Watada starts civilian life

Fort Lewis - The Army discharged Lt. Ehren Watada on Friday, writing the final chapter in the case of the most prominent military officer to refuse a deployment to Iraq.

Fort Lewis spokesman Joseph Piek confirmed that Watada, who had refused to go to Iraq in 2006 with his Stryker brigade because he believed the war was illegal, finished outprocessing shortly before noon Friday.

The Department of Justice dropped an appeal in May against a judge’s dismissal of key charges against the lieutenant, effectively leading to Friday’s discharge. Watada submitted a resignation request “for the good of the service in lieu of general court martial” at the end of June, Piek said.

The Department of the Army approved that request in September, and the remaining pending charges against Watada were dismissed late last week.

Piek couldn’t confirm the type of discharge, citing privacy laws, but Watada lawyer Kenneth Kagan said it was granted under “other than honorable conditions.”

Watada, through his lawyer, declined all requests for interviews and public appearances. Kagan said his client doesn’t fear retribution from the Army and made no agreements to stay silent, but after three years of national attention, he “wants to reclaim his privacy and anonymity.”

“I know it will be disappointing to supporters and media representatives,” Kagan wrote in an e-mail, “but he no longer wishes to be a ‘story.’ ”

Kagan added that Watada’s actions and beliefs are well-known at this point, and his client has nothing to add.

Watada, a 31-year-old Hawaii native, plans to attend law school. Kagan added that his client wanted to thank his supporters and acknowledges not everyone agrees with his actions.

“He understands, too, that there are multitudes of vociferous detractors, and he realizes that nothing he says or does will change some people’s minds,” Kagan wrote.

Watada grabbed national attention in 2006 when he refused to go to war with Fort Lewis’ 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – a Stryker unit that was leaving for its second tour of Iraq at the time, and has now deployed for a third. He believed the war was illegal and that participation in it would make him a party to war crimes.

He was charged with missing movement and engaging in conduct unbecoming an officer, the latter charge for denouncing President George W. Bush and the war in statements to the media. He faced up to six years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.

The charges against Watada languished in the military and federal court system for more than three years.

The breaking point of the Army’s case came in October 2008, when U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle ruled the government could not retry Watada because it would violate his constitutional protection against double jeopardy.

The Department of Justice eventually dropped its appeal against the lieutenant in May, but Watada remained in legal limbo. Two charges of conduct unbecoming an officer weren’t part of the legal dispute upon which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, and the I Corps leadership at Fort Lewis had been examining its options, which included a court-martial or nonjudicial punishment.

Watada, meanwhile, had been assigned as an operations officer with the I Corps Special Troops Battalion, doing tasks that did not require a security clearance.

His first court-martial was ruled a mistrial. At issue was a “stipulation of facts” statement Watada signed before the court-martial. In it, he admitted to missing his flight to Mosul, Iraq, and to making public statements critical of the war.

The stipulation, an agreement between Watada and prosecutors, meant the two sides didn’t need to argue over the facts, only whether they constituted violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The facts in the stipulation became evidence that could be used against Watada, and judge Lt. Col. John Head threw out the case over concerns Watada didn’t understand what he was agreeing to when he signed the document.

The Army refiled the charges and convened a second court-martial in July 2007, but the federal courts issued an emergency stay and halted the trial.

Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758