How I Lost My Love for War

As told by Thomas Stubenvoll

I WAS born in New York City on November 8, 1944. I grew up in the South Bronx, at that time a neighborhood divided into racial enclaves. As a boy, I spent much time on the streets, and I soon learned to respect the territorial boundaries of the various ethnic gangs. Those gangs were feared for their criminal activities and violent temperament.

By the time I was 12 years old, I belonged to a gang. We called ourselves The Skulls. My partners and I would break into railroad freight cars and steal cases of peanut butter and other food items. Gangs with boys in their late teens were far more brazen. There were many bloody fights between such gangs. On one occasion a good friend of mine was stabbed to death in front of my eyes.

Fascinated by War

The gang scene didn’t really make me happy. After a while, I just wanted to move out of the city. My uncle Eddie had been in the Korean War, where he served as a member of the Marine Corps, a branch of the U.S. military. Uncle Eddie’s description of the Marines fascinated me. I was told that every Marine is a disciplined leader and a tough warrior trained to act decisively. The Marine Corps motto, Semper fidelis, Latin for “always faithful,” highlights its strict code of loyalty and commitment. Soon, there was nothing I wanted more than to be a skilled Marine.

On November 8, 1961, the very day I turned 17, I enlisted as a Marine recruit. Less than four months later, I graduated from boot camp as  a Marine. That was the start of an 11-year career in the military.

I joined the military during peacetime. Still, the life of a Marine is one of constant training. First, I was sent to Oahu, Hawaii, where for two years I received intense training in infantry tactics and guerrilla warfare. I became a marksman, able to hit a ten-inch bull’s-eye at 500 yards [457 m]. I was trained in martial arts, the use of explosives, map reading, demolition, and communications. I relished every moment.

After Hawaii, I spent six months in Japan on a mission to guard underwater weapons at the Atsugi Naval Air Station. Soon hostilities between the United States and North Vietnam escalated, and I was assigned as part of a Marine detachment on the USS Ranger, an aircraft carrier. From the Gulf of Tonkin, our ship joined in the aerial bombardment of North Vietnam. Finally, I was fighting a real war. Still, I felt that by just being on a ship, I was missing out on the real action.

The Realities of War

In the spring of 1966, while on the Ranger, I was honorably discharged after four years of military service. Most soldiers in my position would gladly have returned home and avoided the bloodbath that was about to take place. But I had become a devoted Marine, a professional warrior, and I wasn’t about to quit. I decided to reenlist.

I wanted to fight. That is what I was trained for. So I volunteered to serve in the infantry. It didn’t matter where I was assigned, as long as I was a Marine Corps infantryman. Being a good Marine was my mission in life, and the war was becoming my god.

In October 1967, I was sent to Vietnam. Nervous and excited, I was immediately taken to the front lines in the province of Quang Tri. Less than a day later, I found myself in the middle of a bloody battle. Men were being killed and wounded all around me. I could see the dust kicked up by the impact of enemy bullets hitting the ground. There was no shelter other than a few bushes. I just started shooting. It was terrible. I thought I was going to die. Finally, the fight was over. I survived, but I cannot say the same for the men I helped to carry back.

For the following 20 months, I shared in the most intense fighting of the Vietnam War. Seven days a week and almost around the clock, I was either shooting or trying not to be shot, either laying ambushes or being ambushed. During most of that time, I exchanged fire with the enemy from holes in the ground that quickly turned into mud pits when it rained. Sometimes it was cold and unbearably uncomfortable. In such holes I both ate and slept.

My search-and-destroy missions took me in and out of the humid jungle, with the ever-present danger of the enemy jumping out of the thick underbrush. At times, for hours on end, I was under the constant pounding of artillery exploding around me. During one battle near Khe Sanh, about three fourths of my platoon were injured or killed​—only 13 of us were left.

January 30, 1968, found me at an army base, where I could sleep in a tent for the first time in over a year. The relative comfort was shattered early that morning when I was awakened by the deafening sound of a mortar  explosion. I was wounded. Several pieces of shrapnel became lodged in my shoulder and back. That morning the enemy had begun a massive invasion.

My injuries earned me the Purple Heart, a medal of military decoration, but they were not serious enough to stop me from fighting. The medics quickly plucked out the shrapnel, and I was soon on my way to the city of Hue, where one of the major battles of the war took place. There I operated as a veritable killing machine. Shooting the enemy was nothing to me. For 32 days, I spent every waking hour going from house to house hunting down and killing the enemy.

