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Ex-commander testifies in war resister case

FORT LEWIS - First Lt. Ehren Watada's former battalion commander testified Tuesday that his opinion of the young officer was "severely degraded" when Watada told the public in June he wouldn't deploy to Iraq.

Lt. Col. Bruce Antonia said Watada's decision not to deploy and his statements critical of the Bush administration had no effect on the morale and effectiveness of his unit, the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

"To tell you the truth, it didn't have any impact," Antonia said during the second day of Watada's court-martial. "It was simply talk and opinion about what leaders should not say."

Antonia said, however, that Watada's public stand was a distraction for his 700-plus soldiers as they were preparing to leave. Foremost in his soldiers' minds should have been zeroing their weapons and kissing their spouses and children goodbye, "not what is Lt. Watada going to say next," Antonia said.

The testimony by Antonia - who flew back from Iraq to testify - indicated prosecutors wanted to raise questions about Watada's character before the panel of seven officers who will decide his fate.

The 28-year-old Hawaii native is charged with failing to deploy June 22 and two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer for his public statements. He faces up to four years in prison if convicted on all counts. None of the facts presented in the court-martial are in dispute.

Questioned by Eric Seitz, Watada's civilian attorney, Antonia admitted that, before January 2006, when Watada first asked to resign his commission, that the lieutenant had always been "a quality officer - smart, a generally hard-working, good officer."

At one point, the two officers discussed Watada's concerns. Antonia said he assumed there was a "mutual understanding" between the two that Watada wouldn't go public with his concerns. The battalion commander said he felt "a little bit betrayed" when Watada did otherwise.

"My opinion of the officer was severely degraded," Antonia said.

In his opening statement, Seitz said the Army rebuffed Watada's every attempt to resolve his "crisis of conscience" about commanding soldiers in a war he thought to be illegal and immoral. Attempts by Watada included offering to resign his commission, deploy to Afghanistan or transfer to another unit "rather than facing a confrontation of some sort," Seitz said.

The officer went public when he faced the possibility of deploying to Iraq against his will.

Seitz told the panel Watada conducted himself as a "responsible, ethical officer."

"He should not be treated as a criminal," he said.

Watada, who has since been transferred to a desk job in another unit based at Fort Lewis, is scheduled to testify today. The defense will call one other witness, an Army captain who knows Watada. The military judge, Lt. Col. John Head, has ruled that the question about the legality of the war cannot be raised at the court-martial.

Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or at chill@theolympian.com.

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