The War Within

Soldiers who say they no longer believe in armed combat come to Louis Font for help getting out of it. That hasn’t made the Brookline lawyer very popular with Army brass. But his own experience in uniform has convinced him that changing the way the military treats conscientious objectors is a fight that needs waging.

Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía was on the run for five months before his running finally led him to Louis Font’s Brookline law office. For much of the previous year, the 28-year-old had been an infantry squad leader in Iraq, for a while pinned down in Ramadi, in a corner of the Sunni Triangle—this was summer 2003, just as it was becoming clear the Iraq war would be no in-and-out operation. Mejía hated every minute of it. That October, he went home to Florida on a two-week leave, and in the calm found himself haunted by things he’d witnessed. He remembered watching the sawing spray of machine-gun fire tear through an insurgent. He remembered Iraqis dragging a limp body down a street stained dark with blood. Mejía couldn’t shake the images of war, and he resolved to see no more of them. When his plane left for Iraq, he was not on it.

Afraid the military had men looking for him, Mejía ran and hid, avoiding computers and cell phones, and even his family. He showed up for his first meeting with Font plenty scared. During their conversation, Font, a 60-year-old of average build who speaks in the sort of helpful, reassuring tone that calls to mind a patient high school teacher, talked with his new client about his legal options. “I told him what I tell all of my clients,” Font recalled, “that there’s life after this.” Font also pressed Mejía on his feelings. He wanted to know about Mejía’s decision to go AWOL, this moment of transformation he’d experienced. Over the course of subsequent discussions, Mejía says, he realized it wasn’t just fear that had kept him from going back to war. It was deeper than that, something fundamental and cement-firm: He couldn’t go back to war because he no longer believed in war.

With Font’s help, Mejía prepared an application for discharge, on the grounds that he had become a conscientious objector, or CO. But before it could be considered, there was one more thing he needed to clear up: In order to earn an honorable release from his commitment, Font explained, he had to return to Army custody. And turning himself in meant Mejía would be court-martialed for desertion, a crime officially punishable during wartime by execution.

The guards who met Mejía at the gate of the Hanscom air base in Bedford put him in handcuffs, slid him into the back of a military police car, and shuttled him to a tiny room. They left him there until men with more stars on their collars or more bars on their shoulders could decide what to do with him. As far as the Army was concerned, why Mejía ran wasn’t important now that it had him back. Holding him accountable, that’s what mattered. Setting aside his conscientious objector petition, it pushed forward with Mejía’s court-martial.

On May 19, 2004, the first day of the proceedings, Font met Mejía in a simple courtroom at Fort Stewart, Georgia. Outside, soldiers patrolled with bomb-sniffing dogs while others directed traffic to overflow parking and corralled the phalanx of reporters who had gathered to cover the event—this was the first time a soldier who’d gone AWOL during the Iraq conflict would stand trial. Font’s plan was to argue that under international law, Mejía’s opposition to what he’d seen in Iraq—where, Mejía says, he witnessed mistreatment of prisoners at a ramshackle detention facility—gave him justification to flee. But that strategy did not get very far with the military judge. Mejía was found guilty of abandoning his unit; conscientious objector or not, he’d earned a year in an Army jail.

Back in Brookline, Font soon found himself fielding inquiries from soldiers who’d heard of the Mejía case. Lawrence Franowicz, an Army anesthesiologist in Vermont preparing to go on active duty, called looking for guidance on what to do about his growing doubts. With Font’s assistance, he filed a CO claim later that year, agreeing as required to pay back his Army-funded scholarship to Tufts Medical School, plus interest. Not long after that, one of Franowicz’s schoolmates, Mary Hanna, a fellow anesthesiologist who was living in Somerville, reached out to Font as well. It was around this time that the Army sent out an e-mail to its anesthesiologists in training, reminding them that they’d likely be deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan within months. “You will find it a very meaningful experience,” the message stated, then went on to mention Franowicz’s CO filing in passing. When one of the recipients, Ryan Kwon, opened that e-mail outside Detroit, he was struck by the same question many others were asking: Who was this guy’s lawyer?

Louis Font had not asked for it—not exactly—but he now found himself poised for a quiet yet unquestionably momentous fight with the U.S. military. At its core lay a choice most of us would rather not be forced to make, and one he’d wrestled with himself. What matters most: belief in one’s commitment, or commitment to one’s beliefs?

