WASHINGTON - The nation's largest combat veterans group on Friday urged the military to "exercise a little common sense" and call off its investigation of a group of Iraq war veterans who wore their uniforms during anti-war protests.
"Trying to hush up and punish fellow Americans for exercising the same democratic right we're trying to instill in Iraq is not what we're all about," said Gary Kurpius, national commander of the 2.4 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars.
"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," Kurpius said.
Marine Cpl. Adam Kokesh had already received an honorable discharge from active duty before he was photographed in March wearing fatigues , with military insignia removed , during a mock patrol with other veterans protesting the Iraq war.
A military panel in Kansas City, Mo., will hold a hearing Monday to decide whether he should be should be discharged from service and, if so, with what type of discharge.
Col. Dave Lapan, a Marine Corps spokesman, said Kokesh is under administrative review because he wore his uniform at a political event, which is prohibited. And, Lapan said, when a senior officer told Kokesh that he violated military regulations, Kokesh used an obscenity and indicated he would not comply with the rules.
"It's the political activity that is prohibited, not the type of event that it was," Lapan said. "If it had been a pro-war rally, it would still have been a violation."
The panel could recommend an honorable discharge, a general discharge or an other than honorable discharge. Kokesh could not be given a dishonorable discharge, which generally results from a court-martial. The final decision would be made by the commanding general.
A second Marine who was at the same event was also called about the violation, but told the officer he was unaware he was breaking the rules and said he would not do it again, Lapan said. That Marine has not been called to an administrative hearing.
Kurpius said the possibility of receiving a less than honorable discharge from service could threaten educational and other benefits Kokesh is eligible to receive from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The action might also prevent Kokesh from future employment opportunities that require a security clearance, Kurpius said.
"We all know that people give up some individual rights when they join the military," Kurpius said. "But these Marines went to war, did their duty, and were honorably discharged from the active roles. I may disagree with their message, but I will always defend their right to say it."
Kokesh received his honorable discharge after one combat tour in Iraq, but he remains part of the Individual Ready Reserve, a pool of former active duty service members in unpaid, non-drill status.
Kokesh's attorney, Michael Lebowitz, has called the investigation an effort to stifle critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy.
Link: MyFox Kansas City | Reservist Faces Panel After Anti-War Protest In Uniform
Link: Marine probe stirs free speech issue - The Boston Globe
Link: Vets Back Man in Trouble Over Protest | AP | 06/01/2007