About Face

Last year, 19-year-old Stephen Funk turned to the Marines for a new direction. Now, he's a declared conscientious objector and facing a court martial in New Orleans.



Early last year, a Marine Corps recruiter in San Francisco went looking for a few good men. He found 19-year-old Stephen Funk of Seattle.

Funk was tall and soft-spoken. But there was more to him than met the eye. Named for a murdered uncle, he was a mixed-race, gay teenager who had excelled in high school, but was now looking for direction and a place to fit in.

He was raised a liberal Catholic and steeped himself in leftist politics. In 2000, he was gassed by police during the Seattle street protests against the World Trade Organization, and he picketed the Democratic National Convention at Los Angeles, which he viewed as too conservative. Two years later, in February 2002, he joined the Marine Corps Reserves.

"I was depressed; I wanted a sense of belonging and direction," says Funk, now 21. "Being gay, I also wanted to know if I was missing out on anything 'normal.' I had been raised so liberally, I wanted to see what [the Marines] would be like. Everybody deserves to be challenged for their beliefs."

The Marines did not disappoint him. But after months of combat training, Funk made another dramatic about face. At an April 1 press conference, he declared himself a pacifist. He became one of the first members of the U.S. military to file for a discharge as a conscientious objector (CO) during the war in Iraq. At the same time, he also acknowledged he is gay.

Since then, Funk has been embraced by national peace activists as a cause celebre, and denounced by conservative radio talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh. He says he's received many letters of support, including some from soldiers in the Greek army as well as Israeli refuseniks.

Since April 22, the Corps' most outspoken peace activist and openly gay Marine has been stationed here in New Orleans. He is among 23 Marines nationwide who have applied for conscientious objector status during Gulf War II. All were transferred to the Corps' Reserve headquarters in New Orleans for processing during the hectic early days of the war, Marine spokesperson Capt. Jeff Poole says. All were housed -- but not confined -- to the barracks at the naval base at Belle Chasse in Algiers.

But even among his fellow COs, Lance Cpl. Funk is different. Unlike all the rest, he now faces a court martial.

Specifically, Funk is charged with "intent to shirk important service" for taking 47 days of unauthorized leave earlier this year, as his reserve unit in California mobilized for war in Iraq. A pre-trial hearing for his court martial is scheduled for next Monday, Aug. 11, at Marine reserve headquarters at 4400 Dauphine St. Trial is set for Sept. 4. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of one year in a military prison, a hefty loss in pay and a bad conduct discharge.

Funk says he was consulting a lawyer about his CO request during his extended leave, and that his whereabouts were no secret. Moreover, he says, his reserve unit was not heading to Iraq. "I do believe I'm being targeted for speaking out," Funk says.

The Marines deny any suggestion he is being prosecuted because of his beliefs or his sexual orientation. "He is just being processed because he didn't show up," Poole says. "The other 22 showed up. They have been processed out (of the Corps) and there was no adverse paperwork."

The law allows military service personnel to obtain conscientious objector status if they can prove that during their service they developed a deeply held objection to all wars. The process is lengthy and requires extensive interviews and letters from character witnesses. If the CO application is accepted, the objector can be re-assigned to noncombatant duties or discharged.

Funk has a second way out -- but he says he doesn't want to take it. In his CO application, Funk informed the Corps he is gay, which he says has affected his moral development toward pacifism. "I was appalled by the amount of hatred I found in the military," he wrote. "Of course, I couldn't 'come out' in boot camp, but everyone pretty much knew that I was gay and many hated me for it." And drill instructors used degrading language like "faggot," "pansies" and "sissies," he says.

Poole says the Corps will have no comment on the allegations in Funk's CO application, prior to his court martial. But Poole says that drill instructors (DIs) are expressly forbidden by military regulation from cursing and berating recruits. "We are a pretty tolerant organization," Poole says. "DIs can be fired for violating the rules. It is not Full Metal Jacket."

Funk and his attorney also declined to discuss the specifics of his case. But Funk vows to fight the charges and the Corps. "I would rather go to jail than be a hypocrite," he says. Both his mother and gay rights advocates suggested that he seek a discharge for violating the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He refused, saying that would be intellectually dishonest. "He doesn't think it's right to discharge people because they are gay so he is not seeking a discharge on that basis," Funk attorney Stephen Collier says.

Funk acknowledged he was gay in his CO filing because he wanted to be totally honest, he says. But he gets frustrated whenever his sexual orientation shadows public debate over his pacifism. "I wanted people to think about [pacifism] instead of just saying, 'Oh, it's just some gay in the military,'" he says. In any event, the application of "don't ask, don't tell," won't excuse him from the court martial or other military discipline.

