The Short Story of a Long Road: Why I Left the Army as a Conscientious Objector

As you enter this life, 

I pray you depart, 

With a wicker face

and a brand new heart. 

-U2 in Love and Peace or Else


I’m writing this blogpost on the heels of some big news. After nearly two years of work, waiting, revision, and more waiting I have finally been granted discharge from the US Army as a Conscientious Objector.

I want to share the short version of the story. But I want to be really careful.

This post will not affirm a partisan leaning–right or left.

But that is sort of the point.

You see, the reason that I applied for this status and followed through with the two years of constant uncertainty was much more akin to a whisper or a hint…a guess if you like.

I’ve been on a spiritual journey, a quest of sorts since about the time I started college. I didn’t get into West Point my first go round, so I accepted a slot in the prep school where I was able to work on my deficiencies and reapply the year after.

I was accepted into the class of 2016 and I cannot overemphasize how much I was in love  with West Point, the Army, and going to war for my country.

Stirring in the background was something like a ringing in my ears. I’ve heard a guy named Kent Dobson talk about his own spiritual journey and discussed this phenomenon–this intuition and knowledge that comes from a deep quiet place but you can’t explain. I think the Quakers call it the still, small voice or the inward teacher, Dobson calls it a ringing in the ear.

It was quiet at first and manageable. I was young, confused, and locked deep inside a system of belief that dangerously incorporated faith, authority, America, and a military chain of command. Untangling my spiritual life wasn’t going to be easy.

The biggest barrier was my own pride to be honest, my own ego. I had developed a reputation for being sort of spiritual, for being someone that others looked to for guidance and direction. For me to abandon all that I had grown up into (spiritually and professionally) would be costly and require me to give up the clout I had established for myself.

I’ve best seen this process explained by a Russian Artillery Officer who, at the end of WWII was rounded up and sent to a gulag in order to meet a quota of officers arrested by the secret police. He recounts from his time in the Gulag:

“It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how a human being becomes good. In the intoxication of youthful success I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that…The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties–but right through every human heart and through all human hearts.”

I came by this quote long after I had submitted my packet (it was posted in a tweet by a pastor named Brian Zahnd, thanks Brain!) but it mirrored what had been to this point only a mysterious whisper, a quiet steady pull away from my youthful religion.

“In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good.”

This paradox revealed more to me about human nature and reality than possibly anything else ever had.

The harder I tried to do good, serve god, and be on the right side of everything the more susceptible I made myself to manipulation, to self-service, and ultimately to bolstering my own ego.

So much of my life to this point–going to West Point, being active in the Christian community, becoming an Officer in the Army–was about seeking to be good largely for my own ultimate gain.

I was–and in many respects still am–the definition of a hypocrite. Line me up with Nicodemus and the other Pharisees and Sadducees that wrestle Jesus ultimately to his death while flirting with his truth.

For so long my life was about becoming a good person, ensuring my own sort of spiritual certainty and cleanliness. I had absolutely no bearing (and again, still only have very little) about what it means to be human, what God really is, and what Jesus meant.

My dissent into dissension came at an emotional crossroads. One day while seeing a movie with friends, I was confronted with a wave of emotion. It was actually Hacksaw Ridge, the story of a conscientious objector. I spent most of the film judging the main character, thinking he was overly moralistic and didn’t understand the real world (remember, I was “well supplied with systematic arguments.”) But something was working in me at such a deep level it’s as if my conscious mind wasn’t even aware of it.

As the first combat scene broke out in the film I fell into a wave of emotions, like a jumper off a bridge hoping to breathe his last breath.

Splat!

The game just changed.

I was sick to my stomach, I got up to go throw up. It wasn’t about the movie, something deep inside me broke.

Playing sports growing up I’ve been standing next to many an athlete while his hamstring snapped, his tibia broke, or achellies tore. It’s like some bone in my soul just popped.

I felt like my true self–something deeper than any of the images I had constructed to shout at the world who I thought I was–had broken through the surface for the first time. As I bent over the theater toilet to vomit, instead of getting sick years of confusion, repressed compassion, and running away bubbled to the surface.

I wept uncontrollably and collapsed to my knees in surrender.

The game just changed, my eyes were opened, though I didn’t understand what the hell was going on. I just wept and wept and let go.

The words came up from within me so deep I dared never visit there before, and honestly I’m not sure if I have since.

“Please don’t make me do this, God. I can’t kill anyone, this isn’t right. This isn’t me. This is wrong. Please, I’m stuck, what can I do.”

I was scared shitless.

In my evangelicalism I thought “the enemy” had attacked me as they say. It was dark, brooding, violent, and uncertain. I had been taught my whole life this was what they call spiritual warfare.

This particular weekend my wife was out of town for a sister’s getaway. So I stayed up late, petrified, anxious, and without peace. The only problem was, this wasn’t some satan attacking me, this was something good, true, and right breaking out of me though I had long repressed it.

In retrospect, I think it’s what some call the dark night of the soul, the first step of genuine spiritual initiation. The beginning of the end for a sense of “I” and personal morality.

It wasn’t to be silenced. So I laid face down on the floor again in surrender.

I wept again and again, in fear, in uncertainty, in brokenness.

It wasn’t a voice from the sky, it wasn’t some profound meeting of an angelic being, it was a knowledge so deep and pure it was almost hot to the touch. Steady and persistent like a train on the tracks. There was no going back. Nothing would ever be the same.

