KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A military panel recommended that an Iraq war veteran who wore his uniform during an anti-war demonstration lose his honorable discharge status, brushing away his claims that he was exercising his right to free speech.
Marine Cpl. Adam Kokesh, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, argued that he did nothing wrong by participating in the March protest in Washington, D.C., because he removed his name tag and military emblems from his uniform, making it clear he was not representing the military.
His attorneys argued the demonstration was "street theater," exempting it from rules barring troops from wearing uniforms at protest activities.
After a daylong hearing Monday, a three-person Marine board recommended he receive a general discharge under honorable conditions, one step below an honorable discharge. It would let Kokesh keep all of his benefits.
"What that means is he is not dishonorable, and he's only kind of honorable, so in effect, the board picked the safe route," said Kokesh's attorney, Mike Lebowitz.
"This is a nonpunitive discharge," said Col. Patrick McCarthy, chief of staff for the mobilization command. "The most stringent discharge that could have been received is other than honorable, and the board chose to raise that up to a general discharge."
After the hearing, Kokesh criticized the panel for not taking a stronger stand on the issue. He said he might appeal the board's ruling.
"I do not think it was in the Marine Corps spirit to take the easy road or to not take a stand," said Kokesh, who is from Santa Fe, N.M., but is living in Washington. "In the words of Dante, the hottest layers of hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis maintain their neutrality, and I think that's what happened here today."
After Kokesh, 25, participated in the March protest, he was identified in a photo caption in The Washington Post. A superior officer sent him a letter saying he might have violated a rule prohibiting troops from wearing uniforms without authorization.
Kokesh had already received an honorable discharge from active duty before he participated in the demonstration, but he remains a member of the Individual Ready Reserve, which consists mainly of those who have left active duty but still have time remaining on their eight-year military obligations. His service is due to end June 18.
An investigating officer had recommended that the board immediately discharge Kokesh under other-than-honorable conditions, the toughest such penalty it could impose.
The Marines' first witness, Maj. John R. Whyte, testified that he wrote Kokesh an e-mail informing him that the Marines were investigating the possible uniform violation. Kokesh responded with a note that included an obscenity.
Brig. Gen. Darrell L. Moore, one of two officers who received an e-mail from Kokesh that contained an obscenity, will likely be the person who will decide whether to go along with the board's recommendation.
During closing arguments at the hearing, Marine Capt. Jeremy Sibert said military personnel can be punished if their civilian behavior "directly affects the performance of military duties and is service-related."
Outside the hearing Monday, several people stood in front of a bus painted with anti-war slogans, such as "Bring Them Home Now," "Not One More!" and "What Noble Cause?" Two other veterans who received letters because of their protest activities traveled to Kansas City for the hearing.