Voices of Conscience from Within the Ranks

By Susan Van Haitsma

Among the pieces of good advice delivered to University of Texas graduates by US Ambassador to Mexico, Tony Garza Jr. during his recent commencement address in Austin was to pay attention to “the voice of your own conscience.”

In the same issue of the Austin American-Statesman that related this excerpt from Ambassador Garza’s presentation was a paragraph in the Central Texas Digest section reporting the court martial of UT student and Army National Guard Specialist, Katherine Jashinski, who was sentenced to jail after her conscientious objector claim was denied at Fort Benning, GA.

Jashinski, age 23, is the first woman conscientious objector known to be jailed in the current war. In November 2005, when her conscientious objector claim had been pending for 18 months, Jashinski publicly declared her refusal to participate in weapons training at Ft. Benning in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan.

In her statement, she explained, “At age 19 I enlisted in the guard as a cook because I wanted to experience military life. When I enlisted I believed that killing was immoral, but also that war was an inevitable part of life and, therefore, an exception to the rule. After enlisting, I began the slow transformation into adulthood. Like many teenagers who leave their home for the first time, I went through a period of growth and soul searching. I encountered many new people and ideas that broadly expanded my narrow experiences. . I began to see a bigger picture of the world and I started to reevaluate everything that I had been taught about war as a child. I developed the belief that taking human life was wrong and war was no exception. I was then able to clarify who I am and what it is that I stand for.”

Jashinski concluded, “I am determined to be discharged as a conscientious objector, and while undergoing the appeals process, I will continue to follow orders that do not conflict with my conscience until my status has been resolved. I am prepared to accept the consequences of adhering to my beliefs. What characterizes a conscientious objector is their willingness to face adversity and uphold their values at any cost. We do this not because it is easy or popular, but because we are unable to do otherwise.”

A motion to reconsider Jashinski’s conscientious objector claim was denied in federal district court. At her court martial on May 23, she was sentenced to 120 days confinement after pleading guilty to a charge of “refusing to obey a legal order.” Having already served about half her sentence, she is scheduled to be released in July.

Before she was ordered to Ft. Benning, Jashinski became involved with a local affiliate of the GI Rights Hotline, a national network of people trained to answer calls from GIs seeking counsel about such issues as harassment, medical problems and discharge options. The local group has been holding regular study sessions since October 2005, and is set to begin taking calls soon. Jashinski says she plans to continue her involvement with the GI Rights Hotline when she returns to Austin.

One of her colleagues in the group says of Jashinski’s tenacity, “She refused to take the easy way out.she chose to follow the process the Army has for conscientious objectors. This long, long journey has been very hard and so few pursue this difficult route. I think it testifies to Katherine’s commitment to nonviolence and her steadfast convictions.”

In his commencement address, Ambassador Garza said, “It is people – the real, human connections we make – that matter most.” The sentiment echoes a statement made by Iraq war veteran and conscientious objector, Camilo Mejia, who, like Jashinski, was incarcerated when his CO claim was denied. “I am confined to a prison, but I feel, today more than ever, connected to all humanity,” Mejia wrote in 2005. “Behind these bars I sit a free man because I listened to a higher power, the voice of my conscience.”

To prepare for and fight wars, most of the world’s societies continue to recruit teenagers, whose belief systems are still in the formation process. Students hear a lot about freedom, yet conscience is a concept that is not usually found in school curriculum. Training our young people to follow orders rather than explore and develop morally and ethically is, I believe, harmful to our society and at its root, un-American.

Young people like Katherine Jashinski and Camilo Mejia, who have listened to the voice of conscience over the orders of the most intimidating institution in the world, have demonstrated what freedom really means.

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