I began bargaining and wrestling, I knew that I needed to get out of the Army and refuse to participate in war. But I was stuck, as a graduate of West Point I owed the Army 8 years of service.

So I caved, I slowly began ignoring what I knew was truth in me and looked for a way out. I opened up a file with the Chaplain’s Corps. I spoke with a recruiter and told him of my situation. I had found a friend who, a year earlier, had suspended his contract to go to seminary and re-enter the army as a Chaplain.

I could do the same thing! So I did what I was taught to do, I took charge, made a plan, mitigated risks, and brought it together.

Only, this was the plan of my ego, the best of both worlds. Save face, keep the ego inflated, and don’t risk losing that free college.

My next step in the process was getting interviewed by a chaplain.

But, it seems fate had plans to box me out. I wasn’t going to get away with this.

I scheduled an appointment with him, told him my story, told him my plans.

After listening to me for hours, he looked at me and said:

“You know Matt. I think you should just get out. And that’s okay.”

I looked at him dumbfounded. “I came here so you could check off the box and get me into the Chaplain Corps, not get advice, I can’t do that,” is what I was thinking.

He went on to say, “There’s a long and honorable tradition in the military of folks like you choosing Conscientious Objection.”

My mind began flashing between images of Hacksaw Ridge and the judgement I had pronounced on the main character, and hippies too busy smoking pot to serve their country.

I was at first indignant, “that’s not me!” My ego screamed.

But at the same time, something else was happening, he just gave me permission to believe what I knew was true since I broke down at the movie theater: it’s okay to get out.

Leading up to the movie incident, I had been in training event after training event where I was just slaughtering people.

10 casualties here, 30 casualties there, 50 here, 100 there. Apparently you don’t even have to be that confident to kill lots of people.

And we watched a film of four men sitting in a village, confirmed terrorist they say. The Artillery Officer coordinated the fire and

Boom!

Three of them disappeared, just gone.

One lone man remains, though without a leg now, trying to crawl and hobble away.

Boom!

We got him too.

And my classmates cheered.

Got his ass, can’t wait to get me some of that.

Hell yeah!

This wasn’t right. These were people, sitting in a circle unsuspecting and boom.

I don’t care about the circumstance, something in me said this wasn’t right no matter how you spin it.

But the Army had me by my finances, so I repressed it, along with the countless people I was sure to kill in my future duties.

This incident would remind me of the stories I would hear from many of the senior officers I would encounter, everything from slaughtering the enemy like animals and loving it, to failed suicides sparked from the children killed as collateral damage.

What foreign policy objective was worth any of this?

And forget my own feelings, what about those people, over there, who without court or right to speedy trial, or children and civilians caught in-between a long-misunderstood feud were murdered? What of the thousands of men wrongly detained for years, and families separated by a brutish force with an at best confusing agenda.

The US is claiming responsibility for 500 civilian deaths in 2017 alone, though many watchdog groups calculate a much higher number.

Furthermore, I meditate day in and day out on the teachings of Jesus and find that he espouses exclusively a singular way to respond with enemies and that is with love, compassion, and radical inaction! His ethic is so far beyond nonviolence, it’s almost non-responsive. It’s absurd.

This ethic says, not only will I die for my friends, but I will die for enemies. I’m convinced walking down the road to the cross Jesus wasn’t trying to satisfy an angry God, He was loving his enemy even unto death.

The pharisees just like me. The soldiers just like me.

If you ever wonder what you would have done during the time of Jesus, ask yourself what you are doing now.

I would have been a Roman soldier; just following orders.

In a moment I knew the chaplain was right. I had to leave.

So I did my homework, prepared for the worst, and met with my commander to start the process.

It took two years of writing (my initial packet was nearly 200 pages), the help of some incredible people ( huge thank you to CPT Kyle and Hollman, Eric, Ellen, Julio, Brian, Drew and Alex just to name a few ), lots of interviews and tons of waiting in uncertainty, but my packet has finally been approved.

And this whole time, my wife stood by my side. She had absolutely no idea what she was getting into, but she saw in my eyes that this was real, this was right, this was serious. She strapped in and buckled down and counseled me through an incredible roller coaster of an emotional journey.

She too has been put through the ringer with constant uncertainty for our young family (our daughter is just over a year and was born in the middle of this!) doing her best to trust that we’d make it through this alright. For months it seemed we would never hear back, and that if we did it would be to pack up and start over, that my packet would be denied.

She didn’t ask for any of this, but remained affirming and constant through it all. (And on certain days, we’d trade places while she opened up about her own fears and worries!)

But finally after two years, word came. I was approved.

It was bitter sweet because they slapped a 100K+ price-tag on my education that I owed back to the Federal Government.

But it’s worth every penny.

I knew the risks–and so did my wife–but we both experienced a reality that we couldn’t ignore. Such a small price to pay to express solidarity with peace, with victims of war and displacement, with families without sons and daughters, in this country and others, because of war. This debt is a small daily reminder of our choice.

And so we go with only a few days left on active duty.

I think of the song Israel sang when led out of Egypt that Jews continue to sing at passover,

“Had He brought all, brought all of us, brought all of us out from Egypt, then it would have been enough”

So much has changed in me and I would love to write and explore more of it later. But for now, as I am leaving my Egypt, I look back and know, it is enough.

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