What if they gave a war and nobody came?

Yolanda didn't: the story of one woman fighting the ultimate war makers in the name of peace

By Metta Spencer | 1993-06-01 12:00:00

Why was a peacenik serving as a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve Medical Corps anyway? Not as a way to obtain a free medical education-Yolanda Huet-Vaughn had paid her own way through medical school by such jobs as driving a cab. The explanation was simpler: As a feminist she had been stung by the criticism that women and peaceniks leave the hard roles for other people. And besides, she thought, the U.S. had learned its lesson from the Vietnam War and would not intervene abroad again. So during the buildup to the Gulf War, Dr. Huet-Vaughn was combining several part-time roles: as a medical reserve officer, as a civilian family physician, as a wife, and as the mother of three young children. She did not believe war would come. Bush was just showing the flag, and his wife had said the American troops would not be sent to fight in the Gulf. Still, as information rolled in about the probable consequences of a war-including up to 100,000 civilian deaths and an environmental catastrophe from burning oil fields-Huet-Vaughn had to act. For months she gave speeches and participated in weekly peace vigils, as the war approached. Finally, she packed and reported to "in-process" for active duty.

Speaking in Toronto in February, Dr. Huet-Vaughn recalled those momentous days. During in-processing she had told a lawyer that it was almost time for the peace vigil and she would not have time to go home and change.

I asked, would it be permissible for me to go in uniform if I just stood quietly and didn't say anything? He looked at me as if I came from another planet. 'You can't go to a peace vigil at all!' he replied." Lots of things happened that week," Yolanda continued. "A congressional delegation had gone to the Middle East. When they returned and talked to Bush, he looked irate. We have three branches of government, but he regarded them as intruding on his realm. He made the comment on TV that he didn't care what the American public said, he didn't care what the Congress said, and he didn't care what the press said. If Saddam Hussein was not out of Kuwait on January 15, he was going to move militarily. We had already mobilized the blood supply to Saudi Arabia. I finally concluded that we had been headed for war all along. We were told to report to receive our orders. I talked with my husband and friends and we decided to say no." Huet-Vaughn reported in her civilian clothes and informed a major that she was going to refuse to go. He told her to report to Fort Riley so she would not get charged with "missing movement," a grave military offence. She did so, and when she signed out for the weekend, she didn't go back. Instead, she went to Washington to lobby against the war.

Although she fitted the criteria to become a conscientious objector, she did not initially ask for that status. She explains, "The issue was not whether I belonged in the military but whether the military belonged in the Middle East waging war. I did not want to focus on the personal decision. I was trying to focus on the decision for which each and every American would have to be responsible."

When she left her post, she left a letter saying that she would come back. She did so four weeks later, after having done everything possible to influence policy. She was charged with desertion with intent to shirk hazardous duty and avoid important service. In her court martial she was not allowed to speak about her views of war, about conscientious objection, about politics, or about her philosophy regarding violence. She was not allowed to bring up international law or the rules of war outlined in Army Field Manual 27-2. Such factors would justify her intent, not to desert, but to fulfill her oath in what she considered the best way possible. When the judge imposed those restrictions, "I was so floored that I stuck a Kleenex in my mouth. I thought, I may as well gag myself, because there is nothing I can say here! But my lawyer nudged me and told me not to make the judge angry."

She could still talk about one topic-medical ethics-but her defence carried no weight. She was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in a maximum security prison at Leavenworth. She was released after eight months.

Listening to her story, an admiring Canadian exclaimed, "Your family must be very proud of you!"

Huet-Vaughn's eyes welled up with tears momentarily and she smiled, adding, "This was a family decision. My husband's perspective was much more radical than mine. He said, 'I wondered when you would get to that point!' He, my mother, and my sister were extremely supportive."

Huet-Vaughn supports the work of other American activists to expand the rights of the Conscientious Objector (C.O.) under U.S. law. United Nations resolutions allow for selective conscientious objection so that one may refuse to serve in particular wars or particular situations that seem unjust, such as refusal to serve in any army using weapons of mass destruction (American ships were nuclear armed in the Gulf). The United States, on the other hand, permits two different routes to C.O. status. First, one may insist on serving in a noncombatant unit if, on ethical or religious grounds, one cannot personally carry a weapon. (Historically, such noncombatant units have often been put at the very front, where they have been exposed to the greatest danger. Huet-Vaughn was already a noncombatant within the military.) The other route is open only to those who oppose all war, unselectively, in all circumstances.

During the Gulf War, military personnel who applied for C.O. status were told to go to their posts first and apply from there. After several months, their applications were reviewed by a board of military officers who did not see them personally, but who relied on statements by the claimants' chaplains and other acquaintances. The hearing officer denied Huet-Vaughn's claim because she had neither undergone a true conversion experience nor undertaken a rigorous course of study that would have led her to change her opinions on new philosophical considerations. During her visit to Canada, Huet-Vaughn was awaiting a hearing in Kansas to determine whether her medical licence would be revoked. At that time she had lost her hospital privileges and was working with under-serviced poor patients for almost no pay. Since that time, the felony charge against her has been dropped, and as we went to press there was a possibility that the remaining charge of dishonorable conduct would also be dropped. The status of her medical licence had not yet been resolved.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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