"I now feel free to live my life in accordance with my beliefs," said Chris Harrison, 31, of Mount Kisco, who received an honorable discharge from the Army as a CO in December. "I didn't do it to dodge a bullet. I reached a point where knowing what a negative influence the military has on our society, I couldn't do it anymore."
Harrison joined Perry O'Brien, a 22-year-old veteran from Peaks Island, Maine, who served a tour as an airborne Army medic in Afghanistan.
The pair set up the Web site www.peace-out.com, which offers information and online counseling. O'Brien gained an honorable discharge as a CO in November.
Both men stressed their respect for American troops and said the best way they could support them was by educating those who sought alternatives to combat on how to go about it.
They said many were not aware they had legal options once they came to the conclusion that war was unethical.
The Web site provides a step-by-step guide to the complex CO application process and a list to connect prospective applicants with those who went through it.
The premise is that many young people enlist without giving much thought to how they feel about war.
Harrison, a member of the anti-war group Military Families Speak Out, accepted a ROTC scholarship in 1992 to ease the financial burden of college on his parents and to gain his independence.
"I believed in the ideals I had been taught in school about what this country stands for — freedom, democracy, self-determination," said Harrison, who received a commission as a second lieutenant after graduating from Drexel University in Philadelphia as a civil engineer in 1996.
Harrison joined the Pennsylvania National Guard and later transferred to a unit in Kingston after getting a job in Manhattan.
As time went on, Harrison became active in environmental issues through the Sierra Club, an interest fueled by his childhood in rural Pennsylvania.
He discovered left-leaning scholars, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky and historian Howard Zinn.
His reading sparked questions on issues he had never reflected on before.
"My beliefs didn't change all of a sudden," he said. "But I started to question my service. It was a very difficult process because I was trying to straddle two worlds — the strong bonds I had formed with people in the military and my conscience that no longer saw war as glorified, but as the living hell it really is."
The Sept. 11 attacks were the turning point.
A colleague who lost a brother in the World Trade Center made a remark that resonates to this day.
"He told me, 'They can bomb whoever they want, but it won't do a thing to bring my brother back,' " said Harrison, who now attends night classes to prepare to become a history teacher. "It struck me that our bombs would fall on the homes of innocent people — of mothers and children and grandparents."
The solution, it seemed to him, was to pursue Osama Bin Laden and other perpetrators as an international criminal matter, while tackling world poverty, which breeds support for terrorism.
It took Harrison a year to begin assembling his case as a conscientious objector.
He filed his application in December 2002.
Throughout the process, Harrison said, he continued to put in 40 hours a month as an Army officer.
Now when counseling, Harrison urges others filing for conscientious objector status to perform their duties in the military "to the very best of their ability even if they are feeling very down."
Copyright 2005 The Journal News, a Gannett Co. Inc.