For those dedicated to the task, there are easier ways to avoid the battlefield than seeking conscientious objector status. A nice, thorough physical can expose disabilities. A psychologist can pinpoint mental deficiencies. Simply having kids at home can evidence familial responsibilities that might keep soldiers out of the fighting force. Conscientious objection, by contrast, is a feeling, a moral position. And that sort of thing can be tough to prove. When a soldier files as a CO, what’s up for examination is nothing less than his sincerity.

Conscientious objection doesn’t get much discussion within the ranks, seeming, as it does, antithetical to the concepts of loyalty, dedication, and soldierly endurance of hardship. Even when he was sick with worry, Mejía didn’t immediately label himself a CO. Nobody had ever explained to him exactly what that was. The Army’s regulations spell out the parameters thus: A conscientious objector is someone “sincerely opposed, because of religious or deeply held moral or ethical (not political, philosophical, or sociological) beliefs, to participating in war in any form.” It’s a simple-sounding definition for a legal status based wholly on what’s most unknowable about a person, and the Army, along with the courts that have upheld it, admits the process for measurement is a subjective, even imperfect, one. It searches the soul, and thank God it does, because if it did anything less, says the military, it wouldn’t work. Soldiers would file some paperwork, parrot some rote line that works every time. Soldiers who wanted to would simply opt out of war.

Under current rules, the Army requires CO applicants to fill out a form that asks whether they desire merely to be kept out of combat, or to get out of the service altogether, and then poses six essay questions that probe the intertwining of personal biography and tenets of faith. The applicant next sits for a series of interviews with a military psychiatrist, a military chaplain, and an officer assigned to investigate the case. The officer presents a recommendation to approve or deny to the Army’s conscientious objector review board, which makes the final decision. All the while, the burden of proof rests with the soldier. The Army ultimately can turn down a claim for whatever it deems appropriate—suspect motives, questionable credibility, even fishy timing—and those who get denied are left in their roles. Rejected petitions can be appealed in federal court.

One might think that since Vietnam, and the end of the draft, there would be few conscientious objectors in our all-volunteer military; after all, before the Army hands out a uniform, it demands that soldiers swear with their signature that they’re not against armed conflict. That means all the CO applications the military is weighing today have come from soldiers who say they’ve become objectors. They’ve changed their mind—or, to the extent they can prove it, their feelings. Morten G. Ender, a West Point sociologist, says evolution of this sort is to be expected. “I think we’re going to have to rethink CO status,” he says. “This long war is changing over time. The mission focus—at least from the perspective of the soldier—has changed. So, if you came in to be a warrior, and now you’re doing mission building, I can see why someone might say, ‘I didn’t come into the military to do this.’ Or, if you’re a reservist, and you’re about to do your third tour, you say, ‘Look, when I signed up, it was one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, and I didn’t sign up to be a full-time soldier.’”

Just how many soldiers are rethinking their feelings is hard to tell. The Army keeps tabs on the number of CO decisions it hands down, but not the number of applications that get filed; soldiers who give up midway through or go AWOL or find another way out of service aren’t counted in the total. J. E. McNeil, who heads the Washington-based Center on Conscience and War, says the activity in her office—one of the country’s busiest when it comes to advising troops thinking of filing—
suggests that many more soldiers at least consider the option than the number of rulings would indicate. “Before September 11, we got about one call a month,” she says. “After September 11, we’d get about one call a week, and then when the war started it was about one a day. Now we get two to four a day.” The lack of a firmer count of how many soldiers want out of the Army has so frustrated Congress that last year, when it authorized defense spending for 2007, it tasked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to figure out what happens to those who file CO claims. Brenda Farrell, the GAO director heading the project, says the group plans to file a report by the end of this summer.

What Army figures do show is that since it first sent troops to Afghanistan, there’s been a nearly threefold jump in the number of CO decisions handed down each year. In 2001, the Army ruled on 23 applications, approving 18 (or 78 percent) of them. By 2005, the most recent period for which total-year data is available, that number had climbed to 61 rulings, with 23 approvals (a drop of 40 percentage points). In other words, in that year alone more than three dozen soldiers who formally claimed to oppose war—and who had their hearts searched by the Army’s process—were kept in the fighting force.

Like most trial lawyers, Font does not travel light, and when arguing a case he’ll usually show up wheeling a dinged-up black briefcase behind him. Along with accordion folders jammed with papers, the briefcase will almost always contain a tattered, inconspicuous book that spells out the ethos of his entire practice. He seems to go nowhere without it. At opportune times during hearings, or while meeting with clients or taking a quiet moment by himself, Font will produce the volume and thumb its pages—rounded and ripped and falling out after 30 years of use—searching for wisdom, consulting the text the way some might scripture.

