After you read this fact sheet, please call the Military Counseling Network or, if stationed CONUS, the GI Rights Hotline (877-447-4487) to talk over your options with a counselor.
Definition of Conscientious Objection
Current military policy has defined conscientious objection as the following: A firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief.” (DOD 1300.6) This definition has been further clarified by both military policy and our legal system. Here’s what some of the words or phrases found in the above definition really mean:
The term “religious” also includes moral and ethical beliefs that have the same force in a person’s life as traditional religious beliefs. The term “religious” does not include essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views.
• “Training and/or Belief”
“Training and/or belief” refers to the source of conviction or, more simply, the experiences and values you hold that do not allow you to participate in military service or the bearing of arms. This may come, for example, from a lifetime of involvement in an organized religion that teaches active love for the enemy (i.e. not killing) or from books, movies, or TV shows. It could also arise from experiences serving in the military or from other life experiences.
This term highlights the personal nature of the claim. Thus a CO claim cannot be an abstract critique of war. It indicates that your set of personal values is the reason you are requesting discharge or reassignment, not that you think war is illogical or bad policy, for example.
• “In War”
The term “In War” does not mean that a CO has to object to the use of violence by a police force or for self-defense, although many COs do hold nonviolent convictions. Additionally, it is important to note the difference between force and violence. Punching someone is an example of violent force, while pulling a child away from a moving car is an example of nonviolent force.
• “In Any Form”
This means that you must be opposed to all real war at this point in time. Those who object to a particular war would be called “selective conscientious objectors” and they do not qualify as conscientious objectors under current US law. If you believe in “Just War Theory”, held by many religious traditions, then to be a conscientious objector under the current legal definition you would have to apply the theory and conclude that there is no just war.
The Guide for COs in the Military
The Center on Conscience & War’s document The Guide for COs in the Military (605 KB) can help you decide whether to apply for CO status. The document also provides a detailed description of the application process.
The Written Application
Those applying for CO status are required to answer essay questions about their life and beliefs, and it’s probably more writing than you normally do. Remember: you’re trying to convince the military to release you after they’ve spent thousands of dollars training you. You will need to write more than seven paragraphs to convince them! There are over 20 questions you will be expected to answer. Many of them are not very relevant. There are six questions about your beliefs that get to the heart of your CO application. They can be summarized by these three questions:
- What do you believe (about participation in war)?
- How did your beliefs develop (what events, factors influenced you to believe this)?
- How does your life reflect those beliefs (or how do your beliefs influence decisions or choices you make daily)?
You should also submit letters of support from people who know you and can testify to your sincerity or to the truthfulness of what you have said in your written application.
Once you submit your written CO application, you will have 3 interviews:
- One with a psychiatrist (or mental health specialist) to determine if you are fit to go through the CO discharge process. They will be looking to see if your application is really the result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or some other emotional or mental issue.
- One with a military chaplain (even if you’re not religious) who is supposed to look at the basis of your claim, and make some determination about your sincerity.
- One with an investigating officer (IO) who will get all of the written material you have submitted in support of your claim, reports from the chaplain and psychiatrist, and then conduct an investigation. At the hearing, the IO is supposed to ask questions about your beliefs, things you said in your written application, and anything else that seems appropriate based on what was discovered in the investigation.
The IO will write a report describing the interview and other information s/he has discovered. The IO will also make a recommendation as to whether or not your application should be approved. At that point you will be able to see the report and recommendations and have the opportunity to submit a rebuttal. The entire packet goes up the chain of command, ultimately getting to Headquarters where a CO review board will decide whether to approve or reject your application.
While your claim is pending
The waiting is the hardest part! It takes months, sometimes more than a year. During this time you remain a member of the military, and you are required to follow all legal orders or you may face disciplinary action. The regulations do say that the command should accommodate your beliefs as much as possible. But, it is up to the command to reassign you and their primary concern is the military mission – not accommodating your conscience. How others in your unit treat you while your claim is pending varies widely. Some COs receive quite a bit of respect for taking a conscientious and unpopular stand, while others experience harassment and ostricization.
If your application is approved, you will be discharged (or reclassified as a non-combatant if that’s what you applied for). Normally COs get an honorable discharge, the characterization is based on your military service record. You would also be eligible for all veterans benefits you earned, based on your length of service and characterization of discharge. If your application is denied, a counselor with the GI Rights Network can help you figure out what to do next.