SCOTT FONTAINE; STAFF WRITER
Pvt. Travis Bishop left his jail cell at Joint Base Lewis-McChord last week with no job, a criminal conviction and just one regret.“I wish I had known about applying for a conscientious objector status a lot sooner,” said Bishop, a 26-year-old Louisville, Ky., native.
The former sergeant made headlines when he went absent without leave and refused to deploy to Afghanistan with his Fort Hood unit last year. Bishop cited his Christian beliefs in making the decision – a move that ultimately cost him 71/2 months of freedom and led international human-rights group Amnesty International to label him a prisoner of conscience.
He also became a rallying point for the local peace movement, with calls for his release increasing after Fort Lewis Lt. Ehren Watada – who refused to deploy to Iraq – was discharged last fall. Bishop spoke to supporters last weekend at Coffee Strong, a Lakewood resource center for war resisters and disaffected soldiers.
Bishop was released three months early after Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, the top commander at Fort Hood, granted Bishop’s request for clemency in February. Bishop is now effectively out of the Army. He retains the rank of private while an appeal to overturn his conviction and reverse the military’s plan for a bad-conduct discharge works its way through the military judicial system.
He now finds himself in the same place as countless others who left the military under less controversial circumstances: looking for a job, planning to enroll in college and adjusting to life without morning formations and buzz-cut requirements.
“I’m just trying to feel normal again,” Bishop said Tuesday in an interview with The News Tribune.
Bishop didn’t hold the same reservations about war when he enlisted in April 2004 or when he deployed to Iraq in 2006-07.
But as his unit prepared for an Afghanistan deployment early last year, he began asking himself tough questions.
“I had to get right with God in case I died or in case I had to kill someone,” he said.
He found answers in the Bible. Bishop, who was raised Baptist and considers himself a nondenominational Christian, came to believe Jesus preached a strict pacifist philosophy.
He felt trapped between his belief in the immorality of war and the duty to his friends to deploy with them. Some peace activists in Texas told him he could apply for conscientious-objector status. It was the first he’d heard of it outside the context of the Vietnam War, he said.
Bishop eventually made contact with James Branum, an Oklahoma-based lawyer, a day before the soldier was scheduled to fly to Afghanistan. Branum couldn’t advise him whether to go AWOL but did tell him the potential consequences, including jail time.
A sleepless night followed, and Bishop still struggled with the decision the morning before he was scheduled to leave.
“It’s easy to say, ‘I’m not going,’” he said. “But really, it’s hard – my best friend was going to go in my stead if I left.”
Bishop went AWOL hours before his flight left. He stayed with a friend while he filled out the conscientious-objector application. He turned himself into his company building a week later.
He was assigned a job with the company rear detachment. Almost everyone in his unit treated him professionally, he said, though small talk stopped with some people he once considered friends.
Authorities at Fort Hood turned down his request. He appealed to the Pentagon and was denied on that level as well.
Bishop blamed the timing of it, objecting as his unit prepared to go to war.
“I understand it hurt the validity of my claim,” he said. “I get that. But I didn’t know about CO status before then, and most of the military doesn’t know.”
His court-martial began in August, and he was found guilty and sentenced to a year in detention after a two-day trial. He arrived at the Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility in September.
He was held at Lewis-McChord’s 190-bed, medium-security facility because Fort Hood doesn’t have a detention center. Where a prisoner serves his sentence is based on the length of the sentence and the space available at various military lockups.
Branum alleged mistreatment of Bishop and other detainees at the facility during an October news conference – charges Lewis-McChord public affairs officials have denied.
Branum submitted a clemency application to Cone, Fort Hood’s top officer, in February. Among the issues the lawyer raised were problems with jurors at the court-martial (one fell asleep and another showed little attention, Branum said); an alleged lack of interest by Bishop’s unit in fairly hearing his conscientious-objector case, and the concerns raised about the Lewis-McChord detention center.
More than 500 people submitted letters to Fort Hood authorities – many after reading about Bishop’s case through Amnesty International. Two weeks after the packet was submitted, Cone reduced Bishop’s sentence by three months.
A spokesman for Cone, who is now serving in Iraq, issued a statement that said the commander reviewed documents by and on behalf of Bishop, recommendations of the staff judge advocate and the results of the trial.
The spokesman, Col. Ben Danner, declined to provide further explanation for why Cone granted clemency.
Since his release, Bishop is living with a friend in Seattle and “just trying to feel normal again.”
Branum is appealing his case because he wants a judge to rule that soldiers have the right to be briefed occasionally that they may apply for conscientious-objector status.“It should be just like all the other briefings about what benefits are available – not drinking and driving, all that stuff,” Branum said.
Bishop, meanwhile, is looking for work and plans to enroll in college. He is looking at moving to Austin, Texas, or perhaps Western Washington. He has talked to people enrolled at The Evergreen State College and likes what he hears.
Bishop, who plays guitar and sings country tunes, would like to study commercial music management.
He will continue to advocate for soldiers in the position he found himself in, but has no plans to be a professional protester.
“Activism is a part of my life, but it isn’t my life,” he said. “I have opinions and I’ll vocalize them, but activism won’t be a full-time job.”
-thanks to The News Tribune
Scott Fontaine: 253-597-8646