The book, published by the Defense Department, is called The Armed Forces Officer. A set of instructions for America’s military leaders, it celebrates the nobility and honor at the core of the armed forces, but does so with a surprising respect for individuality and introspection—laudable concepts that are not exactly hallmarks of the Army that Font has come to know. Font’s copy is filled with scribbled circles and brackets around the passages that speak most to him, lines that preach reverence for a soldier’s “finer instincts and feelings,” and “the dignity of man.” The book, Font says, is a template for what the Army should aspire to. He’s felt that way ever since the Army gave it to him, ever since he was an Eagle Scout from Kansas freshly arrived for his plebe year at West Point and put his name—in the sloppy handwriting of a 17-year-old—on its first page.

Throughout his time at the academy, Font carried the thing around, making up his mind about what sort of Army officer he was going to be. By the military’s own measurement, it looked as though he would be a fine one. He finished his undergraduate studies in 1968 near the top of his class, earning a chance to pursue an Army-sponsored master’s degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. There was, of course, a war on, and the two-year program would forestall joining the fight. It was a reward offered to only the very best graduating cadets—and it was confirmation not just of Font’s achievements so far, but also of the Army’s big expectations for him.

When he arrived in Cambridge, Font was transformed by the freedom he felt. In his Kennedy School classes, he was encouraged to think critically about what was happening in Southeast Asia. During long walks along the Charles, where he did his best pondering, he began to reconcile what he was learning with what his West Point experience had exposed him to. Vietnam gnawed at him, and he thought hard about the accounts that returning soldiers had brought back to him and his fellow cadets. “I remembered talking to a major about killing people,” Font says. “He told me that he felt the same elation as when he kills a deer.” The recollection prompted some soul-searching, and Font, raised as a Methodist, began attending Quaker services at the Friends Meeting House off Brattle Street.

A year later, in early 1970, Font applied for a discharge from the Army, citing conscientious objector status. “I must choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong,” he wrote. Font’s lengthy responses to the essay questions turned the application into an emotional 47-page statement of purpose that pronounced the war immoral and his participation in it inconsistent with his faith. To Font, his decision wasn’t a rejection of his military training, but rather a testament to what he’d learned at West Point, to “the strong devotion and sense of honor imbued” in him there.

Not long after he filed, Font was in the apartment he shared with three other grad students when he was summoned to the phone. It was a Friday, and Harvard’s ROTC commander was on the line, saying that a third-party witness was also on the call. The commander relayed an order: Font was to drop out of Harvard on Monday and report to Fort Meade, Maryland, by Tuesday.

To help with his CO application, Font had found a New York legal team from the American Civil Liberties Union that had handled an earlier and some-what notorious case involving an Air Force instructor who refused to train bomber pilots bound for Vietnam. On his way to Fort Meade, Font made a stop in New York to meet with his attorneys, who convened a press conference. This was big news: No West Point graduate had ever refused to go to war because he was morally opposed to it. Font was 23 years old, resolute and soft-spoken. “I feel that this is for me a tragic moment,” he said, lamenting his childhood dream of a military career. At his feet sat a suitcase and a batch of chocolate chip cookies, baked for him by the wife of one of his lawyers. Font became, in that moment, a complex symbol. He was neither a bitter veteran nor a long-haired radical. He was an Ivy League grad student, a standout West Point alum. “I was scared, of course I was,” Font remembers. “I was young and I was putting my life in the hands of my lawyers. But these were people who ennobled the profession. I trusted in them.”

Three months after Font’s arrival at Fort Meade, the Pentagon rejected his petition for discharge, a ruling Font’s lawyers unsuccessfully appealed to the federal court in Baltimore. But the judge in the case also blocked the Army’s efforts to mobilize Font for Vietnam, demanding he be kept in Maryland until all his appeals were exhausted. The judge also wondered if there weren’t something productive the Army could have this bright young man—who’d been filling his days shuffling papers for the base’s adjutant general—do in the meantime.

Fine, said his superiors, who ordered Font to take a simple survey of the housing quarters on the base. Font, in turn, took it upon himself to note that many of the barracks were run-down and unfit for habitation, and submitted a scathing report on the facilities. It went ignored, until he handed a copy over to the Maryland newspapers. From that point on, the Army stopped looking for useful ways to occupy Font’s time.

