Fort Ritchie Muslim asks objector status WAR IN THE GULF


February 23, 1991|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

FORT RITCHIE -- While President Bush pondered the events in the Persian Gulf at Camp David, the issue was also on the mind of U.S. Army Spc. 4 Leonard Jackson, stationed just a few miles away at Fort Ritchie in rural northern Washington County.

The two men came to different conclusions.

While President Bush decided that U.S. military action in the Middle East would be fair and just, Specialist Jackson, a military policeman and a Muslim, did not want to be associated with any part of the war, and he filed for discharge from the Army as a conscientious objector.

"I morally object to the killing of a human being in a war situation," said Specialist Jackson, 29, who lives with his wife and two sons on the military base surrounded by mountains near the Pennsylvania border. "I am a Muslim, and as a Muslim, the taking of innocent lives is not in accordance with our religion."

Specialist Jackson had to face the reality that has come home to some who have enlisted in this all-volunteer army -- that the military exists primarily to do battle.

A native of Amityville, N.Y., Specialist Jackson said he enlisted four years ago out of a desperate need to support his family.

"Sometimes you have to turn to the Army to feed your family, or learn a skill or get an education," he said. "I had a 3-year-old son and a wife who was eight months' pregnant, and I had no money or prospects."

"Some people came in here based on all those commercials you would see and didn't read the fine print," he added.

To those who question his motives, Specialist Jackson says his decision was not a question of saving himself from the war. His unit, the 572nd Military Police Company, is not scheduled to be deployed, said Fort Ritchie spokesman Steve Blizard.

He said he would have filed the application no matter where the war was taking place.

Specialist Jackson's enlistment is up May 22, although President Bush has held up any discharges because of the war.

"I could have ridden it out, but in my conscience, I couldn't do that," he said. "I could have gotten an honorable discharge. Now, if my application for conscientious objector status is approved, I will be discharged without any benefits.

"Once the bombing started and I saw the devastation that we are responsible for, I had a hard time sleeping at night," he said. "Wearing this uniform is a constant reminder that I am part of this organization that is creating this destruction."

Specialist Jackson turned in his weapons, an M-16 rifle and a .45-caliber pistol, on the day the war started and filed his application for conscientious objector status. He was relieved of his police duties and put in a position that would not conflict with his beliefs -- "a janitor," he said.

The application goes through a process that will eventually wind up before the Department of the Army's Conscientious Objector Review Board, which makes a final decision, said Lt. Col. Greg Edlefsen, staff advocate judge at Fort Ritchie.

Included in that process are interviews with a military chaplain and a medical doctor, Colonel Edlefsen said. The case then gets assigned to an investigator, who makes a recommendation. A hearing is also held, in which the applicant is allowed to present evidence and witnesses to support his claim.

The application is then reviewed by the installation commander and forwarded to the review board, within about 90 days of the date the application was filed. If the application is granted, Specialist Jackson will be discharged. If not, he will be returned to his normal duties, Colonel Edlefsen said.

The key to the granting of conscientious objector status is the applicant's proof of sincerity. "The burden is on the individual to demonstrate the sincerity of his beliefs," Colonel Edlefsen said.

Last year, the Army received 87 conscientious objector applications, said Pentagon spokeswoman Karen Aguilar. Of those, 66 were approved, 13 disapproved and eight withdrawn.

Service-wide -- Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and the Coast Guard -- 210 applications were filed last year, with 141 approved, 46 disapproved and the remaining ones either withdrawn, pending or given non-combat status, meaning the applicant remains in the military in a non-combat position, she said.

No breakdown was available of how many of those applications were filed after the Persian Gulf crisis began, she said.

The position of Specialist Jackson, who says he has been a Muslim since 1976, appears to be on solid ground, said Dr. Ashraf Ghani, associate professor on anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University and an expert on the cultural and political dynamics of the Middle East.

"It's quite a well-formulated position that invokes ethics," he said. "One cannot fight against a community to which one belongs."

The position, he said, is well-founded, despite the fact that Muslims from countries such as Saudi Arabia are fighting in the war. "Those soldiers [from the Islamic nations] get a dispensation, which justifies the fight as being right," he said.

Specialist Jackson said he hadn't experienced much backlash from his colleagues, at least face to face. He has received some anonymous, harassing phone calls and notes in his mailbox with racial slurs.

But those attacks won't stop him from expressing his beliefs, he said. "I am a Muslim and a man of peace," he said. "This new world order will not be a world of peace unless we stop the violence."

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