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Lillian Lyons, wife of imprisoned conscientious objector Michael Lyons, describes why he refused the “learning to kill” course.
It is important for both Michael and myself to let you know how much we appreciate your support whilst my husband is locked up in military prison. Every message, letter and show of face means the world to us and is really helping us to get through this crazy time in our lives.
I am sure most of you know why Michael has been punished by the royal navy so I won't waste your time regurgitating the details of his case, the intimidating court martials or the legality of his defence. Instead I will tell you a bit about how Michael's conscience led him to a incredibly unjust sentence.
Mike has served as a medic in the submarine service for nearly seven years. It sounds clichéd but he really did join up because he thought he could help people. In fact he saw an advert on TV of a navy medic jumping out of a helicopter giving humanitarian aid in an unnamed war zone. The medic wasn't carrying any weapons, just a box with a big red cross on it. He was sold.
He had just turned 18. He had no knowledge of current affairs, the legality of the war or any war for that matter. I guess you could say he was naïve and he'd probably agree, but who isn't at that age?
Mike was never going to stay in the military, and as he grew up and matured this was certain. Slowly he developed a keen interest in the issues facing the countries involved in these invasions and I guess you could say this snowballed, the deeper he dug, the more he read, the more detached he became from his job, his employers and his colleagues.
In 2009, he started to ask his superiors about notice periods and was told February 2011 would be the earliest time he could give a year's notice to leave the navy. I think this was somewhat prompted by his initial learnings of the political reasons behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In March 2010, he was given an order to deploy to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan leaving on 30 March 2011. His initial reaction was shock as he had made it quite clear to his superiors that he was planning to give notice to leave. They also knew Mike's opinion on the Afghan war but despite this he still felt he had a sense of duty and so we started to plan for his deployment.
In the next couple of months, he discovered Wikileaks, he read and read about the 76,000 military documents that had been leaked on the internet and published in analysed form in various newspapers. These documents detailed the military's under-reporting of civilian casualties caused by NATO troops.
Examples included the convoy of US marines driving down a six-mile stretch of highway firing at everyone they saw. 19 unarmed civilians were killed and a further 50 wounded.
Closer to home there were the allegations that Royal Marines had shot innocent drivers and motorcyclists on eight separate occasions over a six-month period, and that Gurkhas had called in an air strike on a family compound, leaving seven innocents dead. These were just some of the reports.
Within days Mike had to attend a two-week advanced medic course to prepare him for deployment to Afghanistan so he didn't have time to gather his thoughts about the leaked documents or analyse how he felt. The only way I can describe Mike's reaction to this information is "sickened".
On the last day of the course he had a heated argument with an army doctor who was giving scenarios of when a royal navy medic would need to administer aid. One scenario was that of an Afghani child who had been carried to the military hospital by her family. The child had a birth defect and was in pain. Mike was the first to speak up saying he would treat the child. The army doctor answered quickly: "the child's birth defect is untreatable. Lyons, how would you approach this?"
Mike answered back even quicker: "Well, if after I have covered all possibilities and still I cannot treat the condition I would at least offer pain relief, support and compassion to her and her family." The doctor wasn't happy. "This would be a waste of resources, you would have to turn them away", she said.
This was the first thing Mike told me when he got home that night. I just cried. We both got very upset and he said: "I don't agree with what's happening, I don't agree politically and I don't agree morally. I cannot be part of it. I can't be in the military knowing this is what they stand for. I guess I am a conscientious objector."
These were his exact words, they are ingrained on my memory because this was the moment I have never been more proud in my life.
He told his superior and they asked for it in writing, he did this immediately and the captain accepted the statement and agreed that Mike was a conscientious objector. However as it was passed up the chain of command something went very wrong. A few days later the decision had been overturned by someone, we still don't know who, further up the chain.
Mike was furious and advised his chief he would be appealing the decision. He handed his second statement to his chief the next day and detailed the reasons why he was a conscientious objector, the chief promptly handed this back to Mike and said he would not pass it to the appeals court until Mike had toned it down and written in a less emotional way!
Learning to Kill
Whilst we were waiting for a date for the appeal Mike was due to attend a weapons training course, here he would learn how to use an SA-80. Mike called it a "learning to kill" course. Mike's conscience would not allow him to complete the course and he asked to be put on non-combatant duties whilst his appeal was pending, he explained why he was a conscientious objector in detail. He was returned to unit.
On 17 December 2010, Mike's appeal was unsuccessful. We were all in shock, he was honest, sincere and correct. The judge even had to adjourn the court half way through as Mike got so upset when speaking about the details of the casualties of this war. They gave no reason why they had chosen not to believe Mike and we have yet to receive any. Technically the appeal is still pending because Liam Fox, secretary of defence, has the final say and Mike has not received any formal decision in writing. Just after the appeal the navy chose to charge Mike with wilful disobedience for refusing to complete the "learning to kill" course.
Since then it has been a very hard journey. We have both lost a lot of friends through this. Mike has received threats and been the subject of bullying from his colleagues, getting into arguments on a daily basis about the legality of war and reporting back to me every night about how astonished he is by the level of racism within the Navy.
His chief called him a cancer, worried that he would spread his message of love and peace among the ranks!
Michael has however been very discreet about his views and has never tried to push them on to anyone else, he has simply defended the Afghani people when they often became the subject of race hate within the office where Mike worked.
Despite the difficulties Mike has faced, he is completely at peace with all of his decisions. He says that he has a clear conscience and if he had done anything differently he wouldn't be able to live with himself, so he is happy and proud of what he has made a stand against.
I am so proud of my husband, he is the most compassionate, kind, loving and moral man I have ever known. I agree with everything he has done, and I am appalled by the way the Navy have treated him. One thing sticks in my mind about this last year, and it's really personal but I want to share it with you because it shows how strong Mike's convictions are.
He said to me, just before the sentencing, that if he hadn't stood up for what he believes in, or if he had gone to war, or stayed in the military, he wouldn't have been able to start a family with me. He said: "I would never want my children looking up to me if I had been part of this destruction, this death and greed. And I couldn't be the husband that you deserve either."
One day Michael and I will start a family and our children can be proud of their father. Michael is locked up unjustly for having a conscience, but I feel like the luckiest woman in the world simply because that man is my husband.
Write to Michael Lyons:
236 Lyons, D Company, MCTC, Berechurch Hall Rd, Colchester CO2 9MU.
It is a 700-mile round trip for Lillian to visit her husband. If you would to help with Lillian’s travel expenses, please make a cheque out to “London Catholic Worker”, write “Lyons” on the back of the cheque and send it to: “Michael Lyons Support”, c/o Giuseppe Conlon House, 49 Mattison Rd, London N4 1BG.
For more info, please see: veteransforpeaceuk.wordpress.com