- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 9, 2005

Seventh-day Adventists are criticizing the Marine Corps for sentencing a Marine to seven months in prison for refusing to bear arms after undergoing a religious conversion.

Adventist officials recently enlisted the help of two members of Congress — Rep. Dale E. Kildee, Michigan Democrat, and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland Republican — in demanding an explanation of why Marine Cpl. Joel D. Klimkewicz, 24, of Birch Run, Mich., was given the lengthy sentence.

“In 36 years of dealing with these cases, this is the first one I’ve seen go so far,” said Richard O. Stenbakken, a retired U.S. Army chaplain and Seventh-day Adventist Church pastor. Until recently, Mr. Stenbakken headed chaplaincy ministries for the 13.4 million-member church. “This is way over the edge.

“There is no reason anyone should get a felony conviction for a religious conversion. The prosecuting attorney said they needed to make an example of him, but there are much more elegant ways to handle it.”

When ordered May 12, 2004, to draw a weapon from the unit’s armory for a training exercise, the Marine refused.

He was sentenced to imprisonment, loss of pay, reduction in rank to private and given a bad conduct discharge for the felony conviction. The Marine, now Pvt. Klimkewicz, entered prison Dec. 14, the same day he was court-martialed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., one of the nation’s largest Marine Corps bases.

Marine Capt. Jeff Pool, spokesman for the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, said Pvt. Klimkewicz, was denied conscientious objector status on March 3, 2004.

“There is a certain criteria in meeting CO status and he didn’t meet it,” Capt. Pool said. “The military has to grant this.”

Pvt. Klimkewicz served with the Marines from 1999 to 2002, during which time he experienced a religious conversion. In 2002, he re-enlisted for two more years.

But by the time he joined the church in the summer of 2003, he had volunteered for two separate deployments in which he would help clear land mines in Iraq, a task that would not require him to carry a weapon or kill anyone.

In cases of religious conversion, a service member is usually given a noncombat assignment or an administrative discharge. However, Pvt. Klimkewicz was charged with “disobeying a lawful order” to carry a weapon.

“The Marine Corps, in its zeal to prevent others from avoiding combat, has totally misread this soldier and the result is a serious miscarriage of justice,” Adventist Church attorney Mitchell Tyner said. “We hope the Corps will reconsider the total disproportional nature of the sentence and reduce it immediately.”

The Seventh-day Adventist Church supports noncombatancy for its members who serve in the military, but leaves such decisions to a member’s individual conscience.

“This is not a man who needs to be ‘reformed,’” Mr. Stenbakken said. “He’s turned his life around and his peers say so. Someone decided somewhere he was being insincere and was trying to dodge deployment.”