(Corrects classification of discharge in fourth paragraph and deletes incorrect reference to Korean War veteran in paragraph 16)
By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters)- A U.S. military disciplinary panel on Monday recommended that a decorated combat Marine be involuntarily discharged after he joined an anti-war demonstration and spoke out against the Iraq war.
The three-member panel at a Marine command center in Kansas City recommended that 25-year-old Marine Cpl. Adam Kokesh be given a general discharge — one step below an “honorable discharge” and a reflection of “significant negative” conduct.
Kokesh was accused of misconduct for wearing desert fatigues at a protest in Washington in March to mark the fourth anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Kokesh said he would appeal the recommendation, which stops short of the honorable discharge he wants but is better than the other-than-honorable discharge that could have been recommended.
“I’m standing on principle and we’re going to contest this on principle. It’s not going to go away,” he said.
Kokesh is one of three U.S. Iraq combat veterans and members of a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War whom the government has threatened to punish over their roles in the anti-war demonstration.
Kokesh was also charged with misconduct for responding to a Marine investigator with a profanity.
He maintained that he has been acting as a civilian since his discharge from active duty in November 2006 and decried the action by the Marines as a restraint on freedom of speech and a “corrupt” and political act by the U.S. military.
“It’s clear these tactics of intimidation are being used against members of Iraq Veterans Against the War,” said Kokesh, who wore a black anti-war T-shirt to the hearing. “Freedom of speech means the right to say what other people don’t want to hear.”
The government argued that Kokesh was still a member of the “Individual Ready Reserves,” which meant he could be called back to duty and was subject to some military conduct regulations.
“This is an administrative discharge for the good of the service,” said Marine Col. Patrick McCarthy. “It is not a freedom of speech issue. This is about uniform violation and disrespect to an officer.”
However Kokesh was asked during the hearing if he was a “card-carrying member” of the Iraq Veterans Against the War, what membership entailed and if he voted in the last presidential election.
Marine Capt. Jeremy Sibert, a member of the reserves who presented the government’s case, argued that Kokesh’s action in the demonstration was potentially damaging to the military because it came during deliberations by Congress over funding for the Iraq war.
Sibert also said Kokesh’s conduct could have harmed recruiting efforts and affected public opinion about the Marines and the war.
Supporters from around the country staged a protest outside the Marine command center, holding signs and banners supporting Kokesh and criticizing President George W. Bush over the war. Many wore red badges bearing a tally — 3,495 — of U.S. military deaths in Iraq.
“It’s an insane war,” said 68-year-old Andy Wasowski, a member of the Veterans for Peace chapter in Taos, New Mexico, who traveled to Kansas City to support Kokesh.
The recommendation now goes for final disposition to Brig. Gen. Darrell Moore, commander of the Marine Corps Mobilization Command in Kansas City.
Among the protesters was 22-year-old Liam Madden of Boston, who is also being investigated.
The third Iraq veteran investigated — 23-year-old Cloy Richards of Salem, Missouri, who was wounded in combat — was also at the protest. But Richards agreed not to wear his uniform in protests in the future in order to keep his disability benefits.