(By Brian MacQuarrie, Originally published in The Boston Globe, October 7 2006)
An anesthesiologist whose medical training was financed by the Army must be discharged from the Army Reserve as a conscientious objector, a federal judge ruled yesterday.
Dr. Mary Hanna, for whom the Army paid approximately $184,000 to attend the Tufts University School of Medicine, had been scheduled to report to active duty Tuesday at Fort Bliss, Texas. Last December, as she neared the end of her residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Hanna notified the Army that her renewed religious beliefs were now incompatible with military service.
An Army review board last month rejected Hanna's request after considering whether Hanna, a captain, objected to service in the armed forces on sincere religious grounds, or whether she sought to evade her commitment.
In yesterday's ruling, US Judge Nancy Gertner discounted as "irrelevant to impermissible to unsubstantiated" the conclusions of an Army chaplain who urged, in part, that Hanna's application be rejected because her Coptic Orthodox faith does not teach pacifism.
"I find that the Army improperly denied Hanna's application for CO status," Gertner wrote.
Court-ordered reversals of the conscientious objector review board are rare, said Louis Font, Hanna's attorney. Since the Iraq war began, no more than 31 conscientious objector applications have been approved in a calendar year, according to Army data.
"I am grateful that the court recognized that what the Army did was illegal," Font said. "She believes that her prayers have been answered."
US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan described Gertner's decision as "regrettable." In a statement, Sullivan said, "A doctor is a precious resource for the military. By granting Dr. Hanna's conscientious objector application, the court will cause the Army to lose not only the money it paid for her education, but also the eight years of time that her anesthesiology education took."
Hanna's attorney said his client will repay the government the money it spent on her education, plus interest.
Hanna, 30, of Somerville, had enlisted as an undergraduate at UCLA in 1997. She received an Army-paid scholarship to attend medical school, and in exchange she agreed to eight years of service four years of active duty and four years in the reserves.
As part of the application process, she declared that she was not a conscientious objector. In her application for objector status last December, Hanna said a revitalization of her Coptic Orthodox beliefs, which included pacifism, prevented her from fulfilling her commitment to the Army.
"I believe that it is my responsibility as a Christian to always strive to make this community a reality, in which people are bound by love, unity, and peace," Hanna wrote in the application. "I believe that I betray these moral and religious principles by participating in war in any way."
In her request, Hanna said she had no strong convictions about the war when she enlisted. However, Hanna said, her faith became revitalized after the 2003 death of her father, a former Egyptian military officer.
Font said Hanna had received an e-mail from a colonel that informed all Army anesthesiologists that they could expect to be deployed to Iraq for much-needed medical duty.
Gertner ruled that the Army review board had no "basis in fact" for rejecting Hanna's application on Sept. 15 by a 2-1 vote. The judge wrote that the board had relied heavily on an Army chaplain who concluded that the Coptic Orthodox Church endorses military service, and that Hanna was inconsistent because she worked at a hospital that performs abortions.
Despite the chaplain's conclusions, and a psychiatrist's report that described Hanna as insincere, the Army's initial investigating officer recommended that her application be approved. That recommendation was endorsed through several levels up the chain of command, including by a brigadier general, until it reached the review board, which has final say.
In voting against Hanna's application, the president of the review panel wrote: "Applicant has shown that she is a devout Coptic Christian but has failed to show that she sincerely meets the CO criteria. Her statements are logical but lack passion and sincerity. They appear as repetitious rather than personally held beliefs."
According to the chaplain assigned to the board, the statements of a priest that the Coptic Orthodox Church "does not teach pacifism leads me to believe that there is more to Capt. Hanna's position than merely religious conviction. Also, her timing is too convenient with the completion of her schooling and her entry" to active duty.
Gertner, however, wrote that "the evidence in the record does not show Hanna to be inconsistent or insincere in her beliefs."