May 13, 2005 – Two members of the US armed services who refused to deploy with their units to Iraq, citing moral and legal opposition to the war, experienced different outcomes at the hands of military courts this week.
A Navy judge in San Diego, California on Thursday sentenced Pablo Paredes, a 23-year-old US Navy sailor, to three months of hard labor for refusing to board a military ship headed to Iraq last December. The judge also demoted Paredes, who was convicted Wednesday of "missing movement" with his unit, from petty officer third class to seaman recruit, the lowest rank in the Navy, which reduces his pay.
The sentence handed down by Navy Lieutenant Commander Robert Klant was not as harsh as the maximum penalty Paredes could have received: one year in prison, a bad conduct discharge and the loss of two-thirds of his pay. Paredes’ attorney, Jeremy Warren, said he was pleased with the lesser sentence.
Paredes, who refused to board the USS Bonhomme Richard on December 6, 2004, maintains that he was following both his military training and his conscience by refusing to participate in the US-led war, which he argued was illegal under international law.
The case of Army Sergeant Kevin Benderman, an Army mechanic facing charges similar to those brought against Paredes, took a far more surprising turn Wednesday when a military judge at Fort Stewart, Georgia ruled that previous proceedings against Benderman may have been biased against the soldier.
The judge, Colonel Stephen Henley, said the investigating officer who initially recommended a court martial for Benderman had compromised her impartiality in an e-mail to a military prosecutor. Henley ordered a new investigative hearing for Benderman, which will determine whether the soldier’s case will be sent to a new court martial or a lesser military court.
Army prosecutors moved ahead quickly with the new hearing Thursday, saying they’ll press for a new court martial on desertion charges, which could bring a sentence of seven years in prison. It will likely take more than two weeks for the hearing to conclude.
In another twist, prosecutors also added two counts of larceny against Benderman, accusing him of receiving combat pay and benefits while he was still in the US, the Associated Press reports. The maximum penalty for each charge is five years in prison, reduction in rank to private and a dishonorable discharge.
According to the AP, Captain Kristen Lewis, a Fort Stewart finance officer, suggested in court that an administrative error may have caused Benderman’s name to appear on a list of deployed soldiers who were slated to receive the extra pay.
Benderman's civilian defense attorney, William Casara, said Benderman had taken steps to stop the payments and that the Army had recovered most of the money. He also accused the Army of piling on charges in reaction against Judge Henley’s earlier ruling, the AP reports.
Benderman, who has served in the military for ten years and continues to work at Fort Stewart in an administrative capacity, says his experiences in Iraq during the 2003 US-led invasion turned him against the war and led him to question the morality of all wars.
In an online essay titled "Why I Refused a 2nd Deployment to Iraq," Benderman reports that on one occasion, commanders ordered his unit to fire on Iraqi children who were climbing a wall and throwing small rocks at US troops.
"The troop commander saw us telling the children to get down from the wall and he told everyone there that if the children came back at any time after that to shoot them if they were to climb back onto the wall," Benderman wrote in the piece.
In addition, Benderman says he witnessed numerous scenes of misery such as a young Iraqi girl with a badly burned arm crying in pain. "I asked the troop executive officer if we could stop and help the family," Benderman wrote, "and I was told that the medical supplies that we had were limited and that we may need them. I informed him that I would donate my share to that girl but we did not stop to help her."
Benderman says he also saw dogs feeding on corpses and Iraqi civilians drinking from mud puddles.
"A war, clearly and concisely, is the most stupid and base thing that humans can do to each other," Benderman told an audience at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta last Saturday.
Peredes used similar reasoning to explain his own refusal. "Since the war is illegal and has been characterized by repeated and consistent violations of international laws and treaties, of the Geneva Convention rules of war, and of generally accepted standards of human rights, I have a reasonable belief that my training required me to avoid participating in these crimes," Paredes said the day before his court martial began.
During his trial, Navy prosecutors blocked Paredes’ attempt to bring questions about the legality of the war into the courtroom.
Both Paredes and Benderman had requested legal discharges from the military as conscientious objectors. The Army dismissed Benderman’s request in April, saying only that he had not presented "convincing evidence" that he should be granted the tightly guarded status.
The military defines a conscientious objector as someone who opposes war in all forms for deeply held moral or religious reasons.
In an open letter, posted online shortly after Benderman’s request was denied, Monica Benderman, the sergeant’s wife, sharply criticized her husband’s senior commanders for what she considered the hasty manner in which they refused to support his request.
"I have been involved in the process of my husband’s coming to the difficult decision that he did since long before any of you even knew his name," Benderman wrote. "Which leads me to this question: How exactly is it that any of you could, in good conscience, make any recommendation whatsoever on my husband’s choice of conscience, having never really taken the time to get to know him?"
Benderman filed his request ten days before his unit was scheduled to depart for Iraq. He maintains that he never deserted his unit, and his military attorney told the AP that Benderman had been given a "time-out" from the unit’s departure flight so that he could think about his decision.
The Army maintains that Benderman was obligated to travel with his unit while officials processed his request.
A Navy officer reviewing Paredes’ conscientious objector request recommended Wednesday that it be denied.
Although called a coward by war supporters and several mainstream media pundits, Paredes has been praised by anti-war activists who have rallied to support both his and Benderman’s cases. In a statement released Tuesday during a day of action in support of the two men, paralyzed Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, author of the book Born on the 4th of July, said Paredes’ action "is an extremely courageous act of citizenship that every American should be proud of."
Speaking at a rally for Paredes held Tuesday in San Diego, Fernandez Suarez Del Solar, whose son was one of the first US marines killed in Iraq in 2003, also praised Paredes. "The true soldier defends the Constitution, life, liberty, and democracy, and does not exterminate a foreign land for economic gain," Del Solar said.