National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 6, 2003

Catholic conscientious objector charged with desertion


In early May, one month after publicly declaring himself a conscientious objector, 20-year-old Catholic and Marine reservist Stephen Funk was charged with desertion under Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Trained as a landing assistant for helicopters, Funk is accused of “shirking important service.” The charge comes with a maximum penalty of one-year imprisonment.

Stephen Collier, Funk’s attorney, said he was surprised his client is accused of desertion rather than the lesser charge of absent without leave. “The desertion charge lacks a legal foundation,” Collier said. “They have to show that [Funk] had a specific intent to shirk an important duty. He never had that.” According to Collier, Funk notified his command in advance that he was not appearing for duty and that he would turn himself in after completing his conscientious objector application.

Funk left the reserves shortly before Feb. 13 when his unit, a landing support battalion located in San Jose, Calif., was activated for combat duty.

“People think of me as someone who is trying to get out of harm’s way. But my unit wasn’t going to be sent to Iraq,” he said. Had he remained with the reserve, his job would have been to motivate deployed Marines boarding planes for Iraq.

“I would have had to say, ‘OK, go kill that kid for me. I am so jealous.’ I was being forced to do something that I didn’t believe in,” he said.

On April 1, after 47 days of “unauthorized absence” from his unit, the young reservist, at a highly publicized news conference, declared his moral objections to war and then turned himself over to military authorities.

“I object to war because I believe that it is impossible to achieve peace through violence. I am a conscientious objector because there is no way for me to remain a Marine without sacrificing my entire sense of self-respect,” he said.

Funk enlisted in the Marine Corps in February 2002 after being pursued by a recruiter. He had just dropped out of a biology course at the University of Southern California and was, as he put it, “sort of depressed, not thinking right.” His doubts about military life began to surface during basic training at Camp Pendleton in San Diego.

“I thought of the military as a way to learn teamwork, leadership skills. I didn’t realize the amount of coercion they would use in training. You have to yell ‘kill’ every day, constantly until it’s normal.”

An excellent marksman, he was told by his instructor that he had an “attitude problem” and probably wouldn’t be able to shoot someone in a real life situation.

“I told him, ‘You’re right. Killing is wrong. I don’t want to kill,’ ” Funk said.

Each year a small number of people in the military receive legal status as conscientious objectors and are reassigned to noncombatant duties or discharged. In wartime the exodus intensifies, becomes more public and more difficult. Aimee Allison, a conscientious objector from the first Gulf War says that of the 1,250 applicants for conscientious objector discharge during that war, only 111, approximately 10 percent, were eventually approved.

The exact number of military conscientious objectors to the most recent war on Iraq remains unknown. Many who apply for discharge as a conscientious objector are not public about their decision. According to the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, 12 U.S. military personnel and three from the United Kingdom publicly opposed the latest war on Iraq. Funk was the first to disobey an order while pursuing his discharge.

He is currently stationed at a Marine base in New Orleans, awaiting his court-martial.

In an interview with The Guardian, a British daily March 31, the day before his surrender, Funk said he knew he would be punished for his unauthorized absence, “but I would rather take my punishment now than live with what I would have to do in Iraq for the rest of my life. I would be going in knowing that it was wrong and that would be hypocritical.”

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 2003

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