How exactly do you prove you are a conscientious objector?
I used to be able to time travel as a kid. At least, I could stare into the bathroom mirror and make a connection with my past self, my future self. We connected through the glass. We gained a sense of each other. The one thing we couldn’t do was send each other messages. If we had, I would have been able to head off the worst decision of my life: joining the Army National Guard in 2000.
It didn’t seem like a mistake at first. It seemed like the responsible, mature thing to do. I joined the Montana National Guard largely to pay for college, and I was a hopeless tomboy, always measuring myself against the guys. I was 17 years old.
A year later, watching the horrifying footage of the planes shearing through the towers, the people jumping to their deaths, the streets filled with ash, I thought the New York National Guard would get called up to help clean up the terrible mess. I was that naïve. That young.
I understood the mission in Afghanistan. Find the terrorists responsible. But as the war in Iraq unfolded I started regretting, doubting, and agonizing over my role in the military. I didn’t think I could fight in a war, especially a war built on lies and causing far more harm than good. But there was nothing I could do about it. I had signed a six-year contract with an organization that had its own justice system.
I managed to fly under the radar until 2004, when I was called up in support of Iraqi Freedom. By this time I was in California. The ROTC recruiter at my college told me I could join ROTC at the last minute and finish school. All I needed to do was sign a 3-year contract extension. Torn between two bad options, I joined ROTC.
Then, I discovered The Secret. Soldiers could be discharged if they proved they were conscientious objectors. The term described exactly what I’d become, but exactly what I thought the new, all-volunteer military didn’t tolerate. No one had ever told me I could voice my objection! Instead, there was the unspoken, collective threat that if I told anyone what I really thought of George W. Bush and his Unjust War I’d be in deep shit. A quick google search later and I was on the phone with the G.I. Rights Hotline, building my case.
How exactly do you prove you are a conscientious objector? It’s not easy, especially if you aren’t devoutly religious. My investigating officer went after me like an attack dog, ignoring my essay and letters of support and latching on to the fact I was being treated for depression. He claimed I enlisted fraudulently, demanded I pay back all the tuition assistance I'd ever received, and reminded me of my duty to commission as an officer. In the end, a San Francisco lawyer was ready to take on the federal government in court if the Army came after me.
This tumultuous time is detailed in my memoir, which came out May 21st. It’s called Breaking Cadence: One Woman’s War Against the War. But when I first started writing the book, I called it The Nine-Year Mistake. I made a mistake, like many 17 year olds do. But instead of choosing the wrong major or the wrong boy to date or the wrong car to buy, this mistake came with drastic consequences. Being seen as a traitor. Threat of federal prosecution. Shame and guilt underneath pride for standing up against what I saw as wrong.
As the Trump Administration beats the war drum, I am reminded, on a daily basis, how trapped and helpless I felt wearing the uniform while disagreeing wholeheartedly with what the government was doing. I don’t strain to time travel anymore, but I often wonder who is shipping out to boot camp right this very moment, who is being activated for another deployment, whose conscience is evolving from that of a child’s to an adult’s, how many soldiers believe they have no option but to obey bad orders.
As we raise our voices against armed conflicts, against American aggression abroad, let us also raise our collective voices against teenage recruitment, against the forfeiture of basic rights in the armed services, and against the easy path of apathy. As we celebrate the 4th of July let's remember that dissenting voices are often our most patriotic.
Rosa del Duca is a writer, teacher and musician. She grew up a tomboy in rural Montana, where she joined the Army National Guard at seventeen. During her six-year contract, she became not only a conscientious objector, but a feminist and unlikely rebel. That tumultuous time is the focus of her memoir, Breaking Cadence: One Woman's War Against the War, and her companion podcast, Breaking Cadence: Insights From a Modern-Day Conscientious Objector.