19 year-old Army private Tony Anderson was court martialed Monday and sentenced to 14 months of confinement and given a dishonorable discharge from the military for "desertion with intent to avoid hazardous duty" and "disobeying a lawful order." The young soldier refused to deploy to Iraq in July of this year on the grounds of conscientious objection to war.
"I know in my heart that it is wrong to willfully hurt or kill another human being. I simply cannot do it. I don't regret following my conscience," he said at his trial as he struggled to compose himself. "I know there must be consequences for my actions and I must accept this fact."
Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Colorado Springs peace organizations attended the Ft. Carson, Colorado court martial to show their support for the young soldier. Immediately after being sentenced, Anderson was placed in handcuffs and taken to the Colorado Springs Criminal Justice Center, where he will be held for a few weeks until he is moved to an army stockade.
The 14 month sentence is one of the longest given to a U.S. military serviceperson for refusing to fight in Iraq.
Who is Tony Anderson?
Hailing from the small city of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Anderson says that he was never very attracted to military life, but joined the service at the behest of his father, who had always regretted not joining the military himself. Once in the ranks, Anderson realized that he had made an unfortunate decision. During basic training, he found himself ethically opposed to taking a human life in a military conflict. He was disturbed by seeing soldiers on his base return from Iraq deeply traumatized from their experience in combat. "I didn't want to mess myself up for the rest of my life doing something I didn't want to do to begin with," he says.
Anderson had vague thoughts about filing for conscientious objector (C.O.) status but was discouraged from doing so by his commanding officers, who told him that it would not be possible for him to obtain, and even falsely informed him that he was "not the right religion." Anderson was led to believe that filing a C.O. application would be futile.
Anderson says that when he was ordered to deploy to Iraq on July first, he "freaked out." "What upset me most was the thought having to hurt or kill someone else," he said at his trial. "I know this may be hard to believe, but I never really thought about the idea of hurting or killing another human being before I joined the military. And then in training, it just didn't seem real. I knew I could be deployed someday but I just never gave it much thought. But when I got to Ft. Carson and heard that I would be going to Iraq, I realized that this was something I would have to resolve."
Just hours before boarding his flight, he went AWOL, eventually turning himself in after 22 days in hopes of diminishing the severity of his punishment. On his return, Anderson was again ordered to deploy to Iraq immediately. This time, he simply refused, and he says, "they haven't tried to deploy me since then because they realize I'm not going to go."
Objection to war
Anderson is not alone: a growing number of U.S. troops are refusing to fight in the so-called "war on terror." Army soldiers are resisting service at the highest rate since 1980, with an 80 percent increase in desertions, defined as absence for more than 30 days, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to the AP Press. Over 150 resisters have come out publicly against the war, and some cases, such as Lt. Ehren Watada, the first army officer to refuse to deploy to Iraq, have garnered widespread support and attention.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of active duty G.I.s have been joining Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), an organization comprised of over 1,200 U.S. veterans who have served since September 11, 2001. With 12 active duty members at Anderson's base alone, IVAW has taken a position of open support for G.I. resisters.
The rising number of troops who do not want to join the war face a challenge because conscientious objector status is difficult to obtain. C.O.s must prove that they are opposed to war in all forms, that their objection is based on "religious training and belief," which can include moral or ethical training, and that their beliefs are "sincere and deeply held." The application process is arduous and includes written applications, a series of examinations, and a hearing with an investigative officer. A decision on an application can take up to a year, and in the interim a C.O. application cannot forestall deployment to a combat zone, although it can help ensure that applicants are assigned duties which conflict as little as possible with C.O. convictions. Applicants face pressures to drop the issue from commanding officers, who "accidentally" lose the applications, impose informal punishments on C.O. applicants, or give false information about the process, as in the case of Anderson.
There has been no reliable study of the difficulty of obtaining C.O. status. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report finding that between 2002 and 2006, the Marine Corps and Coast Guard approved a third of C.O. applications, Army officials approved 55 percent, the Air Force approved 62 percent, and the Navy approved 84 percent. Critics claim, however, that these figures are grossly misrepresentative, as they do not factor in the number of potential applicants who are deterred at all stages of the process: anyone who did not make it entirely through the application process was not counted by the GAO.
Elizabeth Stinson, Director of the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center, urges potential applicants not to be deterred by the difficulty of obtaining C.O. status and counsels them to seek support from allies in the peace movement. "Applying for conscientious objector status is hard," she says. " Still, I would love to see the amount of conscientious objector applicants go up. For some, it can be the most liberating thing ever."
"There is a huge problem with people being discouraged by the chain of command from going through the process of applying for C.O. status," said Andrew Gorby, who was discharged from the Army in May 2007 as a conscientious objector and now works for the Center on Conscience and War, a counseling organization that works to defend the rights of conscientious objectors. "But being granted C.O. status is possible. It is a matter of getting in touch with a qualified C.O. counseling organization."
The young soldier, who remained in tears during much of the trial, did not have family present at his court martial. His mother sent a statement saying she does not agree with what her son did but believes that he was sincerely trying to follow his conscience.
Anderson's civilian lawyer, James Branum, expressed frustration with the lack of fair process for cases of conscience and said, "I am disappointed by how long Tony's sentence was. 14 months is on the high end, but it could have been worse. At least Tony was able to have his day in court."
At the trial, Tony read a statement explaining that he was sincerely trying to do the right. He told of being deterred from for conscientious objector status at every step along the way, leaving him with the impression that his only option was outright refusal. He expressed regret that he did not initially move forward with the conscientious objector application.
Anderson closed by saying, "I only ask that you remember that I was trying to do the right thing."
For more information about Tony Anderson's case, and to find out how you can donate to help cover his legal expenses, please visit: www.couragetoresist.org