Meet Iraq Veteran Adam Kokesh, the New Mouthpiece of the Anti-War Movement
By Holiday Dmitri
When Cindy Sheehan called it quits in May, her seat was barely cold when the peace movement hoisted its replacement trophy aloft: a younger, more photogenic mouthpiece with unimpeachable credentials. Marine Corporal Adam Kokesh, a decorated Iraq war vet, was already in the middle of a nasty dispute with his military superiors over a protest he had attended, the details of which only further endeared him to the cause. Within weeks, the unknown soldier from New Mexico had metamorphosed, as Wonkette put it, into "the Pentagon's biggest public relations nightmare."
At 5'10" and 205 pounds, Kokesh is no pantywaist hippie. He's built more like your prototypical killing machine, which goes a long way in explaining his appeal to the mainstream media as an antiwar provocateur. Thrust onto the national stage -- including appearances on Good Morning America and Paula Zahn Now -- the embattled reservist appears to be awed by his newfound fame. And he doesn't take the responsibility lightly.
"I'm a vet and that gives me some unique credibility. No one can say we're cowards or traitors or don't know what we're talking about," he says. "There's power in that platform. I have a moral imperative to be doing this."
Naturally, it's taken some time for Kokesh to adjust to his new role. He's still mystified by the idea that there's a Wikipedia entry in his name. But he seems to have the right perspective.
"I'm just a regular guy in the middle of a shit storm," he says. "But it's been fun."
On this summer morning in D.C., it appears that all the fun may have finally caught up with Kokesh. When the burly 25-year-old pulls up to meet me in his white Ford Bronco, he looks haggard. "Late night," he admits. He had been partying the previous evening at the Wonderland Ballroom, a Columbia Heights bar. I offer him my cup of Starbucks, but he shakes his head, flicking his unfiltered cigarette out the window. He doesn't drink coffee, he says, "It stunts your growth."
After a few minutes with Kokesh, it's easy to see how he's made it this far: The man's assertive. "When people ask me what my experience in Iraq was like, I tell them hot, dirty, and dangerous." Then, waiting a beat, he takes a pull from his cigarette and winks, "Just the way I like my women." (Later Kokesh informs me I'm the most attractive reporter who's interviewed him so far.)
The subject soon turns to Cindy Sheehan, the formerly vocal mother of a soldier who died in Iraq, to whom Kokesh is often compared. Last year, in Crawford, Texas, a young Marine described Casey Sheehan's death to the press as "an acceptable loss." Instead of getting angry, Kokesh recalls, Sheehan put her arms around the young man and led him off to speak privately. "I couldn't hear any of the words, but I knew exactly what she was saying to him, and I cried," he says. Realizing how callous he had been to his own mother about being deployed, Kokesh called her to apologize.
Though he admires Sheehan, Kokesh is quick to point out that their philosophies diverge. "Cindy Sheehan wanted to talk to Bush. I want to stop the motherfucker," he says.
Corporal Kokesh's stormy relations with the U.S. government began on March 20, when a photo of him in desert camouflage appeared in the Washington Post. He had participated a day earlier in a mock combat patrol to mark the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Along with 12 other vets, he "patrolled" the area from Union Station to Arlington National Cemetery with an imaginary assault riffle, manhandling suspected "terrorists" at simulated gunpoint, to give Washingtonians a taste of U.S. occupation. Nine days later, Major John R. Whyte sent Kokesh an e-mail informing him that he was under investigation by the Marines for wearing his uniform in a political protest.
Furious, the young GI composed an e-mail reply to his superior admonishing him for devoting valuable resources to what he viewed as a trivial matter -- the political activities of a reservist -- while his fellow servicemen continued to die in futility overseas. He closed with a request for the investigating officer to "please, kindly, go fuck [him]self."
On May 1, Kokesh received notification from the government that Mjr. Whyte had recommended his "honorable discharge" status be stripped and changed to an "other-than-honorable discharge," the most serious sanction possible, which involves a loss of VA health benefits, the right to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and, in his case, having to pay back the $10,000 he received on the GI Bill. The charges: uniform violation and disrespecting a superior under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
Kokesh was a member of the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), a category most soldiers fall into for the period after they've left active duty but haven't yet completed their eight-year military obligations. IRR members can be recalled to active duty at any time, a process that's been described as a "backdoor draft," but under the rule book, they receive no benefits, no salary, and fall under no chain of command. Kokesh's lawyers argued that, as an IRR member, he was a civilian: the Uniform Code of Military Justice had no jurisdiction.
