The overpass at Exit 119 on I-5 may not carry much architectural importance, but on Feb. 5, its fenced-in walkway, the freeway shoulder below, and a nearby park were perfectly designed to support the bodies, banners, picket signs, and opinions of nearly 1,000 peace activists and war supporters.
The magnet drawing these disparate ideological filaments into place? Lt. Ehren Watada, who, hundreds of yards away on the base at Ft. Lewis, was being court-martialed by the U.S. government for his refusal to deploy to Iraq, on the grounds that he believes the occupation is both illegal and immoral.
A junior officer stationed at Ft. Lewis, Lt. Watada has become a galvanizing force in discussions on the near-four-year-long U.S. occupation in Iraq. It was the onset of his court-martial — where he is being tried on one count of missing movement and two of conduct unbecoming — that drew hundreds of people from across the country, in cars and at least seven chartered buses motoring up from Oregon and down from Kitsap Peninsula. Gathered in a gray fog that never dissipated throughout the more than eight hours of chanting, singing, and, at times, yelling, people rallied for or railed against a man who is the first officer to publicly refuse to serve a tour in Iraq.
Carlos Arredondo, having driven in from the Boston area, was making one more stop on what he calls his Tour of Grief. Festooned about his Ford Taurus station wagon were laminated pictures of his son, Alexander, a 20-year-old Marine killed in August 2004 in Iraq. Since being told of his son’s death — the announcement of which caused the elder Arredondo to set fire to a military van with himself inside — he has been driving around the country, meeting with other families whose relatives have been killed in Iraq. “Perhaps if Lt. Watada was my son,” said Arredondo, “he would be alive today.”
An Associated Press account, released on the same day of the court-martial, determined that at least 3,098 members of the U.S. military have died since the war in Iraq began. Deaths of Iraqi civilians, during the same time frame, are estimated by www.iraq
bodycount.net to be between 55,000 and 61,000.
Standing feet away from Arredondo, dressed in a leather fringe jacket and calvary-style hat, state resident Chuck Lawrence said he sees Lt. Watada’s refusal of deployment as a planned stunt. Lawrence, founder of the DuPont Bridge Brigade (whose mission is to educate and counter anti-military protestors at Exit 119), said that his presence was to ensure that Ft. Lewis soldiers see something besides the negative. “We also have our voice,” said Lawrence, a nearby speaker blaring such patriotic tunes as “God Bless America.”
As for Lt. Watada, Lawrence, a vet who served two tours in Vietnam, didn’t mince words: “I hope they throw the book at him.”
Attempts by the lieutenant’s legal team, led by civilian lawyer Eric Seitz, to allow a defense based on the officer’s belief that the war is illegal were rebuffed by the presiding judge. If found guilty on all charges by a panel of seven senior officers culled from the base, Lt. Watada could face four years in military prison.
Prison time, as 10-year old Andrew Everett’s picket sign made clear, is what the lieutenant should expect. On one side of the white poster board were the words, “Meet your new cellmate, Bubba.” On the other side, written in youthful scrawl: “Don’t forget the Vaseline.”
“My grandmother came up with the idea,” he said of the second statement. Taped below the words and an image of Lt. Watada’s large, slightly sneering potential cellmate was a small packet of petroleum jelly.
Everett, whose mother serves in the Air Force and whose Army-enlisted father just returned from a three-year tour of duty in Iraq, said he doesn’t believe Lt. Watada is right to miss his own tour there. “He’s getting paid good money to go to war, but he wants to stay home,” Everett said while standing on the overpass. “He should get out of the Army.”
(Months before Lt. Watada announced his refusal to deploy in June of last year, he had submitted a resignation letter to the military. It was denied.)
Recalling how, as a child, he had watched the “bombings” of 9/11 on TV, the home-schooled adolescent said he knew that al Qaeda had connections in Iraq and, hence, the war there was justified. “Everyone should be able to get their facts straight,” he said. After a pause, he admitted, rather sheepishly: “Including me. Sometimes I get things wrong.”
Among the Iraq War vets present were married couple Robert and Tina Bean, both 25, who had shown up from Portland to support Lt. Watada. Both had served tours on security detail last year, Robert’s beginning in January and stretching to May, with Tina’s beginning the same month but ending in April. “It was hell,” said Tina.
Her tour was to have lasted longer, she said, but one day, a mortar blew up no more than 75 feet in front of her. “It was close enough to feel the waves,” Tina said, her face visibly troubled by the memory. The combat stress brought about by the event caused her to be sent home early.
Robert said that even though he’s now back in the United States, living a life of safety, sudden sounds still unnerve him. Recalling that the day-to-day experience of war in Iraq “brought out the worst in people — everybody,” Robert said that what he wants most of all is for the troops to come home. The actions of the lieutenant, Robert said, could help to make that happen. “Lt. Watada is giving people a voice,” he said.
While conceding in the courtroom that he did indeed miss deployment with his Stryker Brigade to Iraq, Lt. Watada pleaded not guilty to all charges. The lieutenant is expected to take the stand in his own defense, what with the judge’s denial of defense witnesses critical of the war and the Bush administration.
With Watada supporters outnumbering detractors by a ratio of 50-to-1, some rooting for the officer expressed the desire to keep returning until the trial is done.
The court-martial is expected to be over by week’s end.
By ROSETTE ROYALE, Staff Reporter
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/02/07/feb-7-2007-entire-issue