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Friday, June 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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War-protesting Fort Lewis officer doesn't deploy with unit

Seattle Times staff reporter

At Fort Lewis on Thursday, in the predawn blackness, several hundred soldiers stood with their duffel bags and weapons as a sergeant read the names of those expected to board buses for McCord Air Force Base and the long flight to the Middle East.

"Lt. Ehren Watada!" the sergeant yelled, but no one answered.

Watada, believed to be the first officer to refuse to go to Iraq, was inside a headquarters building, sticking to his belief that it was his moral duty not to deploy with the rest of the unit.

Throughout the morning, various commanders tried to talk to Watada, tell him it wasn't too late to grab his stuff and join the others. But when the plane took off at around 10 a.m., there was no going back. And Watada didn't budge.

"This is now a case of military justice," said Joe Piek, an Army spokesman.

"We're taking what Lt. Watada has done very seriously."

Watada, 28, who joined the military in 2003, was trained as a field artillery officer, helping orchestrate airstrikes and artillery barrages. That job will now be filled by another officer, though a replacement may be requested later, Piek said.

No charges will be filed against Watada until his commander, Lt. Col. Bruce Antonia of the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, has a chance to review the case and consult with Army lawyers.

Meanwhile, Watada has been ordered to remain on duty and not leave Fort Lewis.

"Lt. Watada has been restricted to base without any actual charges or proper process," said his attorney, Eric Seitz.

"By placing a complete gag order on Lt. Watada, the military has again shown that their first concern is silencing Lt. Watada's speech in opposition to the illegal war in Iraq. We will immediately challenge these highly questionable and improper restrictions."

Watada is considered to be the first officer to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq.

While other soldiers scheduled to go to Iraq have been absent without leave, Watada was the first to refuse to deploy while on base, Piek said.

More than 50,000 active-duty troops, reservists and National Guard soldiers have been processed through Fort Lewis since Sept. 11, 2001.

Born and raised in Honolulu, Watada enlisted in the Army and was obligated to serve on active duty as an Army officer for three years ending on Dec. 3, 2006.

In January, Watada asked to resign his commission because, he stated: "I am wholeheartedly opposed to the continued war in Iraq, the deception used to wage this war, and the lawlessness that has pervaded every aspect of our civilian leadership."

Peace groups around the nation plan a day of protests and vigils in support of Watada on Tuesday.

At Fort Lewis, Watada is not the source of much conversation, Piek said.

Instead, the base is focused on saying goodbye to the 4,000 troops who will leave home for a yearlong deployment.

"Lt. Watada is one soldier," Piek said. "Across Fort Lewis, this is not something that is paid a great deal of attention to."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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