WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – Ronnie Tallman says that when he joined the Marines, he never expected a spiritual transformation that would put his newfound Navajo tribal beliefs in conflict with his military duties.
A military screening board interviewed psychiatrists and a chaplain, among others, before determining Jan. 11 that Tallman's newfound status as a type of Navajo medicine man was "simply a means to avoid combat deployment to Iraq."
On Wednesday, however, the military changed course, granting Tallman conscientious objector status.
"I didn't expect this. I'm really happy right now," Tallman said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from the California base.
In November 2005, about a year after enlisting and shortly before he was to be deployed to Iraq, Tallman says he discovered — quite unexpectedly — a gift as a special type of medicine man known as a "hand trembler."
Such status is rare and deeply revered by the tribe. Tallman says by tradition, his status as a healer rendered him unable to kill or harm, or even think negative thoughts, thereby making him unfit to continue with his commitment to the military.
Tallman decided not to return to his base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., and was deemed on "unauthorized absence" until he filed his application to be a conscientious objector, based on religious beliefs, in January 2006.
Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Cox, of the Marine public affairs office in Twentynine Palms, said he did not know why Tallman's application was approved after the initial denial.
Marine Lt. Col. T.V. Johnson, a spokesman for Marine commandant Gen. James Conway, said "it's an administrative action. I don't think (Conway) would go into why."
Tallman told Marine officials that although he was still learning the rules of traditional hand trembler practitioners, "the most important ones are that I can't hurt other living things and I can't even think about hurting other living things or carry negative thoughts."
Months before his spiritual experience, during bootcamp, Tallman recalled how he felt when he heard chants that ended with new Marines shouting the word, "kill." He remembered being scolded as a boy for saying he would kill an animal, and wondered whether he could continue on with the Marines.
"It was emotionally tearing me apart because I didn't know whether to follow my heart or fill this commitment," he said in a phone interview from the California military base.
In his application to leave the military, Tallman wrote: "I had a very powerful experience where my left hand started to shake, and at the same time, an amazing feeling of calmness came over me ... My heart slowed down, and my breathing, and I felt peaceful.
"My hand kept trembling and I started to notice the energy in the people around me and I started to know things about them that I could never have known, things about their lives and what made them sick or in pain," he wrote.
Since his spiritual experience, Tallman has been sanctified as a hand trembler in a ceremony conducted by his uncle and grandfather. He then became a certified medicine man with the Dine Hataalii Association, a group of medicine men.
Tallman's uncle and grandfather also are hand tremblers. "I'm going to start learning from all the people I grew up listening to," he said. "I'm going to sit down with them and pick their brain."
Cox said Tallman is the only Marine within the past year to apply for and be granted conscientious objector status. Tribal leaders, including Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., had expressed support for Tallman. Cox suggested that might have played into Conway's decision.
Tallman's mother, Nora, said she's proud of her son for standing up for his beliefs and looks forward to him joining other hand tremblers on the reservation.
"Our medicine men, some of them are getting too old, and some have gone," she said. "And we do need medicine men to help people. ... It's a good thing that he got this gift."