"My mother was afraid for me in Iraq, but she should be more afraid now," Kokesh contends. "Instead of the insurgents, today it's the United States government that's after me."
Kokesh maintains he made it clear he was acting as a civilian and not a Marine when he partook in the mock patrol, consciously removing the name tag and insignias from his uniform. Wearing a military uniform in such a re-enactment, his lawyers argue, is "street theater," an action protected by the 1970 Supreme Court decision handed down in Schacht vs. United States, even if the performance could be found to "discredit" the armed forces in some manner.
According to Mike Lebowitz, an Iraq war vet who serves as Kokesh's lead attorney, the case is the first in which the military has sought to stifle the political speech of an IRR civilian. During the Vietnam War, disgruntled vets protested their war in weathered fatigues, but those dissidents were drafted.
"This is unprecedented," Lebowitz says. "As far as I know, we're the first to fight something completely related to the civilian world against a discharged veteran without orders to return to duty."
"Involuntary separation hearings are almost exclusively related to inherently criminal cases such as drugs or violence," he adds. "In this case, the Marine Corps attempted to label political speech as official misconduct and as a serious offense. The whole thing with Adam was political, no question."
As we approach Longworth, a congressional office building on Capitol Hill, Kokesh is walking fast. He's late to a meeting, and I'm trying to keep up. On the way, he describes the curious path that got him here. This February, a month after moving to Washington to earn a master's degree in political management at George Washington University, he came across the story of Jonathan Schulze, a Marine from Minnesota who had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a tour in Iraq. Schulze repeatedly sought help from the Veterans Administration, informing them he was suicidal. But his requests for psychiatric care were denied. Shortly thereafter, he hanged himself with an electric chord, a picture of his infant daughter beside him. Kokesh read his story over and over, and was overwhelmed.
"I spent my nights at my computer, sobbing uncontrollably," he says.
The experience changed him. Within a week, he had joined Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW); a few days after that, he was participating in the infamous "street theater" event. Two other IVAW Marine reservists, Cpl. Cloy Richards, 23, of Salem, Missouri, and Sgt. Liam Madden, 22, of Boston, Massachusetts, also took part, and would later be investigated for wearing their combat utility uniforms during political protests and making "disrespectful" or "disloyal" statements.
Their charges come at a time when many soldiers returning home are questioning the increasingly unpopular war in which they fought. According to a Zogby poll, 72 percent of U.S. troops serving in Iraq support a troop withdrawal within the year.
In the Longworth cafeteria, Kokesh introduces me to Tina Richards, the mother of fellow IVAW Marine Cloy Richards, who is sitting at a long table with a group of young activists preparing the day's agenda on the Hill. Richards, the founder of Grassroots America, a non-profit devoted to social-justice issues, became a YouTube sensation after a run-in with Rep. Dave Obey (D-WI) in which the congressman informed her that "liberal idiots" trying to de-fund the war were actually hurting the cause of the veterans. Tina Richards and Kokesh have lately been collaborating, and have vowed not to leave Washington until the war is over.
Tina's son, Cloy, returned from Iraq 80 percent combat disabled, suffering from symptoms of traumatic brain injury and DU (depleted uranium) poisoning. He has no other health insurance and can't afford to be denied medical treatment or lose his GI Bill for college. In short, losing his honorable discharge is not an option. Accordingly, Cloy has agreed to the government's request that he not participate in any political rallies in uniform. His mother, in turn, has decided to speak up for him. "It's a form of intimidation and blackmail on the military's part to quiet the combat veterans who are speaking out against the war," she says.
The initial plan for the morning had been to occupy Sen. McCain's office -- applying the same techniques soldiers do in Baghdad, Kokesh notes -- to protest his Iraq initiatives. ("How does that sound for a first date?" Kokesh joked earlier. "We can get arrested together.") The senator, however, wasn't in. Kokesh and Richards decide to split up for the day, and as we head out, Kokesh is stopped by a busboy who recognizes him from the papers. "Go make something happen, man," he says, extending his arm for a handshake.
