Can an Army Volunteer Be a CO?

Who’s eligible to be a conscientious objector?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamty

Camilo Mejia, a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant who refuses to return to Iraq, has been told to report today to a base in Georgia or risk arrest. He returned to the United States on a two-week furlough in October and went into hiding until this week, when he turned himself in at another base. Mejia is now seeking conscientious objector status. How can you be a conscientious objector if you joined the Army voluntarily?

If you want to make the case for CO status after joining up, you have to show that you’ve had a change of heart while in the military. This could come as early as basic training (as anyone who’s seen Full Metal Jacket will appreciate). Or it could come years later, after, say, an epiphany while on patrol in Baghdad. But that might take more explaining.

Of course, most people associate CO status with a draft, since that involves forced induction into the military. Perhaps that’s because the number of CO applications exploded during the Vietnam War—the last time Americans faced a draft. (According to the Center on Conscience & War, 171,000 people who stood to be drafted were granted CO status in that conflict; many instead performed civilian public service stateside. The group estimates that 37,000 people were granted CO status in WWII.)

But even in today’s all-volunteer force, it’s still possible to request and be granted CO status, even if you’ve served for many years. Possible, but extremely uncommon.

One issue is that the would-be CO must object to “participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms.” You can’t, for example, say you find the war in Iraq immoral, but think the conflict in Afghanistan is justified.

Another criterion is that your objection must be based on religious training and belief, although that doesn’t mean you have to belong to a pacifist order like the Quakers, or any order at all. According to a Department of Defense directive on the matter, the objection can be simply a moral or ethical belief, as long as it’s held “with the strength and devotion of traditional religious conviction.”

Once a soldier in the Army applies for CO status, a decision can take many months. The evidence of a change of heart (which can include a religious conversion) is examined by, among others, a chaplain and a psychiatrist. If the soldier is willing to accept a non-combat job, his local commander can approve the request. But if he’s seeking an honorable discharge, the Pentagon has to give its OK.

According to an Army spokeswoman, 31 of 60 CO applications were approved last year, and two out of five have been granted so far this year. However, because Sgt. Mejia left his unit in October, he could face a court martial for desertion. And that infraction could make it much more difficult to win CO status.

Next question?

Explainer thanks J.E. McNeil of the Center on Conscience & War, and U.S. Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd.