Thursday, October 02, 2008

Interview: Joel Klimkewicz

Joel Klimkewicz is a colleague of mine at the Adventist Theological Seminary, with whom I have enjoyed several classes. It wasn't until a few weeks ago that I realized that he is the former US Marine who had received media coverage (Adventist links are the only ones still up.) a couple years ago for spending time in the brig on account of his non-combatant convictions. After talking with Joel about his experiences, I asked him to do an interview with me for apokalupto, and he agreed.

a: Did you have religious faith when you joined the Marine Corps?

JK: No. I was confirmed in the Lutheran church but wasn't a practicing Lutheran. I believed in God, don't get me wrong. And I would go to church in boot camp to get out of activities--Catholic church, because it was the longest.

a: How did you become a Seventh-day Adventist?

JK: I was scheduled for a deployment in 2002, a scheduled deployment where you float around in the Mediterranean and wait for something to happen. However, due to September 11 we knew we would probably go to Afghanistan or someplace else. But I wanted to get out of this employment to be home for the birth of my child.

I tried everything, but nothing could get me out of this deployment. While at sea the only way I could contact my wife was to use the email service on the ship, and with 3,000 people wanting to use those computers, you had to wait in line a long time. But there was this Bible study in the computer room, so I would go to the Bible study in order to get a computer to email my wife without waiting in line. But after two Bible studies I began to pay attention.

The chaplain teaching, who was an Adventist, was combining history and the Bible, Daniel and Revelation stuff, without mentioning the Adventist church at all. And I was able to look these things up and come to the conclusion that the man was teaching Biblical truth. He wasn't only teaching prophecy but also commitment. And when I committed myself to the Lord I was able to overcome some besetting sins like smoking and drinking. And that's how I became an Adventist.

The first time I was baptized was in the United Arab Emierates, but the night before I was out drinking and partying with my friends. The second time I made a full, wholistic commitment to the Lord and was baptized in the Seyshelles islands.

So I was still on this ship with this Adventist chaplain, and we became good friends.

a: What led you to conclude that you could not take a human life in combat?

JK: It wasn't the teachings of this chaplain, who is not a pacifist in any way.

My wife is a cultural Buddhist from Japan. She observed the changes in my life, and became interested in Adventism. She took Bible studies by correspondence from the Voice of Prophecy in Japan and joined the Adventist church.

Now my family was a new Christian family, and as the spiritual leader of my home, I wanted to be an example to my family. At this time I knew the Iraq war was very close at hand, as we had advance knowledge of that. I also learned that what we'd actually been doing in Africa was establishing relations to get the military a base for bombers--Camp Lemonier.

My church was an Adventist church in a military town, and people were telling me the the historical Adventist position was non-combatancy. I didn't really know anything about that, but at the same time I was reading scripture and concluding that Christian's are citizens of Heaven. And what in combat if I had to kill a fellow Christian?

Plus, before I became a Christian I was an angry person, and I knew that if I took a human life, I would have a guilty conscience and go back to my old way of living. The Holy Spirit was telling me that if I killed someone, it would undo all the positive steps I'd taken since becoming a Christian.

a: What consequences did you face as a result of that decision?

JK: I sought the advice of an Adventist chaplain who didn't fully agree with me but told me I had two options. One was to stay in the military as a non-combatant and the other was to get out of the military as a pacifist. I decided to stay in as a non-combatant, so an investigation was started to determine if my new found belief qualified me for non-combtance.

The investigator told me that I didn't qualify because I re-enlisted after I became an Adventist. But he messed up in that he did not realize that the Adventist church does not prohibit combatant military service. After 18 months I was denied status and ordered to take my weapon to kill human life. Obviously, I had to follow my conscience and told my commander that I respectfully could not obey. I even explained that I would be willing to do any combat oriented task without a weapon, such as clear landmines, a job I was trained to do. Clearing landmines generally does not require a weapon due to the danger of it falling on a mine or seting one off magnetically. My higher ups yelled at me and threatened different things, but I felt that the judgment that God would give me would be worse than what the military could give.

