God and Country

Mark A. Kellner January/February 2006
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It's a brave—though some might instead say unwise—individual who chooses to resist the might and authority of the United States Marine Corps. Created by the Continental Congress on November 10, 1775—238 days before the Declaration of Independence was signed—the Marines have become, and are today, a formidable fighting force whose motto, "Semper Fidelis," Latin for "Always Faithful," has become a byword for many in America.

Faithfulness takes on many forms, as a former Marine lance corporal, Joel David Klimkewicz, discovered about a year ago. His story has many twists and turns, and the final outcome isn't, well, final yet. Through it all, however, Klimkewicz, now a religion major at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee, maintained his poise, his faith, and his example as a Marine—but a Marine of conscience.

"We have to obey God rather than man, no matter what the consequences," said Klimkewicz, in a telephone interview. He is now appealing the equivalent of a felony conviction for refusing to obey a lawful order. "God is in control of our lives, through our conscience and [how we live] our lives."

How Joel Klimkewicz lived his life resulted in a December 14, 2004, court-martial conviction and a seven-month prison sentence. Klimkewicz, a native of Birch Run, Michigan, is married and has a 4-year-old daughter. For his principled stand, he was imprisoned, reduced in rank to recruit, and given a bad conduct discharge from the Marine Corps—although that latter move is on hold while his case continues on appeal..

"In 36 years of dealing with these cases, this is the first one I've seen go so far," said Richard O. Stenbakken, a retired U.S. Army chaplain and Seventh-day Adventist church pastor who until recently headed Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries for the 14.3-million-member church.

Adventist Church attorney Mitchell A. Tyner said, "The Marine Corps, in its zeal to prevent others from avoiding combat, has totally misread this soldier, and the result is a serious miscarriage of justice."

Klimkewicz, who experienced a religious awakening while on a shipboard assignment in the Marines, formally joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the summer of 2003. Before his conversion Klimkewicz, by his own admission, led a less-than-exemplary life. Afterward his wife, Tomomi, a Japanese citizen who has a temporary residence permit and is seeking permanent resident status in the United States, as well as his coworkers and superiors in the Marines, noticed a marked change in his behavior and attitude.

After he joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Klimkewicz learned that noncombat-ancy is the church's recommendation, and, upon personal reflection, came to the principled conclusion that he could not take up a weapon to kill another person. Klimkewicz told Marine Corps officials that he was willing to serve, but not to carry a weapon or to take a life. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, while recommending noncombatancy for its members who serve in the military, leaves such decisions to a member's individual conscience.

Such requests are usually granted, observers of the issue say, or the service member is given an administrative discharge from the military. Klimkewicz volunteered for two separate deployments in which he would help clear land mines in Iraq, a fairly high-risk task in which he would not have to carry a weapon, but superiors refused him. When one superior, Major Kirk Cordova, executive officer of the Second Combat Engineers Battalion of the 2nd Marine Division, ordered the Marine to carry a weapon, Klimkewicz refused and was brought up on charges.

"I can't take a human life; that's my only real issue," Klimkewicz affirmed when interviewed about the matter.

What made this more than a garden-variety change of heart by a member of the U.S. military may never be fully known; it's certainly not settled now. The Marine Corps, in speaking with various military and public media, maintains that Klimkewicz was trying to dodge his service and that his "conversion" to noncombatancy came before he had reenlisted in the Corps. The former corporal says no, he was not trying to evade his duty. He says he would gladly serve, but not kill.

"I'm a conscientious cooperator; I don't object to serving my country," he said in an interview.

Was it totally within the discretion of the Marine Corps to handle this matter? Yes, say observers. They could have granted Klimkewicz's request or given him an administrative discharge, and they did not have to set up a situation in which he would feel compelled to disobey an order. Whatever Major Cordova's motivations were, they remain secret; he has not spoken publicly about the case so far as can be determined.

The moves against Klimkewicz drew international attention, including major media coverage in the United States and overseas. Men, women, and children sent letters and messages of encouragement; other religious groups, including the Quakers, took up his cause. Even Seventh-day Adventist Church members in the Solomon Islands, an archipelago in the South Pacific, sent a donation to help the Klimkewicz family, which was deprived of his salary while he was in a U.S. Navy brig, or jail.

That family was also deprived of the man who became a better husband and father through his religious experience. Recalling that time after he was released from prison, Klimkewicz said that his wife, Tomomi, who also had adopted the same faith, actually gained from this time of adversity.

"My wife learned a lot through this experience. She's learned how to do the finances all on her own. She has adapted and overcome that obstacle, and she gained a lot of faith from the local church members who supported her morally and financially, as well as from all the church members who sent donations from around the country and all over the world," Klimkewicz said in an interview. "The separation time has actually brought us closer together, and she's learned how to trust in God."

What suddenly prevailed upon the Marine Corps to release the prisoner early? It might well have been the interest that two members of the United States Congress took in the case. Representative Dale E. Kildee of Michigan and Representative Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland each spoke up on the Marine's behalf. Those appeals—and Representative Bartlett's presence on a House appropriations subcommittee that deals with the Marine Corps—may have motivated the early release. It may have been a result of the spotlight of public interest. It may have been a belated recognition that Klimkewicz is not disloyal, but determined to be loyal to his faith commitment.

Klimkewicz was acknowledged by many to have been a model prisoner, who completed his assignments without complaint and even held Bible studies for others in the brig who were interested.

"When I found out I was going to be released, other prisoners were happier [for me] than I was that I was going to leave," Klimkewicz recalled. "I was never treated as someone trying to get one over on the system."

Indeed, private citizen Klimkewicz has a particular reason for seeking the overturn of his conviction: He wants to go back into the military as a chaplain, offering spiritual support to men and women in a stressful, demanding line of work, sharing the same good news that once touched his life.

"It would be a perfect ending," he said.

Mark A. Kellner is a freelance author in Rockville, Maryland. He writes a weekly column in the Washington Times and is the author of God on the Internet.
Article Author: Mark A. Kellner