When Pvt. Christopher Munoz reported as ordered on the day of his deployment, he didn’t bring his gear, ultimately deciding his conscience wouldn’t let him go to Afghanistan.
Munoz, 22, 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, handed his conscientious objector application to his commander June 25 — just 10 days before his unit deployed — which didn’t give the Army sufficient time to review his case.
“Most people who submit a CO application spend weeks, sometimes months, preparing,” said James Branum, legal director for the Oklahoma Center for Conscience. “(For Munoz), it was very instantaneous. Normally when a soldier has concerns, they have several months to go talk to the chaplain and other people throughout this process. ... We did it over the course of a week, which was a really rushed process.”
Branum is representing Munoz, who is not granting interviews while his case is processed, and another Fort Hood soldier applying for conscientious objector status. Branum is presenting their cases to investigating officers today — the first step in a lengthy process to gain conscientious objector status and avoid a dishonorable discharge.
“Conscientious objector status is not unique to Fort Hood. There are other cases across the military,” said Lt. Col. Kirk Luedeke, a public affairs officer for the 1st Cavalry Division. “This guy is going through a process that is pretty standard. If he wants to be a conscientious objector, that’s his right but there’s a process he has to go through.”
Change of heart
Munoz’s perception of serving in the military changed during basic training in 2012 at Fort Benning, Ga. For Munoz, a radio repairman stationed at Fort Hood since April, deploying was something he couldn’t do.
“When he started doing weapons training and shooting at targets that looked like human beings, he started really confronting the reality of being asked to kill,” Branum said. “Most people these days grow up playing video games and watching (violent) movies. It’s pretty abstract. But there’s something about actually having a gun in your hands and firing a weapon and knowing that in a few short months (you might) be asked to do this in the battlefield.”
According to Army regulations, service members are eligible for conscientious objector status if they can prove to military authorities they are opposed to all wars and their opposition is based on sincere religious beliefs or moral conviction that occurred after they enlisted.
The regulation states that military personnel who seek either discharge or assignment to noncombatant duties because of conscientious objection must submit an application to their immediate commanding officer.
More than a decade into war during an era when soldiers volunteer to serve, conscientious objector applications aren’t as common as they were during the Vietnam War. However, Branum said about 100 claims are made by service members annually.
“In the course of a year, I probably have a dozen service members that I work with,” Branum said. “Every case is different. A lot of the people I work with end up deciding not to file for CO status ... They may come to the conclusion that their contract is up and they will just wait it out.”
Receiving CO status
During today’s closed meeting, Branum said the investigating officer, who is from a different unit than Munoz, will hear from the soldier’s chain of command, chaplain, a psychiatrist and soldiers who know him.
“The chain of command is aware of his desires and his beliefs and now it is up to the Army to review his case and render a decision on his status,” Luedeke said.
In about a week, the investigating officer will make his recommendation to either accept or reject granting Munoz CO status.
“That all goes up the command chain,” Branum said. “The initial commander will make a recommendation based upon what all those reports say and it will keep going up the command chain to each level. Finally, that will go all the way up to the Pentagon and they will make a final decision on it, (which the secretary of the Army can overrule).”
Although gaining conscientious objector status takes months, Branum said the conscientious objector process benefits both the applicant and the Army by allowing it to discharge a soldier who will not be an effective part of the unit.
“Even if (Munoz) went, he’s not going to be a fully functional member of the unit because his heart isn’t in it anymore,” he said.
For Munoz, the ideal outcome is to be granted conscientious objector status, which means he will be granted either an honorable discharge or a general discharge.
“He would move on with his life without any negative consequences except he would not get any (Veterans Affairs) benefits for his time in service,” Branum said. “But he also wouldn’t be going to jail or anything.”
If rejected, Munoz can refile his application, claiming there are other grounds that should be considered. If his claim is rejected and he doesn’t refile, Munoz faces dishonorable discharge or a discharge on other grounds.
“If that happens, he could potentially get a lesser discharge or he could be court-martialed for something,” Branum said.
Since his decision to not deploy, Munoz has been reassigned to the rear detachment; where his lawyer said he is being treated fairly by commanders and comrades.
“The command is working in good faith with us and they’re going to let this claim be heard,” Branum said.