HINESVILLE, Ga. – A young girl clutching her arm blackened by burns, dogs feeding off bodies in mass graves — the images still haunt Sgt. Kevin Benderman (search) 15 months after he came home from Iraq.
Witnessing the brutal reality of war, Benderman stunned his commanders when he sought a discharge as a conscientious objector (search) after 10 years in the Army.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the sergeant said he never grasped the misery that war inflicts on civilians as well as combatants until he saw it all firsthand.
"Some people may be born a conscientious objector, but sometimes people realize through certain events in their lives that the path they're on is the wrong one," Benderman said. "The idea was: Do I really want to stay in an organization where the sole purpose is to kill?"
Benderman's decision — choosing conscience over his commitment to fellow troops — has meant bearing the insults.
An officer called him a coward. His battalion chaplain shamed him in an e-mail from Kuwait. That's because Benderman, whose unit just deployed for a second combat tour in Iraq (search), refused to return to war.
Benderman, 40, filed notice in December, and his timing could hardly have been worse for the Army. The Fort Stewart-based 3rd Infantry Division began deploying its 19,000 soldiers this month.
Benderman's unit, the 3rd Forward Support Battalion, was leaving for Kuwait on Jan. 5. When commanders ordered him to deploy while they processed his objector application, he refused to show up for his flight.
He said he has his reasons, reflecting on time in Iraq.
Benderman told of bombed out homes and displaced Iraqis living in mud huts and drinking from mud puddles; mass graves in Khanaqin near the Iranian border where dogs fed off bodies of men, women and children.
He recalled his convoy passing a girl, no older than 10, on the roadside clutching a badly injured arm. Benderman said his executive officer refused to help because troops had limited medical supplies.
"Her arm was burned, third-degree burns, just black. And she was standing there with her mother begging for help," Benderman said. "That was an eye opener to seeing how insane it really is."
Now Benderman, a mechanic who has been reassigned to a non-deploying rear detachment unit, could face a court-martial. Fort Stewart officials have not decided whether to charge him.
Separately, he must convince commanders he is morally opposed to war in all forms, as Army regulations define conscientious objection, despite his lengthy military service and previous combat tour.
"If he went to Iraq and then comes back and says, 'I'm now opposed to war,' the issue is are you opposed to all wars or just this one you don't want to go back to?" said Mark Stevens, a military defense lawyer and retired Marine Corps judge advocate. "He wasn't opposed to war two years ago, why is he opposed to it now?"
Benderman said the officer who took his objector notice dismissed him as a coward. His unit's chaplain offered little encouragement.
"You should have had the moral fortitude to deploy with us and see me here in Kuwait to begin your CO application," Army Chaplain Matt Temple said in a recent e-mail to Benderman. "You should be ashamed of the way you have conducted yourself. I certainly am ashamed of you."
Benderman's wife, Monica, said her husband hinted that he had doubts about taking part in the war in a letter he sent home that referenced scholars' belief that Iraq was home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
"He said, 'Here I am in the Garden of Eden, and what am I doing here with a gun?"' she said.
Raised a Southern Baptist in Tennessee, Benderman keeps an open Bible on his living room table but said he's "more spiritual than religious." After going to Iraq, he picked up the Quran and was struck by the similarities between Islam and Christianity.
He returned in September 2003 after serving eight months in Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division from Fort Hood, Texas. As a mechanic who fixes Bradley armored vehicles, he said he never fired a weapon in combat.
Still, Benderman began questioning whether he could return to a war zone when he transferred to Fort Stewart in October 2003. He said he never mentioned his doubts to soldiers in his new unit, but trained with them for a year as they prepared for a second tour. By December, he had even packed his clothes and equipment for shipping overseas.
Benderman acknowledged that waiting more than a year, until right before deployment, may seem "out of the blue." But he insisted his decision came from long deliberation, not desperation.
"People say, 'You're abandoning these soldiers that depend on you,' and so that weighs on you," he said. "But what's worse? Going over there and participating in war, or maybe doing something that can help people figure out that you don't have to go to war?"