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Conscientious objector seeks to share with other COs


John Hancock shares his story to draw out others.

Summer news about a Senate bill requiring women to register for the draft and the death of a Buddhist acquaintance he had learned was a conscientious objector (CO) brought up old issues for John Hancock.

Now retired, he wants to connect with other Vietnam-era conscientious objectors to share their stories for the sake not only of themselves but also of the community, and people today who are unable to register as COs.

"This summer was also the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers on the U.S. role in Indochina and some of those lessons seem to have been forgotten," he said.

John decided this summer to share his story of applying to be a conscientious objector to the draft in 1970 in hopes of finding people to listen without judgment and drawing out people who may feel marginalized or silenced as pacifists living in a militaristic society.

"Society is still divided and lacks accountability about government leaders and war-making," he said.

"Professionally I have focused my energies on solutions to problems, seeking to make the world better," he said. "I did not protest the Vietnam War and was not a draft resister, just a conscientious objector, which was a legal status defined and recognized in the system."

To seek solutions, for three years with Friends of Compassion in Spokane he helped faith communities explore compassion and, concerned about suicides among Vietnam veterans, helped many through Warriors Heart to Art healing story-sharing retreats.

A graduate of Boston University in music, John played French horn professionally and taught at the University of Michigan and Murray State University in Kentucky. He came to Spokane and was executive director of the Spokane Symphony from 1999 to 2004.

In 2003, he studied executive education at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and in 2007, he founded Deep Creek Consulting to help nonprofits in organizational development. He was executive director of Spokane Housing Ventures from 2019 to 2021.

John values the three sources of guidance in Methodist tradition—the Good Book, the pastor and God speaking directly to each person.  At 13, he joined the Methodist Church, understanding he was fully empowered to make up his mind.

His draft trouble began when in March 1970 as a dutiful 17-year-old he registered for the draft in Marion County, Iowa, checking the box to say he was a CO—conscientious objector.  

"I just had a pamphlet as background, Jesus on my mind and my dad, a Methodist minister, quietly supportive and inspirational," said John, whose father had taken him to Chicago to see "Hair," likely knowing it was about a soldier.  

"It launched my imagination about my role in the world," he said.

John delivered and his parents read The Des Moines Register, and his father read it with him as a child.  

"I took for granted the paper's quality and progressive editorial stance in a then-Democratic state," he said. 

Vietnam news and photos were on the front page every day.  

"It was not hard for any feeling person, no matter his politics or religion, to be opposed to that war based on what we learned about faith—what my dad and Walter Cronkite explained," John said.

"I wasn't a protestor. I was just a guy looking forward to growing up.  I had no reason to think in checking the CO box that I needed a counselor, attorney or advocate," he said. "How wrong! My 1-A draft card arrived quickly. There was no correspondence or explanation, just a card in an envelope."

John learned how to appeal, and wrote a three-page explanation, heavy on what Jesus had to say "in my best and most respectful handwriting," he said. "I had been well trained to respect my elders, and obedience is one of the 12 points of the Scout Law."

He had read enough news and listened to Methodists enough to know his path mattered and he intended to follow through with it. He was surprised that what he had assumed was part of the culture was not.

John's written appeal yielded an invitation for a meeting with the County Draft Board on his sincerity.

They were all veterans, he later learned, and disdainful of his religious views. They defended their own views and were annoyed by "my impertinence" exhorting him on "manliness and duty."  

"It was the scariest experience of my life, scornful and sarcastic," John said.

The result was another 1-A rating, with a one-word explanation—expedient—received around his high school graduation day 50 years ago now.

"The summer was difficult.  I was college-bound, with dreams of a music career," said John, who was upset to be considered unpatriotic or a coward.

John had a pamphlet from the American Friends Service Committee, and his father learned they had an office in Des Moines.

"I called them, in spite of the long-distance telephone cost, and made an appointment," he said. "That meeting was a life-changer. I received both instructions on how to appeal to the state draft office and advice about how I might plead my case and better defend my conscience.

"That appeal, they said, should include what other people had to say about my truthfulness," he said. "The people who knew my beliefs best were ones who helped teach them, lay leaders of my little church."  

The church leaders were all men and vets, as he found out. In a similar probing interrogation at his request for their endorsement, John had nearly the same treatment as he received at the draft board.  

"That was a heartbreaker, and I didn't know where to turn.  Nobody I knew was a draft resister, and adults seemed the enemy," he said.

"I had not grown up with that sort of dismissive treatment from anyone but my football coach. Endorsement by my pastor and my dad was thought by the Friends to be easily dismissed.

"I didn't want to stir up what I expected would be friction with my father's bosses on the church board, the men who earlier refused to help me. By this time, my mom was worried I would land in jail or run to Canada, as Walter Cronkite often reported," he said.

The Quakers offered John an interview with their monthly Clergy Review Board in Des Moines, a committee of ministers who met to hear stories of individual men and vouch for personal truth when they decided they had heard it.  

"I got a thumbs up in writing from that group—an endorsement letter to the State Selective Service. That was the only new element to add to the written appeal I had sent to the county," he said.

John spent the summer waiting and worrying.  

"I had plenty of political views but I knew expressing them in draft correspondence would be evidence for rejection, not confirmation that I was acting within the law," he said.

Pleasures of being a college freshman provided a respite from worry. In October, to his amazement, John received a 1-O draft card—with no correspondence.

A few weeks later, the Quakers called. On the strength of his appeal, they said the state had investigated the county draft board. Over the history of the draft, it had never awarded a single CO. All members were replaced, and all CO applications from still draft-age men were reconsidered. A handful of CO's were awarded.  

"This caused a flutter in the Iowa resistance movement, but I was too relieved and busy to engage with it. I went underground as a person on the subject of my beliefs in anything, as a result of this experience," he said.

John felt personal relief, but the lesson he learned at the time was "keep your head down, because nobody else will agree with you."  

"That's been hard to shake in my public life ever since, and continues to be challenging now," he said.

The Quakers called again to ask if John would be a draft counselor to men in his college. They'd provide tactics and printed information. Grateful for their assistance, John agreed, but after about six months and meetings with a handful of students, he gave up, because some were draft-dodgers.  

"They wanted rationale from beyond themselves, and I was not a legal strategist.  I had just wanted to be helpful, to pay forward," John said.

The following January in 1972 was the lottery and his number was 155.  He worried anew about what alternative duty would do to his career dreams. By then the war was close to ending, and public opposition to inequities of the draft had diminished support for it. That was the next-to-the last lottery.

"Since then, I tell this story sparingly and reluctantly, and people who know me are almost always supportive or at least kind, but for many, it's destructive of their politics," John said.

Younger men he knows and their parents don't comprehend. They take for granted what the "volunteer army" means for them.

"I'm now over caring so much about what people think. I'm eager to engage with others with similar experiences, because we Americans have not yet learned the lessons of militarism," he said. "I welcome engagement on these ideas."

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, October, 2021