In fact, the saga of Stephen Funk is more than a tale of war and peace. It's the story of a confused youth looking for direction and belonging in America.

Stephen E. Funk was born in Seattle on June 15, 1982, the second of three children. His father, Robert Funk Jr., is Irish and Native American. His mother, Gloria Pacis, is Chinese and Filipino.

Stephen's legal middle name is "Eagle." His ceremonial Native American name translates to "sees many horses," according to his father, Robert Funk Jr., an oil refinery safety specialist in Bellingham, Wash. Stephen's first name honors Robert's younger brother, Stephen Edward Funk, a 21-year-old Army corporal who was murdered in 1976 by a fellow soldier during guard duty in Germany.

There are a lot of similarities between his brother and his son, Robert Funk says. "They actually look a little alike. They were both musical. They were both quiet and had similar personalities -- pretty intense."

Stephen's paternal grandfather, Robert Funk Sr., served in the Navy during World War II; he was wounded during action in the Pacific and received a Purple Heart. But by 1968, Robert Sr., then an attorney in conservative Montana, was supporting the presidential campaign of Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy, who opposed the Vietnam War. The elder Funk also offered to use his legal skills to help Robert Funk Jr. obtain conscientious objector status. Instead, Stephen's father joined the Naval Reserves in 1968 as a radioman to avoid service in Vietnam. He was sent anyway in 1970 and served "in country" for 10 months as a cryptologist.

Robert Funk Jr. says he hopes his own military service did not somehow influence Stephen's decision to join the Marines. "I actually advised him against going," he says. "I wasn't sure how close we were to becoming involved in armed conflict in Iraq. But I respected his decision and it was his decision."

According to Stephen's CO application, his father played another, darker role in Stephen's passage to pacifism. "I was raised with my mother and her parents," Funk wrote. "My parents had divorced when I was very young, mainly because my father was an alcoholic and was a very abusive and violent man. My grandparents didn't want my two sisters and I to turn out like our father and we were actively taught a non-violent lifestyle."

Asked to respond, Stephen's father says he was unaware of the contents of his son's CO application, but confirms his son's allegations. "That was true," he says. "Actually, after his mother and I got separated, I got sober. I have been sober almost 18 years. I had to deal with a lot of issues. I was raised in an alcoholic home, too." Robert Funk Jr. says his treatment involved counseling help for post-traumatic stress disorder through the Veterans Administration.

Stephen Funk, who turned 21 in June, says he does not drink much because he is afraid he could become an alcoholic like his father. He says he is closer to his mother, an artist who now lives in Newark, N.J. His role model for his pacifism, he says, was his maternal grandfather Arturo Pacis, an immigrant from the Philippines and the first minority engineer at the Boeing Aircraft manufacturing plant in Seattle.

"My grandfather was the ultimate pacifist," says Funk of Pacis. Under the roof of his grandparents, he was taught never to fight -- even coming up in Seattle's tough school districts. When two cousins, both boys, moved into his grandparents' home, they played games of war. "I never did," Funk says.

In 1996, Stephen Funk entered Nova Project, a 265-student alternative high school that boasts Seattle's highest average scores for college entrance examinations. "Nova is an alternative school that teaches students to think for themselves," he told his marine commander in his CO application. "My education there made adapting to military life impossible."

At Nova, students have equal say with faculty over the hiring of teachers and on school budget matters. "Stephen sat on the hiring committee and that is more powerful than any student government I ever heard of," says teacher Barbara Osborne. And even though Funk commuted three hours daily to school, he had perfect attendance, Osborne recalls.

She also recalls that he was shy. "When he was a freshman, you could hardly hear him talk," Osborne says. To overcome this shyness, Funk took drama courses and signed up for plays. One role required him to curse and get angry on stage; it took hours of work with the drama coach until he could do it. And in 1999, Funk says, he ran naked with 50 other men through an art museum for an artistic photographer. It was another attempt to overcome his shyness, he says with a smile. (And no, he never told the Marines.)

Academic excellence came more easily. He liked school and completed almost twice as many courses as he needed to graduate. Eleven colleges and universities actively courted him; some offered four-year scholarships.

Osborne says she was surprised -- but not shocked -- when Funk joined the Marines. She recalled his tumultuous home life and thought he was looking for financial security. She believes her former student will emerge stronger from the court martial. "There is internal steel in this boy," she says. "He will take every lesson that he gets and put it together into something significant and powerful."

