Meet a Centurion – Zach Cornelius

Former Air Force Reservist Zach Cornelius

From an early age I had two clear goals: to obtain a four year college degree and serve in the military. After considering the Army Reserves right after high school graduation I decided instead to follow my older brother’s advice (and path) by enlisting in the Air Force Reserve and simultaneously enrolling in Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corp (AFROTC) at the University of Cincinnati.

For three and a half years I was a student at the University of Cincinnati as well as a cadet in AFROTC. During this time I finished first in my AFROTC one year and second in my class another. I received many other awards and finished near the top of my class during Officer Training School in 2004. Also in 2003 I began Officer Christian Fellowship, a bible study for cadets, at my detachment.

During Christmas break of 2003 I met two individuals who challenged me to think differently. These two were as devoted to Christian faith as I thought I was but held a completely different position on violence and military involvement. We had spirited but generous debates that continued for two years.

On the evening of my 21st birthday in 2005 I read a collection of sayings from early church leaders on this topic of peace and violence. After finishing the last saying I sincerely felt a weight take me from my chair and put me on the floor of my apartment. After much prayer, and before I climbed back into the chair, I promised God that I would study and train for war no more. That night I began my Conscientious Objector (CO) application.

That night I wrote in my CO application:

If I continue to partake in AFROTC which requires the study and training to take human life my conscience will have no rest. I must follow my conscience. To disobey my conscience on this matter unequivocally points to death. This spiritual separation from God would leave me a psychological disaster and fear of future separation would produce in me a state of emotional and mental paralysis. By the hand, I know, God is leading me out of the military, with due respect to authorities; I will follow God’s lead regardless the cost.

This resolution I have reached is not new nor only mine. Soldiers throughout the centuries have come to believe there is no justification for destroying the image of God. In the decades following Jesus’ death the decision to join the Church rather than return to the ranks of Roman Legions cost many their lives. My Lord has given me an order: to study and train for war no more and to take up the cross and follow. With God’s help I will.

After years of grueling work and only five months short of my commission as a Second Lieutenant, I asked my commander to be separated from the military entirely. After three months of sleepless nights and many meetings my desire was finally granted. I still remember the exact spot in Cincinnati where I sat on the curb to answer my Commander’s phone call. He told me that I could finally separate from the military and do so honorably – I wept.

I was honorably discharged in December 2005 from the Air Force Reserve.