Protesters in uniform could be downgraded, lose their benefits
By Kirsten Scharnberg, Chicago Tribune, June 24, 2007
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 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.
Madden is not alone.
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.
'We don't restrict free speech'
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," Maj. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman, said. "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 rank 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 fevered 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 Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) 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 where protesters staged a mock patrol, manhandling people at simulated gunpoint in order to illustrate how they say Iraqis are treated by American troops. Just last week in Chicago, a similar protest took place. The intended subtext of the uniformed protests is apparent: that 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 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 some 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.
The wording of the appeal is intended to be patriotic and respectful while unequivocally anti-war: It begins, "As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform …" It ends, "Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home."
Of the three Marines caught protesting in uniform, the case of former Cpl.Cloy Richards has garnered the least public attention—but the most within military circles. The 23-year-old from Missouri has been deemed 80 percent disabled from two tours in Iraq; he agreed this month before a military discharge review board that he would no longer protest in uniform in order to keep his honorable discharge and his veterans benefits that come to some $1,300 per month.
But that hasn't silenced Richards' protest. He now attends anti-war demonstrations in civilian clothes; his mother attends as well, wearing his old uniform for him.
Veterans group against war
Others are also creative. A young infantryman based at Ft. Drum, near Watertown, N.Y., home to the 10th Mountain Division, well knows the fine balancing act it is to be a uniformed member of the military and a committed anti-war activist. Phillip Aliff—he asked that his rank not be used, saying that would be against regulation—is the president of the Ft. Drum chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Once a week, Aliff and the other IVAW members finish their duty day in uniform, change into civilian clothes and drive off base to meet at the Different Drummer, a cafe in downtown Watertown that is modeled on the anti-war coffeehouses of the Vietnam War era.
"I'm definitely walking the line," Aliff said, admitting that none of his direct commanders know of his anti-war activities. "But we who protest have a collective experience. We took part in it—we did the midnight raids and patrols, we caused the fear in the Iraqi people—so when even we say it's wrong, that carries some real credibility."
The Ft. Drum group has grown from two members when it was launched two months ago to 12 members today. Aliff said the members encourage each other to speak out despite fear of reprisal.
"None of us wants to get in trouble," Aliff said. "None of us wants to lose our jobs or our GI bills or our benefits. But we also feel we have to be willing to do what's right."
By meeting off base and out of uniform, the Iraq Veterans Against the War members stay just inside the line of legality for military code. They don't distribute literature on base or openly recruit new members at work.
"There are so many ways to stay within military law," Aliff said. "We know we have something to say so we are finding legal ways in which to say it."
A Zogby poll last year showed that war critics like Aliff may not be entirely on the fringes of the mainstream military. The poll of 944 U.S. military personnel in Iraq conducted by Zogby International and Le Moyne College found that 72 percent believed the U.S. should pull out within one year.
"The unrest has been churning below the surface for a while," said Madden, who is still waiting to see what will become of his less-than-honorable discharge recommendation. "But now the signs of that unrest are starting to be readily apparent."