I stood outside the courthouse at Fort Stewart, Ga., with Camilo Mejia, his mother Maritza, Aiden Delgado, other supporters, news reporters, cameramen, and military police as we waited for Sgt. Kevin Benderman to be escorted out of the courthouse and into a van waiting to transport him to jail after he was sentenced by a military judge to 15 months confinement for violation of Art. 87 of the UCMJ, "Missing Movement by Design."
It struck me that this is what the Iraq war had all come down to at that moment in time – locking up an honorable soldier and man of conscience for declaring that he would participate in the insanity of war no more.
Since at least January of this year, Sgt. Kevin Benderman has been telling the press and public audiences what he saw and experienced in Iraq that led to his decision to file a request for conscientious objector status, which he began researching and working on in July 2004. Among other things, he has openly written and stated several times to the news media and public audiences that while serving in Iraq, his then-commander told members of his unit to shoot Iraqi children who had been throwing small pebbles at the American soldiers from a wall if they started doing so again.
Now I have never claimed to be a crack Army detective – though I was indeed an Army detective – but I do believe that shooting small children for throwing pebbles at grown men would constitute a war crime. Where is the investigation?
Sgt. Benderman's 10 years of honorable military service apparently gave him no credibility in the eyes of the military in telling about the atrocities of war and an illegal order to shoot children for throwing pebbles.
I can relate to this lack of credibility. My own eight years of prior military service in the '70s and '80s serving in the Military Police and CID gave me no particular credibility – nor power to do anything – when I publicly proclaimed at a military veterans' protest against the war, held across from the White House in Washington, D.C., in March 2003, that George Bush is a war criminal.
Where is the investigation into the violations committed by the Bush administration in initiating and waging this illegal war?
A uniformed military policeman was standing outside the courtroom dangling a pair of handcuffs in his hands, as though waiting for Sgt. Benderman to come out to handcuff him.
Where are the handcuffs waiting for George Bush and his accomplices?
My eight years of prior military service in the Military Police and CID not only gave me no credibility or credentials in alleging that George Bush is a war criminal for initiating a war of aggression against a crippled nation that had not attacked, it has also provided me with no credentials to stop the U.S. Army court system from locking up an honorable man of conscience for standing up and declaring his refusal to participate in war any further.
As Camilo Mejia – who was court-martialed in the very same courtroom in May 2004, receiving a sentence of 12 months confinement – wrote in his article on the Benderman court martial of July 28, 2005, the focus of this trial was on a 45-minute meeting between Kevin Benderman and his battalion sergeant major on Friday, Jan. 7, 2005, as his unit was about to redeploy to Iraq. Kevin testified that at the end of that meeting, the battalion sergeant major had released him for the weekend to go home and work on his conscientious objector packet. The battalion sergeant major disputed this and testified that he had told Kevin to go home and eat dinner with his wife and report back for deployment to Iraq in one hour.
It was brought out by the defense that some of the details that the battalion sergeant major had testified to had changed from one hearing to the next; however, to the best of what I could tell, this was apparently considered to be either irrelevant, or was simply overridden by the prosecution's argument that after spending 10 years in the Army, Sgt. Benderman should have known that the battalion sergeant major had no authority to release him from deployment to Iraq – that could only have come from his company commander. And the company commander testified that everyone in the unit was ordered to deploy to Iraq unless they were specifically told through their proper chain of command that they were released from such deployment. Perhaps to the judge, that was the clincher, along with the questioning of Kevin's wife, Monica, about the title of an article written by Kevin, "Why I Refused a Second Deployment to Iraq," which is linked to on their own Web site.
Yet the content of the aforementioned article was not discussed in the court martial, which included, in addition to witnessing some tragic effects of war, seeing "command elements ordering the unit to perform all types of actions that are considered unsafe to soldiers" and the order to shoot small Iraqi children if they went back up on the wall and started throwing pebbles at them again. There were several other things that I noted were not explored or covered in the court martial:
Kevin's sincerity as a conscientious objector, evidence of which is widely available, including in the form of a videotape of a speech that he gave at Georgia Tech in Atlanta on May 7, 2005.
The failure on the part of Sgt. Benderman's company commander to follow the Army regulation in handling Sgt. Benderman's request for conscientious objector status (indeed, Kevin's commander openly admitted at an earlier hearing that he was not even familiar with the Army regulation covering conscientious objection).
The amicus brief filed on behalf of Kevin Benderman that concludes that the new United States military doctrine of preemptive war is a war crime under the Nuremberg Principles and requires the court to consider whether objection to "crime against peace" or aggressive war is a defense in this case.
Testimony on behalf of Sgt. Benderman by an additional witness who wished to testify during the pre-sentencing, but was still en route to Georgia from Nevada at the time of the court martial.
All of the above, combined with my own memories of being a soldier and CID special agent stationed at Ft. Stewart, Ga., so many years ago, were jumbled together in my mind as I stood outside the courthouse waiting for Kevin to come out.
In my memories of military service, I directly associate the location of Ft. Stewart with my former role as a CID special agent, as that's where I was sent after completing CID school, and it was my last duty station prior to leaving the military to be a full-time mother at home. I also associate Ft. Stewart with the pain of suffering the murder of my best friend – also a CID agent – by her husband, who was the commander of an infantry unit there. With these memories close to the surface of my consciousness, I stood surveying this whole situation of Kevin Benderman about to be hauled off to jail – my vision of peace and justice clear and steady, but my insides wrenching.
Kevin walked out of the courthouse – amazingly, not handcuffed (a credit to whomever was placed in supervision over him) – and stoically climbed into the van waiting to transport him to jail.
Still in a daze over the harsh sentence meted out, cell phone in hand with Eric Garris of Antiwar.com on the line (not quite sure what I had all said to him), I felt very much at a loss. I had the urge to scream at Kevin's escorts, "Stop! CID! Up against the wall!" Of course, I wasn't quite so nuts as to think that would work. I found myself calling out to Kevin instead, "We love you, Kevin!" Other supporters immediately followed with their own words of support and encouragement, and the last voice I heard came from beside me – a clear, strong female voice resonating out, "I love you, Kevin," just as the van doors were about to close. I turned around and found Kevin's wife, Monica, standing beside me. She had come out of the courthouse with Kevin. I hugged her and told her I was sorry – knowing it could never be enough – as the van carrying her husband drove away.
The press conference with Monica was to commence shortly thereafter and Camilo Mejia and I left for the Savannah airport to pick up retired Col. James "Bo" Gritz, who had flown in from Nevada at his own expense, expecting to testify on behalf of Kevin during the pre-sentencing, which had previously been thought would be held the next day. When Camilo and I met Col. Bo at the airport and broke the news to him that the court martial was already over and Kevin was sentenced to 15 months confinement, he was… a little upset.
During the drive back to Hinesville, Col. Bo – who I had learned is the nation's most highly decorated Special Forces soldier – told Camilo and me that he had given one of his Legion of Merit medals that he had earned in the military to Michael New, an American soldier who had refused military orders to put on the uniform of the United Nations based on his oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution and his belief in the sovereignty of the United States. Col. Bo said he supposed he would give his other Legion of Merit to Kevin.
I read in a news article the next day that Cpt. Gary Rowley, the handsome but stern and sneering company commander who had been flown in from Iraq to testify against Kevin, was quoted as saying, "He got what he deserved. He's doing 15 months in prison. We're serving 12 months in Iraq."
I have to admit that Cpt. Rowley does have a point there and, in that respect, Kevin has definitely got the sweeter deal. How much better to serve 15 months in prison as a free man of conscience than to serve 12 months in Iraq fighting an illegal war.