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The soldiers who can no longer fight

By Jane O'Brien
BBC News, Washington

Conscientious objector Aidan Delgado
Aidan Delgado applied for conscientious objector status in 2003

Hundreds of US armed forces personnel have applied for conscientious objector status since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 - and military rights campaigners say the number is growing.

A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) showed that 425 servicemen and women made applications for CO (conscientious objector) status between 2002 and 2006.

Of these, 224 were approved but Bill Galvin of Washington's Center on Conscience and War says the real number of applications is far higher because many are not recorded.

"Nobody knows exactly how many applications there have been because people apply at the local level and statistics are only kept on the cases that actually make it to the national level. The real number is a lot higher.

"We also know that many people are conscientious objectors and find some other way to get out. They never apply for CO status because it's not the easiest way.

"Some of them go AWOL, some can prove medical reasons or some may challenge their enlistment agreements. So when people come to us we help them explore all their options."

Stress

The centre is part of the national GI Rights Hotline which offers practical help and counselling to military personnel seeking to leave the armed forces.

"I think there's also a link between the number of people dealing with issues of conscience and the rise in the number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)," says Mr Galvin.

"There's a lot of research to suggest that when people start asking such questions it contributes to high levels of PTSD."

Aidan Delgado as a soldier in Iraq
Overnight I became a 'bad' soldier
Aidan Delgado

Aidan Delgado, 24, attained CO status and was given an honourable discharge from the army after returning from deployment in Iraq.

He joined as an army reservist on the morning of 11 September 2001, unaware that the terrorist attacks had just taken place.

"I straddled exactly the period when being in the reserves was a joke to being a deeply serious commitment and you were certain to be deployed," he says.

He is now a law student at Washington's Georgetown University but, at the time he enlisted, he was doing badly at school, felt confused about his life and thought the army would offer him some structure and discipline.

During his basic training he became a Buddhist and began to question his role in the military.

Hostile reaction

"In 2003 I began the formal process of saying I can no longer participate in this. My commander's reaction was that I was trying to escape from the deployment (in Iraq) and overnight I became a 'bad' soldier."

Some of his comrades also reacted badly and Mr Delgado says he was attacked by a member of his unit when it became known he was applying for CO status.

"To have the knowledge that members of your unit disliked you so much that they would assault you was really tough.

"I think they were hostile not because of what I was doing but because of the implicit judgement on them. It was as if I was saying 'I'm too moral to do what you do' or that I was looking down on them because they were a bad person."

The number (of objections) is small relative to the Armed Forces' total force of approximately 2.3 million service members
GAO report

It took 18 months for his application to go through, a process that involved a lot of paperwork, written essays about his beliefs and interviews with army staff culminating in a three-hour session with an investigating officer.

"He asked me if I would have fought Hitler. My first response was that I don't think you can project yourself into another historical person's shoes - it's paradoxical.

"But my other answer was that certainly I would have resisted Hitler. I might have done so in 1929 or diplomatically in 1932 and that part of my pacifism and part of being a conscientious objector is preventing the need for violence."

The report from the Government Accountability Office says the US Armed Forces recognise that service members religious, ethical or moral beliefs can change after joining the military and lead to a conscientious objection to war.

Exposure to combat or the death of a family member can trigger the change, it says.

But it also notes: "Despite the possible understatement in the number of applications for conscientious objector status, this number is small relative to the Armed Forces' total force of approximately 2.3 million service members."

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