May 31, 2007 – When can veterans stop saluting and start speaking out?
The question is more than a matter of protocol. As some returning Iraq veterans join anti-war protests, free speech advocates say disciplinary cases against three outspoken former Marines could stifle dissent by those who may know the most about conditions in Iraq.
The cases involve members of the Individual Ready Reserve, a group most servicemembers enter after active duty. Unlike regular reservists, they receive no pay and are not required to drill or attend annual training. Their only obligations are to inform the military of a change of address and to return to active duty if called. There are 150,000 members of the IRR.
Adam Kokesh, who served in Fallujah, is one of them. A member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Kokesh wore his camouflage uniform, with all insignia removed, on March 19 during a mock “combat patrol” past the White House. Soon after his picture was in The Washington Post, Marine Maj. John Whyte e-mailed him that he may have violated regulations that forbid wearing all or part of a uniform “while engaged in political demonstrations or activities.”
Kokesh, 25, e-mailed back, addressing the officer with a profanity.
Monday, Kokesh faces an administrative discharge hearing that accuses him of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Pentagon policy on the wearing of uniforms and being “disrespectful” to a superior. A military board could convert his honorable discharge into an “other than honorable” one, which could reduce his veterans benefits. Today, he and supporters will board a “peace bus” in Washington to take him to the hearing in Kansas City.
“I’m a civilian with the full rights of a civilian until I am called back by the Marine Corps,” Kokesh says.
The military doesn’t see it that way. The Marine Corps would not comment on specifics of Kokesh’s case because it is pending. Marine Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman, said all troops are instructed that they are forbidden from wearing a uniform at a political event, regardless of whether they are on active duty or retired. “If he says he’s a civilian, then why is he wearing the uniform?” Upton asks. “What is he trying to communicate by his action?”
Two other Iraq veterans, Sgt. Liam Madden, 22, of Boston and Cpl. Cloy Richards, 23, of Salem, Mo., also face disciplinary proceedings because of anti-war activities.
Richards has agreed not to speak out again until he leaves the IRR in July 2008, says his mother, anti-war activist Tina Richards. She says her son, who has an 80% combat disability after suffering brain trauma, post-traumatic stress syndrome and other injuries from a mortar attack in Iraq in 2004, fears that the military will take away his $1,300-a-month disability benefits if he speaks out. “They are trying to shut up the most authoritative voices, which are the Iraq veterans themselves,” she says.
Mike Lebowitz, Kokesh’s lawyer, says the disciplinary hearings set “a dangerous precedent” for veterans who speak out against the war.
Eugene Fidell, an authority on military law who heads the National Institute of Military Justice, doubts the Marine Corps has jurisdiction. As members of the IRR, he says, the three veterans are in a “funny twilight status” and not subject to military law. He adds, “If I had a quarter for every person who wears an article of uniform in a setting that has some political dimension, I’d be a wealthy man.”
Beyond what protesters wear, though, is what they can say about an increasingly unpopular war, says Marv Johnson, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “This is very likely to chill returning Iraq veterans from stating their opinions,” he says, “and that may very well be the intent.”