War & Peacenik

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

In 1999, Ann Marie made a dramatic job switch, from drug rep to running train yards for Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

"I knew nothing about trains," she says, "but I liked being a manager, and logistics were a better fit for me than selling psychiatric drugs. [The new job] was challenging and nerve-racking, lots of stress."

More problematic than being a female in a male-dominated world, Ann Marie says, was being young and an outsider.

Phung Huynh
Major Ann Marie Tate
Major Ann Marie Tate

"This was a hard-core, old-style railroad management in transition," she says. "I tried to win people over by being willing to learn and to listen. Didn't work all the time, but I made some good friends there."

Also in 1999, Ann Marie read the celebrated book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

Written by retired Army Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Grossman, it describes the psychology of killing in combat, including techniques used by the military to overcome a human resistance to taking life, even during wartime.

Ann Marie says On Killing deeply affected her.

"Not only did I think I was unable to kill," she wrote in her conscientious objector petition, "but these stories [of soldiers] had a big impact on my willingness to kill."

Around that time, Ann Marie discovered the Civil Affairs branch of the Army, which seemed at first like a godsend.

"I thought it could be a perfect fit," she says. "Civil Affairs is supposed to be about doing humanitarian work and not about killing. I heard about how they'd provide medical care in the Third World, deliver babies, help people out, that sort of thing. It sounded great."

She joined Civil Affairs as a reservist later in 1999.

In October 2002, Ann Marie took a leave of absence from her railroad job (and never returned) after the Army offered her a slot at the prestigious Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.

She says she wanted to study Vietnamese during the intensive 18-month program, but her superiors wanted her to study Mandarin Chinese, with an eye toward offering her a job as a foreign officer in the Pacific Command.

While at the language school, an old college classmate told her what General Daniel Christman (then the superintendent of West Point) had said about the Army's need to focus recruiting efforts on more of a "war-fighting personality."

The classmate agreed with Christman.

But Ann Marie says she was convinced that a person could focus more on leadership than war-making and still make a good soldier. Her friend strongly disagreed.

"He maintained that, ultimately, the end game of a military is to kill," she recalls, "and that all members of the Army, regardless of their job, should be able to support that mission. I wondered if he was right and that I should not be in the Army. While I never considered myself a typical Army officer, I always considered myself valuable."

Ann Marie hoped that the Army might send her to Hawaii, where her boyfriend Mitch was stationed, after he had been remobilized as part of Operation Enduring Freedom following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

The war in Iraq obviously changed everything.

In late 2003, the Civil Affairs command informed Ann Marie that it needed her in Iraq, not Hawaii. She says she was "very much against" the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but still planned on serving there.

"I still was thinking, 'I'll go, but I just won't fire.' Then I went to Fort McCoy. I guess that put me over the edge."

Ann Marie says she does not begrudge the Army for the training she underwent at Fort McCoy in the summer of 2004, immediately after she and Mitch Tate got married.

But she suspected that if she went to Iraq as a member of the 445th Civil Affairs Unit, her insistence on non-combatant status wouldn't necessarily be granted.

"Could they guarantee me a job where I wasn't part of killing people?" Ann Marie says she asked herself. "The more I learned, the more I didn't think so. I mean, driving a truck technically is a non-combatant position. But the gunner firing on top of that truck is killing people. You get the picture."

During training, she says, standard operating procedure was for soldiers to aim weapons at all passing vehicles. It seemed to her that what she calls the Army's "aggressive posturing" in Iraq was creating a situation "rife with the potential to kill innocent persons."

Ann Marie watched as soldiers engaged in "spray and pray," randomly returning sniper fire in training even when they couldn't see the weapon or the person firing.

"In the training areas of Fort McCoy, this indiscriminate firing wasn't too alarming," Ann Marie wrote in her application. "When I tried to picture the actual urban area we would be in, however, I wondered where those un-aimed bullets would eventually end up."

Ann Marie says she told other members of her four-person team she would be unwilling to fire in Iraq, even in a life-and-death situation.

"I thought I'd be a pariah, but it didn't go that way," she says. "This young Pfc. told me not to worry, he'd watch my back over there. It was touching, but I had to balance if I'd be doing more harm than good if my team had to watch out for themselves and for me. I had to come to grips with the fact that being willing to die for your country is different than being willing to kill for your country."

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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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