Today, Ehren Watada leaves the Army and opens up a new chapter in his life, whatever that may be.
Watada refused to go to Iraq with his Fort Lewis, Wash.-based unit in 2006 and he was court-martialed in February 2007, which ended in mistrial. The Army attempted to court-martial him again later that year, but a federal judge ruled such a trial would violate the soldier’s constitutional protection against double jeopardy.
Kenneth Kagan, attorney of the Honolulu-born lieutenant, said Watada handed in his resignation before, but the Army never accepted it.
“This time, however, it was accepted, apparently only when the Army realized it could not defeat Lt. Watada in a courtroom,” Kagan recently told the Associated Press.
His discharge has been granted “under other than honorable conditions.”
In February of 2007, I headed to Washington to cover Watada’s court-martial. Fort Lewis is located about 45 miles south of Seattle. Expectedly, it was freezing cold and wet. For the few days I was there, I had to leave my hotel in downtown Seattle at dawn with a steaming cup of coffee to make it to the early morning session at Fort Lewis. What I didn’t expect was the amount of media attention the case was receiving. The local news stations were updating the trial all day long, and there were several Japanese TV crews present inside and outside the court building.
This was my first and only court-martial assignment so I can’t compare it with other cases, but I remember the security and restrictions around the base being very, very tight. As a member of the media, I had to email the media relation person at Fort Lewis in advance to identify myself and secure a spot, go through a strict security check once I got there, be escorted in to the base, and sign in again to get into the court building. Since it was a relatively small courtroom, only six to eight of us were allowed to sit in. Before each session, we lined up in front of the building and picked colored marbles from a bag. Losers stayed in the adjacent room with the public and photographers, since no electronics were allowed inside the courtroom.
My first impression of Lt. Ehren Watada was how young he actually was. In 2007, he was not even 30. Looking relatively relaxed and comfortable considering the situation he was under, Watada was talking with his mother and girlfriend before the court martial started. His boyish smile seemed unfitting to the cold, intimidating atmosphere of the room.
Needless to say, we were not allowed to talk to anybody involved in the case. When we were on the Army property, meaning from the moment we stepped inside the security gates, we were not allowed to speak to anybody to discuss the case, period. I tried to chat up with a soldier who escorted me out of the court building to a coffee shop during the lunch break, but the only thing he could tell me was about his tours of duty to Iraq.
Watada spoke only a few times during the sessions, however, I never got the sense that he was being cowardly by refusing to deploy to Iraq. Sure, his decision must have discouraged some of the soldiers who looked up to him as an officer. In the military, orders must be obeyed without even a hint of hesitation. And, I think, as a capable officer, Watada knew that his conviction to the mission was not strong enough to lead. He knew that could have only endangered the lives he would have been responsible for.
Watada went to talk to his superiors several times to confess his doubt since the deployment was scheduled. The doubt that President Bush’s mission on the war in Iraq was unjust. However, no actions were taken by the Army either to ease his doubt or to remove him from the deployment.
I didn’t sense that he was being unpatriotic. Patriotism was the exact reason why he joined the Army after 9/11. He wanted to do something for his country. He wanted to protect his fellow Americans from terrorists, and he was told by his government that Iraq possessed a weapon of mass destruction. Just like millions of other Americans, he was dumfounded when the government revealed they discovered no WMD in Iraq. I felt sorry for him and the situation he had to bring himself into. My observation was that, for anything, it was his youthful and idealistic love of his country, which eventually brought him to the court-martial.
As I mentioned before in a column, this court-martial was truly an eye-opening experience for me. Although it was eventually declared as a mistrial, I was fortunate to be able to witness how the laws get practiced, protected and interpreted. I appreciated the judge’s decision to stand by Watada’s right to be tried fairly in every small detail possible, despite the fact that Watada did, indeed, break the trust he’d created in the Army. Yes, the oath he took as an officer of the Army bound him to protect and obey not the President himself, but the Constitution of the United Stated. Nonetheless, he shook the confidence of the servicemen and women, and that shouldn’t have been treated lightly.
Days before the court-martial, I had a chance to interview Watada on the phone. He expressed his frustration to the media and how they portrayed him. Although he seemed to be proud to be somewhat a symbol of the anti-war movement, Watada’s intention was not to be a poster boy or hero. He was overwhelmed. He couldn’t wait for his voice to be heard at the court-martial, but at the same time, he was looking forward to moving onto the next stage of his life. Watada was also keenly aware that he was able to exercise his democratic right to speak up his mind, only due to the sacrifice made by the previous generation of Japanese Americans, such as the 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Good luck, Mr. Watada. I’m confident that your next endeavor will be fruitful. Keep your head high and maintain your courage to stay true to yourself.
—By NAO GUNJI