Phung Huynh

War & Peacenik

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.


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.)

"When I first went to Fort McCoy, I was thinking, 'I'll go to Iraq, but I won't fire,'" she says. "My attitude was, I didn't agree with the war, but I'd influence whatever I'm capable of influencing. The training at McCoy put it in my face. It was much more geared to overcoming our resistance to killing than before I went to Bosnia [in 1996]. I've never gotten the heebie-jeebies about firing a weapon, but I knew I wasn't prepared to kill anyone in Iraq."

Ann Marie says filing as a conscientious objector "hadn't even been in my mind" before the training at McCoy.

"I believe life is sacred, special and unique," she wrote in her 31-page petition. "Life is a precious treasure. I do not believe in the death penalty or abortion. Killing ends any potential a life might achieve. I have determined I am not willing or capable of killing."

Ann Marie submitted her paperwork even after the Army demobilized her in September 2004 from having to go to Iraq because of a chronically bad hip.

"I owe it to myself and to the military morally to be sincere and truthful," she says of her decision.

With her objector application in limbo (as it still is), Ann Marie did end up going to Iraq, but not as a soldier. In May 2005, she and five other Americans spent 12 days there with the Christian Peacekeeper Teams, an anti-war organization based in Toronto and Chicago.

Ann Marie officially remains a reservist as she continues to await the Army's decision, and has been reporting monthly for weekend drills, which usually has meant sitting at a desk.

Major Tate knows how few conscientious objector petitions are filed, much less granted, these days, what with an all-volunteer military.

If the Army eventually rejects Ann Marie's petition, she could face prison time if she refuses to report for duty.

What complicates matters is that she's weeks away from giving birth to her first child.

"We didn't expect to become pregnant," she says. "I don't want to go to jail with a little baby at home."

In 2005, according to U.S. Army Public Affairs, that branch of the military resolved the cases of 61 soldiers who had applied for conscientious objector status. Of that number, just 23 — 38 percent — won their cases.

"Before I attended that training at Fort McCoy, I already wanted to leave the military," she wrote in her application. "That decision was difficult. However, the thought of leaving the military through conscientious objection was much, much harder. A conscientious objector discharge, while not technically a dishonorable discharge, will not be seen as honorable by many people I know.

"All of my immediate family is connected to the military. My husband and my brother are in the Army Reserve and National Guard, respectively. My father is a retired Air Force Master Sergeant and teaches Junior ROTC. My mother is a civil servant for the Air Force. My grandfather, several uncles, an aunt and a cousin were or are in the service. Most of my friends also are in the military, or were in the military."

Ann Marie's father, Terry Johnson, the Air Force lifer (and no squishy liberal), says he supports her decision.

"My daughter knows her capabilities, and is a very smart, loyal person," he says. "Some of the training she had at McCoy — shoot women and children first and ask questions later if you're in doubt — well, she couldn't do that. And I don't blame her. I don't agree with what we're doing over in Iraq, either.

"But it's not just about her trying to skip out on her service. It was about her being in charge of people and putting them in jeopardy because she wasn't willing to kill anyone. I'm very proud of her."

Until Ann Marie and her husband, Mitch, recently moved from Phoenix to Chicago (a job transfer for Mitch, who works for a pharmaceutical company), she had been involved with Arizona-based peace groups, especially the Arizona Department of Peace campaign.

The AZDOP is part of a national effort whose goals include trying to get Congress to create a cabinet-level position for a peace advocate.

Co-founder and Paradise Valley resident Terri Mansfield says "we're not necessarily supporting the [Iraq] war, but we do support the military. Hey, my husband is a retired Air Force colonel. Nobody wants peace any more than a peacemaker. We were a perfect fit for Ann Marie."

AZDOP has received the blessings of Governor Janet Napolitano, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and a third, unlikely supporter: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Last February, Ann Marie and two other AZDOP members posed for photos with Arpaio at his downtown Phoenix office. The sheriff also endorsed the group on his official letterhead.

Perhaps it's that Arpaio, the incurable publicity hound, just can't say no to a photo-op. Or maybe he misunderstood the anti-war aim of the group. At any rate, Arpaio wrote a few months ago to Ann Marie and AZDOP co-founder Terri Mansfield that he looked forward "to working with your group to stop the violence in our community."

Ann Marie claims to be "almost" 5-foot-4, which means she peered up at most of her fellow plebes after enrolling at West Point in 1989.

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.

"[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."

A small town with its fair share of bullies, particularly certain upperclassmen apparently displeased by the relatively new presence of women on the previously all-male campus (the first women cadets enrolled in 1976).

"A few individuals there terrorized me," she says, "and I'm not referring to the typical academy hazing routines. I kept a lot inside myself during those years."

Chien Johnson says her daughter "is a sweet girl, but she's tough. I told her at one point she could come home with me, but she said that meant the people who wanted her out would win. She's not a quitter."

Ann Marie says she was disturbed by more than the Neanderthals.

For example, the cadets spent hours doing "Jody calls" — traditional chants done in military cadence during drills ("Jody" is a recurring character in the call-and-response).

"Many of our Jody calls were about dehumanizing Asian people, Vietnamese people," she says. "Gook! Chink! I wouldn't say them aloud because it was too close to my family, devaluing their lives like they were nothing."

Ann Marie says she also thought the bayonet training, with the chants of "Kill! Kill!" and "Blood makes the grass grow greener," was absurd.

"I don't know if it was denial or naiveté or the belief that I was ultimately doing greater good than harm by my profession," she says. "But in hindsight, I missed many opportunities to more accurately equate being in the Army as being in a profession of killing."