My commanding officer charged me with disobedience of a lawful order, which is usually a non-judicial matter punished with a fine and demotion, that type of thing. But, two months before I would have been out of the Marines, he sent me to a general court martial. General courts martial are usually reserved for serious matters like rapes and murders.

So the Adventist church sent their attorneys and chaplains, and I had a military lawyer. I had the impression that with all these people, how could I loose? The arraignment judge even recommended that it be dismissed, but if a commander wants a court martial, it's their decision. My lawyer fought this issue on the timeline of my conversion, that even though I'd reenlisted as an Adventist, I was still growing in my faith. Therefore, the investigator was wrong in denying my request, because the Adventist church does not prohibit military service.

In military law, the judge rules guilty or not guilty before the attorneys make their full arguments. The judge found me guilty, and then we spent hours with witnesses and arguments to determine the sentence. The prosecutor was trying to get the maximum penalty of 5 years, but the judge sentenced me to loss of pay, 7 months in the brig, and a bad conduct discharge.

Leaving that courtroom was quite an experience. They literally ripped my uniform off me, and that iss a disgrace to all who wear it. It was only by the grace of God that I didn't lash out.

In the brig, I started giving bible studies right away. There was a guy who was baptized with me who was busted for knocking off ATMs and took my presence as a sign that he needed to reform. There was another Adventist in there, and together we started worships on Sabbath

The church meanwhile had started a media campaign. Roscoe Bartlett, who was sitting on a military finance committee also had some meetings with the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Because of their efforts, I got out after four months.

And the Lord blessed me with a very good military appeal lawyer who fought for me at the Clemency and Parole Board which turned my discharge to "general under honorable conditions". The entire time I was going through this appeal process I was doing my undergrad at Southern Adventist University, so when my twins were born prematurely, the military paid the full medical expenses, which were over a million dollars.

a: Do you think that the environment of killing and training to kill impacts ones morality in other areas negatively?

JK: There is some validity to that. In the Marine Corps they would like to pride themselves in their morals. Honor courage and commitment are their core values, and they promote this. Where the immorality comes in is from people who come from dysfunctional lives before they enter the military.

These people come from all over the country, and get discipline in the military. Where their lives used to have no structure, they now have structure. So they become disciplined drunks, drug users, etc. So I don't think the training that they receive to kill impacts their morality so much as it makes them more disciplined about the lifestyle they already had.

a: What is your position with regard to pacifism today?

JK: I don't consider myself a pacifist. I think pacifism itself is somewhat of a naive position. It's a good idea in the ideal sense, but unfortunately we have sin. And since we have sin we need doctors and lawyers, and also police and military. However, I believe that God's last day church has a more specific and bigger purpose to accomplish which is to preach the gospel to the whole word. And we do this because we know that He's coming and in order to fulfill our mission as disciples. This is bigger than the mission some have to carry arms.

a: Are preaching the gospel and carrying arms mutually exclusive missions?

I'm hesitant to give the answer because if you're in a position of chaplaincy that's something you can't say, however it seems that without the military perhaps the Gospel would not freely go to many parts of the world. I think scripture clearly portrays that God uses nations to judge other nations, however that doesn't necessarily mean that his believers have to carry arms and do the judging. In fact our battle is not with flesh and blood; it is with principalities, a task that often takes more courage than pulling a trigger. Many have lost their lives in defense of the Gospel.

a: In your opinion, how could Adventist pastors and church leaders better address the issue of military service with their young people?

JK: You would advise Adventists to really pray and search scripture and their own conscience. I personally believe that Adventist religious convictions will be compromised in the military. Really, any sincere religious conviction will be problematic in the military. Because of the nature of the military mission, any conviction you have plays second fiddle to the mission of the military. That's in the oath you take, that your primary duty will be to protect and defend the constitution of the United States.

a: Do you know anything about how many Adventists are serving in the military?

JK: According to the Military Endorser to the Seventh-day Adventist church I was told that there are over 6,000 Adventist combatants serving in the US military and 56,000 SDA combatants worldwide?

a: Don't these numbers say we aren't doing a good enough job upholding our historic position? What advice would you give pastors, parents, or youth workers who want to do something about it?

