On September 23, 2005, a small, select group of U.S. Navy officers is scheduled to have an opportunity to help make a very important decision that will potentially affect the good order and discipline in the ranks of all our military Services. Specifically, these officers will recommend the type of administrative discharge to be given to a sailor who has claimed to be a conscientious objector to our ongoing global war on terrorism, and specifically our combat operations in Iraq.
I On December 6, 2004, Navy Petty Officer Pablo Paredes showed up at the San Diego pier where his amphibious assault ship, the USS Bonhomme Richard, was scheduled to deploy to the Persian Gulf, in a black tee-shirt with white letters that read, "Like a Cabinet Member, I resign." At Paredes' request, there were many media representatives at the pier to report his actions.
Paredes refused to board the ship, thereby missing his scheduled six month deployment, which is a violation of Article 87 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ): "Any person subject to this chapter who through neglect or design misses the movement of a ship, aircraft, or unit with which he is required in the course of duty to move shall be punished as a court martial may direct."
In missing his scheduled deployment as he planned and coordinated, Paredes' actions negatively affected many other service members and their families. The most unforgivable affect was to steal focus and attention away from the emotional deployment of over 3,000 sailors and Marines to a combat zone halfway around the world. As a f ire control technician on the Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile system, Paredes' expertise would be critical to the Bonhomme Richards' self-defense in the Arabian Gulf, which put the ship in the "threat arcs" of Iran 's dangerous Silkworm anti-ship missiles. Paredes' sudden absence meant either existing shipmates had to pull extra shifts to cover his duties, or another sailor from another ship had to get last-minute orders to deploy in Paredes' place. Either option meant that the ship was deployed to a combat zone in a degraded readiness status.
According to the December 6, 2004 San Diego Union-Tribune, Paredes was very open about his decision to miss the movement of his ship and even spoke to reporters the day before his public demonstration on the pier:
Paredes is a fire control technician manning a Sea Sparrow air defense missile system (Below) that guards against low flying, high speed antiship missiles like the Chinese-designed Silkwork anti-ship missle.
"I'm going to throw my ID in the water and say that I'm no longer part of the military," said Petty Officer Third Class Pablo Paredes, 23. "I want to make a statement, and I want it to be heard."
"He said he was young and naive when he joined the Navy and "never imagined, in a million years, we would go to war with somebody who had done nothing to us."
"He said he thought of smoking marijuana or breaking his leg with a heavy metal rod to try to get a discharge but decided instead to go public with his protest. He said he hopes doing so might inspire other sailors, soldiers and Marines to refuse to take part in the war."
"I know other people are feeling the same way I am, and I'm hoping more people will stand up," he said. "They can't throw us all in jail."
"Paredes, a weapons-control technician from the Bronx, N.Y., said he joined the Navy in 2000 and has 20 months left on his six-year enlistment. He said he was stationed previously in Japan and, until now, did not feel he had a direct role in the war, which he has opposed since its inception."
From researching about Paredes on the internet, I got over 900,000 Google hits. On one hit, (http://www.indepundit.com/archive2/2005/05/pablos_pity_par_1.html) I discovered that on May 10, 2005, at a public anti-war rally that attracted about 150 persons (including media representatives) in San Diego, Paredes was one of three featured speakers. Rally attendees were given 3x5 index cards on which to write questions for the three speakers. The cards were collected, screened, and then presented to the speakers for response. One card read, "Is there such a thing as a just war, and should the U.S. military be disbanded?" Paredes' response was: "There is no such thing as 'just war.' All militaries should be disbanded, and we should start with the world's largest [meaning the U.S. ?]."
Paredes was tried and convicted at a Special Court Martial on May 11, 2005. At his sentencing on May 12, Paredes read a statement he prepared prior to his trial. It read, in part:
"Your Honor, and to all present, I'd like to state first and foremost that it has never been my intent or motivation to create a mockery of the Navy or its judicial system. I do not consider military members adversaries. I consider myself in solidarity with all service members. It is this feeling of solidarity that was at the root of my actions...I believe as a member of the armed forces that, beyond having a duty to my Chain of Command and my President, I have a higher duty to my conscience and to the supreme law of the land. Both of these higher duties dictate that I must not participate in any way, hands-on or indirect, in the current aggression that has been unleashed on Iraq. In the past few months I have been continually asked if I regret my decision to refuse to board my ship and to do so publicly. I have spent hour upon hour reflecting on my decision, and I can tell you with every fiber of certitude that I possess that I feel in my heart I did the right thing...What I submit to you and the court is that I am convinced the current war is exactly that (illegal). So, if there's anything I can be guilty of, it is my beliefs. I am guilty of believing this war is illegal. I'm guilty of believing war in all forms is immoral and useless, and I am guilty of believing that as a service member I have a duty to refuse to participate in this war because it is illegal."
