by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – With American Sniper nominated for multiple Oscars and Eddie Ray Routh currently standing trial for murder, one Bethel College senior has been thinking a lot about Chris Kyle lately.
Kyle was a famed Navy SEAL sharp-shooter who served four tours of duty in Iraq, and who is the subject of the feature film American Sniper. Routh is accused of shooting Kyle and another man – who were trying to help Routh deal with post-traumatic stress after his own military deployment – to death in February 2013.
Koki Lane, a business major on track to graduate in December 2015, served in Iraq under the command of General David Petraeus and General 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,” she continued. “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 to war 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. She was trained as an X-ray technician but her limited-scope license didn’t transfer to Kansas. To keep on in the medical field would have meant “starting from scratch, so I decided to do something new.”
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,” she says.
Although her extended family was Mennonite, Koki says, “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 the 2015 January interterm, as well as positive interactions at Bethel have been significant.
“I have been given a lot of respect,” Koki says. “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 says. The Bethel group visited with volunteers for Bravo Activo, who work in a neighborhood where gangs actively recruit children and youth.
“These volunteers [go] into the neighborhood defenseless,” Koki says, “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. [Bravo Activo provides] the safe space to teach kids an alternative, that gives them a chance and permission to think of something different.
“It’s a choice not to have weapons or to fight with the gangs, but you need to create a situation that gives the kids [that] choice. That is foundational to creating a nonviolent community.
“The difference between that and what I saw in basic training was huge. 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.”
The class, called Social Development and Social Justice, historically draws a lot of social work majors, but Koki sees it as relevant to her business major as well.
“You can’t separate business and social justice. They go hand-in-hand. Any time you’re dealing with people, you’re dealing with some sort of social justice,” she says.
“From a business perspective, maybe paying employees [fairly] gives them the ability to make their own choices. Financial independence makes the ability to get out of violent situations that much greater.”
Much of her interest in pursuing studies in business comes directly from her experience in the Army, in which she served from 1996-2004, most of that time in the 101st Division Band.
However, she was also with General Petraeus as a sound technician, setting up for meetings with Iraqi leaders, and flew in a helicopter with General Helmick to look at Iraqi infrastructure that needed to be built or rebuilt.
Seeing that began to pique her interest in business and transportation, Koki says.
Being deployed in Iraq put her “in a similar environment [as Chris Kyle]. I saw the same kind of visuals. But I didn’t have to shoot anyone,” she says. “I was fortunate with that, but I can’t say that about everyone, about some of my friends.
“I didn’t live in a perfect world, it was a war zone, but when I think of the good and bad you can experience in a war zone, I was lucky. 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,” she notes. “[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.”
Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2014-15 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2014-15. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.