Like many young men coming of age during the Vietnam War, Wayne R. Ferren Jr. approached his college graduation in 1970 knowing he would soon be at a crossroads. With a low draft number, he faced a good possibility of being inducted into the military within a matter of months—a prospect at odds with his deep conviction in the sanctity and interconnectedness of all life.
Ferren CCAS’70, GSNB’78, who was already involved with anti-war and social and environmental justice activities at Rutgers University–Camden, decided to apply for conscientious objector (CO) status. He documents that journey in his new memoir, Conscientious Objector: A Journey of Peace, Justice, Culture, and Environment (Archway Publishing, 2021). Starting with a description of his early life and love of nature, Ferren recounts how his years as a political activist and as a student of multiple disciplines and belief systems led him to a fulfilling personal and professional life, culminating with his current work as a writer and environmental consultant.
“A conscientious objector is someone who, based on religion, ethics, or morals, is against all wars and refuses to participate in combat,” Ferren explains. Describing himself as “a progressive person [from] a non-progressive household,” Ferren had to navigate the process on his own. But he feels fortunate in having found support for his decision in the Rutgers–Camden community, including from Ralph E. Good, a botany professor, and then dean of students Barry M. Millett and associate dean of students Berjoohy Haigazian, both of whom wrote letters to Ferren’s draft board in support of his application.
Ferren recalls his hearing before the draft board in vivid detail. “I was facing a panel of neatly dressed men seated at a wooden table in a dimly lit room of the Federal Building in downtown Camden, and there I was with my long hair,” he says. He had been advised to anticipate the questions he might be asked and, although he felt well prepared, his application was initially denied. A U.S. Supreme Court decision made while he was appealing his case led to his being granted CO status and his two-year commitment to serving the country through alternative civilian service.
Hoping to find an assignment where he could apply his scientific background and interests—he had majored in geology as an undergraduate and worked in the Rutgers–Camden herbarium—Ferren obtained a position in the botany department at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. There he helped curate the academy’s herbarium and investigated the region’s freshwater intertidal habitats. The assignment led to a return to Rutgers for a master’s degree in biology and a career as an environmental scientist, including positions as herbarium curator and executive director of the Museum of Systematics and Ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
While at UC Santa Barbara, Ferren, along with another CO, formed Conscientious Objectors and Supports, which offered counseling to young people in anticipation of a possible military draft during the Persian Gulf War and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ferren’s memoir (the first in a planned three-volume series) includes sections on the cultural milieu of the late 1960s and early 1970s in America such as Woodstock; racial conflicts in his hometown of Camden and within his own family; the first Earth Day celebrations at Rutgers–Camden; and the history and ecology of Vietnam. He also presents the stories of others, including similarly named Jerry Wayne Ferren, a Missouri native who became a young father after he was drafted, served in Vietnam, and died there. Another part is devoted to John Braxton, a Quaker who qualified for CO status, refused it on principle, and served 16 months in a federal prison.
“I wrote the book out of love and interest in providing a path for other young people,” Ferren says, “and I hope it’s received that way. During the Vietnam War, what was going on in the world turned many students into activists. I see the same thing happening today.” Of his own journey, Ferren says that he has never felt stigmatized for the choice he made. On the contrary, “I’ve always felt proud that I was honest and able to stand up and say this is who I am and this is what I did.”