My name is Mark Wilkerson. My experience in the Army began in June 2002, shortly after my high school graduation. I enlisted prior to September 11, but I found a new resolve to join after that tragic day. I thought that somehow, through my upcoming military experience, I would be able avenge those people that had been killed on that day. After basic training, I ended up in Ft. Hood, TX where in March 2003, I deployed to Iraq with the 720th Military Police Battalion. I was nervous and scared, but at that time I was supportive of my president’s decision to go into Iraq, and I was optimistic about the good things that we could do there for the people of Iraq. I quickly learned that wasn’t going to happen. There were many experiences that I had in Iraq that made me question my mission, and also made me change the way I viewed spirituality, relationships, our government, and my life in general. It was a complete life turn-around, which allowed me to come to the conclusion that military service was no longer the correct path for me to take. This revelation led me to apply as a Conscientious Objector, or C.O., immediately upon return from Iraq in March 2004. The military states that a conscientious objector is a person who objects to participation in all forms of war, and whose belief is based on a religious, moral or ethical belief system. I felt I met those requirements, though the military disagreed. I told myself I would never return to Iraq, but that I would make sure I was discharged in the right and legal way. I told myself I would never go AWOL. In July, while my C.O. paper was still being processed, my unit was told we were returning to Iraq in January 2005. My C.O. claim was denied in November, so I applied for a rebuttal, and was told it wouldn’t be considered until my return from Iraq, more than a year away. So I made the difficult decision to go AWOL, for political, spiritual, and personal reasons. I am not willing to kill, or be killed, or do anything else I consider morally wrong, for reasons I don’t believe in, and now today, I am turning myself in to face the consequences of my actions.

I read a USA Today article that said that there are over 8,000 soldiers who have gone AWOL during the Iraq War. I think it would be naïve to assume that all 8,000 went AWOL in direct protest to the Iraq War, but I’m sure that many of them did. So this message is for those of who are AWOL right now: you are not alone. Don’t let anyone judge you for what you believe in.

As of August 27,there have been 2,628 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, on top of the over 19,000 wounded there. I honor and respect every soldier who has made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. I honor them and their families. May the soldiers who have been killed remind each and every one of us that life is short, and life is fragile, and life must be respected. I also respect every soldier who makes the decision to enlist into the military, and to go to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, regardless of their personal opinions on war. Let me remind you all as well that there are many other soldiers who should not be forgotten either, and that’s the large number who return from war with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, which is very hard to diagnose. And without treatment, many of these soldiers have a very difficult time adjusting to their normal lives. Many soldiers affected with this disorder, this injury, don’t come forward to make a claim, for one reason or another. Again, I say to them: you are not alone. If you have a family member who is suffering, urge them to come forward and tell someone who can help. And I say this to every member of our Congress and our senate, and even our president: Don’t leave any soldier behind. Give them the help and support they need, because you sent them there.

I would like to thank everyone who has helped and supported me along this journey of the past year and a half- Family, friends, fellow veterans. When I left the army, I made what I felt was the right decision for me to make. I joined the military with honorable intentions, and I still feel honor in my heart. I love my country; I want no one to doubt that. I am unsure of what actions and punishments will be placed on me for my decision. I am scared, but I go with peace in my heart and hope for the future- not only my future, but the country’s future as well. This is a difficult and scary time for our country, but hopefully in the end, peace will rule this great land. John F. Kennedy once said that war will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today. I look forward to that day. There comes a time in a person’s life when they must do the right moral decision for themselves, doubtless of how popular that decision is in other’s eyes, or what others feel about it. While I would not consider myself a very religious man, I do believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ. I would like to share two passages from the bible. The first – from Psalms Chapter 33, verse 5: Seek peace, and pursue it. The second from Matthew chapter 5, verse 9 – Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God. I believe that through my actions, I am doing my best to live by the values stated in those quotes. Thank You

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