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'My Gulf War': Remembering a Matter of Conscience
Published on Sunday, February 25, 2001 in the Boston Globe
'My Gulf War'
Remembering a Matter of Conscience
by Dan Fahey
The 10-year anniversary of the Gulf War has produced a slew of news story retrospectives. We've heard the voices of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who secured the victory. We've seen the images, again, of smart bombs hitting their marks. And the recent attacks by the United States and Britain on Iraqi radar sites remind us that, in many ways, the war has not ended.

But one story about the Gulf War has been missing: that of the men and women in uniform who became conscientious objectors.

Ten years ago this week, I quietly put the final touches on my application for conscientious objector status. My decision was prompted not by opposition to the Gulf War as such, but rather as a result of being trained to shoot nuclear missiles.

One month earlier, on the eve of Operation Desert Storm, I attended the Navy's Tomahawk cruise missile school. This school prepared me for my new job as missiles officer on the cruiser USS Arkansas.

Though the Arkansas was not scheduled to go to the Persian Gulf until May, when it did, I would be the officer in charge of firing the Tomahawks. At that time, the Navy still outfitted ships with nuclear-tipped Tomahawks, so I learned the extra procedures necessary to fire them.

While the war in the Gulf raged halfway around the world, a battle raged inside me. I had an obligation to serve in the Navy after receiving a four-year Navy scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, but I also had an obligation to my conscience, which was forcefully telling me that I could never fire a nuclear missile at anyone, regardless of the provocation or cause.

After an intense period of introspection, and with the assistance of a lawyer, I quietly prepared my application for discharge.

The official military definition of a conscientious objector is a person who is opposed to ''any and all'' war. In order to be recognized as a conscientious objector, a serviceman must write a lengthy explanation of how his beliefs have changed since he joined the military. He must be interviewed by a chaplain, undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and have his application scrutinized at a legal hearing. If his beliefs are judged to be sincere, he may be granted ''C.O. status,'' and offered an honorable discharge or a noncombat position.

Sadly, it is vastly easier to be discharged for stating you are gay than it is for stating your conscience prevents you from participating in a war.

Three months after I submitted my claim, with no answer in sight, my ship was dispatched to the Persian Gulf. By that time, the official war was over - it ended on Feb. 27, 10 years ago this Tuesday - and most of the 530,000 US troops had been sent home. Still, our military presence in the region remained strong, and I was part of it, although I was spared from firing any missiles, nuclear or otherwise.

Then my claim was approved, and I flew back home to San Francisco.

Because I was an officer, I had to resign my commission and agree to repay my ROTC scholarship. My freedom cost me $32,000; I made the final payment to the Navy four years ago, on March 22, 1997; that was the day my Gulf War ended. But the value of having a clear conscience has been priceless.

During the war, peace groups estimated that 2,500 military men and women sought conscientious objector status. A subsequent General Accounting Office investigation placed the number closer to 500, but this failed to include those who were jailed for refusing orders.

Recently, the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group, gathered a group of Gulf War conscientious objectors in Newton. Now in our early to mid-30s, we looked back on the decisions we had made 10 years ago, and how those decisions affected our lives. Many of those present were reservists who had publicly spoken out against the war in the months leading up to Desert Storm. Those who spoke out paid a high price: Most received jail sentences ranging from four to 30 months, and dishonorable discharges.

Others, like me, chose a silent path and simply pursued our claims through legal channels. In each case, however, we had to make the difficult decision to place our obligations to our consciences above our obligations to the military. We each faced a very different set of fears from our brothers and sisters who were fighting in the Gulf: How will my family and friends react to my decision? How will I deal with the rejection of the friends I have made among those I served with? Will my action affect me negatively later on in life?

We also had to draw upon a different kind of courage than those who participated in the fighting. Many of us were isolated and lonely, feeling as if we were the only person having doubts and acting upon them. We each faced varying degrees of harassment from our peers during the months it took for our claims to be processed.

But among those at the meeting, none regretted his decision to refuse to participate in the war. For each of us, acknowledging and acting upon our beliefs remains the most profound experience of our lives.

As for me, for a time I regretted having joined the Navy, but today I draw great strength from my experience. I do not regret the path that brought me to this place.

I worked as a paralegal helping homeless and low-income veterans obtain health care and disability benefits. I served on the board of directors of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a coalition of veterans groups dedicated to helping veterans who returned from the war with physical and mental health problems. I was also active with local posts of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and Veterans for Peace.

The other conscientious objectors I recently met have similar stories. One is a high school teacher working with emotionally disabled students. Another is active in his church. Yet another is a children's librarian. And one works with refugees seeking political asylum. Each of us, in our own way, continues to serve our country and our communities.

Over the past decade, we as a nation have discovered some of the myths of the war; it turns out that Iraqi soldiers did not pull babies from incubators, nor did Patriot missiles succeed in hitting any incoming Scuds.

Now me must learn how to honor the war's anniversary not only by recognizing the service of the men and women who dropped the bombs and drove the tanks, but also by acknowledging those who questioned its wisdom and, at their own personal cost, acted upon their beliefs.

Dan Fahey, who attends the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, is a Navy veteran and former board member of the National Gulf War Resource Center.


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