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On Veterans Day last year, Pete Peterson came to mind. Scrolling through social media, I saw all sorts of photos of fathers and grandfathers in military uniforms, tributes and thanks to heroes.  

Pete was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. I know him as an elder, wise friend, and respected member of the church I served. To jump to the end of our story, Pete spent most of his career as a social worker in Iowa’s rural, underserved public schools.

I asked Pete to meet to talk about his experience. While I knew he had been a CO, I really knew nothing about that chapter of his life.

Pete was raised in smalltown Iowa by a Lutheran father and a Mennonite mother. He jokes he spent Monday to Friday with Lutherans in school and Sunday at church with Mennonites. He looks back fondly on this “living in two worlds.”

“I think it was an advantage for me. It was introducing me to different perspectives. There was no animosity between the groups. People got along.” Some of Pete’s school teachers were World War II veterans. His favorite high school history teacher was a local leader in the American Legion. “It was a wonderful thing because people knew each other in a personal way that promoted friendships and neighbors knowing each other in a personal manner.” 

Even though he was growing up as a Mennonite, it was never assumed he would become a CO. “As a child I don’t remember ever being taught about war and the military. Mainly it was simple things like how we should treat others and that the purpose of life was to serve.” 

Pete recalls two influential pastors in his church that began to broaden his horizons in the early 1960s, mainly around racial justice. One was instrumental in the hiring of the first Black school teacher in the district. When finding housing for the teacher proved difficult, a family in Pete’s church offered him a room. “These were examples to me. I was noticing.”

In 1965, he headed off to Bethel College in Newton, Kansas — a Mennonite school. Of course, simultaneously the war in Vietnam was ramping up. 

“At Bethel I was forced to grapple with what it means to be an American alongside being a Mennonite and our long tradition of non-violence.”  He met teachers and made friends who became role models. 

“My friends and I debated among ourselves about pacifism and the alternative to going into the military. We had disagreements, but it allowed me to become clearer and to come to grips with my decision to apply for CO status.”

Like all young men in the US then, Pete had to register for the draft. Before long, a letter arrived telling him to report for a physical and to his county draft board. By this point he had decided to apply for conscientious objector status. 

His particular county draft board was, in his words, “easy to get along with.” They didn’t treat him poorly or skeptically. Was this because Mennonites were fairly common and recognized in that county? Was it simply the relational nature of rural Iowa? Pete doesn’t know. He does know, however, that many other draft boards were not so amenable. Some seeking CO status went to prison when their draft boards turned down their applications.

“I wish I had kept the little two page statement I shared with the draft board. I think I simply said that I objected to war and could not participate in the military. I also said that I was willing to serve my country in other ways.” 

A Selective Service card carrying Pete’s “1-W” status.
1-W stood for conscientious objector performing civilian work contributing to the maintenance of the national health, safety, or interest

It was the task of CO applicants to find their own alternative service. Pete proposed serving two years at Prairie View Mental Health Center, also in Newton, Kansas. “Many of the Mennonite COs who had served in mental health facilities during World War II were appalled by what they’d experienced. So a whole network of Mennonite mental health facilities sprung up after the war in response.”

Pete would end up staying at Prairie View for five years. It changed the course of his life. For four years, Pete worked as a psychiatric aide and in his final year he taught school to teenage in-patients.

As an aide he was constantly around professional mental health providers, and very much involved with patients’ treatment plans. His mentor had been an Army psychiatrist. The staff of Prairie View was full of young men like Pete, COs doing alternative service as aides or maintenance workers. He made many lifelong friends. Working with psychiatric patients, seeing their struggles and hearing their stories, widened his world. In college, he had prepared to be a school teacher, but when he left Prairie View, he headed to Kansas University to pursue a Masters of Social Work. 

I asked Pete, “We’ve all heard of Vietnam vets feeling ostracized and disrespected when returning to the US. Did you ever feel like you were criticized or excluded for being a CO?” 

“Not really. I’ve always been somewhat quiet about it. I rarely speak much about all of it, even though it’s a huge part of my life and set me on a career course. I didn’t know if people would understand. Might they be angry or might I seem self-righteous? Sometimes I would be asked about it, but no one ever attacked me directly for it.”

Oddly and beautifully, over time Pete became a listener, a safe place, almost a confessor, for veterans and military families. “With some work colleagues, as trust grew — they knew I had been a CO and I knew they had been in Vietnam or lost brothers there — they told me that they weren’t angry with me. They didn’t resent me. Instead they told me how they admired me and approved of what I’d done. Really, they envied me. They only wished that they had thought through some things when they were young. Family and traditions had pushed them in a certain way and they’d simply accepted it. They shared their stories with me. For decades, they’d been carrying shame and regret over what they’d seen and done.”

Pete is grateful that he came of age in a tumultuous time. It caused him to examine his values and direction in life. While there may be many other reasons to consider reinstituting a military draft in the US, Pete wonders if a draft might cause more young people to do like he did. Whether or not they would become COs, at least they would have to face some important matters about themselves and war and violence. “I would guess most people don’t even know what a CO is anymore, or that there is a long tradition of conscientious objection to war and the military.” 

Pete says he still struggles with boisterous military rituals and patriotic displays. “But I know they are important to others, and I don’t know how to express my convictions in a way that wouldn’t possibly offend others or draw attention to myself. I just stay quiet.” And does he consider himself a pacifist? “People ask what about this situation or that. I don’t know. How can we be certain how we’d respond in a hypothetical situation? I don’t have that sort of certainty.” 

Last week here on the Reformed Journal, Keith Mannes shared what I would call a lament on patriotism, “Thoughts While Burning My Flag.” What is genuine and modest patriotism? Is there such a thing anymore? Pete Peterson reminds me that Christians have been facing these quandaries long before the rise of MAGA. 

