one. It was just the total sum of [seeing] all the people who lived in that region and how they were affected by wars – seeing the young men and some of the other men and what it did to them and what it made them become in order to survive in that kind of a situation.

IPS: In your first tour, you served in Khanaqin, that’s an area where the population is mostly Kurds. Most of them would probably have positive feelings about the U.S. invasion. Did you feel any of that?

KB: From what I saw in the particular area I was in, we had a pretty good relationship with the people living there. It was kind of an odd situation because there were still people who could have caused serious bodily injury because just the type of situation it was. It was war. So you never know where anything is going to come from.

IPS: While you were over there you were in a relatively peaceful area, and there weren’t a lot of attacks on your unit. Given that, what’s pushed you to take this decision that caused you to spend this time behind bars?

KB: It’s war. There were mass graves [from Saddam Hussein’s 1988 ethnic cleansing campaign against the Kurds] in that area that I was in. So when you see a mass grave full of bodies of old men, and old women and children and then you realize that it was war that put them there – I’m not saying it’s us that put them there, but war put them there, and that’s something that I saw that made me think that war is not something we need to be doing in the modern world.

IPS: What would you say to someone who said, "That’s something that Saddam Hussein did against the Kurds, and what the U.S. military was doing was to make it right"?

KB: Well, I can tell you that I don’t think that war is the way to make it right, because war is what put them there in the first time. I don’t think it’s a good idea to continue to kill people with war when all that does is create more mass graves.

IPS: Now you’re out having not served your full court-martial, pending an appeal. What is your feeling about the appeal given your experiences with the military justice system so far?

KB: I talked to my military attorney, and he seemed to believe that we have a chance. I don’t know. It may be 50/50. I’ll have to wait to reserve judgment until I see how it turns out.

IPS: While you were in prison, Amnesty International called you a prisoner of conscience who should be released. While you were in prison, there were a number of other people who applied for conscientious objector status. Some have gotten it. Just last week there was a young gentleman, Mark Wilkerson, who turned himself in at Fort Hood after being AWOL for a year and a half. Do you believe there’s a trend? Or, based on your experiences in the military, do you believe we are likely to see just a few very isolated cases?

KB: Each individual is going to have to come to a conclusion about how to conduct their lives. There may be more that come out and apply for conscientious objection. They’re going to have to make their minds up themselves.

IPS: The nut of the military’s argument to the denial of your petition is that you signed up for the military and didn’t have any qualms about killing people for 10 years. Since then, you haven’t gone through a religious conversion or anything like that. What do you have to say about that?

KB: I guess I’m not your perfect conscientious objector who has heard angels singing and all the rest of that, but I can deal with reality. When I see the reality that war makes our young men and women do things they might not otherwise do and puts them in situations where killing is just – well, it’s kind of hard to say, really, because everybody looks at war in a certain way. It’s all glamorized on TV and in the movies and everything else, and you see all the stories.

Personally, I was influenced by stories from my family members. Growing up in the neighborhood that I did, [the military] was held in high regard. But once you see the reality of war up close and personal – people say you should know what this is, but sometimes it’s hard until you see it yourself. It’s hard to see because the way war is presented in the media is so different from the way it looks up close.

(Inter Press Service)