Out of all his collegiate suitors, Funk chose the University of Southern California at South Central Los Angeles, a choice he says he regrets. Feeling out of place in the predominantly white, middle-class student body, he joined a student club for people of mixed race. "There is a lot of defensiveness at being mixed race because you are constantly being asked 'What are you?'" he says. "You never feel totally accepted by one group."

The club helped, he said. But he still felt like did not fit in. After one semester, he took a semester off and went to the Philippines to visit his grandparents. There, he attended mass street demonstrations in Luzon, calling for the impeachment of the nation's president. The poverty and militarization of the islands dismayed him. He learned about his Filipino heritage, but says he still felt like an outsider.

In the summer of 2001, he returned to the States and moved into a suburban apartment in San Francisco with his younger sister, Caitlin. He went to work at a pet store and veterinarian clinic. The work was interesting, but not challenging. He drifted. By early 2002, Funk says, he was depressed. It was winter. He had nothing going. Once again, he felt out of place. "I felt like I should have been in school," he says. "I always thought I was a student, but I wasn't in school, so -- who am I? I was depressed because I was not involved in anything and I was too depressed to get involved in anything."

"It was a hard time," Caitlin Funk recalls. "He was demoralized."

In January, she says, a Marine recruiter began calling Stephen at their home. "I didn't give him the messages," Caitlin admits. But the recruiter found Funk anyway. "I was being sold on direction and teamwork," Funk says. In February 2002, he signed a six-year contract with the Marine Reserves.

The Marines say they conduct intensive screening of recruits, especially for medical problems and criminal histories. However, prior attendance at political rallies and demonstrations is not discussed, Capt. Poole says.

"I figured after boot camp, I would go back to school," Funk says. "I never thought about war. Before I enlisted, I never asked myself if I had to kill someone."

When Caitlin confronted Stephen about his interest in the Marines, he lied and denied it. "I didn't tell my family and my friends I had joined until two weeks before I went to boot camp," he now says.

It was April 2002 and the war in Iraq was still roiling. Caitlin says she cried when he first told her. "It was extremely hard to deal with," she says. "He first told me he joined for the benefits for school. He wanted discipline ... the military had discipline. It wasn't until boot camp that he realized what it really is about. And he almost immediately regretted it."

Stephen's friends were incredulous. "A lot of my friends didn't believe me," Funk says. "Being as political and liberal as I am, I'm not the kind of guy who does this."

But he did. On May 20, he flew to San Jose, Calif., and reported for basic training at Camp Pendleton.

Funk received two months of boot camp, two months of combat training and two months of training in a specialty skill. On the first day, Funk and other new recruits lined up on the camp's famed yellow footprints. The drill sergeants shouted at them -- with tonic effect. "It jolted me out of my depression," he says.

In his CO application, Funk says many of his fellow recruits joined in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. "Most were ready and very willing to go to war and had no moral reserve about the violence," he wrote. "I, on the other hand, had joined to gain new experience, with no intention of ever becoming an aggressive soldier."

Of the 50 men in his platoon, most were white. Many were from rural areas in Texas, California or the South. There were a few Hispanics and one Asian. On military forms that asked his race, Funk says he always wrote "other." He says he felt slurred when a drill instructor assigned him to laundry duty after yelling in front of the platoon -- "Where's my Asian?"

Boot camp posed other problems for a shy gay recruit. "You have to yell, and I don't yell," Funk says. "You have to yell stuff like, 'Kill!' and I didn't like doing that."

He declined to join in when his fellow recruits made derisive remarks about gays. He did not come out -- but neither did he lie and deny his homosexuality, he says. "Some people cared. Some people didn't. One person made it his mission to hate me."

But he says he was most repulsed by his training. Recruits who did not strike their opponents hard enough in combat drills were punished. "It would break my heart waking up because I knew I would have another day of stabbing a human target with bayonets. I started thinking more and more about the war. And I could not participate. Not just this war, any war."

Base chaplains told him not to worry, things would get better, he says.

Funk says he had never fired a gun before joining the Corps. Near the end of boot camp, he shot expert at the rifle range, at 200-, 300- and 500-yards. "I listened to my instructor. I didn't do anything to not fit in," he says. But the range instructor noted on Funk's score sheet that the recruit had an "attitude." Funk says his instructor believed that he would not shoot as well in combat. "I told him he was right, because I felt killing was wrong."

In his CO application, Funk describes the moment as a "turning point." He had voiced his opposition to the military to a superior. "It was the first time since training began that I felt I had heard my own voice," he wrote. He felt relief and became more outspoken. "That made me unpopular with the more hardcore recruits," he says.

After boot camp, Funk had a week of leave. "It turned out to be one of the more somber weeks of my life," he wrote. He had to face his family and friends, and "my own hypocrisy."

