Judge orders discharge of an anti-war Marine

A federal judge has ordered the Marines to discharge a San Jose lance corporal as a "conscientious objector" who had an aversion to killing and participating in war.

Robert Zabala, 23, must be released from the Marines Corps Reserves by mid-April, U.S. District Judge James Ware said in a 21-page ruling Thursday.

"We're very pleased with it," Zabala's attorney, Stephen Collier, said Monday. "I think it's a good decision and that it makes clear to the armed services that they can't deny conscientious-objector discharges from the military."

Zabala, a UC Santa Cruz student, began boot camp in June 2003. During a three-month period that summer, one of Zabala's superiors repeatedly gave speeches about "blowing s -- up" or "kicking some f- a-," which caused him to wonder "how someone could be so motivated to kill," he wrote in his court petition in April 2006.

In August 2003, a fellow recruit committed suicide on the shooting range, and the same superior used profanities to belittle him, Zabala wrote, saying he was "abhorred by the blood lust (the superior) seemed to possess."


An instructor showed recruits a "motivational clip" showing Iraqi corpses, explosions, gunfights and rockets set to the song "Bodies," by the heavy-metal band Drowning Pool. The lyrics included "Let the bodies hit the floor," and Zabala said he cried -- his only time while in boot camp -- while other recruits nodded their heads in time with the beat and smiled.

"The sanctity of life that formed the moral center of petitioner's life was being challenged," Collier wrote in a court filing.

After Zabala returned to UC Santa Cruz, he had a conversation with a fellow Marine in May 2004. "I began to think about the thousands of people who died in the past year in war, who didn't die due to just one soldier or suicide bomber, but largely by an organization," Zabala recounted. "This organization trains to kill human life."

Zabala, who followed some Buddhist-related traditions but was not a practicing Buddhist, applied in June 2004 for a discharge on the basis of conscientious-objector status, but was denied one, court records show.

Zabala's grandfather served in Vietnam, his parents and uncles were in the Navy, one cousin is in the Air Force and another cousin is the Marines, according to Collier.

E-mail Henry K. Lee at hlee@sfchronicle.com.