Kudos to the Austin American-Statesman and AAS reporter, Jeremy Schwartz for the fair and accurate front-page story published Saturday about the GI coffee house, Under The Hood Cafe in Killeen.
I joined a group of people who gathered that afternoon for a vigil at the Bell County Correctional Institution (a new facility in the middle of nowhere) to express our support for Victor Agosto and Travis Bishop, who just began serving sentences for refusing to take part in US military operations in Afghanistan. Travis will be transferred to a military brig and Victor will serve out his sentence at the county jail.
Several of the people at the vigil had witnessed both of the recent court-martial proceedings that took place at Fort Hood. Alice Embree of Austin has written good accounts of both, posted on The Rag Blog. Dahr Jamail, who has authored a book about GI resistance, also witnessed Travis Bishop's trial on Friday and has written about it on Truthout. The Truthout posting includes Travis Bishop's full statement to the court, which I am copying below. I think it offers insight into the arbitrariness of the way the US army carries out its regulations regarding the right to conscientious objection. As Travis Bishop argues, if soldiers are not informed of their rights, their rights are abridged. Also disturbing is the description of the jury in Travis Bishop's trial, comprised of officers several ranks above his own. It was certainly not a "jury of his peers."
I am upset by the long sentence imposed on Travis Bishop. A jail sentence is not something I wish on anyone, but especially not on someone who takes a stand AGAINST killing. It's a backward ruling. I'm glad to learn that Bishop's attorney plans to take the case to higher courts.
Here is Travis Bishop's statement, made during his court-martial:
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Panel,
The prosecution raised the point that 'ignorance of the law is no excuse for the crime.' And here is proof of that. Case presented, verdict rendered, Sgt. Bishop is guilty. I have been convicted of the crimes that I committed, and I cannot argue that.
All I can say is this: If I had a Soldier that acted on impulse and did something illegal that I, his Sergeant, could have trained him on, there is no doubt in my mind that I would be in the First Sergeant's office the next morning explaining how I 'failed' the Soldier, leaving this Soldier untrained and, ultimately, unprepared.
Since the day I was promoted to this rank that is now in jeopardy, the idea of the Sergeant being responsible for even the individual actions of the Soldier has been drilled into me; especially on the issue of training your Soldier. My rank would be in jeopardy if my Soldier was doing things that I could have, according to my superiors, prevented, as long as I had taken an interest in my Soldier's life, and trained my Soldier as best as I possibly could.
But today, I stand alone. My actions and decisions, based on a seemingly unapproachable command structure, and a lack of training of my rights as a Soldier, remain defended by myself only. I have defense counsel, but the 'buck' stops with me and me alone, and I don't believe that this would be true in any other situation in the Army.
So why is that? Why is there such a stigma around the words? Conscientious Objection. To me, for the longest time, it was only an archaic term from somewhere back in the Vietnam Era; not something that applied to me, the modern Soldier. COs were the butt ends of jokes; they were punch lines. But why?
Maybe it's because since day one of anyone's career in the military, fierceness and bravado are pounded into every potential Soldier, and fear and doubt are viewed as weaknesses. This leaves Soldiers that feel as I feel in quite a predicament.
Does a Soldier who feels as I feel tell someone in their Command? Or a peer? And risk persecution and ridicule? I have never heard the word 'coward' used more than when I say the words conscientious objector around a group of Soldiers.
But what most Soldiers don't realize is that CO is not only a regulation, it's a right. To file for conscientious objector status is an individual right of every Soldier in the Army. This right ensures that Soldiers with the beliefs that I share have the opportunity to request to be discharged due to said beliefs. But, unlike other regulations in the military, this one remains unpublicized.
Ladies and gentlemen of the panel, there are many regulations that offer Soldiers individual rights that without these regulations, they might not ultimately have, even though the average Soldier has no idea these regulations and rights exist. And yet, regardless of knowledge of these regulations, they still fall under these rights given to them by the military.
My key point is this: AR 195-6 covers Army polygraph procedures. If a Soldier doesn't know their rights covered and protected under this regulation, does this give persons giving the polygraph test free reign to ask whatever they want? Just because they don't know the regulation?
If a Soldier doesn't know that, under AR 600-8-22, they are entitled to receive a Good Conduct Medal after 3 years of outstanding service, does that mean that it is ok to not award this Soldier?
If a Soldier doesn't have a clear understanding of AR 600-8-3, Unit Postal Operations, does that mean that the Soldier isn't entitled to receive mail in theaters of combat?
It is my firm belief that the Conscientious Objector regulation is not a regulation only, but an individual right of every Soldier, and that the responsibility to teach this regulation falls on Unit Command Teams. There are plenty of regulations that we do teach Units about, sometimes quarterly even. Why not this one?
In closing, I am not trying to say that I did not commit these crimes. The point I'm trying to convey is that, had I known that the process for applying to be a CO was still alive and well in the Army, I would have applied to be discharged as such a long time ago.
The truth is, as soon as I discovered that the process existed, I acted upon it. I left because I did not feel that I would have a sympathetic, understanding command structure to fully take my problems to, and also to give myself time to prepare for my CO application process, and the legal battle I'm currently fighting.
These are not excuses. These are explanations. My hope is that you truly treat them as such during your sentencing deliberations. Godspeed.
-- Travis Bishop
photo of Travis Bishop at Under The Hood Cafe, photo from www.underthehood.org