U.S. military members discuss seeking conscientious objector status over support of Israel in Gaza (2024)

The death of 6-year-old Hind Rajab in February after she was trapped under Israeli fire in Gaza sparked international condemnation — and for Larry Hebert Jr., an active duty U.S. airman, the incident accelerated his decision to seek conscientious objector status from the U.S. military.

“She looks almost just like my daughter, and that was something that was extremely hard to grasp, is that all these children that have aspirations and dreams and lives that many of us are living and want, and it’s wholly unjustified to support what’s happening,” said Hebert, who told NBC News in an interview that he worked directly on a U.S. operation to provide weapons sales to Israel.

U.S. military members discuss seeking conscientious objector status over support of Israel in Gaza (1)

After witnessing footage of death and destruction in Gaza, senior U.S. Airman Juan Bettancourt said he could no longer ignore the U.S. government’s role in the war, including its supply of weapons, diplomatic coverage and intelligence.

“I see the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians,” Bettancourt said during an interview in San Antonio, Texas, “all while the world watches through their smartphones.”

A new phase in the long-simmering Israel-Hamas conflict erupted on Oct. 7 last year, after armed militants surged across the border from theGazaStrip into Israel, a close U.S. ally, and began a devastating massacre that killed 1,200 people and took 240 hostages. Israel's retaliatory military assault has heightened calls for a cease-fire amid a spiraling civilian death toll that local authorities say has claimed the lives of more than 37,000 Palestinians.

Hebert, who enlisted six years ago and is based in Rota, Spain, and Bettancourt are both in the U.S. Air Force and are currently requesting to become conscientious objectors over the United States support of Israel, a decision they said was emboldened by the ongoing war in Gaza. The service members made clear that these were their personal views and chose not to appear in uniform when they sat down for an interview with NBC News' "Nightly News" to emphasize that they were not speaking on behalf of the Air Force.

Hebert and Bettancourt, who enlisted in 2022, said the scale of atrocities pushed them to question their participation in a military system that they believe is helping to perpetuate the heavy death toll. Both referred to Israel’s attack on Gaza as “genocide” and said footage coming out of the region is weighing not only on them but many Americans.

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At home, President Joe Biden has faced political pressure over Washington’s support for Israel, this week rejecting an accusation from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it has been “withholding weapons and ammunition” in recent months.The families of hostages taken by Hamas militants have also shared video of their abductions.

But it is the scenes from Gaza that have proliferated on social media platforms that have made the realities of war impossible to ignore, Bettancourt said.

He explained that witnessing the devastation up close became “a detonating factor” in his own decision to become a conscientious objector. He said he is far from alone in feeling this way.

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“I sure hope that our leaders see that the war crimes taking place, the thousands of videos of maimed children coming into our phones, are changing the conscience of the American people, both within and outside of the military,” he said.

For Bettancourt, a turning point was the death this year of 25-year-old U.S. Air Force member Aaron Bushnell who set himself on fire outside Israel’s embassy in Washington in an apparent protest of the war.

“It was such a desperate act,” he said. When there was no mention of the war at Bushnell’s memorial, or why the service member had set himself ablaze, Bettancourt said he felt a duty to him "to leave a small Palestinian flag in his vigil table."

Bettancourt's application to file for conscientious objector status is still underway. But he said he could no longer in good conscience continue to serve an administration that he believes is violating U.S. and international law, he explained.

It’s a process that takes time, and he is still completing the package of six essays in which he must explain and justify his beliefs. “From there, it goes up my leadership all the way to the secretary of the Air Force," he explained. "So far, my leadership has been understanding and accommodating to my conscience.”

Requests for conscientious objector status are handled by senior Pentagon officials. When granted, most servicemembers are given an honorable or general discharge and can continue receiving their benefits. But the requests are decided on a case-by-case basis.

The Air Force said it has acted on 36 conscientious objector applications since the beginning of 2021. Of those requests, 29 were granted.

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By coming forward, Bettancourt and Hebert said they hoped to help sway U.S. policy away from support for Israel amid the war.

“One specific value that they try to instill in us is integrity,” Hebert said. “And the Air Force describes us as doing the right thing when nobody’s watching. For me, I think a lot of us are doing the wrong thing while everyone is watching.”

Katherine Doyle

Katherine Doyle is a White House reporter for NBC News.

Courtney Kube

Courtney Kube is a correspondent covering national security and the military for the NBC News Investigative Unit.

Mosheh Gains

contributed

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U.S. military members discuss seeking conscientious objector status over support of Israel in Gaza (2024)
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