Anti-war groups happy for Watada

Tacoma – The Army's decision to discharge famed war resister Lt. Ehren Watada on Friday won praise from anti-war activists throughout South Sound and nationwide.

“We’re very happy for Ehren,” said Seth Manzel, an Iraq veteran who runs the anti-war Coffee Strong café in Lakewood. “We think this is proof that people can follow their conscience and not be punished for it.”

Watada became a hero for many who disagreed with the war in Iraq. Rallies and vigils near the gates of Fort Lewis to support the officer drew hundreds, including Hollywood actor Sean Penn. Protesters at other anti-war rallies over the past few years sometimes held banner-sized photos of Watada.

The nonprofit group Iraq Veterans Against the War has consistently supported Watada, and an article prominently displayed on the organization’s Web page speaks of his “exemplary moral courage.”

Mark Jensen, a Pacific Lutheran University professor and active member of United for Peace of Pierce County, said Watada’s discharge and lack of jail time means the lieutenant was “vindicated.”

“In general, I’d say the anti-war community is delighted that Lt. Watada’s principled stand did not lead to prison time for him,” Jensen said. “He acted honorably and appropriately and with immense courage. The mistrial in his court-martial in 2007 was, in our informed opinion, the result of the military’s concern that the trial was not going its way.”

But Manzel said one victory, despite its prominence, doesn’t diminish the larger need to support soldiers who refuse to deploy out of deeply held beliefs.

Manzel, who went to Iraq with Fort Lewis’ 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division and left the Army as a sergeant, pointed to another case with local ties: Sgt. Travis Bishop, a Fort Hood soldier now serving a one-year sentence at the Fort Lewis Regional Correction Facility. Bishop went absent without leave before a deployment to Afghanistan.

Bishop, whom Amnesty International calls a prisoner of conscience, has said his religious beliefs caused him to avoid a combat deployment.

Watada, unlike Bishop, did not go AWOL. He stayed at Fort Lewis, and the most serious charge against him was missing movement.

“Ehren Watada was very fortunate: He had a legal team right away,” said Manzel, who said he doesn’t promote soldiers going AWOL if they disagree with deployment orders. “Other guys got in trouble first and then sought help. And that seems to be the dividing line between receiving jail time and not.”

Watada’s case often appeared caught in a tangle of military- and federal-court proceedings. The most serious charges against him were thrown out because of double-jeopardy concerns. The Department of Justice dropped its appeal against him in May, effectively clearing the path for Friday’s discharge.

“It’s nice it’s finally over,” Manzel said. “He sacrificed a lot for what he believes in.”

Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758