NEW VOICES: A Veteran's Perspective on the Death Penalty

Bob Van Steenburg (pictured), served for 27 years in the military and retired as a United States Army Colonel in 1991.  He currently serves as the President of the Board of Directors of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.  On Veterans Day, he reflected on how his opposition to the death penalty grew from his commitments as a soldier.  He wrote, “A soldier stands for more than just him or herself.  A soldier stands for the nation and its citizens.  A soldier gives of his or her life to others, and some do that to the fullest extent.  A soldier’s life is about others. . . . We Americans are better people than what we demonstrate by our use of capital punishment. We proudly state that our nation was founded on the concepts of life and liberty. Congress has passed and the American people have approved amendments to our Constitution to protect the lives of our citizens. The death penalty stands in direct opposition to these concepts.” He concluded, “My service as a soldier was to protect and defend the nation. My work to end capital punishment is to protect and defend the ideals established with our nation’s founding.”  Read full text below.

(B. Van Steenburg, "A Soldier and the Death Penalty," National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Blog, November 10, 2011).  See U.S. Military and New Voices.

A Soldier and the Death Penalty

November 11, 2011.  Veterans Day.

It has been two decades since I retired from the United States Army, completing a career of twenty-seven years (1964-1991).  It is also slightly more than a dozen years since I have been active in the effort to end the use of capital punishment in the United States. 

Some people may find those two statements about my life to be incongruent; they don’t appear to track; it doesn’t seem “natural” that a solider would oppose the death penalty.  For me, there is a straight line between my service to the nation and my work to end the practice of state sponsored killing. As our nation pauses to honor the service of our veterans, I wanted to take the opportunity to lay out why I and a number of my fellow veterans work so hard to end executions in the United States.

A soldier stands for more than just him or herself.  A soldier stands for the nation and its citizens.  A soldier gives of his or her life to others, and some do that to the fullest extent.  A soldier’s life is about others. 

The soldier takes an oath “…to support and defend the Constitution of the United States…”  I once heard a Franciscan Priest say, “This life is not about you.  You are about life.”  A soldier lives that out. 

So too, do those who stand in opposition to the death penalty.  That work is about the life and lives of others, and not just the condemned.  Opposition to the death penalty, as Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights remind us, is also about the lives of victims’ families.

But it is also something more.  It is about us, the American people, the nation as a whole.  We Americans are better people than what we demonstrate by our use of capital punishment.  We proudly state that our nation was founded on the concepts of life and liberty.  Congress has passed and the American people have approved amendments to our Constitution to protect the lives of our citizens.  The death penalty stands in direct opposition to these concepts. 

My service as a soldier was to protect and defend the nation.  My work to end capital punishment is to protect and defend the ideals established with our nation’s founding.  The code of the U.S. Army is Duty, Honor, Country.  I believe that I have lived to that code both as a soldier and as a person working to end the use of capital punishment in the United States.  This life is not about me; I am about life.

Bob Van Steenburg

Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired)

President, Board of Directors, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty