March 26, 2010

Soldier of Conscience, Travis Bishop, Granted Clemency, Released

Sgt. Travis Bishop. (Photo: via Travis Bishop)

by: Dahr Jamail, t r u t h o u t | Report

Last August, Travis Bishop refused to serve in Afghanistan. Having filed for Conscientious Objector (CO) status, Bishop, based at Fort Hood, Texas, in the US Army's 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, was court-martialed and sentenced to 12 months in a military brig. He was released from the brig today.

Bishop served his time in Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility at Fort Lewis, Washington. This military brig is notorious for being a particularly difficult jail to serve time.

While in the brig, Bishop was recognized by Amnesty International and received support from hundreds of people from around the world who wrote letters of encouragement to him and wrote letters to Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, the commanding general of Fort Hood, asking for Travis to be released from prison.

During his court-martial at Fort Hood last August, Bishop was tried by the military for his stand against an occupation he believes is "illegal." He insisted that it would be unethical for him to deploy to support an occupation he opposed on both moral and legal grounds, thus his decision to file for CO status. A CO is someone who refuses to participate in combat based on religious or ethical grounds, and can be given an honorable discharge by the military.

In February, Bishop was granted a three-month reduction in his sentence by General Cone as a result of a successful clemency application.

In a letter to Truthout from prison, Bishop wrote this of his being granted clemency:
"Three months clemency. Wow. I am truly astonished. Great for me? Sure. Great for future resisters? Even more so. I cannot believe that I told the Army "No," refused to deploy, pleaded not guilty, and then indicted the entire system and blamed my command in court, and still merited clemency."
Bishop's case brings to light an important question for those serving in the US military today - that of the soldiers' ability, while serving, to follow their conscience during a time of war.

This topic was the focus of a recent conference, Truth Commission on Conscience in War, that took place March 21-22 at the Riverside Church in New York City.

The conference brought together veterans and national religious, academic and advocacy leaders to honor and protect freedom of conscience in the military. It featured testimony from recent veterans and national experts on the moral, psychological and legal dimensions of conscience and war.

According to a press release about the event, "The March 21 public hearing will launch the Commission's eight-month campaign to bring national attention to decisions of moral and religious conscience facing American service members, culminating with the Veterans Day release of the Commission's Final Report."

During his court-martial, Bishop told Truthout he was "opposed to all war," based on his religious beliefs, that "as a real Christian, I must be opposed to all violence, no matter what, because that is what Jesus taught."

The Truth Commission chair, Rev. Dr. Kaia Stern, who is also the director of the Pathways Home Project at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, announced before the commission:
"The United States of America is founded on principals of political and religious freedom. When we punish the soldier who heeds his or her moral compass, our democracy is in grave danger."
During the commission, Truthout spoke with Ian Slattery, who is a member of the planning committee for the commission, and is an associate producer of the nationally broadcast film "Soldiers of Conscience."
"From our point of view, Travis's story is indicative of something that is a broader issue, and that is that every service member has a conscience," Slattery explained to Truthout, "The meeting we had this week in New York, and in the private meetings to follow, we looked at stories across the board that service members are experiencing. His story is like some of the other CO's we've seen, who've had their claims denied or approved. These are folks who have chosen the harder road - to follow the call to conscience they've heard within themselves."

According to Slattery, Bishop's story is "a good example of service members' consciences not being honored."

One of the main points James Branum, Bishop's civilian lawyer, made in defense of Bishop during his court-martial was that Bishop had never been given proper training that would have informed him of the CO option.

"Travis was never told about his option of conscientious objector status," Branum, told Truthout last August.

Branum explained to Truthout. "If an enlisted soldier isn't informed that he has a right, then he effectively does not have that right. Just one to two days before he was set to deploy, in the midst of moral questions, he heard about CO status.

During his trial, Bishop's defense called two witnesses to the stand, Pfc. Anthony Sadoski and Specialist Michael Kern, both of whom were active-duty soldiers at Fort Hood who said that they, too, had never been informed that filing for CO status was an option.

The judge in Bishop's court-martial, Maj. Matthew McDonald, said that whether Bishop was notified or not about his right to file for CO status was not relevant to the case.

"If every soldier in the Army who disobeyed an order could claim it was because they weren't notified of conscientious objector status, we probably wouldn't have a military any more," he added.

Branum told Truthout at the time that he felt Major McDonald was attempting to establish a precedent with the trial, regardless of the outcome.
"We want to change the law, and I would argue that when soldiers are informed of their deployment, which is generally two to six months in advance, they should be giving training about CO status. I will argue that if you don't do the training, you can't deploy."
Questions like this and others are what Slattery and others at the Truth Commission hope to bring to the national stage. (READ MORE)

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