Pvt. Travis Bishop left his jail cell at Joint Base Lewis-McChord last week with no job, a criminal conviction and just one regret.
“I wish I had known about applying for a conscientious objector status a lot sooner,” said Bishop, a 26-year-old Louisville native.
The former sergeant made headlines when he went absent without leave and refused to deploy to Afghanistan with his Fort Hood unit last year. Bishop cited his Christian beliefs in making the decision – a move that ultimately cost him 7 1⁄2 months of freedom and led international human-rights group Amnesty International to label him a prisoner of conscience.
He also became a rallying point for the local peace movement, with calls for his release increasing after Fort Lewis Lt. Ehren Watada—who refused to deploy to Iraq—was discharged last fall. Bishop spoke to supporters last weekend at Coffee Strong, a Lakewood resource center for war resisters and disaffected soldiers.
Bishop was released three months early after Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, the top commander at Fort Hood, granted Bishop’s request for clemency in February. Bishop is now effectively out of the Army; he retains the rank of private while an appeal to overturn his conviction and reverse the military’s plan for a bad-conduct discharge works its way through the military judicial system.
He now finds himself in the same place as countless others who left the military under less controversial circumstances: looking for a job, planning to enroll in college and adjusting to life without morning formations and buzz-cut requirements.
“I’m just trying to feel normal again,” Bishop said Tuesday in an interview with The News Tribune.
Bishop didn’t hold the same reservations about war when he enlisted in April 2004 or when he deployed to Iraq in 2006-07.
But as his unit prepared for an Afghanistan deployment early last year, he began asking himself tough questions.
“I had to get right with God in case I died or in case I had to kill someone,” he said.
He found answers in the Bible. Bishop, who was raised Baptist and considers himself a nondenominational Christian, came to believe Jesus preached a strict pacifist philosophy.
He felt trapped between his belief in the immorality of war and the duty to his friends to deploy with them. Some peace activists in Texas told him he could apply for conscientious-objector status. It was the first he’d heard of it outside the context of the Vietnam war, he said.
Bishop eventually made contact with James Branum, an Oklahoma-based lawyer, a day before the soldier was scheduled to fly to Afghanistan. Branum couldn’t advise him whether to go AWOL but did tell him the potential consequences of his actions, including jail time.
A sleepless night followed, and Bishop still struggled with the decision the morning before he was scheduled to leave.
“It’s easy to say, ‘I’m not going,'” he said. “But really, it’s hard – my best friend was going to go in my stead if I left.”
Bishop went AWOL hours before his flight left. He stayed with a friend while he filled out the conscientious-objector application. He turned himself into his company building a week later.
He was assigned a job with the company rear detachment. Almost everyone in his unit treated him professionally, though small talk stopped with some people he once considered friends.
Authorities at Fort Hood turned down his request. He appealed to the Pentagon and was denied on that level as well.
Bishop blamed the timing of it, objecting as his unit prepared to go to war.
“I understand it hurt the validity of my claim,” he said. “I get that. But I didn’t know about CO status before then, and most of the military doesn’t know.”
His court-martial began in August, and he was found guilty and sentenced to a year in detention after a two-day trial. He arrived at Lewis-McChord’s Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility in September.
Branum alleged mistreatment of Bishop and other detainees at the facility during an October press conference – charges Lewis-McChord public affairs officials have denied.
Branum submitted a clemency application to Cone, Fort Hood’s top officer, in February. Among the issues the lawyer raised were problems with jurors at the court-martial (one fell asleep and another showed little attention, Branum said), an alleged lack of interest by Bishop’s unit in fairly hearing his conscientious-objector case, and the concerns raised about the Lewis-McChord detention center.
More than 500 people submitted letters – many after reading about Bishop’s case through Amnesty International – to Fort Hood authorities. Two weeks after the packet was submitted, Cone reduced Bishop’s sentence by three months.
A spokesman for Cone, who is now deployed in Iraq, issued a statement that said the commander reviewed documents by and on behalf of Bishop, recommendations of the staff judge advocate and the results of the trial.
The spokesman, Col. Ben Danner, declined to provide further explanation for why Cone granted clemency.
Since his release, Bishop is living with a friend in Seattle and “just trying to feel normal again.”
Branum is appealing his case because he wants a judge to rule that soldiers have the right to be briefed occasionally that they have the right to apply for conscientious-objector status.
“It should be just like all the other briefings about what benefits are available – not drinking and driving, all that stuff,” Branum said.
Bishop, meanwhile, is looking for work and plans to enroll in college. He is looking at moving to Austin, Texas, or perhaps Western Washington. He has talked to people enrolled at the Evergreen State College and likes what he hears.
Bishop, who plays guitar and sings country tunes, would like to study commercial music management.
He will continue to advocate for soldiers in the position he found himself in, but has no plans to be a professional protestor.
“Activism is a part of my life, but it isn’t my life,” he said. “I have opinions and I’ll vocalize them, but activism won’t be a full-time job.”
The lawyer representing Pvt. Travis Bishop and another war resister has alleged harsh treatment of his clients while held in confinement at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Attorney James Branum first made the allegations at an October press conference. Lewis-McChord officials denied wrongdoing, and both Branum and Bishop – who was recently released – said in an interview this week that many of the problems persisted.
The complaints – and the Lewis-McChord response – include:
/n Female guards watching male prisoners shower and use the bathroom at the Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility, and surveillance cameras allowing female guards in the control room to do so.
Ennice Hobbs, the deputy facility commander, said in a written response to The News Tribune’s questions that Army regulations allow female correctional specialists, who are active-duty military police, to supervise male prisoners.
Hobbs said prisoners have no expectation of privacy, but “all correctional specialists balance their duty to ensure security and safety, with an appreciation of those times when inmates conduct hygiene activities.”
/n The withholding of mail without notification to either the sender or prisoner. “Too much of it supposedly gets lost in the mail for it to be a coincidence,” Bishop said.
Hobbs said mail gets rejected for security and control reasons, and the facility notifies the prisoner and the sender when that happens.
/n Friends and family members aren’t allowed to send books to prisoners.
That is standard procedure, Hobbs said. The reasons are to “prevent the introduction of contraband to the facility, prevent receipt of books by a prisoner that may conflict with his rehabilitation and treatment plans, prevent receipt of books that may be contrary to good order and discipline or a threat to security and to control trafficking within the facility.”
Prisoners can order books directly from the publisher, he added, and the facility has a library.
/n Detainees can only put money on their phone card once per month. Branum said that makes Lewis-McChord the exception; other Army detention facilities allow for it once a week.
“Though there is no Army standard for the number of times money can be deposited in a prisoner’s telephone debit account, once per month is an efficient standard at our facility,” Hobbs wrote. “To ensure sufficient funds to last the month, there is no maximum limit to a prisoner’s telephone debit account.”
/n Many of the junior-enlisted guards don’t seem capable of handling their job professionally, Bishop charged. One of them, he said, told a detainee, “You guys are no different than the terrorists at (Guantanamo Bay).”
Hobbs wrote all guards are “extremely knowledgeable, and perform their duties with pride, confidence and professionalism despite their rank and/or age. All soldiers are trained to a level that meets and often exceeds nationally-recognized standards for correctional officers.”
Training is subject to inspections and audits, he added, and the jail has been accredited continuously since 1996.