War & Peacenik

Ever heard of a West Point graduate seeking a conscientious objector discharge? Meet Major Ann Marie Tate

When Ann Marie Tate was a little girl, she wrote a story that her mother, three decades later, recalls precisely.

Chien Johnson says her daughter described finding a ring on a sidewalk. The ring, Ann Marie told her mom, had magical properties. It could make wishes come true.

Ann Marie's first wish was for her maternal grandparents to migrate to the States from Vietnam, where they'd raised eight children, including Chien.

Phung Huynh
Major Ann Marie Tate
Major Ann Marie Tate

Her second wish was for all people to live in peace.

At the age of 19 on Christmas Eve, 1970, Ann Marie's mother had moved to the States, joining her new husband, soldier Terry Johnson. Chien's parents and family stayed behind, trying to survive the war and its communist aftermath.

The little girl's first wish came true, kind of. Ann Marie's grandfather, an ex-police chief in a North Vietnamese village, died in his homeland. But her grandmother made it to this country in the late 1980s. Just a few months ago, Le Thi Tho proudly became a U.S. citizen and lives with the Johnsons in the Southern California town of Moreno Valley.

As for Ann Marie's second wish about world peace, well, a girl can dream . . .

In October 2004, U.S. Army Reserve Major Ann Marie Tate (her married surname) told another kind of story, in the form of an official document submitted to her supervisors. It requested her discharge as a conscientious objector from further military service.

"I am willing to be separated from my loved ones, live in unpleasant conditions, live in dangerous conditions, and even die for my country," she tells New Times, "but I am not able to kill other humans for my country. That's just the way it is for me."

Ann Marie's evolution from a West Point graduate into a 35-year-old conscientious objector anxious to leave the military is anomalous, even to her.

"It's hard for me to have this new moniker of conscientious objector," she says. "It was a big revelation to me, and I've had to try to come to terms with what it means."

It's been a genuine struggle. Even if Ann Marie says she won't be part of a war effort (wherever it is) anymore, she's still as pro-military as any anti-war activist you'll ever meet.

"Most people in the peace community misperceive what folks in the military are like," she says. "But there are lots of honorable and smart people who really do the right thing in their service. I've been mourning leaving that community. But I just can't participate anymore."

Ann Marie is a true work in progress, a woman conflicted and even a bit baffled by her personal journey away from all things military, an amazing leap from A to Z.

But those who've known her forever (her immediate family), for years (her military colleagues), and more recent acquaintances say she's not one to wrap herself in a tidy little package of perfect sound bites and easy certainties.

For example, despite her pacifist stance, Ann Marie says she accepts that "armed intervention" is justified in some circumstances.

As obvious points of reference, she mentions Nazi expansion, and the killing of a large percentage of the Cambodian population by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. She also cites the bloody civil war that enveloped Rwanda during the 1990s as a situation where military intervention had been necessary.

On a more personal level, Ann Marie says an Army chaplain asked her last year as part of the conscientious objector process if she would kill someone trying to hurt her child.

"I wasn't pregnant at the time so I couldn't say for sure," she says, "but in terms of force, I wouldn't have anything against using it to save a baby. I have nothing against stun guns, pepper spray, what have you, and in the worst-case scenario, I guess I'd use something like that."

Despite her radically changed way of thinking about the military, Ann Marie still has the respect of former peers who certainly don't subscribe to her anti-war point of view.

A current soldier and West Point classmate of Ann Marie's, who asked not to be identified, says in an e-mail that "the impact of Ann Marie's attending West Point, as well as serving in the Army, if anything, helped strengthen her moral courage and desire to pursue what she felt was the 'right thing to do' as both institutions strongly advocate this type of perspective.

"The [academy] also provides officers with enough self-confidence to make hard decisions which may lead to adverse consequences (whether personal or professional) in the short term. She is extremely intelligent, capable and motivated, and will surely be successful regardless of which course she follows."

The catalyst for Ann Marie's conscientious objector petition stemmed from 29 days of pre-deployment training at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, in July and August 2004. It happened after she was one of tens of thousands of reservists remobilized as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Though she had just won promotion to major, Ann Marie says the experience convinced her that she had no business anymore in the Army, even as a member of the Civil Affairs Unit, the so-called "Peace Corps" of that branch. (The unit's mission includes trying to win over civilian populations by building roads, working at hospitals, befriending kids and other non-warlike duties.)

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She is a coward... she cried and moaned at the academy and then when she was trying to get out she learned she had to repay all that tuition money she then had to take her assignment.... Peace is designed as a means for all people to enjoy freedoms... but when one person uses it as a catalyst for being a coward then it doesnt sound as good as they make it out to be.....

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