About a year after she graduated in 1993, Ann Marie went to work as a quartermaster lieutenant for E Company, 123rd Main Support Battalion, running a warehouse with a platoon of 55 soldiers at a base in Ober-Olm, Germany.

"I found great personal value in being a reasonable and compassionate boss for the soldiers working for me," she wrote in her conscientious objector petition. "I also discovered I was a good problem-solver. I believed both of these traits to be beneficial to the Army and nation."

But Ann Marie had decided a career in the Army wasn't for her.

In December 1995, she was set to leave active duty under the "early out" program, which allowed West Point grads to be discharged after three years instead of the usual five. (These days, with the war effort in Iraq going strong, it's more like "never out" for Army officers.)

But duty called. Her unit was about to be deployed to Bosnia on a peacekeeping mission after the late 1995 cease-fire there.

"I felt like I couldn't abandon my guys," Ann Marie says.

She decided to stay on active Army duty for a while, and was stationed for months near Tuzla, a city in northeast Bosnia that had been the site of an infamous massacre years earlier.

"As the convoy commander, I definitely thought about the possibility of coming under attack," Ann Marie says. "At the time, I felt willing to protect myself and my soldiers if it meant firing. I tried picturing what needed to be done to keep any situation from escalating. Ultimately, even at that time, I never actually pictured specifically firing at a person."

After she returned from Bosnia safely, the Army released Ann Marie Johnson from active duty in April 1996. But she still owed what she thought would be five years of service as a reservist, which she says she was prepared to fulfill.

While living near Los Angeles and working as a pharmaceutical sales rep for Abbott Labs in late 1996, Ann Marie says she first happened upon Pacifica Radio.

"There were shows on alternative healing and on different points of view, and I found myself really open to these," she says of the politically liberal, free-speech programming.

Concurrently, she says she really got to know the Vietnamese side of her family. Some of her mother's relatives also had immigrated to California, and the stories they related about their difficult lives moved her.

"As I started to hear accounts of their experiences living in a war-torn country, I gained a deeper appreciation for the individual suffering of innocent people," she later wrote. "I learned from family members who had spent time as prisoners from the war, and what happened to their families while they were in prison. I have family members who to this day suffer tragedies due to the carcinogenic nature of Agent Orange. I heard stories of hunger and helplessness. Hearing about my family's experience as victims of war has changed the way I view war."

Ann Marie also honed in for the first time on the Confucianism that is an essential part of Vietnamese culture.

"In Confucianism, there is a lot of emphasis on duty to family, authority and state leaders," she says. "Obedience is a moral imperative. I grew up with little regard toward my own autonomy and independence. Even when I wanted to chart my own course, I never considered doing it outside the system."

That, she says, started to change in the late 1990s, even though Ann Marie continued to report for reserve duty. (During this period, she also earned a master's degree in Human Relations from Cal State-San Bernardino.)

During reserve training in Barstow, California, in 1998, she met another Army officer, South Carolinian Mitch Tate. The two started to date the following year.

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.

"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."

Kind of a modern Sergeant York in reverse, referring to the conscientious objector turned war hero made famous in the 1941 Gary Cooper flick.

After Ann Marie returned home, she read works by non-violence advocates such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Their thinking, she says, profoundly moved her.

In her conscientious objector packet, Ann Marie wrote, "I see how their methods are feasible options to creating peace and not just an absence of hostilities."

Says her Army Reserve pal Kelly Donham, "I think she thought she was going to jail and was preparing herself to write about her feelings against the war from the jail cell. I think she had hoped to change the military thinking from within the organization, but became resigned to think it was impossible."

Ann Marie says she later explained her position to a police officer from Wisconsin — an Army Reserve officer replacing her as head of a four-person unit.

"He said he totally understood how I felt," she says, "and that not everyone has the makeup to kill another person. But he told me he couldn't see how if I had some filthy, nasty, foaming-at-the-mouth guy trying to rape me and I had the ability to kill him, why I wouldn't. That's something I wonder about myself.

"I guess if that happened and I wasn't prepared and I didn't think about it, I probably would kill the person. But I'd still have to live with myself afterward."

Last May, Ann Marie journeyed from Phoenix to Iraq as a member of the Christian Peacekeeper Teams, not as Major Tate. It was a dangerous trip, as she and her team moved around the country without military escort.

"You never knew who was around the corner," says Roger Sanders, an attorney from Sherman, Texas, who was one of Ann Marie's fellow team members.

"But we were very vigilant as we went about our business, and it helped having a cool head like Ann Marie with us. She's had to deal with the paradox of being in the military and being very engaged in the process of peacemaking. But she has this wonderful way of honoring the lives of those who've elected to serve in the Armed Forces as well as those who live in Iraq."

A veteran of the Air National Guard, Sanders says he and Ann Marie had similar reactions on the trip to a colleague who said something derogatory about the U.S. troops.

"We were astonished, really," he recalls. "We asked how in the name of peace anyone could automatically be negative about people who happen to be wearing a uniform. I mean, I'm against the war in Iraq, but no one there went out of their way to get rid of Hussein before the U.S. got there."

Sanders says his fondest memories of Major Tate came on Memorial Day, 2005, visiting U.S. troops at Camp Lima, near Baghdad.

"She seemed at home there, comfortable, even though she doesn't believe in fighting or killing," he says. "There was singing and praying and remembrances. She was like a comrade not in arms there. It was obvious to me that she loves her country and the troops. I think of her as a peaceful patriot."


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