Font continued to pursue the issue of the barracks. In January 1971, he showed up at the office of the base’s major general to present more of his findings. After a terse exchange, he was arrested for disobeying orders and charged with a range of crimes of insubordination. All told, he faced 25 years in prison. With the incident renewing media interest in Font, members of Congress condemned the military’s efforts to silence him. “We cannot permit our Army to treat its critics in such an arrogant and arbitrary fashion,” Illinois Representative Abner Mikva said. “If Lieutenant Font is a gadfly, then the Army needs more of them.”

What happened next speaks to the chaos of the era, and to Font’s tenacity. And perhaps also to the Army’s questionable decision to station Font so close to Washington, D.C., where he had ready access to reporters, politicians, and leaders of the antiwar movement. Undeterred by the threat of punishment (already facing court-martial, he had little left to lose), Font opened a new front in his fight with the Army. Taking the microphone at a February press conference called by Maryland Representative Parren Mitchell, Font explained that he had invoked his right as a uniformed member of the military to charge other soldiers with war crimes. Standing in his pressed Army greens, Font singled out two high–ranking officers who he claimed—according to documents and testimony he had collected—were complicit in the killing of civilians in Vietnam. The Army had had enough. It wasn’t how Font had originally hoped to win release, but within weeks the Army processed his discharge.

Font returned to Harvard to finish his master’s degree and then went on to Yale Law School, earning his J.D. in 1975. With his credentials, he would have no trouble pursuing a prestigious academic career or a lucrative job at a white-shoe firm. But he felt himself drawn back toward the military. Going to law school, he knew, had been inspired by the attorneys who helped him stay out of war, and jail. He knew exactly what type of lawyer he would be.

When he was pressing his own conscientious objector bid, Font invoked a novel legal theory. It wasn’t war in general that offended him, he argued, but rather the war in Vietnam in particular. “I would have served, for instance,” Font says, “in World War II or in the American Revolution.” The federal court shot down the claim, deciding that a solider had to despise all combat in order to earn CO status. Font’s judge conceded that if he’d simply declared himself a “universal objector,” he probably would have been given his walking papers without a fight. The same standard is in effect today, so conscientious objectors who say that their misgivings about Iraq played a role in their questioning the fundamental justifiability of war—as Font’s clients have—risk disqualifying their applications.

Leaving aside that particular potential stumbling block, putting together a persuasive CO claim takes a unique fluency in military justice. During his 30 years helping soldiers with their legal questions, Font has successfully guided dozens through the CO process; J. E. McNeil of the Center on Conscience and War says that among the handful of attorneys to whom she refers service personnel for the highly specialized advice that CO petitions require, he ranks as one of the best. One might consider a track record like that an asset to those whom Font represents. But as the cases piled up for him after the Mejía ruling, the Army became determined to make it a liability.

When CO applications for Captain Hanna and Captain Kwon were filed in December 2005—only two days apart, and just a month after Font had helped Captain Franowicz win release—the Army grew suspicious. Before Hanna or Kwon could be interviewed, Colonel John M. Powers, the Army’s head of medical education, sent their respective sets of interviewers a memo. “We find some aspects surrounding [the] CO application troubling,” he wrote, noting that they had hired the same lawyer, and one who appeared to be taking on more than his share of CO cases involving Army doctors. Another comment was even clearer in its implication: “The Army is understrength in anesthesiologists,” it read.

Notwithstanding the similarities Powers had flagged, Kwon and Hanna actually presented Font with distinct challenges. Of the two cases, the latter looked to Font like the slam dunk. Raised a Coptic Orthodox Christian, Hanna had drifted from the church while in college and joined the Army in 1997 to pay for her medical schooling at Tufts. When her father died in 2003, she found herself drawn back to her faith, and joined the congregation at St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Natick. By then she was a resident at Beth Israel Deaconess, where, spurred by her religion, she asked to be taken off assignments for elective abortions. Feeling increasingly trapped by a commitment she’d made at a time when she saw things differently, she also came to consider her decision to sign up for military service a careless one.

After assessing Hanna’s story, the Army denied her claim. The chaplain who spoke with her about her faith observed that the Coptic Orthodox Church, a Christian denomination founded and based in Egypt, permits military service, and he dismissed the relevance of Hanna’s avoidance of abortions, saying that if she were truly against them, she’d have removed herself from the hospital entirely. The head of the Army’s three-person board tasked to review the case wrote, disapprovingly, “Her statements are logical but lack passion and sincerity.” The decision stunned Font and Hanna, who was ordered to report for active duty.

Last September, Font appealed the Army’s ruling on Hanna before U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner in a hearing at the Moakley Courthouse. Gertner came down strongly in Hanna’s favor, commenting that the Army’s criteria for evaluating the application ranged, in her words, “from irrelevant to impermissible to unsubstantiated.” The judge ordered Hanna discharged from her duties. “It is clear,” she wrote, “that the act of serving in the Army violates Hanna’s conscience.”

