by Bill Galvin
In April the Air Force issued a new conscientious objector Instruction (AFI 36-3204). While the Summary of Changes states, “This publication has been substantially revised and requires a complete review,” and there are some changes of significance, the overwhelming majority of the publication is identical to the prior version, albeit somewhat rearranged.
Most of the changes are editorial in nature, and appear generally to make the policy clearer. One such clarification pertains to the Counseling Statements concerning designation as a conscientious objector that CO applicants are required to sign (Appendices 3 and 5). Under the old Instruction, commands have sometimes insisted that 1-O conscientious objectors sign the statement for 1-A-O conscientious objectors. This revision makes it clear which statement is required for each status.
Some of the editorial changes seem to make the standard more inclusive of a greater diversity of beliefs. For example, the previous language directed those evaluating the CO applicant to consider “participation in religious activities,” whereas the new Instruction adds “or other belief system activities” (para. 188.8.131.52).
The updated Instruction begins with a new chapter, Roles and Responsibilities. While these are delineated throughout, as they always have been, this addition provides a good, easy to find reference point.
Non-Combatant 1-A-O status
The most significant change in the policy concerns 1-A-O conscientious objectors — those who would stay in the military in a non-combatant role.
Paragraph 2.3 of the new Instruction specifies that those who no longer have time remaining on their military commitment must apply for 1-O status (discharge) rather than 1-A-O. Of course, it is unclear why such people would be applying for conscientious objector status at all if their time in service is about to end.
Paragraph 2.4, “Applying for Noncombatant Training and Service,” is a new addition, stating that “The applicant will explain on his/her application in detail what benefit his/her continued service (to include new duties and responsibilities) would be to the Air Force. Reviewing officials will provide recommendations on the validity of the applicant’s continued active duty service, so that final approving authorities can make a determination that is in the best interest of the Air Force.”
As part of their application, conscientious objectors are required to provide written answers to a number of questions, including six detailed essay questions, in which they state their beliefs, explain the development of those beliefs, and provide evidence from their lives to demonstrate the depth and sincerity of those beliefs. In this updated AFI, the following requirement has been added to the first essay question in which the applicant must explain the beliefs that have prompted them to seek CO status: “If applying for noncombatant service, the reason why the applicant wants to continue active duty service and in what capacity, how remaining on active duty won’t adversely affect their beliefs or the beliefs of others in the unit, and why it’s in the best interest of the Air Force to remain on active duty until completion of their current enlistment (enlisted) or furthest ADSC (officers)” (para A2.2).
This new requirement, asking the conscientious objector to propose a new assignment and to justify why their staying in will not harm the Air Force, is something new, and appears to codify the anti-conscientious objector bias that we know already pervades the armed forces.
Although it may be little more than semantics, as the AFI on CO always has allowed the Air Force to discharge 1-A-O conscientious objectors if there was no suitable assignment for them, the new Instruction appears to allow the Air Force to classify 1-A-O applicants as 1-O when the Air Force feels it does not have an appropriate job for them, and not because they hold 1-O beliefs: “If noncombatant duties cannot be established or validated for continued active duty service, the option to discharge an approved applicant under (1-O) CO status may be utilized by the final approving authority” (para. 2.4).
In the section defining Noncombatant duties — the types of jobs that one who is classified 1-A-O could perform — these words have been deleted from the new regulation: “Service in a medical department of the armed forces, wherever performed” (p.22).
By reducing the number of jobs available to conscientious objectors who want to continue to serve in a noncombatant field and requiring them to justify their continued service, it could appear that the general intent is to discharge 1-A-O conscientious objectors, perhaps making it a virtually nonexistent status.
Paragraph 5.2, Justification for Approval, adds the following new language: “To approve an assignment to noncombatant training and service based on conscientious objection (1-A-O) the reviewing authorities must find that an applicant’s moral and ethical beliefs objects to participation as a combatant in war in any form, but whose convictions are such as to permit military service in a non-combatant stratus.” This is a good reminder to counselors assisting 1-A-O applicants that the CO must be clear about why their conscience will allow them to continue to serve in the military.
Routing the case file: For those not on active duty, the routing has been changed: (para. 3.10):
— For applicants assigned to the Air Force Reserve Unit Program (Cat A): AFRC/A1KK Workflow (firstname.lastname@example.org), via email. [Previously it was HQ AFRES/DPAA, Robins AFB GA 31098-5000]
— For ANG officers and airmen: NGB/A1PP, Joint Base Andrews MD 20762. [Previously it was HQ ANGRC/DPM, Andrews AFB DC 20331-6008]
— For reserve officer and airmen assigned to IMA positions and the PIRR: ARPC/DPA, 18420 E. Silver Creek Ave Bldg 390, Buckley CO 80011 [Previously it was HQ ARPC/DPA, 6760 E. Irvington Pl #1500, Denver CO 80280-1500].
