OTI Online
Summer 1994

by Marlene C. Piturro

In retrospect, it's a wonder that the convictions of Capt. Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, M.D., didn't get her in trouble long before the GulfWar. A feminist and ERA advocate, a founding member of Kansas Physicians for Social Responsibility, an outspoken opponent of nuclear and biological warfare and of the Vietnam war, she also served five years of a seven year hitch in the Army, leaving with an honorable discharge in 1982.

Seven years later, the Berlin Wall fell and Huet-Vaughn— wife, mother of three and family doctor at Humana Health Care in Kansas City—suddenly remembered that, although she had been discharged, she really still owed the Army two years of service. "I wanted to be part of the 'New World Order,' " she told ON THE ISSUES.

She re-enlisted in the Army reserves. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Huet-Vaughn was called to active duty with her unit, the 410th Evacuation Hospital, set to deploy for Saudi Arabia.

Her military (and militant) background began to clash with a slowly emerging pacifism. Huet-Vaughan's father was a doctor; he was also a soldier. A Mexican immigrant who was raised as a staunch Catholic, she idolized Joan of Arc as a martyred soldier of faith. She and two friends had joined the Army Reserve in college partly to make ends meet, partly as an adventure and perhaps partly out of a family history of militant patriotism.

Stunning Change of Heart

The contradictions of Huet-Vaughn's history were not equal to a new world order that included war. Her life imploded; she went AWOL. And she went public, saying, "I am refusing orders to be an accomplice in what I consider an immoral, inhumane, and unconstitutional act, namely an offensive military mobilization in the Middle East. My oath as a citizen soldier to defend the Constitution, my oath as a physician to preserve life and prevent disease, and my responsibility as a human being to the preservation of this planet would be violated if I cooperate with Operation Desert Shield."

On The Issues Magazine -
Capt. Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, M.D

For refusing orders Huet-Vaughn was branded as a deserter by the army. She was held under house arrest for four months, court-martialed, and incarcerated in Fort Leavenworth for eight months of a thirty month sentence. She was one of at least 229 solider's to refuse service in the Gulf War. The only other member of the military to receive such a long sentence was Enrique Gonzalez, another Hispanic deeply involved in the Catholic church. Huet-Vaughn senses discrimination in those harsh sentences. She says she "never felt that Hispanics and Catholics had the standing in the eyes of the military that others do."

Huet-Vaughn's outspoken dissent was at odds with the Army's flag-waving juggernaut. As she says, "I was punished as harshly as possible because I made myself as visible as possible. The Army could not silence or control me. I love America and expect our leaders to act honorably. I had to speak out against a war fought not for democracy, but to keep on the throne a Kuwaiti king with 75 wives. I was right to do this and I wish I was even more successful in getting my message across. I regret that I couldn't help stop the deaths from hunger and poor sanitation of 50,000 Iraqi children in 1992—collateral casualties of our war on them."

Becoming a Pariah

Among the slurs Huet-Vaughn endured back home were suggestions that she accepted years of Army pay but bailed out when faced with danger. A local cartoonist was so outraged at Huet-Vaughn's defection that he lambasted her in print five times, once depicting her as a rat being sent into space.

More seriously, Dr. Thomas Simmons, a Kansas City internist who gave Huet-Vaughn a reference letter when she reenlisted, and a fellow member of PSR and colleague at Humana Health Care, said he thought she'd returned to the Army to earn extra money. Huet-Vaughn sees Simmons' remarks as an attempt to distance himself from her. She points to the patriotic fervor for the Gulf War in Kansas in general and at Humana in particular (everyone there who went to the Gulf got a $1,000 bonus and a two-week vacation) and says it made Simmons nervous. After all, Huet-Vaughn says in her own defense, "As a Humana doctor I made as much for one eight-hour weekend urgent care shift as I did for 48 hours in the Reserves. I reenlisted because I felt morally obligated," she says.

How could Huet-Vaughn have such a radical change of heart about the military? And why did the Army respond as it did? Although the armed forces don't mention it in recruiting sessions, all the services recognize that people can legitimately change their minds. Through a process called "crystallization," a soldier may at any time become aware that her values make her a conscientious objector to war. Deborah Kirkpatkin, a former ACLU lawyer and board member now in private practice in Manhattan explains that crystallization occurs when someone realizes what it means to take a human life and says " I cannot do that." She adds that the law requires releasing a proven conscientious objector from military service.

In U.S.: All or Nothing

The U.S. military requires that the crystallization and the objection apply to all wars, but international organizations, including the United Nations and Amnesty International, allow for conscientious objection to a particular war. (In 1992, Congressman Ronald Dellums of California introduced a bill to bring U.S. policy into line with international standards, but no action has yet been taken).

The Army acknowledges that crystallization does occur, turning soldiers into pacifists. According to an Army spokesperson, there were 229 Gulf War conscientious objector applications, of which 140 were granted after review. William Yolton, director of the Washington-based National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors (NISBCO), disputes the Army's low figure. NISBCO received over 3,600 inquiries from military people during the Gulf War crisis.

