The Army should grant conscientious objector status to Michael Barnes, a Fort Richardson, Alaska-based paratrooper who had his request for that designation denied last year, US magistrate John D Roberts concluded yesterday.
In a 26-page recommendation to the US District Court, Roberts noted that the Army failed to show "any basis in fact" to support its decision to deny Barnes's petition to be honourably discharged due to his religious beliefs.
At the same time, the record includes strong reasons to justify the request, including Barnes's own testimony, supporting letters from fellow soldiers and the opinion of an Army chaplain, the judge said.
"The evidence is overwhelming that Barnes, a motivated infantryman, is a person who takes his religious beliefs seriously, and there is strong evidence that his decision was motivated by those beliefs," Roberts wrote.
The government has until Friday to object to the finding. Assistant federal prosecutor Richard Pomeroy was out of state yesterday and not available for comment. If the Justice Department appeals, a federal judge will hold a hearing in Anchorage this month. If the department doesn't appeal, the judge could simply sign off on Roberts's recommendation.
A native of Portland, Oregon, Barnes, 26, said he enlisted in the Army for five years in March 2005 with the idealistic goal of "defending freedom and helping other people in countries no one else would help".
That same year, however, while training for deployment to Iraq as part of the 4th Airborne Brigade Combat Team at Fort Richardson, he grew increasingly troubled by the tales he heard from soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, Barnes noted in a statement he filed with his application.
"These stories included making the locals [do] degrading things so they could laugh at them, abusing the kids and taking others lives with ease. ... I told myself it's not really like that - that's just a few soldiers' perceptions of their experience."
But after his unit landed in Kuwait, then Iraq, in the fall of 2006, he began to witness bad behaviour firsthand, Barnes said. He'd been transferred from an infantry company to the tactical operations centre, where he served as a radio-telephone operator. There he grew more depressed and began to spend long hours reading the Bible. He mourned the deaths of solders he knew.
"How would I justify to the Lord that participating in war is serving him?" Barnes wrote. "I cannot. War is evil, and nothing but evil comes from it. Many of those who participate in it lose their souls along the way."
In late December 2006, he filed for conscientious-objector status. An Army review board denied his request last September - concluding that Barnes "did not present clear and convincing evidence of his sincere objection to war."
Specifically, the Army investigator noted that Barnes didn't regularly attend chapel services and earlier expressed a desire to fight on the front lines. He also pointed out that Barnes never conveyed his misgivings about the war to leaders in his chain of command until late in 2006 - after one of his friends was killed, and he was reassigned to serve as a gunner at a forward operating base.
"I do not believe that [Private First Class] Barnes ... is sincerely opposed to participating in war," wrote the staff judge advocate on the panel.
But in his ruling yesterday, Roberts said the Army needed to buttress such opinions with "hard, reliable, provable facts" - and failed to do so.
"And there is evidence aplenty in support of Barnes's application," Roberts wrote, noting the statements by an Army chaplain and an Army psychologist who each vouched for Barnes's sincerity.
Anchorage attorney Sam Fortier, who accompanied Barnes in federal court on Monday, said he doesn't want his client to comment until the government responds.
"The cumulative evidence is that he was not acting - as the Army tried to argue - in a manipulative or an expedient fashion," Fortier said. "He was following his conscience to a much higher calling than whatever the Army was expecting him to do."
Only one in about 10,000 soldiers files a request to be recognized as a conscientious objector, according to Army records. About half of all requests are denied.
© 2008 McClatchy Newspapers