When Kokesh was 14, his parents sent him to Devil Pups junior boot camp at Camp Pendleton where he saw a phrase on a mural that burned in his mind. The slogan was written by a Marine during the Vietnam War who later died in combat. His words are now part of the Marine Corps heritage, often written on flak jackets and helmets.
"USMC: For those who fight for it, life has a special flavor the protected never know."
Three years after attending the Devil Pups boot camp, Kokesh became a full-fledged, U.S.-certified Devil Dog, and had the phrase tattooed on his left arm to prove it.
"As someone who loves the Marine Corps," he says, "to see them use [my case] for political ends is deeply offensive. The Marine Corps is turning into a partisan tool of this administration."
Returning from a full day of lobbying, his thoughts turn to his past. He tells me he is the first and only member of his immediate family to enlist in the military. Born in a middle-class home in San Francisco and raised in San Mateo, California, he is the product of divorce -- and three different boarding schools. The first and only peace protest he ever attended before his IVAW days, was after September 11. Then a psychology student at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles, he attend a campus walkout; but, as the only member of the military in attendance, he stuck out among the patchouli set. "I was surrounded by hippies," he recalls, shaking his head in mock disgust. "I thought, 'screw this' and I left."
Kokesh considers himself more conservative than his compatriots in the peace movement. He always votes for the Libertarian Party candidate, and was the president of the Libertarian Club in college. His political hero is Ron Paul.
Halfway through his junior year at McKenna, Kokesh volunteered to be deployed to Iraq and was soon serving in Fallujah. After graduating in December 2005, he decided he wanted to go back. But in February 2006, two days before he was to be deployed on his second tour, he was told by his commanding officer that he was under investigation for bringing back a pistol he had purchased from an Iraqi policeman. His car had been broken into on campus and the pistol was missing. He was charged with three felonies, but accepted a plea bargain for disturbing the peace -- a misdemeanor -- and his case was passed along to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. After an eight-month investigation, he was demoted from sergeant to corporal and given an honorary discharge. The penalization didn't bother him much. Kokesh was more upset that he couldn't make it back to serve his country.
"I begged to be sent to Iraq," he says. As for the demotion, "I keep on thinking of what [most decorated Marine in history] Chesty Puller said, 'You're not a real Marine until you get busted down once or twice.'"
At a café in Woodley Park the following afternoon, Kokesh is busily fielding phone calls and text messages, attempting to plan an upcoming event. When he slows down to take a breath, he lays out what he views as his main objective, other than bringing the troops home: protecting the First Amendment rights of veterans.
The nation's largest combat veterans group, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, is also behind Kokesh, charging the military of attempting to muzzle the Marine's constitutional right to free speech. "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 VFW head Gary Kurpius in an Associated Press interview. "I may disagree with the message ... but I and my organization will always defend their right to say it."
According to Kokesh's lawyer, when a military prosecutor contacted him to offer a plea bargain for a general discharge, Kokesh refused. To settle for a compromise, Kokesh argued, would be akin to allowing the government to establish that IRR members are not entitled to freedom of speech. In response, he sent the officers overseeing his case the same profane suggestion as to what they could go do. During the hearing, the prosecutor denied ever having made the offer.
On June 4, the Marine Corp's three-person review board met in Kansas City, Missouri, and declined to impose the harshest, punitive punishment on Kokesh. Instead, they took the middle road and recommended a "general discharge under honorable conditions" reflecting "significant negative" conduct, and Kokesh got to keep his benefits. The government argued that since Kokesh was a member of the IRR, he could still be called back to duty and was therefore subject to some military conduct regulations. But the decision isn't good enough for Kokesh. To him, there's a bigger principle at stake; namely, the speech rights of every soldier who puts on a uniform. His lawyers are currently filing an appeal with the Navy Discharge Review Board, a step toward getting his case heard in federal court.
For now, he will continue to speak out publicly against the war, and his voice will likely grow louder in the coming months.
"I will not be silenced or intimidated," he vows. "I understand the reason Cindy Sheehan left. I can only hope to last as long as she did."