On Veterans Day, I wondered if we should also celebrate conscientious objectors. And if, in his own way, Pete Peterson is the sort of hero we should be honoring.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks for this.

  • This story opened, for me, a world that I knew nothing about. Thank you.

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    Thank you, Steve, and thank you, Mr. Peterson. I’m grateful for your witness and service as a CO, and for the fact that you weren’t ostracized or condemned for your decision. I had an uncle who was a pacifist and CO during WWII, and his reception coming back home was sadly different, including among his Reformed Church community.

  • RZ says:

    We worked for the Mennonite Central Committee back in the 80’s. We met a host of Mennonites and were profoundly impressed. Our friendships are life-long. I cannot speak for all Mennonites/Amish and I know they have their own inconsistencies and rigidities, but they have much to teach us:
    1.They know how to live simply and contentedly.
    2. They know enough to denounce revenge and acquisition as justification for any war.
    3. They know how to forgive 70 times 7.
    4. They know enough to restrain absolute loyalty to institutions and governments (kingdoms) which inevitably become ends unto themselves.

  • Mark Kornelis says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. Seems typical for such stories to have been kept quiet, but they are an important piece of history and need to be remembered and reflected upon in this present moment. Grateful for Pete and others like him.

  • Pamela Spiertz Adams says:

    My husband went through the process of being in the military training during college to be coming a pacificist. He did not have the Mennonite church to support him. He just did it with the Bible and the effects he saw coming from the guns they were training on. It was realistic to him to imagine what the guns would do to flesh and blood. He always read the Bible for the real meaning in it.

  • Rick Stravers says:

    As a student at Kalamazoo Christian High School in 1970 I applied for and received Conscientious Objector status from my local draft board. I was helped by materials from the Quakers (American Friends Service Committee) and the local Draft Counseling center at the Wesley Center on the campus of Western Michigan University. My Reformed Doctrine teacher at Christian High, Herm Minnema, graciously read my application and gave me valuable feedback. Those were turbulent times with lots of ugliness — but from some there was kindness too and a respect for the struggle to figure out how to relate to the complexities and horrors of war.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    O Steve, thank you for lifting up this story.
    HOPE college is planning an A. J. Muste conference, March 21-23.
    He was Hope’s most famous alumnus, actively resisting the military/industrial complex.
    He famously visited Ho Che Minh the year he died, advocating against the Vietnam war, urging the US to abandon its effort to control the world and police bad actors.
    Muste would advocate CO status for any and all followers of our Lord.
    Stay tuned.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    If nothing else does the fact that in our country one can gain CO status makes America great.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for this great story. I suspect that there are many unknown stories like it. I applied for CO status in 1966, without the support of a Mennonite community and, I thought, without the support of any authority figures in my life. But to my surprise, when my father, a WWII veteran who served on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, read my application, he confessed to having similar feelings and regrets, even while engaged in combat operations. How many more second thoughts and regrets are there out there?

  • Jonathan Bradford says:

    Thanks for introducing us to Pete and for the reminder that meaningful service to one’s country can and should be fulfilled in many ways. I finished high school two years after Pete and quickly was confronted with the same moral challenge. As a CRC kid, I remember wishing that I had the backing of a “Peace Church” like the Mennonites. But I did have the gentle challenge of a conscientious pastor father, the outright disagreement of a WWII veteran uncle, the affirmation of a former British Army Chaplain in the WWII, the prayerful guidance of a Paulist priest, much literature on Christian pacifism (most from the Mennonites and some from AJ Muste) and the Word of God. Over the objections of some on my suburban Chicago draft board because I was not a Mennonite or Quaker, in 1971 I was awarded the full C.O. status of 1-O. A very low lottery number assured that I would be called for alternate service, but that never happened. Nevertheless, my search for God’s direction in regard to war, clearly illuminated a path of service and constructive engagement with the needs of my community. Even as the horrors of the Vietnam war will reverberate for generations, it seems fair to thank God that the service of Pete and I and uncountable others has been enabling shalom, the way God wants things to be, for many more years.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Thank you, Steve, for writing Pete’s story, and to him, great thanks for telling it. A significant three semesters of my Hope College education included counseling CO’s downstairs in the Chapel, reading and learning, encouraging and listening to so many people who wanted to explore their options. My very healthy husband went for his physical and was turned down for the military because of an “irregular heart.” Were the examining doctors in Detroit banded together in protest and declared 4-F status to a large number of draftees?
    With gratitude to his RCA church and my RCA church in New York, we were encouraged in our protests of the war, and accepted on the community. I am grateful for your awakening this memory.

  • Jane Schuyler says:

    Thank you for this, Steve. It was a painful time for our family. A cousin, a member of the RCA, applied for CO. He did not receive support from his local RCA church, RCA Classis, or the denomination. Thus, he moved to Canada. He remains with the country that took him in. His parents left the RCA (his mother was quite bitter). The family consequences remain to this day.

  • Scott VanderStoep says:

    Excellent essay. It reminds me of a narration quote from Episode 1 of The Vietnam War document by Ken Burns: “Vietnam seemed to call everything into question, the value of honor and gallantry, the qualities of cruelty and mercy, the candor of the American government, and what it means to be a patriot.”

  • Maria says:

    Thank you for this tribute.
    Conscientious Objection (CO) is still a right that even members of our current military have – and many elect that right! For whatever reason, in the course of their “voluntary” military obligation, these COs experience a crisis of conscience when they realize their beliefs have changed and they can no longer participate in war or the preparation for war. The Department of Defense acknowledges this change of heart can and does happen, and allows COs to apply for honorable discharge. We are the Center on Conscience and War (, and we hear from COs like these everyday! We walk with them as they take their first steps on a path of peace.

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