SAVANNAH, GA -- A mechanic with nine years in the Army, including a role in the assault on Baghdad, has refused to return to Iraq, claiming "you just don't know how bad it is."
Sgt. Kevin Benderman, 40, said he became morally opposed to war after seeing it firsthand during his first Iraq tour. Now he faces a possible court-martial after failing to deploy Friday with his unit.
"I told them that I refused deployment because I just couldn't go back over there," Benderman said Wednesday. "If I'm going to sit up there and tell everyone that I do not believe in war, why would I go back to a war zone?"
Lt. Col. Cliff Kent, a Fort Stewart spokesman, said Benderman was being considered absent without leave because he had orders to deploy to Iraq while the Army processed his conscientious objector claim.
"He was AWOL from the unit's movement," Kent said. "Beginning the application process for conscientious objection does not preclude you from deploying."
Benderman has been reassigned to a rear detachment unit at Fort Stewart while his case is processed, Kent said. Kent said the Army has not decided whether to bring charges against him.
Gaining objector status is a time-consuming process for soldiers, requiring meetings with counselors and a chaplain with lengthy paperwork reviewed far up the chain of command. Under military law, a person must be opposed to war in all forms to be considered a conscientious objector.
"If a person said, `I'm not opposed to war, but I'm opposed to the Iraq war,' they would not qualify," said Louis Hiken, an attorney with the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild.
Filing an objector claim does not prevent the Army from prosecuting soldiers for disobeying orders.
In May, a Fort Stewart court-martial sentenced Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia of the Florida National Guard to a year in prison for desertion despite his pending objector application. Mejia filed his claim after refusing to return to his unit in Iraq while home on leave.
In December, a soldier who re-enlisted with the Marines after becoming a Seventh-Day Adventist was jailed for refusing to pick up a gun. Cpl. Joel D. Klimkewicz, 24, of Birch Run, Michigan, told his superiors he was a conscientious objector and cited his new religious status. It was rejected in March 2004.
Benderman served in Iraq from March to September 2003 with the 4th Infantry Division based at Fort Hood, Texas. When he later transferred to the 3rd Infantry at Fort Stewart, Benderman said, he was already questioning the morality of the destruction he had witnessed.
"You can sit around your house and discuss this thing in abstract terms, but until you see and experience it for yourself, you just don't know how bad it is," he said. "How is it an honorable thing to teach a kid how to look through the sights of a rifle and kill another human being? War is the ultimate in violence and it is indiscriminate."
Asked why he waited until a week before his unit deployed to file notice of his objector claim, Benderman said, "It takes time for you to make sure that you 100 percent want to do things. This is not something you make a snap judgment on."