If I could serve our country without being expected to kill people, I would never have been a conscientious objector. I had enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2000, two months after my 18th birthday, to be a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. After the Twin Towers fell, I learned that my unit would not be sent to "fight terrorists" until after my contract expired. So I re-enlisted for four more years. In January 2004 I was deployed from Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
For 14 months, I went on innumerable combat patrols through civilian population centers. In all that time, I never listened to my conscience.
There is nothing like the pain that comes with the realization that you are capable of killing another human being without question for people you have never met and have no reason to trust. What kind of person did that make me?
When I came to that realization, I had been on the battlefield for 11 months and had seen my share of intense combat. I had smelled death, tasted the acrid carbon powder of the gun smoke, and heard the cries of mothers outliving their children. Sitting outside a hospital in Sammarra in October 2004, little did those mothers know that I wept with them, safely hidden from my platoon members who would have seen the raw emotion as a liability. I’d seen bodies outnumber available bags. They were draped over one another in an exterior storage room.
To be human is to be fully capable of the most awful acts of evil and the most audacious acts of charity. I both found and lost my humanity while I wore the uniform of a United States soldier. As painful as that has been, I would not trade the experience for anything. I would not be the man I am today had I not learned the lessons I did wearing the uniform of our country.