Lt. Ehren Watada: ‘Experience Makes You Stronger’
AsianWeek, News Report, Peter J. Swing Posted: Oct 14, 2007
In June 2006, Lt. Ehren Watada publicly refused deployment orders to Iraq, becoming the first commissioned officer of the United States Army to do so since 1965. After battling the military justice system for more than a year, he currently faces six years in federal prison and a dishonorable discharge.
During this time, Watada’s family and friends have mobilized a national movement supporting his refusal and protesting the war, and he has become an icon for the anti-war movement, especially among Asian Americans. Watada’s refusal to be silent is the act of an Asian American who adhered to his convictions despite the risk of severe consequences.
Born and raised in the farming community of Fort Lupton, Colorado, Ehren Watada’s father, Bob, remembers growing up amidst racism as one of the few Japanese in Colorado.
“Imagine going into a restaurant and sitting in the corner and not being served,” Bob Watada said. “You could sit there for two hours, and they wouldn’t serve you, even if they served everybody else. After a while, we would just walk out.”
But he would not continue to walk out quietly for long. “I was always an activist,” Bob Watada explained. From protesting the war in Vietnam and joining the Peace Corps in the 1960s, he instilled these values, “these roots” as he calls them, upon his son.
“My father has always been very community-minded, sometimes putting community things before family things,” says the younger Watada.
Ehren Watada’s mother, Carolyn Ho, a Chinese American born in Honolulu, is a descendant of a Chinese migrant who came to Hawai’i in the late 19th century to work on sugar plantations. Ehren was born in Honolulu in 1978, and Ho describes her son as always determined and a bit precocious. “Every time kids would fool around during soccer practice, I would see Ehren with a serious look on his face, calm and composed,” Ho laughingly recalled.
Growing up, Watada was a Boy Scout, which he views as a precursor to the military. “The rank, the discipline, the patriotism, the ribbons, the merit badges – it’s very similar.” Watada attained Eagle rank by the ninth grade — an extraordinary feat for a 13-year-old since the average Eagle Scout attains his rank at age 16.
Being a Boy Scout was a primary motivation for joining the military. “The sense of adventurism you get from scouting is the same that you perceive in the military,” he says, “Also, there’s that really deep sense of service and giving something back.”
Final Score, 42-0
Watada played football on Honolulu’s Kalani High football team in 1996, an experience which tremendously shaped and informed his character today. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, however way you see it, I played on a team with one of the worst records in football on the entire islands,” Watada said. He recalls one particularly humiliating defeat early in the season: “We lost 42-0; we were just getting creamed. I was getting picked on because three or four of those touchdowns must’ve [been] scored on me. I was getting beat up.” At the time he was 5′7″ and about 150 pounds.
The entire game was both physically and mentally exhausting, Watada recalls. The other team members saw the defeat in Watada’s face and decided to exploit that weakness: “They were kicking the kickoff to me, when we hadn’t even practiced for that … [One time] I got hit so hard I went out of bounds on one play.” For the first time, Watada experienced a strong sense of despair and dejection. “I came out of that game really feeling humiliated and defeated,” Watada explains. “I was just broken inside and outside. During the period of that game and after it, I just lost hope in myself and what I thought I could do.”
He internalized all of the negative feelings that were attached to this game and later looked back to realize that it had a positive impact on the development of his character: “They could humiliate you; they could try to crush your will; they can beat up on you physically, but when you really lose is when you give up on yourself.” He has brought that outlook to his current situation facing the court-martial trial: “I think consciously or subconsciously that situation has carried over to how I carry myself now.
That’s how I can stay as strong as I have been throughout this very difficult ordeal. The Army can try to ostracize me, try to discredit me in the media. They can send me to prison and punish me. But whatever they do, I always remember the lesson that I learned: you aren’t defeated until you tell yourself you’re defeated.”
Watada still thinks about playing on that losing football team. “I always wonder if I had been on a team that had won every game. Maybe that experience of being defeated, being the underdog and trying to struggle, wouldn’t have built my character to do what I have done.”
