How to Ditch the Military

Ursula Levelt Feb 17, 2004

543 Americans have died and at least 3,000 more wounded since the start of war in Iraq. Of that total, 36 residents of New York and New Jersey have lost their lives.

After the Iraqi people, it is the men and women of the U.S. military who are bearing the brunt of this war. Our military personnel deserve support, but more than that, they need to know their rights. Though not easy, it is possible to avoid active duty.

If you signed up through the Delayed Enlistment Program, which means that you have not yet reported for active duty, you have the right to change your mind. Just send a request to separate and you cannot be forced to serve.

Once you have reported for active duty, it is still possible to obtain a discharge within the first 180 days if you and your commanding officer both agree that you cannot or will not adjust to military life.

After 180 days, there must be adequate grounds for a discharge, such as family hardship, physical or mental health-related problems, homosexual conduct or conscientious objection. Many people realize that they are opposed to participation in war only after joining the military. The military defines conscientious objection as a “firm, fixed and sincere objection to war in any form or the bearing of arms” because of deeply-held moral, ethical or religious beliefs. To meet the military’s standard you must be able to answer questions such as: How did you come to feel this way about war? What has influenced you? Have you seen things in your military experience that cause you to question your role in the military? You’ll also need letters of support from your community about your sincerity and the struggles of conscience you have gone through.

If you succeed in obtaining a discharge on any of these grounds, you will keep your veterans’ benefits, including tuition assistance and a pension.

This is not the case if you simply fail to report for duty after a leave, or, in other words, go AWOL. In fact, you may be charged with a punishable offense and have to face a court martial. Once you are AWOL, it is very important to obtain assistance to try to negotiate a deal that lets you separate “in lieu of court martial.”

There is help out there. Make sure to get it.

This column provides general information, not specific legal advice. Each case is different. We advise you not to take any action before contacting the GI Rights Hotline, a nationwide service that offers free counseling: 1-800-FYI-95GI or 1-800-394-9544 or go to

Also visit the Military Law Task Force page at the National Lawyers’ Guild website, The Guild is looking for volunteers to support the work of the GI Rights Hotline in this area. If you are interested, please contact (212) 865-6265 or

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