Published January 13, 2015
Brothers Travis and Taylor Burnham are both in the Army yet find themselves on opposite sides of a looming conflict with Iraq: one is willing to fight and the other is not.
Travis, 24, is stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y., where he applied for conscientious objector status in January. Taylor, 27, is a combat engineer in Kuwait waiting for a potential invasion of Iraq.
"I know how a mother might have felt in the Civil War having sons on both sides," said their mother, Judith "J.P." Burnham, a social work professor at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn.
"I'm very divided. I support both of my sons," she said. She keeps a yellow ribbon on her office door for Taylor and a war protest sign on the wall for Travis.
Travis describes himself as a pacifist. In high school, he was kidded about being not aggressive enough for sports. During basic training, he refused to chant "kill" with the other soldiers. More recently, he marched in anti-war protests and spoke openly about his objections.
"I'm opposed to taking the life of another human being," he said. "I understand there are situations where we react to human instincts and in self-defense, but to aggressively and collectively destroy another human life, my conscience won't allow me to do it."
His mother says older brother Taylor has reservations about the war, too, but understood when he enlisted that doing his duty might mean using violence.
In joining the military, the two men followed the example set by their father, Jeff, and oldest brother, Preston. They enlisted in peacetime to earn money for college, gain discipline and see the world.
Travis joined the Army in 1999 after he dropped out of college and ran out of money while traveling in Europe. He sought help from his father to return home.
"I told him I'd send him $300 if he'd join the Coast Guard," recalled the elder Burnham, an engineer and a member of the Coast Guard in the 1960s. "I think it's a good thing for young men or young women to join the military, learn a skill, get some discipline and contribute to the country's safety."
But the Coast Guard had a 22-month waiting list and Travis was impatient. He signed up for a five-year hitch with the Army and is now assigned to the 10th Mountain Division as a photojournalist.
"It was the Clinton administration, the economy was strong and war didn't seem to be on the horizon," Travis said. "Not once did any of the recruiters I spoke with mention war, enemy, shooting or death."
His older brother also joined the Army for direction. He attended college but was uninspired and drifting. He decided to enlist in 1998 after a five-year stint studying environmental biology in Maine.
Now assigned to the 814th Division at Fort Polk, La., Taylor has been in Kuwait since Valentine's Day. Security concerns have kept him from contacting his family since he left the United States.
The Army is investigating his younger brother's conscientious objector application. The process involves 26 steps and usually takes at least 90 days. Travis has already been interviewed by a chaplain and a psychiatrist.
The Army can refuse him, grant him a discharge or move him to a position where he would be unlikely to have to fire on an enemy -- like the position he already has.
"We can't push him much farther back than being a public affairs guy," said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty of the 10th Mountain Division. "He's a photojournalist. I don't know of any photojournalist in the history of the U.S. Army who has ever killed anybody."
The Army has granted two voluntary discharges to conscientious objectors this fiscal year, according to its records. Last year, it granted 17, and the year before nine. The highest number in recent years was 59 in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War.
As he waits for word, Travis worries about his brother. He met with Taylor in December at Fort Polk and told him how he felt about a war with Iraq and what he planned to do. There were no hard feelings.
"There was no, 'How can you do this to me?"' Travis said. "He pretty well understood and he accepted it."