This biography, by Tyler Zabel, was posted to the IVAW website
I joined the Illinois National Guard when I was 17 years old, living in a very small town and still a junior in high school with just a simple signature from my father. At the time I was a very patriotic and nationalistic young man. I wanted to protect my country and defend my family from the "evil" terrorists that threatened our so-called freedom. I was also full of anger and pain, something many kids feel at that age. I was looking for an escape, an outlet for my rage and frustration, and a way to get ahead in life. The military promised me education, adventure, and excitement I knew I would never find on a college campus.
Basic training wasn't at all what I had thought it would be, as I callously screamed out brutal chants about slaughtering kids in schoolyards and laughing about the way napalm would stick to their skin. We must’ve screamed, “Kill!” hundreds and hundreds of times to get into our heads that this was our purpose as soldiers. But I played along, acting the part of the good soldier, nodding my head and doing what I was told, though the feeling in my gut told me something was wrong.
When I finished basic training I moved to Chicago in search of work and new opportunities, getting much more than I bargained for. I came across perspectives and views I had never seen before, learning so much more about my own country's history than I ever had in school. Eventually, I would meet up with Mercedes, a war survivor from El Salvador, another country my government had helped to ruthlessly oppress. Once I came to see war from a child's eyes, I slowly began to question some of the orders I was being given. After some time and introspection I decided to become a conscientious objector (CO), knowing that I could not kill in the name of American imperialism, or a mutant form of democracy, some ancient idea of nationalism, and definitely not for George fucking Bush and his oil junkie friends.
Resources on the CO process are scarce, so I started to do research on my own. I was immediately discouraged from applying for the process from the beginning. The chaplain-to-be, Lt. Todd, told me that I didn't even qualify for CO because my objection was not moral AND religious. The CO process is shrouded in secrecy in order to keep more soldiers from finding a more honorable way out than going AWOL. Thankfully, I had done my homework and had the support of the GI Rights Hotline, the Iraq Veterans Against the War, the American Friends Service Committee, Courage to Resist, and the Center on Conscience and War. Then I was also lied to by my team leader, Sgt. Washington, after he gave me my first counseling statement on the CO process and I asked him if I could get a copy of the Army Regulations on CO that he had read to me so I could be better prepared. He told me the document was 'classified' and could not give me a copy. I later called him a liar after Aaron Hughes of IVAW sent me Army Regulation 600-43 in an email.
I started speaking out with the IVAW while I was going through the process, and the first three steps went somewhat smoothly, the interview with a chaplain was a go, the psychiatric evaluation was a go, and the interviewing officer recommended me for discharge. About a week after I had put in my application my unit got official orders for a deployment to Afghanistan and I was told that it wouldn't affect me.
Then about a week before everyone was scheduled to leave they called me up and told me I would be deploying with them, even though for months beforehand when everyone else was training to leave I was not. I was shocked, but started packing my things, saying goodbye to my family, quitting my job, mentally preparing myself for whatever was ahead. Then my chain of command called me the day before everyone left and told me they had made a "paperwork error" which seems like a pretty big thing to err on if you ask me.
But nonetheless I was relieved. I had contacted Jan Schekowski (my congressional representative) multiple times about my case and never heard anything back from her office, though her help may have averted some of these issues. Though later, I did speak with Linda Englund of Military Families Speak Out and she contacted her office for me a bit and spoke with some people working there.
Then next month when I went to drill they give me orders to ship again, and I was slightly angry to say the very least. I decide to go AWOL because I was tired of their mind games. I knew what my conscience was telling me and had to follow it. They were calling me every day for a while, trying to get me to come back or talk to them. I had a policeman (who had formerly been in my unit) come to my dad's house where I left my car and harass my friends and I at the beginning of the AWOL so I got a little scared after that. I stopped working, in fear that they might find me, and refused to drive anywhere. I was constantly looking over my shoulder fearing I was being followed, knowing that any minute someone could kick down my door and haul me off to a brig in handcuffs.
Eventually, I decided that I could not live like this forever and I called my unit. They told me to come into drill the next week, and I did, assuming I would be arrested for refusing a deployment. Then they proceeded to tell me that they had never planned on sending me anywhere, which seemed to be another lie. Sadly, the sergeant that had told me I was going to be deployed had died of a strange heart condition and could not be contacted to back up my claim. So instead of detaining me, they demoted me, which was essentially a slap on the wrist for what I thought I was going to be punished for. I didn't understand much of this while it was going on, but in retrospect it seems much clearer. They were doing their best to wear down my resolve and force me to quit. They didn't want me to come back from my AWOL because that would have made it easier for them. Me coming back meant more paperwork to fill out and, in their view, it tarnished the command’s macho image having one of theirs go CO. But I did come back, and a couple months later, after a nearly two yearlong battle, they granted me CO status in April 2009. I have yet to receive paperwork for my discharge, but my sergeant says it’s in the mail.
I'm going back to school without the help of the GI bill, though I am happy to take on the cost myself. Finally, I am writing a book about the experience and doing my best to relax, taking a small break before getting back into the world of activism and organizing.