This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Bethel student ponders lessons of military service, college

NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — With American Sniper nominated for multiple Academy awards and Eddie Ray Routh standing trial for murder, one Bethel College senior has been thinking a lot about Chris Kyle lately.

Bethel students, from right, Regina Hafner, Leah Mueller, unidentified non-student, Koki Lane and Tia Goertzen get a lesson in tortilla-making during the Social Development and Social Justice January interterm class in Mexico. — Austin Regier/Bethel College
Bethel students, from right, Regina Hafner, Leah Mueller, unidentified non-student, Koki Lane and Tia Goertzen get a lesson in tortilla-making during the Social Development and Social Justice January interterm class in Mexico. — Austin Regier/Bethel College

Kyle was a famed Navy SEAL sharp-shooter who served four tours of duty in Iraq, and who is the subject of the film American Sniper. Routh is accused of shooting Kyle and another man — who was trying to help Routh deal with post-traumatic stress after his own military deployment — to death in 2013.

Koki Lane, a business major at Bethel College, served in Iraq under generals David Petraeus and Frank Helmick. She saw American Sniper recently.

“It’s about our identity as Americans and soldiers who, after 9/11, wanted to protect our freedom and love for each other,” she said in a Bethel chapel soon after. “I was one of those soldiers during 9/11 and, just like Chris Kyle, deployed to Mosul, Iraq, on Aug. 18, 2003.

“The environment he saw was [similar to] the environment I saw. However, unlike Chris Kyle, I’m alive, and only God can answer why.”

Koki is also in the somewhat unusual position of finding herself among a group of people — the Mennonites she has met as faculty and fellow students at Bethel — more likely to opt for conscientious objection than military service.

She came to Bethel two years ago partly by chance and partly because Bethel accepts the GI Bill to pay for college.

Family connections brought her to Newton from Tennessee. A member of a knitting group Koki was in suggested she look at Bethel, and it turned out to be “the best choice for the time.”

Other cultures

Although her extended family was Mennonite, Koki said, “I didn’t know anything about conscientious objectors. I learned all that after I came to Bethel. [Professor of history] Mark Jantzen’s Mennonite History class helped me understand more about conflict resolution and conscientious objection.

“I didn’t know an alternative to military service existed until I came to Bethel College. I started exploring, asking a lot of questions. The only person I’d heard of who practiced nonviolence was Gandhi. I also remember in 2011 watching on the news about the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt — another kind of nonviolent resistance.”

The chance to experience other cultures, most recently in Mexico during January interterm, as well as positive interactions at Bethel have been significant.

“I have been given a lot of respect,” Koki said. “When I explain my emotions and experiences, I get a reaction of confusion but not judgment.

“It isn’t their experience. But there’s a real attempt to comprehend. I understand that because I’m going through the same thing on the other side.”

She has also been drawn to some of the principles of nonviolence.

“In Mexico, that was my first experience seeing people trying to live out some of those ideals,” she said. The Bethel group visited with volunteers for Barrio Activo (Active Neighborhood), who work in a neighborhood where gangs actively recruit children and youth.

“These volunteers [go] into the neighborhood defenseless,” Koki said, “with an ideology that calls for working from the ground up, working with the children to try to get them before they’re recruited into gangs. It’s about creating a safe space and teaching alternatives.

“In the military, in basic training, they train you through long hours of physical exercise and sleep deprivation — developing an automatic level of response. With gangs, kids are conditioned to think they can only act a certain way: You need money, and there is no option except to hijack, steal or kill.”

Barrio Activo provides the safe space to teach kids an alternative that gives them a chance to think of something different in community.

“The difference between that and what I saw in basic training was huge,” she said. “You can’t create a nonviolent community as an individual. It doesn’t have the same impact or influence for creating a culture of nonviolence. I’m glad I went to Mexico, to give me the chance to compare.”

Business applications

The class — Social Development and Social Justice — historically draws a lot of social work majors, but Koki sees it as relevant to her business major.

“From a business perspective, maybe paying employees [fairly] gives them the ability to make their own choices,” she said. “Financial independence makes the ability to get out of violent situations that much greater.”

Much of her interest in pursuing studies in business comes from her experience in the Army, in which she served from 1996 to 2004, most of that time in the 101st Division Band.

However, she was also with Gen. Petraeus as a sound technician and flew in a helicopter with Gen. Helmick to look at Iraqi infrastructure. Those experiences piqued her interest in business and transportation.

“When I think of the good and bad you can experience in a war zone, I was lucky,” she said. “I’m thankful for the education I’ve had and for not having the scars I might have. I don’t know what to do with that or what plan God might have for me.

“It’s tricky to stop a war once you start one. [Mennonites are] about conflict resolution and getting to the root first, before it’s so out of control that nothing can stop it. Let’s try to prevent the violence from even starting. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible.”

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