The spokesperson says that the Army usually responds within three or four months to conscientious objector applications. Applicants say it takes much longer, noting that suicides are allegedly common among soldiers who can't bear the pain of being in the military once they have become pacifists. James Corrado, for example, is an Army medic who waited three years for a discharge based on conscientious objection to war. He recalls the horror of having to fire a gun during target practice, fearing that he might be shot in the back by an unsympathetic officer. Captain David Wiggins, an Army physician and friend of Huet-Vaughn, was sent to Riyadh after he made his application for conscientious objector status, which was denied. He went on a hunger strike, removed his uniform, asked the Army to release him to serve in the Red Cross (denied), was arrested and sent to a psychiatric hospital. His case was then assessed at a $25,000 penalty plus the amount of his Army scholarship.

Crystallized Beliefs

Unlike Wiggins, Huet-Vaughn refused to go. To understand how her objection to the Gulf War "crystallized," it may help to compare her to other conscientious objectors. Deborah Kirkpatkin, the ex-ACLU lawyer, notes that most problems arise during recruitment or basic training. Pressed to meet quotas, recruiters either steamroll possible qualms about the military or lie outright to applicants. Kirkpatkin sees mostly teenagers or young adults who sour quickly on military discipline. But she also saw a Chinese-speaking immigrant whose English was so poor that she didn't understand what she was signing up for and an 18-year-old who became cognizant for the first time of the implications of taking a human life. According to Kirkpatkin, getting successfully released from the military involves staying with one's unit until honorably discharged, even if that means deploying to a war zone. Huet-Vaughn didn't do that, leaving the base without permission and provoking a prompt court-martial.

Putting Huet-Vaughn behind bars quickly escalated into an international scandal. Amnesty International certified her as a prisoner of conscience. Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark spoke in her defense. While in jail she was given the Edward Barsky Award by the Physicians Forum, in recognition of her "political integrity and personal courage in defending the public health by refusing active duty."

Under pressure, the Army suddenly released her on April 7, 1992. But her ordeal was far from over. Although a military appeals court had overturned her desertion conviction, the Kansas Board of Healing Arts tried to revoke her medical license. Debra Billingsley, the board's attorney, argued that Huet-Vaughn should lose her license because she had committed a felony by deserting, and broken her contract with the Army. John Exdell, a philosophy professor at Kansas State University who met with Huet-Vaughn, said that her misconduct in violating her oath had no bearing on her competence to practice medicine. "She must be found to be lacking integrity in a way that threatens her patients," he concluded. Judge Michael Barbara heard Huet-Vaughn's case and ruled in December, 1993 that there were no grounds for revoking her medical license. But that was not enough for the Kansas Board. It has reopened the case, leaving Huet-Vaughn in professional limbo.

"Lynch Mob Mentality"

Why have the Army and the medical board gone so far to punish this woman? Her outspokenness is what did it, according to Tod Ensign, a lawyer and the director of Citizen Soldier, a non-profit GI and veterans' assistance group. Ensign, who helped in Huet-Vaughn's defense, comments, "there is no question that if she had kept quiet she would have been granted a routine c/o." Ensign adds that there were "hundreds of doctors with lucrative practices who ignored their orders to report and were not prosecuted" and says that Huet-Vaughn's prosecution was a "serious ethical breach stemming from a lynch mob mentality."

Perhaps Huet-Vaughn's status in the community and her break with the military after a long association with it was what drew such harsh reprisals. Perhaps there was outrage against someone who knew what the military had to offer, took it for many years, and then turned critic.

What the Army offered the 20-year-old Chicana and other feminists of her generation in the 1970s was a way for women to prove they were equal to men in a macho setting. Such opportunities are greater than ever today since General Gordon Sullivan, the Army's Chief of Staff, recently opened many direct combat positions to women.

While the Huet-Vaughn of20 years ago would have applauded the Army's move to integrate women into combat roles, the 1994 version does not believe that women in combat is a litmus test for equality. Recently she said, "Proving that you can equally support a death-wielding structure like the military is not what feminism should be about. We need to create life-engendering structures and invite men to join."

Back to Real Life

With memories of the Gulf War fading along with the wave of publicity for her case, Huet-Vaughn is back home in Kansas. The prison ordeal and the talk show circuit are behind her, as is, for now anyway, the good job at Humana Health Care. She practices medicine at a 22-bed hospital two and a half hours from home. Still in military limbo as an inactive ready Reservist with no pay, no conscientious objector ruling, no discharge, and no decision on her medical license, she waits.

Most of her current patients either don't know or don't care about her Gulf War firestorm. As interest in the Gulf War dies down, and as more and more people begin to question why America was there at all, she hopes she may regain some of what she lost. Sometimes she and her husband David contemplate starting afresh by moving away from Kansas. Then the backbone reappears, "This is our home and our community. My roots are here and there is still a great deal that needs to be done. ...Maybe someday we will all transcend political differences and just support one another."*

Freelance journalist Marlene C. Piturro lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. She is a long-term pacifist and Quaker.

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