Military experiences create conflict for Guardsman, seminary student

Story by Laura Lehman Amstutz

Shortly after the events of September 11, 2001, Dan Seifert joined the National Guard. The former Air Force technician didn’t expect that this move would create a theological crisis, but at age 42, he was a different person.

“I didn’t really think about it,” said Seifert, a United Methodist student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. “I was interested in attending seminary. I thought, ‘The Army paid for my first education; they could pay for graduate education as well.'”

“I had sort of a vague sense of patriotism that a lot of people felt at the time,” he continued. “But soon after entering the National Guard, I realized I couldn’t carry a weapon, and I’d never bring myself to kill another person.”

When Seifert joined, most soldiers in the National Guard were deployed quickly to work in what he called “force protection” – working to beef up security at high-risk military sites.

“Almost immediately I was sent into a tailspin. I was in the chaplain corps, but you have to find a deployable chaplain who’s willing to mentor you, and I didn’t find one immediately available,” he said. “So I was being trained to work at one of these sites.”

Fortunately, a senior chaplain found Seifert, and he was allowed to work stateside in a chaplain team in the D.C. and Baltimore area.

“Chaplaincy work was interesting. You do a lot of listening with soldiers,” Seifert said. “I was awarded honors because I was able to identify several suicidal soldiers and help them get the proper treatment.”

But underneath, Seifert was still uncomfortable with the military language and culture. “I didn’t realize how much I had changed since the days I enlisted in the Air Force,” he commented.

After his year of deployment, Seifert enrolled in seminary.

“Don Yoder, the admissions counselor, told me that often people come to seminary with a particular issue that they need to work out,” Seifert said. “This became a major issue for me.

“I realized military service was incompatible with my life as a Christian,” said Seifert, “But I had also decided that I would try to endure the remainder of my military contract.”

Seifert continued in the National Guard for five more years, and then another crisis arose.

“I finally knew I needed to do something when orders to Iraq were coming down all over my brigade, and I knew my unit in Fredericksburg would eventually be called up,” Seifert said. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t willing to go, but I realized I had to be honest with myself about who I was and my calling to live peaceably.

“I had to be honest with the military and let them know that I wasn’t going to kill,” he continued. “I looked carefully at scripture and at myself and at the United Methodist church tradition.”

Seifert explored this issue in a paper for a course in Christian ethics.

“In my study I discovered that United Methodist confession of faith says, ‘War and bloodshed are contrary to the teaching and spirit of Christ,'” said Seifert. “I discovered that living peaceably was part of discipleship, and that was an affirmation for me.”

Seifert began the legal process to be discharged as a conscientious objector in February of 2007. He wrote a required 15-page application and went through all proper channels.

He was advised by his legal counsel that it could take 12-18 months for the entire process. He received an honorable discharge in just seven months.

“I have been shaped by the Christian narrative of living peaceably,” said Seifert. “I see my choice not so much as a stance, pacifism, or as a reaction, nonviolence, but more so as a virtue to be lived out thoroughly. It’s not just about military service; it’s about being at peace with your spouse and making peace with people in your community.”

Seifert is a member of Otterbein United Methodist Church in Harrisonburg. He is in his final year of seminary, working on a master of divinity degree.

  

Laura Lehman Amstutz is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press.

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