Soldiers protest war

Military personnel risk punishment to speak out

June 24, 2007|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,Chicago Tribune

The young combat veteran stared at the letter in disbelief when it arrived in his mailbox a few months ago.

The Marine Corps was recommending him for "other than honorable discharge." The letter alleged that he had violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice by wearing part of his uniform during an anti-war rally. Furthermore, the letter accused him of being "disloyal," a word hard to swallow for a man who had risked his life to serve his nation.

"All this because I have publicly opposed the war in Iraq since I came back from it," said former Marine Sgt. Liam Madden, 22.

At least two other combat veterans who have returned from tours in Iraq and become well-known anti-war advocates have seen the military recommend them for less-than-honorable discharges. One of them is a young man 80 percent disabled from two tours who was threatened with losing his veteran's disability benefits if he continued to protest in uniform.

Critics - including some groups that have been the most supportive of the war - say the crackdown on these men constitutes a blatant attempt to quiet dissension in the ranks at the very time more and more members of the armed forces are publicly questioning the war they are being sent to fight.

"I may disagree with their message, but I will always defend their right to say it," said Gary Kurpius, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in a scathing statement he released this month under the headline "VFW to Corps: Don't Stifle Freedom of Speech."

"Trying to punish fellow Americans for exercising the same democratic rights we're trying to instill in Iraq is not what we're about," Kurpius concluded.

The military has been quick to defend its decision to punish the men, stating that its policies regarding acceptable forms of protest are quite clear. Military guidelines state that troops may attend demonstrations only in the United States, only when they are off base and off duty, and only when they are out of uniform.

"We don't restrict free speech," said Maj. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman. "It's the uniform that gets people in trouble. When you wear the uniform, you are representing the armed service behind that uniform, and it is against the military code of justice to protest in uniform."

Madden and the two other Marines were clearly documented wearing at least part of their uniforms at public protests. (Though all three had completed their active-duty service, they remained reservists; the military argued that the Pentagon's conduct codes still applied to them, an assertion that seems likely to make its way to federal court.)

The military, with its hierarchical structure and absolute adherence to following orders, has never been an institution that takes kindly to debate from within. But today, as an increasingly unpopular war drags on and troops are being sent on second, third or fourth combat tours, the volume of criticism from veterans and even those on active duty is reaching a high pitch.

Perhaps the most telling part of such criticism is how open disgruntled troops are becoming despite the risk to their careers - signing their names to furious letters printed in military-owned newspapers; speaking on the record to reporters in Iraq about how badly the mission is going; writing members of Congress. And then there are the protests in uniform, a throwback to the Vietnam War era - when veterans such as John Kerry, now a Massachusetts senator, denounced the war in weathered fatigues, throwing away their medals.

Many of the protests involving vets in uniform are all-out street theater, like one in Washington last spring at which protesters staged a mock patrol, manhandling people at simulated gunpoint to illustrate how they say Iraqis are treated by American troops. The intended subtext of the uniformed protests is apparent: Protesters have additional credibility because they are denouncing a war they have witnessed firsthand, that the very uniforms now being used in protest have walked the real-life battlefield.

"Guys like us - veterans who served but then came to believe the war is not only wrong but illegal - are not who the military wants speaking on a national stage," Madden said.

If Madden and the other Marines initially feared that their high-profile discharge cases would serve to silence protest, the opposite seems to be slowly and quietly happening. The men's cases have spurred dissenting troops to find creative ways to voice their disapproval of the war while remaining well within military guidelines.

Take, for example, DOD Directive 7050.6. It expressly provides the right of service members to complain and to request redress of their grievances, including to members of Congress. In recent months 2,000 active-duty and reserve troops have used the protection of that directive to sign "An Appeal for Redress," an initiative that sends troops' demand for an end of the war directly to Congress.

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