At the time, I felt absolutely justified. ‘After all,’ I reasoned, ‘the enemy was killing thousands of innocent men, women, and children in the city of Hue. The streets and alleys were strewn with thousands of corpses. There were booby traps everywhere, even beneath some of the corpses. We were under the constant threat of enemy snipers.’ None of this deterred me. In my mind, killing the enemy was the right thing to do.

An Unhealthy Appetite for War

Some time after the battle of Hue, I completed my 13-month tour of duty. The war was raging, however, and I wanted more of it. So I volunteered to stay in Vietnam for another tour. By then I was a staff sergeant and was assigned to a special mission. It involved leading detachments of Marines into small hamlets in the countryside. There we interacted with civilians, training them to protect their communities. We were in a constant state of alert because the enemy would often blend in with the local people. At night we moved about stealthily​—hunting, catching, and killing enemy combatants. Despite the extreme tension, my love for war only kept growing.

My second tour in Vietnam passed quickly. Again I asked to remain in the battlefields. This time my superiors denied my request, perhaps noticing my unhealthy appetite for war. But my career as a Marine wasn’t over. I was sent back to the United States to be a drill instructor, training recruits. For three and a half years, I focused on my duties as a drill instructor. I had much to share with my recruits, and I did my best to turn each of them into the mean fighting machine that I myself had become.

I Found a Better Purpose in Life

I befriended a fellow drill instructor. His wife had just left him. His sister, Christine Antisdel, who had recently become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, offered to move in with him and help him care for his two very young children. That was the first time I had ever heard about the Witnesses.

I was raised as a Catholic and went to Catholic school for eight years. At church I even served as an altar boy. Still, I knew virtually nothing about the Bible. Christine changed that. She introduced me to Bible  truths that I had never heard before. I learned what the Bible really teaches and what it doesn’t teach.

For example, I learned that the Bible doesn’t teach that God punishes people in a fiery hell after death. (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10) It doesn’t teach that God is part of a Trinity. (John 14:28) The Bible, however, does teach that God will eliminate wickedness, pain, and death and that obedient mankind will live forever in an earthly paradise. (Psalm 37:9-11; Revelation 21:3, 4) I also learned the truth about God’s moral standards. (1 Corinthians 6:9, 10) I learned that God has a name, Jehovah. (Psalm 83:18) All of this was fascinating!

In November 1972, I was transferred to another base, where I was to teach warfare tactics to noncommissioned officers. There I began to study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I attended their meetings and was very impressed by the friendly atmosphere and genuine brotherhood of the Witnesses.

But the more I learned about the Bible, the more my conscience bothered me. The truths of the Bible were so much in conflict with my way of life. I had dedicated my life to the promotion of nationalistic warfare and violence, things that God hates.

I concluded that I could not be a Marine and worship Jehovah God at the same time. It was then that I lost my love for war. I decided to quit my profession. After months of paperwork, interviews, and a psychiatric examination, I received an honorable discharge​—this time as a conscientious objector. Thus ended my 11 years of service with the Marine Corps.

Now I could say to Jehovah the words of Isaiah 6:8: “Here I am! Send me.” Yes, I was ready to use my energy and enthusiasm in serving the true God instead of serving in the Marine Corps. I was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses on July 27, 1973. Five months later I married Christine Antisdel, the first Witness I ever met.

Christine and I have devoted our 36 years together to helping others acquire Bible knowledge and draw closer to God. For eight years we served as missionaries in the Dominican Republic. For the past 18 years, I have served as a traveling minister. My wife and I have visited hundreds of Spanish-speaking congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the United States.

To this very day, I am not aware of any emotional or mental ill effects from my war days. No shell shock, no post-traumatic stress disorder, no nightmares, no flashbacks. Still, after drawing closer to Jehovah God, I deeply regret having taken the lives of fellow humans during the war.

Mine was quite a transformation​—but a worthwhile one. Now I feel forgiven by God for what I did in the past. Instead of taking life away, my mission is now to offer people the hope of life on a paradise earth forever. As a Marine, I did what I did out of ignorance and misguided zeal. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, having learned what the Bible teaches, I do what I do out of a firm conviction that there is a true, living God, that he is a loving God, and that in the end, only good things will happen to those who love and obey him.

[Blurb on page 25]

Seven days a week and almost around the clock, I was either shooting or trying not to be shot, either laying ambushes or being ambushed

[Blurb on page 27]

After drawing closer to Jehovah God, I deeply regret having taken the lives of fellow humans during the war

[Pictures on page 24]

Serving as a drill instructor (top) and in the infantry in Vietnam (left)

[Picture on page 25]

My injuries earned me the Purple Heart, but they were not serious enough to stop me from fighting

[Picture on page 26]

Christine and I have devoted our 36 years together to helping others acquire Bible knowledge