By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 2, 2007
The national commander of the proud, patriotic, 2.4 million strong Veterans of Foreign Wars (motto: "Honor the dead by helping the living") took one look at the mushrooming dispute between three antiwar Marine reservists and the U.S. Marine Corps, and knew where his sympathies lay: with the protesters.
"What the Marine Corps is trying to do is hush up and punish these individuals who served our country," Gary Kurpius, the national commander, said in a telephone interview. "All they're doing is exercising the same democratic voice we're trying to instill over in Iraq right now."
The Marines have accused the three reservists, all members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, of wearing their uniforms during political protests and making "disrespectful" or "disloyal" statements. All three were honorably discharged from active duty, but now face "other than honorable" discharges from the inactive reserve, which could affect future employment and veterans benefits.
The VFW issued a blistering statement on the controversy yesterday. Headline: "VFW to Corps: Don't Stifle Freedom of Speech."
Kurpius, an Army vet who fought in Vietnam, doesn't even agree with the protesters. "We're pretty much on record supporting the troops, and if you're going to support the troops, you're going to have to support their mission," he said. "I may disagree with the message . . . but I and my organization will always defend their right to say it."
The Marines respond that this is not a free-speech case. Adam Kokesh, 25, one of the protesters, "violated Marine Corps uniform regulations and he was disrespectful to a commissioned officer," said Master Sgt. Ronald Spencer, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Mobilization Command in Kansas City, Mo. "That would be the issue. It has nothing to do with free speech."
Kokesh, who fought in Fallujah and now is a graduate student at George Washington University, was wearing parts of his camouflage uniform in March during a demonstration where 13 veterans roamed Capitol Hill and downtown Washington carrying imaginary weapons to mark the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq.
When Kokesh was contacted by the major assigned to investigate the case, he responded with an e-mail about his service and opposition to the war, and concluded with a profane suggestion about what the major could go do.
While all three reservists wore parts of their uniforms during demonstrations, at least one of the charges seems to involve speech only: Liam Madden, 22, of Boston, is accused of making disloyal statements in a speech where he accused the Bush administration of "war crimes"; said the conflict is a war "of aggression" and "empire building"; and said Bush "betrayed U.S. military personnel." Madden says he was not in uniform during that February speech in New York.
Spencer, after addressing the uniform issue, said he needed a few hours to research questions about the alleged disloyal statements, then did not return messages to answer those questions. Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman, referred those questions back to Spencer, saying, "I'm unable to speak to the legal reasoning behind the freedom of speech charges issued by the Marine Corps."
Kokesh's lawyer, Michael Lebowitz, an Iraq Army vet with the Washington firm of Greenberg & Lieberman, says what's at stake is the very definition of a civilian. These reservists are among the 158,000 on the Individual Ready Reserve, a pool of discharged former active-duty soldiers and Marines who aren't paid, don't drill, have no chain of command, yet may be recalled to duty during the few years they are on inactive reserve. Lebowitz says they have the free-speech rights of civilians; the Marines disagree.
"Someone in the Marine Corps needs to exercise a little common sense and put an end to this matter before it turns into a circus," said the VFW's Kurpius.
The circus may already have arrived, in a white touring bus. Yesterday evening, Kokesh, 25, held a news conference at Union Station. Then he and his supporters boarded what they call the Yellow Rose of Texas Bus for Peace, festooned with flags and antiwar slogans for a road trip to Kansas City, where Kokesh faces a discharge hearing Monday.
In the crowd was Tina Richards, an antiwar activist who is the mother of Cloy Richards, 23, who served two tours in Iraq -- and who was also investigated for wearing his uniform during protests. The young man is 80 percent disabled and can't afford to risk the $1,300 a month he receives in veteran's benefits. He has been told he could lose them if he receives an other-than-honorable discharge, according to his mother.
"It's a form of intimidation and blackmail on the military's part to quiet the combat veterans who are speaking out against the war," said Tina Richards, who wears parts of her son's uniform to protest on his behalf.
Kurpius noted the example of retired generals -- including at least one Marine -- criticizing the war effort, even though retired top officers retain certain obligations to the military.
"I see them on CNN all the time, badmouthing the administration," Kurpius said. "Why is something not done about those individuals, when these poor troops are being hammered?"