A messy journey from military service to pacifism

Austin Kocher

By Austin Kocher

I did not join the military out of a duty to America (whatever that means), or because military service ran in the family. I joined because I wanted out of Ohio, I wanted college money, and I wanted to challenge myself as much as I could. However, it is important to say that there was nothing in my social and religious world at the time that would have challenged my decision to enlist. In fact, enlisting is an easy way for working class people to earn instant social capital in the form of respect, admiration, and deference. This is particularly true in conservative churches where the contradiction between alleged Jesus-centered spirituality and uncritical support of the American nation-state and military violence does not even seem to be a theological concern, much less an obvious source of embarrassment. So, when I left for boot camp two and a half months before my 18th birthday, I did so with the blessing of those around me.

I graduated from boot camp in Chicago, Illinois, received orders to training in San Diego, and eventually got accepted to Navy SEAL training, which was an accomplishment in itself. The application process requires a difficult physical fitness test, a battery of medical and psychological evaluations, and letters of support from supervisors and officers. When I arrived at SEAL training, or what is called BUDS, in Coronado in January 2000, I performed satisfactorily and with determination to push myself to my limits, but I was definitely in over my head. Years later, when I was finishing my PhD at Ohio State University, I began to embrace the connections between the challenges of a rigorous academic program with a rigorous military training, although the differences in my identity and the social values of my university department could not have been more different. But back then, long before I could have imagined identifying as a feminist, my desire to construct a kind of respectable masculinity became a comedy, or a tragedy, of imitation and creativity.

I did not finish SEAL training, for which I am forever grateful. I quit, and was shortly thereafter sent to Puerto Rico, where I worked as a Law Enforcement Specialist at a time when the anti-globalization movement was at its height, and the base, Roosevelt Roads, faced sustained anti-military protest. The protests were sparked by the accidental death of a civilian employee, who was killed by a misplaced bomb on Vieques Island, which used to serve as a training ground for Navy ships and pilots. But the protests were really about the longstanding colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, the growth of income inequality on the island, and the violent role of the United States in global affairs. These concerns were only exacerbated after 9/11 as the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Posted first at The Mennonite.  Shared by permission of The Mennonite and Austin Kocher. 

Austin will be sharing new parts of his story here at Third Way in the months to come. 

Austin Kocher is a recent PhD graduate from the Department of Geography at the Ohio State University, the Board President of the Central Ohio Worker Center, and a member at Columbus Mennonite Church.