The problem is that the church is not educating people on alternatives or on the historic position of the church. If you go to the Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries (ACM) website, it's recommended that a young person consider non-combatancy. But from Vietnam up until recently it hasn't been an issue.

There is a movement to educate our young people. ACM is working on a video to be circulated to our churches and schools. I'm in the video, and so are others who've had conflicts of conscience in the military. It's almost impossible to educate people without taking a position, so the church needs to be more clear with it's recommendation.

It may be impossible to achieve, but on our universities, when undergrads are confronted by a military recruiter who is allowed to roam freely on our campuses it supports the idea that the military is a viable career option for Adventists, especially in a bad economy when other job options are limited. So I'd like to see that changed.

The military was good for me. I would not be a disciplined student if not for the military. It was also good to be a part of such a unified organization, although that unity is often imposed by force. But we can offer alternatives to this. And we could adopt some of their methods like physical fitness, teamwork exercises, and bible boot camps to instill discipline, to achieve a level unity with our youth.

a: What are your plans for future ministry, and are you planning to be involved in these issues in the future?

JK: At present I'm sponsored [at the Adventist Theological Seminary] by the Florida Conference, so I'm going to fulfill my obligations as pastor in the Florida Conference. I'm open to any invitation to speak on these matters, and I've given my testimony in several churches. Now that I'm not active duty I'm able to speak freely.

a: When you join the military do you give up your First Amendment rights to freedom of speech?

JK: When you join the military you have limited first amendment rights. For example, you cannot criticize the Commander in Chief, and that means the President.

a: Do you see military chaplaincy in your future?

JK: I'm not convinced that Adventism should do away with service of military chaplains. I think that military chaplaincy serves an important role. One of the unfortunate reasons why we have chaplains is because of abuses that happen to people of faith. One of the roles of the chaplain is to be an advocate for people of faith.

And if it wasn't for a chaplain I wouldn't be an Adventist Christian. Chaplains are able to reach young people who are in desperate need of salvation. The unfortunate thing is that many Christian chaplains see their job as a paycheck and forget the call to make disciples. As an Adventist chaplain I don't think your job is to make non-combatants. I think your job, first and foremost, is to make disciples for Jesus Christ. Daniel had to go to Babylon, and to win some of these people we have to go to Babylon.

If the lord has military chaplaincy in my future, I'm certainly open to that option.

After our interview, Joel sent me the following statment.
I must say that I respect our nation's military and those who are able to serve in a combatant role without compromise of conscience. I don't claim to have all the answers for those who are unsure. I believe a sincere search of God's will and much dialogue with fellow believers will bring about a better understanding of the complex nature of this dilemma. I do know from experience that when God gives a conviction he will provide the strength and courage to stand for it, not so much for self-edification but because He knows the impact it will have on those who are unbelievers, skeptics, or those who are simply sitting on the fence.

I could share several stories, but one seems relevant for this discussion. A few weeks ago a high ranking leader from my former command gave me a late night unexpected phone call. He wanted to apologize for standing against me and explained that he wishes he had made the same choice. He now suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the things he saw and did in combat. He is looking for away to rid himself of that guilt and looking to the Lord for that peace.

To this an old Japanese Proverb with profound truth applies, “Kokai saki ni tatasu.” Simply stated, "Regret is in the past not in the future." The choices we make today determine our future, hence the reason to submit your choices to the approval of God (Prov. 16:9).
For if you have an interest in these issues, check out the Should I Fight? conference to be held Nov. 6-9 in Oshawa, ON.


  1. It occurred to me that we speak of non-combatantcy as the "historic Adventist position". By labeling it as "historic" do we imply that it is a thing of the past, outmoded, and no longer realistic. If so, perhaps those of us who wish to defend it need some new terminology.

  2. Excellent interview. I remember when Mitch Tyner worked on this case. Thanks for taking the time to do this - new media informs once again!

  3. Somehow I'd missed the Adventist connection on this one previously. Great interview. I enjoy reading your blog.