This article, by Justin Ellis, was posted to Common Dreams.org, January 3, 2005
Perry O'Brien went to war.
Then he said no.
America's campaign against the spread of terrorism has been divisive over the last three years, beginning with the invasion of Afghanistan, the hunt for Osama bin Laden and later the war in Iraq.
It has split families and friends, become fuel for media pundits and classroom discussion, and made soldiers out of another generation.
Perry O'Brien, 22, has the kind of background typical of soldiers in today's military: He's from a good family, is full of ideas and wants to serve his country.
In another way he's not so typical. Three years into a four-year enlistment in the Army, after a tour of duty in Afghanistan, he said no. Perry O'Brien became a conscientious objector.
"I had trouble justifying what we were doing in Afghanistan," he said recently.
He's back after being honorably discharged from the Army. Now life has returned to some kind of normal for the Peaks Island native. He is one of a relatively small group of people to ever ask for - and receive - conscientious-objector status.
It's more than the term used during the days of the military draft. It's a label that essentially means you do not believe in the use of force or even training for combat.
The simple history of O'Brien's life goes like this: Young boy grows up on the island, gets home-schooled for several years, meets future fiancee and enters the University of Southern Maine to study philosophy. But in 2001, things got complicated. He wanted a change.
So he enlisted in the Army to become a medic. It was two weeks before Sept. 11.
It's important to remember that life in the Army was much different prior to the terrorist attacks. O'Brien never believed he would be near the front lines of any combat.
"I wanted to expand myself in the most radical way possible," he said with a pause. "I think it was a naive plan . . . an instinctual decision."
Over the next two years he would cycle between basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., to medic training in Texas, until he was stationed with a unit in 2002. In January 2003 he was deployed to Afghanistan as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Working in an old airport in the city of Kandahar, southwest of the Afghan capital, Kabul, O'Brien spent his days treating everyday illnesses as well as trauma injuries among Afghan and U.S. troops. The unit also traveled into rural areas, where they set up shop in the countryside to give villagers medicine and do simple dental work.
"At the time it was like the Peace Corps with guns," he said. "That's what it felt like."
But soon his questions began coming.
For every raid on suspect farmers and Taliban sympathizers, every bombing campaign, it seemed the Army had to try even harder to build better friendships with Afghans, he said. They would hold more free clinics and give away boxes and boxes of school books and crayons to kids.
Even O'Brien's responsibilities as a medic began to take a different perspective. "You didn't focus on the meaning, you just did the job," he said. "You get into a mode of doing your job, when working on people felt like working on machines."
It didn't help that he was receiving patients each day, some children, who may have been innocent victims caught in the middle of fighting.
And just like a small crack in an ice pond, his questions began to grow. A world of black and white started to bleed gray.
For answers he started to talk with the unit's chaplain, and fell back on philosophy. He read and re-read books on Eastern religions, studied ideas on the value of life and taking life.
O'Brien knew that being a member of the Army would be difficult both mentally and physically, but he never anticipated it would make him question his fundamental values.
His unit returned to the states in June, where O'Brien took on the difficult task of getting conscientious-objector status from the Army.
According to Maj. Elizabeth Robbins with the U.S. Army office of public affairs, the number of requests for conscientious-objector status has declined since Sept. 11.
There are two types of conscientious-objector designations: one where you are removed from combat and put in another specialty field; or, as in O'Brien's case, discharged from the service entirely.
In 2001 there were nine approved. Last year there were 31 approved and 29 denied.
The process takes time and leads all the way to the Pentagon, where the final decision is made. Officers carefully check a person's history as far back as high school. Typically he or she will have shown signs either of support or questioning the Army, Robbins said.
Though the Army knows a change of mind is possible while in combat, it's also not common among the ranks. Now new recruits sign a statement saying they are not conscientious objectors. "It's extremely rare," said Robbins. "We're a large army with roughly upwards of a half million (soldiers) on active duty."
In O'Brien's case the process took five months. He returned home Nov. 22, just in time for Thanksgiving. O'Brien said he feels fortunate, if not lucky, to have been granted conscientious-objector status.
When it comes down to it, everyone has questions, O'Brien says. He knows not everyone will come to the same conclusions he did. He also knows that some people will disagree with his decision to leave the Army, and that's something he respects.
Juggling conflicting ideas about war, diplomacy and peace while fighting overseas is not easy, to say the least. He knows he is lucky to have been in war, survived and returned home in one piece.
Now he wants to work with groups like Veterans for Peace and the Maine People's Alliance to help those in or outside the Army who may be in a situation like his. "I don't just want to sit around and have conversations about these things," he said.
He plans to head back to college in the fall, studying political science and philosophy at Cornell University in New York.
In the meantime, adjusting to life back home hasn't been too hard. For all his adventures and experience, one thing still makes him like many other 22-year-olds in Maine.