They also serve their conscience

Times Staff Writer

Off duty in Baghdad, Army Sgt. Ronn Cantu operates an antiwar website.

When not repairing Black Hawk helicopters for the California National Guard, Jabbar Magruder conducts counterrecruiting sessions with would-be enlistees.

Fresh from two tours each in Iraq, decorated former Marines Sean O’Neill and Mike Ergo give antiwar speeches at Northern California high schools.


Although their numbers are still small compared with the draft-fueled Vietnam veterans’ movement four decades ago, California’s Iraq veterans are gaining a voice in opposition to America’s continued military presence in Iraq. Recent antiwar demonstrations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities have seen the first sizable contingents of veterans from the conflict.

The protesters even include some soldiers -- like Cantu, of Los Angeles -- who are still on active duty. “I’ve taken a public antiwar stance,” Cantu, 29, recently e-mailed from Baghdad, where he serves in intelligence with the 1st Cavalry Division, “but I didn’t shirk my responsibilities.”

O’Neill, a 24-year-old Marine veteran from Fremont, said he likes to take the antiwar message to conservative areas of the state “to add legitimacy and to show that it is not just crazed leftists who are against the war.”

For the most part, the military has tolerated the antiwar activities of its active-duty soldiers and reservists.

“While not on duty or in uniform, our service members maintain similar rights as other Americans,” said Lt. Col. Jon Siepmann, director of public affairs for the California National Guard. “There are, however, limitations that exist to ensure the good order and discipline of the service and to maintain an effective chain of command.”

The only significant court case related to antiwar activity, the court-martial of Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada at Ft. Lewis, Wash., ended in a mistrial in February. Watada was charged with “conduct unbecoming an officer” for antiwar statements he made before Veterans for Peace and other organizations and for refusing to deploy with his unit to Iraq. A new court-martial is set for July.

Cantu belongs to an organization called Iraq Veterans Against the War and is an active antiwar blogger. Except for a letter of admonishment he was given for his largely antiwar website, he said, “the Army has respected my rights.”

After he registered his website and promised not to post pictures of himself in uniform, he was left alone.

“A lot of soldiers have the belief that freedom of speech doesn’t apply to us, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Cantu said. “Since speaking out, I’ve been part of two Army briefings where we were explicitly told that freedom of speech applies to us.”

Legal scholars sense a softening on the part of the military on free-speech issues since the discordant Vietnam era.

“There is a much more nuanced idea of what it means to ‘support the troops.’ Both sides now use that slogan,” said Diane Amann, a constitutional law professor at UC Davis.

“It is a very different atmosphere from the last time around. It is much easier to see those in uniform as part of the great circle of society.”

Iraq Veterans Against the War is modeled on Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which was founded in 1967 and played a high-profile role in the antiwar movement of that era. But the Iraq group does not yet have the same political traction as its predecessor, which had the concurrent anti-draft movement to help fill its ranks.

With an estimated 700 active members nationwide, the organization has a simple platform: the immediate withdrawal of all troops, improved treatment for soldiers upon their return and a national contribution to the reconstruction of postwar Iraq.

Sgt. Jabbar Magruder, 24, served in Iraq in 2005 and is still a member of the California National Guard while he attends Cal State Northridge as a pre-med major.

In his civilian mode, he serves as secretary of the Los Angeles chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, attends antiwar demonstrations and meets with students on college campuses. He recently traveled to Hawaii to speak to potential military recruits about the Iraq war and was one of nearly 1,000 regular military, National Guard and Reserve members who signed an Appeal for Redress that was delivered to Congress in January.

The three-sentence appeal reads: “As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases in Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home.”

Like most members of his organization, Magruder is not a pacifist but is opposed to the U.S. policy in Iraq. “For me, it was all about the weapons of mass destruction. When we didn’t find any, that was the final straw,” he said.

But during weekend and summer training drills with the National Guard, Magruder said, he is all soldier. “I can’t go to drill and all of a sudden shout I’m against the war. When I’m in uniform, I have to play that role. I don’t like people who proselytize anyway.”

Magruder, who was posted at a U.S. airbase near Tikrit, Iraq, said he gets along well with his Guard colleagues, even those who still support the war. “I don’t have any trouble in my unit,” he said, “because I went with them to Iraq and they respect me for that.”

Mike Ergo, a 24-year-old former Marine who served two tours in Iraq, participated in the bloody assault on Fallouja in November 2004. “I lost my best friend,” Ergo said. “My battalion lost 21 people.”

The solidly built Ergo, an honors student at a Bay Area community college, has a large, colorful tattoo on his right shoulder that reads “Born to Fight.” His left forearm bears a tattoo of a sword-wielding St. Michael carrying the scales of justice and standing on a vanquished enemy. Ergo said he got that tattoo after he killed his first insurgent in Iraq.

Sitting at a Starbucks near his Walnut Creek home, Ergo explained how his views changed from being gung-ho on Iraq to being against the war.

“When I got back and had time to sort out Sept. 11 and the events that led to Iraq, I began to question things,” said Ergo, a jazz saxophonist who gave up a college music scholarship to join the Marines.

“At first, I didn’t understand that you could be proud of military service and still be opposed to a specific war. All of us are ready to die if necessary for a noble cause. I was just mad that this cause wasn’t worth dying for.”

Like Magruder, Ergo said his fellow Marines have responded mostly positively to his activities: “My former executive officer wrote me an e-mail saying he was proud of what I was doing.”

At demonstrations, the physically fit, buzz-cut veterans stand out among protesters drawn largely from the extreme left or special-interest causes.

“A lot of us were America’s poster boys,” said former Air Force Sgt. Tim Goodrich, 26, president of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

O’Neill, who now studies political science at UC Berkeley, sees his mission as providing credibility and legitimacy to the antiwar movement.

“Our job,” said O’Neill, the son of a University of California administrator and a schoolteacher, “is to change the image and the aesthetic and the language of the left-leaning antiwar movement to make it less polarizing.”