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A Mother Fights for a Soldier Who Said No to War

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 4, 2007

Carolyn Ho is a mother on a mission.

She came to Washington in mid-December to build support for her son, Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq.

Barring some kind of miracle, he will be court-martialed on Feb. 5 at Fort Lewis, about 45 miles south of Seattle. If convicted, he could be sent to military prison for six years. There's going to be a pretrial hearing today.

Like many Americans, she believed she could come to the capital city and change the world. Or at least her small part of it.

She was acting purely on instinct, wanting to do everything in a mother's power to protect her son. "I'm here to get what I can," said Ho, who is from Honolulu. Dark hair pulled back. Dark eyes that moisten when she speaks of her son. Soft voice. "I'm going to put it out there."

At the very least, she hoped for some kind of letter of support before today's hearing. Late yesterday afternoon, a letter arrived. After a lot of worry and work.

Lobbying Congress is no day at the spa.

During her Capitol Hill quest, she was accompanied by several seasoned lobbyists, but they let her do the talking. She moved along the halls, sitting down with staffers in the offices of Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and aides from the offices of Reps. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

In closed-door meetings, Ho told the same story. She sees her efforts as part of a larger, multifaceted wave that is challenging the Bush administration from every angle. At the same time the president is advocating an increase in the number of soldiers in Iraq, there is on the home front an increase in the number of vocal opponents of the war. "I believe my son is part of this movement," Ho said.

Phoebe Jones of Global Women's Strike, an international antiwar network that supports Ho and Watada, was at Ho's side on Capitol Hill. "The work of mothers is protecting life, beginning with their children," Jones explained. "And that is really the opposite of the obscenity of war."

On the Hill, Ho handed out information packets. She passed around photos of Watada, who is taller, fuller of face than his mother, but shares her smile.

Her son "based his decision on facts," she said. He studied the war in Iraq and decided it was illegal. He tried to resign and leave the service with dignity, but the Army wouldn't let him. He asked to be shipped to Afghanistan; his request was denied. He was offered a noncombat position in Iraq; he said no thanks.

Because the United States entered the war based on false premises, Ho said, the war is illegal. It is thus her son's constitutional duty to disobey orders.

So she asked that members of Congress get involved. She said that ideally she would prefer that the military accept her son's resignation and dismiss all charges against him. "He shouldn't be in a military prison," she said. His voice "will be totally squelched."

She asked, "Just who is the criminal here? The one who is refusing to participate in war crimes?"

From the Army's standpoint, the case is simple. Tens of thousands of soldiers have passed through Fort Lewis on their way to the war and have not asked for special treatment, said Army spokesman Joe Piek. Watada, 28, signed on for military service in 2003 with full knowledge that he might have to fight an unpopular war, Piek said. "This is a case about a soldier who refused orders to deploy to Iraq. . . . That is the bottom line."

Watada has been charged with one count of "missing movement," which means he did not board one of the planes that were taking his 3rd Brigade to Kuwait on June 22. In Kuwait the brigade's 4,000 soldiers received their equipment and their marching orders.

He also is charged with "conduct unbecoming an officer," for subsequent statements he made. For now he is assigned to a special troops battalion and has been doing everyday soldierly duties while awaiting his court appearance.

Piek said, "He joined the Army and swore an oath, and that includes following the orders of the officers appointed over him. His unit was placed in a stop-loss category, which meant that everybody currently in that unit would deploy. You don't get to pick and choose, especially if you are a junior officer, which places you get to go to."

To Watada's attorney, Eric Seitz, the situation is more complicated. "The United States talks out of both sides of its mouth," he said. "We've prosecuted soldiers in other countries for following orders to commit war crimes. But God forbid you should use that refusal as a defense in this country."

The Watada defense: Questioning the war publicly is not "conduct unbecoming" but an exercise of freedom of speech. And he had the right to miss movement because he was refusing to participate in what he deems an illicit enterprise.

To Carolyn Ho, congressional staffers were polite and receptive. She came at an inopportune time, she was told several times. Congress had adjourned for the holidays and there was not much time before the court-martial.

There were flashes of hope: Along the way, someone suggested that a "sign-on letter" sent by members of Congress to the secretary of the Army might be a way to galvanize support for Watada. Or a "dear colleague" letter that would alert others in Congress to Watada's situation. One staffer brought up the idea of a "private resolution," an arcane move in which Congress passes a bill that affects one person. "Those are possibilities," Ho said. But as the day wore on, fatigue showed on her face.

She left with little more than encouragement and good wishes. A high school counselor, Ho had been on leave since the end of September. She had to get back to work.

She is divorced. Her ex-husband, Bob Watada, has also been out drumming up support, speaking to churches and civic organizations around the country. She spent October and November on the West Coast and much of December on the East. At one event she shared a podium with Cindy Sheehan, who refers to the moms-against-bombs instinct as "matriotism."

Ho went back to Hawaii for Christmas, but is in the Seattle area this week for the hearing.

On the phone from Fort Lewis, Ehren Watada explained how he decided while still in college -- in the aftermath of 9/11 -- that he wanted to serve his country in the military. He walked into a recruitment office in Honolulu and said he wanted to go to officer candidate school. He failed the physical because of childhood asthma. "I was heartbroken," he said. "I paid out of pocket for a breathing test to prove I had no breathing problems. I passed the test with flying colors and was eventually accepted at the end of March 2003."

Though Watada's father did not serve in the military, several uncles were in World War II. One of his uncles was killed in Korea. Another relative was in Vietnam. "There is a history of service in our family," he said.

When he signed up, "I didn't know the things I know today. I believed the military and the government when they told me that Iraq posed an imminent threat."

Watada said it took him a couple of years to realize that the United States should not be in Iraq. He submitted his resignation in January 2006. "The commanders of my unit were not too happy about it," he said. They were surprised, he said, because until that point he had received positive evaluations.

"I can't stop the war," said Watada. "But if Americans believe the war is wrong, they should be doing everything they can to stop it."

His mother is doing what she can. "People are stepping gingerly," she said yesterday about legislative action. "There's a wait-and-see approach."

She was in Tacoma, Wash., yesterday for a press conference when she received a personal letter from Rep. Maxine Waters. Ho read an excerpt over the phone:

"The issue that [1st Lt. Ehren Watada] has raised deserves to be publicly debated and considered. And I will use my platform as a member of Congress and chair of the 'Out of Iraq' caucus to highlight the failed policies of this administration and stimulate discussion. . . . Your son has shown great integrity and dignity in his objection to the war in Iraq, and I commend you for working so hard on his behalf."

Ho sighed and said she found the letter to be "disappointing."

But it was something.

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