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COLUMN ONE

An Iraq war all his own

The Army once called 1st Lt. Ehren Watada an exemplary soldier. Today he goes on military trial for refusing to fight in a conflict he says is illegal.

February 05, 2007|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

Olympia, Wash. — THE soldier stands in his living room eyeing all the cool soldier stuff he never got to use in a real fight. Like the helmet with not a single ding and the sleek body armor with not a scuff. The gear piles high on the carpet.

First Lt. Ehren Watada is giving it all back and, out of courtesy, packing it up. The Army had treated him with the utmost respect until the moment it decided to court-martial him. It was nothing personal. The Army does what it has to do.

Just as Watada himself did what he felt he had to do seven months ago when he became the first -- and only -- commissioned officer in the United States to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq.

His conscience, he said, had overtaken him. He told the world what he had privately told his superiors months earlier: that he believed the war was illegal and immoral, and he would play no role in it.

Watada tried to resign; the Army respectfully denied him. He said he was willing to fight in Afghanistan; the Army refused him again -- a soldier can't pick and choose where he fights. As his unit shipped off to Iraq, Watada stayed to face the consequences.

Thousands of GIs have gone AWOL or voiced opposition to the Iraq war, but when an officer says he won't go, the whole military machine must take note. It means dissent has crept up the chain of command, potentially undermining the war effort.

The Army felt compelled to respond forcefully, charging Watada, 28, with one count of failure to deploy and four (later reduced to two) counts of "conduct unbecoming" for making public statements against the war and against the Bush administration. His court-martial begins today at Ft. Lewis, 15 miles north of here.

Watada ponders the prospect of spending four years in military prison, and he muses on his spiral from exemplary military man to reviled antiwar poster boy.

"Life has been ... " He laughs nervously and shakes his head, searching for words. "A little abnormal."

His living room, like the rest of the apartment complex, feels boxy and new and unmistakably inexpensive -- made for function rather than form. A balcony looks out at a parking lot crowded with pickups and SUVs.

In the middle of the room he stands in stocking feet, wearing baggy fatigues like pajamas, hands on hips. He's deciding where to begin the packing. When all the world seemed chaotic, it made sense to organize. Should he start with his barely mussed chemical suit or his spotless all-weather traction-control camouflage boots?

His smooth brown face is boyish and devoted, like a child inspecting his most precious toys. He's not a small man, but not big either. Certainly not as big as the Rushmore-sized symbol he's become to the antiwar movement, which hails him as nothing less than an American hero.

But he also bears no sign of the sniveling qualities ascribed him by pro-war groups that have branded him a coward. One syndicated columnist posted Watada's Army photo on her website with the caption "The face of a deserter."

With everyone judging him, he wants to make one thing clear. "I'm not afraid to fight," he says. "I'm not a pacifist. If our country needed defending, I'd be the first one to pick up a rifle. But I won't be part of a war that I believe is criminal."

Watada calls himself "an ordinary American" and a patriot who unwittingly found himself in a moral dilemma he could never have imagined when he first put on a uniform 18 years ago. That's when the story begins, according to his mother, Carolyn Ho, a high school counselor in Honolulu.

It all started because she thought Cub Scout uniforms were cute.

THE uniforms also represented wholesome activity. Ho and her then-husband, Bob Watada, wanted to keep their two young sons out of the malls and out of trouble. Ehren was the thoughtful one; his older brother, Lorin, the rambunctious one.

Ehren thrived on the order and discipline, and the little rewards that marked one's ascension in the scouting ranks. "He was the sort who studied for every merit badge possible," Ho says.

Thus Watada's kinship with the uniformed life was born. He went from Cub to Boy to Eagle Scout, and he had an inkling as early as 15 that he would end up in the armed forces.

As an Eagle Scout, he got the idea of carving out a hiking trail on a hillside abutting a neighborhood park in Honolulu.

Neighbors privately snickered. Sure, kid. Go ahead. Good luck.

Ho says she still beams whenever she drives past the park today and she spots the trail zigzagging up the hill. That's my son's work, she thinks. It took many months. She'd never doubt his resolve again.

Ho tells one other story. At Kalani High School, where Watada was a four-sport athlete, he reported a fellow football player who had been stealing money from the cafeteria coffer. "He risked ostracism [as a snitch] in a very small, tight-knit community," Ho says. "But he's like that, very principled."

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