Stephen Funk grew up with a lot of speaking problems. For a long time, he was actually mute. He would be able to speak again one day, however, in a voice that would stand out because it belonged to a United States Marine.
Funk enlisted in the Marines at age 19, right after high school and the attacks of 9-11, to go to Afghanistan. His father served, so did his grandfather. In boot camp, he qualified as an expert rifleman, but something about it bothered him. When his instructor told him he wouldn’t shoot as well in combat, Funk told the instructor he was right, because he thought killing was wrong.
“Throughout the training, all the conditioning is trying to make you think its okay to kill and go to war,” Funk says. “But the whole time it felt wrong to me. At the end of it, I ended up not wanting to go anywhere to fight at all. I didn’t want to be a part of it.” Funk would soon gain international notoriety for becoming the first U.S. troop to refuse to fight in the Iraq War.
“I didn’t really expect it to be a big deal,” he recalls. “I could have easily gotten out under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I am gay and they could have discharged me without the hassle. But I had this moral awakening about my service. I didn’t feel that it was right to get out under DADT, which I didn’t believe in either.”
He applied for conscientious objector status. There were many other conscientious objectors Funk knew of, but none served time in jail. Funk was sentenced to six months confinement (he served five), a demotion to E-1, forfeiture of pay, a fine, and a bad conduct discharge. The crime: Unauthorized Absence.
“Unauthorized Absence is really common,” Funk explains. “Anytime you’re not where you’re supposed to be, that’s unauthorized absence. As a reservist, if you miss a weekend, that’s unauthorized absence, but they’re not going to put you in the brig for that. They might make you come in on an off-weekend to make up for it, but they’re not gonna send you to jail.”
Funk felt the level of punishment didn’t fit the crime. He felt the Corps was making an example of him. The 27 other conscientious objectors with Funk who applied (16 were granted CO status). The Marines’ stance was the other objectors avoided prosecution because they reported for duty on time.
More than a decade later, Funk remembers being surprised about the public response to his story.
“I figured it would be a more local story in the U.S.,” Funk says. “I remember thinking how weird it felt on both sides. I was mischaracterized by both sides. I was vilified by people on one side, which I thought was unfair. By other side I was lionized, and all of a sudden I had to represent all the antiwar veterans and that didn’t seem right either. I felt it was covered a lot more fairly in international media, especially in the UK and Japan. But the coverage led to me being punished more than I might have been. If I had left under DADT there would have been no repercussions, but I felt the punishment was harsher since I had a more public stance.”
People still remember Stephen Funk. Every once in a while, someone looks him up and reaches out. After 13 years, many wonder if he would do it all over again.
“If placed in the same position, I probably wouldn’t join in the first place,” Funk says. “But I had a lot of great experiences afterward and I did get to meet a lot of veterans with all sorts of different backgrounds who I never would have had the chance to meet.”
Funk just graduated from Stanford with a degree in International Relations. He spent much of his school years founding and working with Veteran Artists, helping veterans through creative arts.
“I don’t want to distance myself from everything veteran related,” he says. “because this was still a big part of my life. So I helped veterans express themselves through art, no matter what their views were.”