War & Peacenik

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

But she has always been formidable, despite her lack of physical stature and her good-natured, gracious demeanor.

Though Ann Marie is serious about life, she loves a good laugh, a silly joke, an absurd moment.

She's an exotic mix of her Vietnamese-born mother and American father, who is of English and Norwegian descent.

Major Tate (second from right) and other peace advocates made their pitch at the statehouse earlier this year.
Major Tate (second from right) and other peace advocates made their pitch at the statehouse earlier this year.
Tate at her home in Phoenix last month.
Mitch Tate
Tate at her home in Phoenix last month.

"[In 1999], we were in an Army Reserve unit in El Monte, California," recalls soldier Kelly Donham, currently stationed in Germany. "It's always impressive to be around West Pointers, as they can quickly ascertain what is important and what is just for the battalion commander's ego. I think Ann Marie quickly ascertained what to care and not care about.

"Of course, she is an attractive woman, and so the men seemed to focus on her. They always had some business to take care of in her area."

Those who know Ann Marie well describe her as very strong intellectually and spiritually.

Says Oakland-based peace activist Liz Walz: "Ann Marie is extraordinarily sharp and detail-oriented. . . . She feels things very deeply. She has a tremendous commitment to service and wants to keep in close touch with people from her military background. She pointed out to me that peace activists are more judgmental than some people in the military. That was a revelation."

Ann Marie describes herself as having a "can-do attitude that fit well with the Army way. Got it from my parents."

Her mother describes herself as the "bad guy," the parent who laid down the law with her two children, Ann Marie and Peter.

"Ann was very quiet and shy, and I was very strict," Chien Johnson says. "I raised her the only way I knew how. I was very young, and there are a lot of things I regret. I think I was more into authority than nurturing.

"In [Vietnam] we didn't have opportunities to go up to the next step. But education to us is very important. My mom can hardly read or write, but she said if she had to go hungry so her kids could go to school, she'd go hungry. I thought of Ann Marie being maybe a doctor or a lawyer, not a soldier. That was a surprise."

The Johnson children were raised Catholic, and Ann Marie recounts a story her mother told her as a youngster.

"At a person's death, St. Peter would open a book representing her life," she says. "Pages would be filled with beautiful drawings. Some pages had nothing but ink spots. If the beauty of the pages outweighed the ugliness of the ink spots, then the person would go to heaven. In many ways, that is the basis for how I calculated morality for much of my life."

Ann Marie's dad, Sergeant Terry Johnson, often was stationed overseas, and his daughter attended four high schools in four years before graduating from one in Southern California.

"I just did my best to make friends and be well-rounded," she says.

During Ann Marie's senior year, she applied for an ROTC scholarship, thinking UCLA or Notre Dame might be in her future. But a West Point recruiter approached her while she was taking the physical tests for the military scholarship and suggested she apply to the academy, located on the banks of the Hudson River about 40 miles north of New York City.

"I didn't consider myself West Point material," she says. "Everyone is super-everything there, and I told myself I wasn't possibly all that."

Even then, Ann Marie wasn't a true believer in the United States as the paragon of foreign policy virtue — which, it seems, would have weighed against her attending a military academy.

She says she had come to believe that this nation's support of autocrats such as the Shah of Iran and Chile's Augusto Pinochet had "caused resentment and anger toward America and Americans" around the globe.

Still, Ann Marie wrote later: "I believed I could make a positive contribution to my country by working my way into a position of influence in the military. I understood at the time I joined the military that the U.S. could enter into a war I disagreed with politically. To me, military service was the path to making a difference, the path to ultimately being able to do a greater good."

To her surprise, she was accepted to West Point, a cause for celebration in the Johnson household.

In the summer of 1989, Ann Marie Johnson became one of 1,100 college freshmen entering the Corps of Cadets at the United States Military Academy.

Only 110 members of that class were women. Of that number, 92 female cadets, including Ann Marie, would graduate.

Now, years after Ann Marie earned her undergraduate degree in International Relations, she remains ambivalent about her West Point experience.

"I'm curious how life would have been different if I hadn't gone," she says. "But I like who I am, and it was part of what makes me who I am. It wasn't enjoyable, and it wasn't a fun time for me. The whole lack of privacy, lack of control, being in a fishbowl, it wears on you. It must be like living in a small town."

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My Voice Nation Help

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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