After graduating from high school and obtaining his degree in Business Administration at Hawai’i Pacific University, Watada enlisted in the Army.
His first duty station was Camp Stanley in South Korea, considered one of the most demanding stations in the Army. “They say that a year in Korea is equal to three years back in the States,” Watada said. “You train as if you were going to war any day.”
In Korea, he was driven by the strict battalion commander Lt. Colonel Matthew Dawson. “He would cuss and swear at us; he would get in our face,” Watada said. “Normally, battalion commanders don’t get too involved with their lieutenants; they focus on their captains. But it was his mission to make sure that he had the best lieutenants.”
Under Dawson, Watada learned the value of comprehensive knowledge. “He would force us to read every technical and field manual. He told us many times that if you didn’t know everything about your profession and your mission, then you would just be a failure,” Watada said. Dawson instilled in Watada the desire “to know everything there is to know” about his duty.
Watada’s lawyer attempted to contact Lt. Dawson to be a character witness in the trial; Dawson said he respected Watada’s decision but would not “go to war” with him. “He doesn’t agree with what I did,” Watada said. “And that’s fine. You have to look at the broader issue. We’re not just soldiers trained to go to war; we’re trained to defend our country and the Constitution.”
A note in Watada’s fitness report remarked that he possessed an “insatiable appetite for knowledge,” according to a New York Times story in July 2006, and Watada credits this to Dawson: “Some of what he instilled in me, I carried over with me when I redeployed back to the States. It was vital for me to find out everything there is to know. That’s what led to this questioning and trying to attain knowledge of what the hell we’re doing in Iraq.”
In January 2005, Watada received orders to Fort Lewis, Washington, in anticipation of deployment to Iraq. Watada felt neither frightened nor anxious, but extremely unprepared. “I was detailed to be a fire support officer with an infantry company,” Watada explained.
Watada applied his “insatiable appetite for knowledge” to his future duties in Iraq. He felt it was his obligation and duty as an officer to know what to anticipate. “I did this to better prepare myself and my soldiers. That’s what I was taught in Korea.”
He haunted the Fort Lewis library, which contains an extraordinary number of military documents, archives and databases, and scoured volumes on military history, particularly in Iraq. “I read the history of units that have gone during the initial invasion to gain a broader knowledge of what I could expect,” he said.
At the time, it was more than the war that was making headlines; the Valerie Plame case, Supreme Court nominations and the country’s heightened surveillance, all questioned the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. “I was looking at who was trying to protect us,” Watada said. “Who is standing up and speaking out for the soldiers” I told myself that nobody is.
“I just felt so saddened by what was going on and so frustrated, so disheartened,” he continued. “And yet I told myself there was nothing I could do.”
Watada recalls one radio show that especially touched him. “This guy calls, and he was pretty hysterical. His brother was being sent to Iraq again, and he was really scared for him. He asked ‘Why isn’t anybody doing anything? Where are all the protests and the rallies like there was in the Vietnam War?’”
Watada reevaluated his stance on the war in Iraq. “I just snapped. I said, ‘I can do something about it.’ Though I may suffer for it, though it may just be a blip on the radar, at least I know that I can do something about it.”
After being denied two resignation requests, Watada publicly announced his refusal of deployment orders in Tacoma, Washington, on June 7, 2006. Two weeks later, Watada was officially charged with three violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice on six counts.
Peter Swing served as a nuclear, biological and chemical warfare defense specialist for the U.S. Marine Corps from 1998 to 2002 in the Middle East and Central America. He is currently the administrative coordinator for the AsianWeek Foundation.
Editor's Note: These videos document the historic meeting between Lt. Watada and war resisters from WWII -- two weeks before the young army offficer was put on trial for refusing to deploy to Iraq. Curtis Choy is an independent filmmaker.
Lt. Watada Explains His Risky Stand On Iraq
Exclusive: One on One With 1st Lt. Ehren Watada
Saying No to War Is Defending the Constitution
Japanese American Soldiers Making a Difference in Iraq and Abroad
National JACL Board Strengthens Support for Watada
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