Pfc. Katherine Jashinski dresses in uniform every day, but instead of drilling for war with fellow soldiers, she spends her time on an Army post in Georgia sweeping floors, scrubbing bathrooms and wondering whether she's headed for jail.
The 23-year-old soldier from Wautoma, a member of the Texas National Guard, refuses to pick up a gun. She disobeyed orders to attend weapons training and refused to deploy to Afghanistan with her unit, moves the military considers criminal.
Jashinski does not want to go to Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere with the Army. She says she disagrees with war of any sort, could never kill anyone, and wants out of her six-year contract.
"I thought about going to Canada, but I don't feel like I should have to leave the country for something like this," Jashinski said. "I don't feel like I should have to run from my government. I should face them instead."
Jashinski is among a growing number of military members seeking to shed their uniforms and cut loose from their commitments to fight on behalf of the United States. They're seeking all sorts of outs including medical, psychological, pregnancy and dependency discharges, and more and more like Jashinski are applying for conscientious objector status.
Some call them cowards, noting that nobody forced them to join. Others champion their courage. As war rages in the Middle East, some troops who volunteered for military service are sparking controversy by now espousing peace amid a monolithic muscle machine dependent on soldiers following orders.
Disagreement over the numbers
Conscientious objectors constitute a minuscule number of the military's 1.4 million active-duty members, officials say.
"The numbers have gone up marginally," said Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Pamela Hart. "But we have a lot more individuals on active duty."
In all, 110 troops sought honorable discharges from the military through conscientious objector applications in 2005, more than double the number in 2001, according to figures supplied by the service branches.
Those defending objectors say the numbers are much higher.
J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience & War, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit that has supported the rights of conscientious objectors since the 1940s, said her organization alone helped nearly 100 troops file the complex paperwork in 2005.
"That's ridiculous," McNeil said of the military's figures. "The numbers don't jibe. I know of at least another 20 groups that do what I do, plus people do it on their own or with the help of local ministers."
McNeil said she hears from military members whose sergeants tear up their paperwork and of many cases where the paperwork is repeatedly lost.
Military officials acknowledge that some applications may have been lost, but they said they had not heard of any such cases, or of any where commanders destroyed an application.
"We would take that very seriously," Hart said.
The Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, a non-profit organization that counsels service members on ways to get out of the military, says calls to its GI Rights Hotline have soared in recent years, to 32,000 in 2005 from 12,000 in 2000. Two to three calls a month come from Wisconsin National Guard members, hotline counselors said.
Gaining objector status is difficult
Before refusing orders to report to weapons training, Jashinski applied for discharge as a conscientious objector. Her request was denied. For the military to approve a conscientious objector application, service members must show they hold a "firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms," for deeply held moral, religious or ethical beliefs.
It's a cumbersome task, considering that they willfully joined an organization that has combat as one of its main missions.
Unlike the draft days of the Vietnam War, troops today must prove they came to their beliefs after joining the military. Their reasons may not stem from philosophical or political beliefs. They cannot agree with certain wars and object to others, under the military's definition. And to demonstrate their sincerity, aside from a lengthy application, troops seeking discharges as conscientious objectors must interview with a chaplain, military investigator, and a psychiatrist.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Mike Tonn from Fond du Lac served more than three years in the Navy before requesting a conscientious objector discharge in 2004. Tonn was 18 when he joined in July of 2000 "as a way to get out of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin," for the adventure and college money. It was pre-9-11 and he never thought he'd go to war.
Tonn said he realized he couldn't carry out the Navy's mission after the captain of the USS Lake Champlain asked him to give a speech to sailors on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
"He (King) pleaded to American soldiers they should get out of the war in Vietnam and it clicked with me," Tonn said. "I believed in what Martin Luther King said. . . . I realized I'm not going to walk down the street and kill someone."
Tonn's request was approved about four months later and he received an honorable discharge, but not before investigators tried to "trap" him with aggressive and passion-provoking questions, he said.
Tonn sought advice from an anti-war group before applying and interviewing and was prepared to answer the tough questions, he said.
Tonn said a few shipmates called him names but there was no serious backlash from superiors or civilians once he returned to Wisconsin. He now is an active member of Peace-Out and advises other troops on the conscientious objector process. He is attending college in Portland, Ore.
Objectors face disapproval back home
Vietnam War veteran Frank Wilke said he fought for the rights of Tonn and others to have freedoms like choosing to be a conscientious objector to war, but he disapproves of people who choose such options.
"I defend their right to do that," said Wilke, who's active in the Wisconsin chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "At the same time, I also have the right not to associate with people who do that.
"When you do something like that, you're not only hurting your country, but hurting your friends and family."
Jashinski knows about that. Her decision to seek a conscientious objector discharge has strained her relationship with her family, she said.
"I really can't bring it up to my dad any longer," she said. "I feel like we'll never agree. And some of the things he says make me pretty angry."
Cindy Jashinski, Katherine's aunt, said she and her husband disagreed with Katherine's decision.
"We feel she committed to this. She enlisted. She should finish her time," Cindy Jashinski said.
Jashinski joined the Texas National Guard in 2002 after moving to Texas to attend college. She was 19 and wanted to "experience as much as she could," and to help pay for college. She said she was raised Christian and believed killing was wrong but that it was sometimes necessary.
"I was prepared to go to war," she said.
But her feelings and beliefs began to change over the next two years as she watched from her TV and computer the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and as she traveled the world and talked to citizens of other nations. She began to read history and philosophy and began questioning the morality of all wars, she said. By the time she received activation orders in April 2004 and was told she'd be going to Afghanistan, she said she had decided that taking a human life was wrong, no matter what.
"One of the most important things a person can do is honor their word and keep their honor that way," she said. "But I realized I'm going to have to live with it for the rest of my life and that it's more important to follow my conscience than to fulfill a contract I signed when I was 19 and didn't know any better."
Jashinski filed a civil suit in federal court in San Antonio after her conscientious objector application was denied. The outcome of that case is pending. Meanwhile Jashinski has been demoted from specialist to private first class. She is confined to a 2-acre compound on Fort Benning while she awaits a court martial - similar to a civilian court trial - from the military. She likely faces up to one year in prison if found guilty of "missing movement" with her unit.
Lynn Burch, Jashinski's mom, said she was disappointed when her daughter told her she was planning to apply for a discharge.
"I couldn't believe it," Burch said. "I thought 'What happened?'
"I just said 'Oh boy. You made a commitment here.' I was disappointed because my views are different. I back President Bush and the decisions he's made," she said.
Burch, a steel worker, said she hasn't heard any nasty comments about her daughter in Wautoma or in Redgranite, where she works.
"I guess in a way I have to back her. She's my daughter and I love her dearly. She's a very courageous young woman."