Published on Thursday, July 6, 2006 by the Seattle Times (Washington)
Army Charges Lieutenant Who Wouldn't Go to Iraq
by Hal Bernton
A Fort Lewis Army officer who refused to serve in Iraq could face seven years in prison under charges filed Wednesday.
The Army accused 1st Lt. Ehren Watada of missing his brigade's troop movement to Iraq, twice speaking contemptuously of the president and three acts unbecoming an officer. The alleged actions are violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The charges come about a month after Watada announced his decision not to deploy with the 3rd (Stryker) Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division at a June 7 news conference in Tacoma with opponents of the Iraq war.
Watada said he was morally obligated to obey the Constitution, not what he claimed were unlawful orders to join in an illegal war. He also released a DVD statement criticizing what he said was the "wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of the Iraqi people."
Watada's actions quickly made him a high-profile figure in the anti-war movement, hailed for his heroism by war protesters and denounced by others as a disgrace to the Army uniform.
Watada, who continues to work at Fort Lewis in an administrative position, did not comment on the charges against him.
His attorney, Eric Seitz, expected Watada to be charged for missing the troop movement. But Seitz said he was "somewhat astounded" by the other charges, which he said raised "important First Amendment issues," regarding freedom of speech.
In a press statement, Army officials noted that contempt charges can result from contemptuous statements toward the president or other public officials.
The contempt charges resulted, in part, from a June 7 statement where Watada accused President Bush of "betraying trust" by using deception to initiate the Iraq war, according to documents provided by the military.
The charges of conduct unbecoming an officer resulted, in part, from Watada's statement that the war was not only "morally wrong" but also a "horrible breach of American law."
The charges set the stage for an Article 32 hearing, where the Army appoints an investigating officer to review the evidence and holds a hearing that could last for days or weeks. At the hearing, Watada's defense attorney will have the right to cross-examine prosecution witnesses, or call his own.
After the hearing, the investigating officer will make a recommendation of whether the charges merit a court-martial trial.
Watada, 28, is a native of Hawaii who graduated from Hawaii Pacific University with a finance degree and then joined the Army in the spring of 2003 as the invasion of Iraq was launched.
In an earlier interview, Watada said he initially supported the war because he believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. While he had some early concerns about the conflict, he felt it was important to give Bush the benefit of the doubt.
As the war progressed, Watada said, his feelings changed after reading articles that asserted the war was illegal. He became convinced that there was "intentional manipulation of intelligence" by the Bush administration.
On June 22, about two weeks after the Tacoma news conference, Watada followed through on his decision not to serve in Iraq. He did not show up at an early morning roll call, as members of his unit boarded a bus to McChord Air Force Base, where they would take a flight to the Middle East.
At the end of June, Watada was not allowed to leave Fort Lewis to help protect operational security during deployment, according to base officials.
But as of the weekend, with the deployment complete, Watada was allowed to leave base during after-duty hours and is again living in his Olympia apartment, according to his father, Robert Watada.
Army officials said Watada has been trustworthy and is not considered a flight risk.
Up until the last flight left for Iraq late last week, Army officials were still hoping Watada might join his unit, according to Robert Watada.
Ehren Watada, however, remained "very strong" about his decision not to go, said his father.
Times researcher David Turim contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company