Returning to Pendleton, he took more training, with bigger guns, grenades and mortars. His platoon's grenade throwing drill was filmed by The History Channel's Mail Call, a TV show hosted by actor R. Lee Emery, who played a brutal drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket. In Marine Occupational School, Funk trained for two months in his specialty, landing support. He was made a squad leader. Rather than use "threats and verbal abuse" toward soldiers like other squad leaders, he says, he used "friendliness."

Funk admits the Corps gave him plenty of leadership training and organizational skills. But he says months of combat training also strengthened his pacifist beliefs. He began to look for a way out. He gained access to the Internet and learned about conscientious objection. In his free time, he attended anti-war rallies and marches. From Feb. 13 to April 1, the Marines allege, he took unauthorized leave.

On April 1, surrounded by family, friends and the media, he returned to his reserve unit at San. Jose, Calif. He filed his CO application and was transferred to New Orleans three weeks later.

In his 11-page CO application, Funk warned the Marines that there is an active war resister in their ranks. "I have been acting as an anti-recruiter since I graduated from boot camp," Funk wrote. "I have been actively trying to keep others from making the same misguided mistake I did. ... I have spoken to people who were vulnerable to enlistment and have persuaded them from enlisting. I hope to continue to persuade more from going to war."

Furthermore, he wrote: "Since training, I have been very active in protesting the war on Iraq. I have been to many demonstrations, marches and rallies and I am very vocal with my friends and family about my opposition. ... I plan on sharing and hopefully spreading anti-war sentiment throughout the rest of my life."

CO applications are not new to the military and date at least to World War I. Martin Morgan, research historian for the National D-Day Museum, says there were 100,000 objectors out of the 16 million U.S. service men and women during World War II. Roughly half of the objectors applied for CO status before entering theaters of war, and the other half applied after seeing the horrors of battle.

In a ceremony last year, the Marines recognized one WWII CO. Army private Desmond Doss, a medic and a Seventh Day Adventist had received the Medal of Honor -- the nation's highest military award -- for dragging 75 wounded soldiers to safety, one-by-one, during the bloody battle for Okinawa.

Considering more than 23,000 Marine reservists responded to the wartime call for duty for this year's war in Iraq, the Corps is clearly pleased with the relatively nominal dissent from the 23 conscientious objectors it has recorded, as of July 15. But Teresa Panepinto, GI rights program coordinator for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, is skeptical of the Marine figures. She suggests hundreds more have filed applications. Of the 2,700 calls that the San Francisco-based GI hotline receives monthly, 18 percent are from Marines or their families, she adds.

On April 1, The New York Times reported that the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines received a total of only 58 CO applications through February 2003 -- not including an additional 21 the Marines reported to Gambit Weekly.

When he arrived in New Orleans, Funk says, he felt isolated among the other objectors. Many of the 23 COs were religious objectors who also objected to homosexuals. Then he got to know a handful of other like-minded objectors. They discussed books by writers like Noam Chomsky. "We became like a philosophy club," Funk says.

Funk currently works a desk job at reserve headquarters and takes a boat launch across the Mississippi River to get back to the base in Algiers. He's done a little sightseeing in town and says he wishes he was here under different circumstances.

On a summer evening, while being driven back across the river to the base, he considers the choices he's made. "I found direction in the Marines, but the opposite of what I was being trained," he says. War training gave him "real experience" upon which to base his beliefs. When his service is over, he says, he plans to return to college and pursue a teaching career in biology.

The car pulls up to a parking lot in front of the base. A Marine guard in fatigues salutes smartly toward another car. An orange traffic arm lifts up; the car passes through.

Funk pauses. "The worst that could come of this is that I would go to jail," he says. If that happens, he fears, other conscientious objectors might be discouraged by his example. Personally, he says, he is not the aimless youth the Marine recruiter found more than 18 months ago. "I am very focused," he says. "My priorities are straight. I'm more at peace with things. Things are more tumultuous, but now I'm OK."

Lance Cpl. Stephen Funk gets out of the car. He is wearing shorts and a white T-shirt that is hand-stenciled with a slogan declaring war is hypocrisy. The Marine guard inspects his military I.D., then waves him back onto the base.

Stephen Funk - CHERYL GERBER
Stephen Funk at a rally with his sister Caitlin and - mother (at Funk's right). Funk's plight has been - embraced by the national peace movement and - denounced by radio talk show hosts such as Rush - Limbaugh. - JUDITH ERLICH
  • Judith Erlich
  • Stephen Funk at a rally with his sister Caitlin and mother (at Funk's right). Funk's plight has been embraced by the national peace movement and denounced by radio talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh.

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