Timing of Discharge: The new AFI states that the goal of the Air Force is to discharge COs within 10 duty days of the approval of their application (par. 6.1). While this is great news for those who are anxious to get out, this could pose challenges (which we already have observed) for some who are essentially forced to uproot their families with little more than a week’s notice.
Veterans Benefits: Title 38, U.S.C., Section 5303 denies VA benefits to conscientious objectors who refuse to perform military duty, wear the uniform, or fail to obey lawful orders. While this has been reflected in the regulations for decades, and COs have been required to sign a counseling statement acknowledging that they understand it, new wording has been added to the revised AFI (para. 3.7.1), as well as the counseling statement (Attachment 4): “When a member is separated pursuant to a CO status, The Department of Veterans Affairs will determine what veterans benefits, if any, a member is entitled to receive.” While this may be simply a redundancy, CCW has received at least one call from a discharged Marine CO whose service was characterized as fully honorable and did not violate any orders while on active duty, yet was initially denied his earned benefits by the VA because he was discharged as a CO. We do not know if this was an isolated case, or if it reflects a new policy of discrimination against or harassment of conscientious objectors that is now codified in this revised AFI.
Assignment: Paragraph 3.3.3 explicitly states “an applicant shall be required to comply with active duty or transfer orders in effect at the time of his or her application or subsequently issued and received.” The previous AFI was silent on this matter, and this new Air Force policy is in contrast with Army policy, which is to retain CO applicants in their unit, making for easier processing, since the local chain of command does not change.
Screening: While the regulations have always called for a screening of the applicant’s personnel records, the new AFI adds more detail: “Review the applicant’s entire record to include all recent personnel actions taken by the applicant or on behalf of the applicant and provide this information to the investigating officer. Use all military personnel databases (e.g., Military Personnel Data System (MilPDS), Case Management System (CMS), Personnel Records Display Application (PRDA)) in the comprehensive review of the record” (para. 3.7.3).
Psychiatrist report: The previous AFI (para 3.2.9) required a “specific comment” from the Investigating Office about the psychiatrist report, and “what bearing, if any, it had on the conclusions reached.” That has been deleted from the new Instruction.
The definition of religion in Attachment 1 has been revised, and is now identical to that found in DODI 1300.06: “Belief in an external power or ‘being’ or deeply held moral or ethical belief, to which all else is subordinate or upon which all else is ultimately dependent, and which has the power or force to affect moral well-being. The external power or ‘being’ need not be one that has found expression in either religious or societal traditions. However, it should sincerely occupy a place of equal or greater value in the life of its possessor. Deeply held moral or ethical beliefs should be valued with the strength and devotion of traditional religious conviction. The term ‘religious training and/or belief’ may include solely moral or ethical beliefs even though the applicant may not characterize these beliefs as ‘religious’ in the traditional sense, or may expressly characterize them as not religious. The term ‘religious training and/or belief’ does not include a belief that rests solely upon considerations of policy, pragmatism, expediency, or political views.”
In the previous AFI, the first and last sentences were identical, but the middle read, “The external power or being need not be a deity in the conventional usage. It may be a sincere and meaningful belief that occupies a place parallel to that filled by the God of another, or, in the case of deeply held moral or ethical beliefs, beliefs held with the strength and devotion of traditional religious conviction. Religious training and belief may involve only moral or ethical beliefs even though the applicant may not characterize these beliefs as religious in the traditional sense, or may expressly characterize them as not religious.”
Rebuttal: While the right to rebut anything in the record upon receipt of the Investigating Officer’s report remains, the new AFI deletes language that makes it clear that the applicant is afforded rebuttal rights at any time adverse information is added to the case file. Nonetheless, this right is protected by the DODI, paragraph 7.7: “Any additional information other than the official service record of the applicant considered by the Secretary of the Military Department concerned that is adverse to the applicant, and that the applicant has not had an opportunity to comment upon or refute, will be made a part of the record and the applicant shall be given an opportunity to comment upon or refute the material before a final decision is made.”
With many of these revisions, the intent is vague. Some seem to be supportive or simply neutral; others, like removing the explicit reference to rebuttal rights throughout all levels of review, could make the process more challenging for a CO than it already is. Regardless of the intent the Air Force may have had in revising various parts of this Instruction, our job remains clear: to provide both technical and community support for COs in the Air Force who take the courageous stand to follow their conscience.
Bill Galvin is Counseling Coordinator with the Center on Conscience & War in Washington, DC, and serves on the board of directors of the GI Rights Network.