This February, Gertner’s words echoed in a federal courtroom in Detroit, where Kwon’s case had reached the same level of appeal after it, too, was turned down by the Army. Having made use of the drinking fountain down the hall, Font wheeled his black briefcase into the very quiet, very empty chamber. Wearing a gray suit that hung long at the wrists and bunched at his shoes, he walked to his counsel’s table with a purposeful stride. Across a narrow aisle was the Army’s lawyer, Captain Kevin McCart, dressed in his uniform. The two shared a courteous glance—McCart had been on hand for Hanna’s appeal hearing.

As Font began his statement, he conceded some key differences between the two cases. Kwon had experienced no religious epiphany, no great awakening. His was a slow realization, Kwon had said, explaining that it was the very act of writing his application essays that sealed in his mind what he was feeling. The Army didn’t buy any of it, contending that until Kwon had received that e-mail about his impending deployment—and with it, notice of a colleague who’d found a way out of his—he hadn’t even considered his so-called pacifism.

Upon rejecting his claim, the Army had ordered Kwon to Fort Lewis in Washington state to serve at the base’s hospital. That’s when Kwon seemingly took a page from Lieutenant Font’s playbook. The Army wanted to see sincerity? Kwon started refusing to don his uniform, and thus wasn’t allowed in the hospital, which requires its doctors to work in military dress.

Base brass, not pleased with the defiance, told Kwon to report to the library; if he couldn’t work, he could spend his days sitting and reading. They brought him up on two counts of failing to obey an order, criminal charges that could lead to a maximum of 10 years in an Army prison—unless Kwon were released from the military first. Though Font insists he had nothing to do with Kwon’s disobedience (“What a client does is a client’s decision,” he says), if his own experience is any guide, the escalation of the situation put pressure on the Army to cut Kwon loose, lest it wind up with a PR nightmare on its hands.

As he continued to argue Kwon’s case to the Detroit judge, Font moved to a lectern at the center of the room, a few feet from the judge’s face. “I’m trying to keep my client from becoming a prisoner of conscience, a prisoner for what he believes,” Font told the court from his new perch. Feeling emboldened, he produced from his pocket his pointed right index finger, which he took to thrusting liberally. “I think this court, in its wisdom, can realize that the Army has no use for him in the ranks.”

When McCart rose to present the Army’s side, he was succinct. A young, square-jawed officer, he gave the impression he had no interest in soldiers who shirk their duty, who decline even to wear their uniform. He said the Army’s case was rock-solid: “When a person doesn’t realize he’s a CO until he sees others proving that it’s a successful way out of the Army, we see that his views are not firm and fixed. It may be that Captain Kwon wants to be a CO, but that doesn’t do it.”

After the hearing in Detroit, Font took a phone call from his wife and made his way to a Starbucks down the block. He ordered the largest coffee on the menu, then grabbed a seat by the window. “Let me show you what makes the military great,” he said, pulling out his talismanic paperback. The pages fell open to places he’d marked in ink. He read some of the passages aloud: “The American philosophy places the individual above the state.… It asserts the supremacy of principle.” There is, the book explains, something uniquely American about change, something central to the development of a soldier. Something worth protecting.

Font started quoting a line about upholding human dignity, then cut himself off. He looked up, his eyes wide. “This,” he said, “is what the military stands for.” He wasn’t trying to be convincing, but the lawyer had just made his best argument. Why shouldn’t the benefit of the doubt go to the soldier who says his heart breaks at the thought of war? Far better that a few insincere cowards slip out of their service because of a lie about their beliefs, than even one sincere objector die for something that’s repugnant to his.

In early April, the judge in Detroit sided with the Army, denying Kwon’s claim. Font is planning to appeal to the Sixth Circuit; in the meantime the doctor’s court-martial for disobeying orders will move forward next month. It’ll overlap with the still-lingering Hanna case, which the Army—unwilling to lose her services—has appealed to the First Circuit. And later this summer, Font also will be in a military court in Virginia appealing Mejía’s bad-conduct discharge, which mars his personnel file and keeps him from receiving veteran’s benefits.

The unresolved question of whether the former sergeant—who’s been out of jail for more than a year now—should continue to pay for his desertion obscures a curious footnote to Mejía’s case. The Army, which has yet to issue a verdict on his conscientious objection claim, still hasn’t made up its mind about what Mejía really believes.