Opposing war as 'a crime' leads to jail--for desertion Doctor in Reserves refused her call-up

August 11, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

FORT LEONARD WOOD, MO. — FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo.-- It was not a fashionable crime, the offense of Capt. Yolanda Huet-Vaughn.

The war was too popular. Too many others had gone to fight it, too many families had been disrupted. Too many yellow ribbons hung.

So even the 40-year-old Army Reserve doctor was not surprised when she was convicted last week of desertion. It was not a forgiving time in which to refuse to go to war, or to brand the whole thing as immoral.

On Friday, a military jury sentenced Dr. Huet-Vaughn to 2 1/2 years in prison. She was taken away to begin her term at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

"She deserves everything she gets and more," spat a GI lugging a 40-pound pack during exercises in the hot sun near the camp courthouse. "I went, and it cost me my marriage. I didn't refuse."

In another time, another war, Dr. Huet-Vaughn's case might have been a rallying cause. She has all the credentials. Articulate. Personable. The mother of three; her blond-curled children clung to her uniform skirt during breaks in the court-martial last week. -- Her civilian patients trooped into court to laud a woman devoted to treating the poor.

Even the government could not fault her sincerity. Her resume as peace activist was solid. When she said it was on moral grounds that she refused to report with her hospital unit to Fort Riley, Kan., on Dec. 31 for service in the gulf, the Army could not dispute it.

Instead, it said her motives were irrelevant.

"Her beliefs and her values are not a defense to desertion," said the military prosecutor, Capt. David Harney. "No Army permits its soldiers to decide which orders apply to them and which do not. When the time came to answer the call to duty, she refused."

"There was so much that the jury was not allowed to hear," Dr. Huet-Vaughn lamented outside court. "Even military people should have the right to dissent, the right to decide what they consider illegal and immoral."

Her lawyers had wanted to make this a virtual trial of the war. They asked to subpoena a long list of witnesses, starting with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the U.S. forces in the gulf. The requests were stricken by the government. Col. Richard Russell, the military judge, disallowed attempts by Dr. Huet-Vaughn to explain why she did what she did.

"We are not here to litigate whether the bombing of Baghdad was legal or not," he said.

Unless they listened to the evening television news, where the defendant tried to explain her motives in 30-second sound bites, the Army jurors were left largely to wonder what brought this woman to say no.

It was a decision reached, for a variety of reasons, by many other soldiers. As the parade music dies and the soldiers resume interrupted lives, some resisters still face the consequences of refusing to go.

Many were quietly let out of the service. Others were released with a wrist slap and blemished discharge papers. Still others, like Dr. Huet-Vaughn, must contemplate their choice from inside a prison cell.

Military officials say 313 conscientious-objector applications reached the Pentagon during the war months. But the bulk of the applications -- an unknown number, according to the Pentagon -- is still on the desks of field commanders.

The War Resisters League of New York said a survey of its counselors puts the number of conscientious objectors at about 2,500.

That still is "a small number," given the half-million-strong Operation Desert Storm force, acknowledges the Rev. L. William Yolton, director of the National Inter-Religious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors in Washington.

Other servicemen ignored their orders to report for service. Some of those who simply went AWOL -- absent without leave -- got more lenient treatment than those who applied for conscientious objector status, the anti-war groups complain.

"We think the military is acting out of spite," said Michael Marsh of the War Resisters League.

"I just think how lucky I was to be kicked out when I was," said Stephanie Atkinson, 24. The Army Reserve postal clerk from Illinois was released with an other-than-honorable discharge because she balked at reporting for service in the gulf as the buildup was just beginning.

When the war heated up, the military services began treating resisters more harshly, said Ms. Atkinson, who now counsels servicemen for the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia.

Some resisters were forcibly taken to Saudi Arabia. A Baltimore Marine, Lance Cpl. Daniel A. Gillis, caused what his attorney describes as "a riot" in Camp LeJeune, N.C., when officers tried to force him on a bus for transfer to the gulf. He is now serving a 12-month sentence. At least 25 other Marines at Camp LeJeune have received sentences from eight to 18 months in prison.

"We are turning back to the treatment of World War I, when [resisters] were held in solitary confinement, shanghaied and threatened with the death penalty," said Mr. Yolton.

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