Paredes was sentenced to a reduction to the lowest rank, two months' restriction to a navy base, and three months of hard labor. The sentence fell short of the government prosecutors' recommendation of nine months' confinement, a bad-conduct discharge, reduction to seaman recruit, and forfeiture of pay and benefits. The maximum punishment for violating Article 87 of the UCMJ is a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for two years.
According to the May 13, 2005 San Diego Union -Tribune, "Navy spokesman Sam Samuelson said the guilty verdict sends a message that the Navy is intent on maintaining discipline in the ranks." Granted, this Special Court-Martial conviction, where the maximum permissible punishment for the offense was at least a year in prison, is considered a felony conviction. It will forever be a part of Paredes' record and will likely haunt him throughout his life. From that perspective, I concur with Mr. Samuelson.
However, I disagree that this Special Court-Martial guilty verdict sends a strong-enough that the Navy is intent on maintaining discipline in the ranks. The Navy could have taken the case to a General Court-Martial, which is the only court-martial that can impose the maximum punishment. A Special Court-Martial can only impose imprisonment up to a year, while a Summary Court-Martial can only impose imprisonment up to 30 days. The Navy settled on a Special Court-Martial.
The Navy judge (Lieutenant Commander Bob Klant) at Paredes' court-martial could have imposed a much harsher punishment, including imprisonment. The judge decided on a much lighter punishment than the maximum punishment allowed. From reading many different accounts of the court-martial proceedings, it appears to me that one of the factors heavily influencing the judge's sentencing decision was the prosecutor's inability to de-legitimize one of Paredes' main arguments that the war in Iraq was illegal. Following a difficult prosecution cross-examination of an international law expert, Judge Lieutenant Commander Klant said to the court: "I think the government has successfully proved that any seaman recruit has reasonable cause to believe that the wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq were illegal."
In sharp contrast to Mr. Samuelson's comments, a representative sampling of the comments and opinions I researched about the verdict and the imposed sentence certainly lead me to wonder about what the future holds for us in our global war on terrorism:
"...the sentence was an "affirmation" of the right of members of the military to speak out publicly on issues like the war in Iraq..."This is a huge victory. It recognizes, even if only by implication, the legitimacy of acting against an illegal war based on sincere and reasonable beliefs"...And most important, no jail time. That's a significant victory for war-resisters and the peace movement."
On September 23, 2005, an administrative separation board of officers is scheduled to convene to help decide the appropriate level of separation. Since Paredes' court martial did not result in a punitive discharge (i.e. bad conduct discharge or dishonorable discharge), the board must now meet to recommend one of three administrative discharges: honorable, general (under honorable conditions), or under other than honorable conditions.
In my opinion, the board's decision is really a choice of one. Other than honorable conditions discharges are warranted when the reason for separation is based upon a pattern of behavior that constitutes a significant departure from the conduct expected of members of the Military Services, or when the reason for separation is based upon one or more acts or omissions that constitute a significant departure from the conduct expected of members of the Military Services. Included among examples of factors that may be considered are acts or omissions that endanger the security of the United States or the health and welfare of other members of the Military Services, and deliberate acts or omissions that seriously endanger the health and safety of other persons.
From all that I have read and understand about Paredes' case, it is clear that he deserves an other than honorable discharge. I saw nothing about his military record and his anti-military actions that would lead me to seriously consider his military service as honorable.
I see a young man who willingly volunteered for the Navy, and willingly took all that the Navy offered him: a job, a paycheck, technical training, and all the benefits that come with life in the Navy (medical, commissary, etc.). I see someone who says he believes there is no just war and that all militaries should be disbanded, yet he was able to join the military and was content to be a military member until he was ordered to deploy to a combat zone. I see someone who says he is driven by deeply held beliefs, yet he uses the public media to share his personal convictions with the world. I see a man who says he is in solidarity with all military members, yet his selfish actions have deliberately hurt his fellow military members and their families during a time of war. Lastly, I see a man who claims that he was opposed to the war in Iraq since its inception, yet he only started speaking out about his opposition to it when he was ordered to participate in it.
Webster's Dictionary defines 'coward' as a person who lacks courage in facing danger, difficulty, opposition, pain, etc. Despite what his supporters claim he is, I see Pablo Paredes in that definition. I just hope the officers of the administrative separation board see him the same way and show that the Navy is willing to maintain discipline in its ranks