Friday, January 02, 2009

Conscientious Objectors

In previous wars, conscientious objectors were assigned non-combat tasks--but they still had to serve. Here's a story of one such conscientious objector, as told on a mail list of which I am a member. I have received permission to post it.

Here's an email I wrote in Nov. to my family about my 89 year old stepfather, Malcolm, that some of you may find interesting. Malcolm is probably the mildest mannered, kindest hearted, person I have ever known. It would be worth to understand that there are CO's- and then there are brave CO's.

Today is Veterans' Day- when we thank those in the military who have served our nation during times of war. Malcolm does not fit the literal definition, but he deserves our thanks also.

As you may remember, we spend 3 evenings a week chatting over a glass of wine with Mom and Malcolm, and the occasional dinner, lunch, brunch or outing. Over the past few weeks, through various intersections of conversations, I found out that although Malcolm was a conscientious objector (CO), he still served. Here's the pieced together story, the last parts of which I got tonight:

Malcolm filed for CO status during WWII and was offered a ministerial (religious) deferment because he was, at the time, studying religion (and psychology) in college. But, being the scrupulously honest man that he is, he could, would, not accept the offer, as he had not yet committed in his own mind to becoming a minister. So he entered a CO service program voluntarily- with a commitment of 37 months. During those 3+ years he participated in many projects, among them: compression chamber tests designed to study the effects of compression on pilots, in which he was put into a compression chamber and flown at various altitudes, and having various physical tests done after each, including giving arterial blood - a risky and and painful experience all around; deforestation project- he cut down cottonwood trees in a swamp, wading out with saws wearing hip boots- a task previously given to slaves; reforestation projects, involving caring for seedlings and planting them in remote areas; being subjected to a variety of diets, and having all types of physical tests and other measurements done daily- diets included one for optimizing pilots' efficiency, and one for optimal recovery for rescued victims of POW and holocaust camps; and serving as a night shift attendant in a Philadelphia insane asylum- often having to break up fights among inmates (and discouraging physical abuse by the permanent staff- an all too frequent occurrence back then). When asked, being the self-effacing man he is, he will reluctantly start on these stories- and then it gets hard to stop him as he enters into the details of names, instances and circumstances- fascinating nonetheless, and a puzzling dichotomy of how much of his long term memory is still intact.

So, Malcolm served, risking himself more than many others who served in the rear echelons of the various armed forces during our wars- and he served in virtual anonymity and without recognition. He deserves our thanks also, and today was as good a time as any to tell him so. But next time you see him or talk to him, please remember this story.

Doug Thornblom, '66

Not all warriors are heroes, and not all heroes are warriors.

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