who spent seven months in Iraq, received a Purple Heart and later deserted from the Army — set up camp in a school bus earlier this...

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Darrell Anderson — who spent seven months in Iraq, received a Purple Heart and later deserted from the Army — set up camp in a school bus earlier this month across the freeway from Fort Lewis. As soldiers exited the base, Anderson offered them a power fist of protest.

Sometimes the soldiers responded with jeers and raised middle fingers. Sometimes, they cheered and clenched their own fists or flashed a peace sign.

“A lot of them have families to take care of. They can’t resist. They have too much to lose,” Anderson said. “They don’t want to be like me with nothing, by the side of the road, talking about how wrong it is.”

Anderson was drawn to the Northwest by the upcoming court-martial trial of 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, a Fort Lewis officer who faces up to six years in prison for his refusal to serve a first tour of duty in Iraq and for attacks on the Bush administration’s conduct of the war.

The trial has become a rallying point for Northwest anti-war activists, who have scheduled a “citizens hearing” on the legality and conduct of the war in Tacoma this weekend. And Anderson, speaking at rallies, schools and meeting halls, has emerged as a vivid protest voice against the wrenching emotional toll of fighting a war amid a civilian population.

His misgivings about the war propelled him to head for Canada, where he was part of a small band of Iraq-era resisters estimated at about several hundred who have sought refuge across the border.

Legality of war

A two-day “citizens hearing” on the legality of the Iraq war is scheduled for today and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Tacoma campus of Evergreen State College, 1210 6th Ave.

Some witnesses, including veterans and specialists in international law and treaties, will address the legality of the U.S. invasion, while others — including veterans — will speak of their experiences.

Speakers will include Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers; Denis Halliday, a former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations; and Francis Boyle, a University of Illinois law professor.

In October, Anderson returned across the border to surrender to the U.S. military. He was inspired, in part, by Watada, who remained on base and never sought to evade military justice after his decision not to serve in Iraq.

But Anderson never faced a general court-martial trial.

In the final days before his return from Canada, he struck a deal for an other-than-honorable discharge. He was detained at Fort Knox, Ky., for three days before his release.

Jim Fennerty, a civilian attorney who represented Anderson in negotiations with Fort Knox, said that decision to forgo court-martial appeared to reflect his client’s completion of a tour of duty in Iraq and good conduct while in the military.

Army officials in Fort Knox declined to comment on the specifics of his settlement.

Overall, in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, the Army handled 102 court-martial convictions that involved charges of desertion.

Maj. Cheryl Phillips at Army headquarters said that settlements are “based on the soldier. The situation is different for each soldier, and at each command.”

Things turned ugly

Anderson was broke and living with his grandparents in California when he joined the Army in January 2003.

A year later, he arrived in Iraq to join the 1st Armored Division efforts to secure Baghdad.

His first few months in Iraq were relatively peaceful. But in April 2004, he said things turned ugly as a spreading insurgency that month claimed the lives of 135 U.S. service personnel.

As casualties mounted, security became a huge issue at the traffic checkpoints set up around the city.

One day, Anderson balked at firing at a car that penetrated a safety perimeter. He said his actions saved the lives of a family with two children in the back seat. But his unwillingness to shoot, he said, brought on the wrath of his superiors, who threatened to punish him if he acted that way again.

The next day, one of Anderson’s buddies was struck by enemy fire and fell on top of him. Anderson wanted to strike back, and took aim at a teenage boy who was running away from the firefight. He says he would have pulled the trigger except he had mistakenly left the safety on.

Then, he saw an Iraqi man who was frantically waving not to shoot. Anderson looked down at his friend, spitting up blood, and realized that he wanted to kill the Iraqi man. He held his weapon close, acting like he would shoot.

“That day, I realized that no matter how righteous or good I think I am, that it was going to overcome me. This hate. This anger.”

Deeply troubled

Later in 2004, Anderson said, he still felt like a proud soldier as he received a Purple Heart for a wound caused by a bomb fragment that penetrated his side. But by January 2005, on home leave, Anderson appeared deeply troubled. He had a nervous tic, couldn’t sleep and seemed depressed as he poured out his misgivings about the war, according to his mother, Anita Anderson.

Anderson never returned to his unit.

His mother, a vocal opponent of the war, suggested he move to Canada.

Once there, he emerged as a high-profile critic of the war, giving numerous talks about his Iraq experiences. He married a Canadian woman and sought status as a political refugee. He claimed that a return to Iraq would pull him into war crimes — killing innocent civilians — that would violate his Army obligations to comply with the Geneva Conventions.

Anderson said he was in turmoil on the inside, and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One morning, he cut his hair, shaved his beard and began to cry.

“I realize that I did have PTSD and I wasn’t as strong as I thought,” Anderson recalls. “I have to go back because it got to the point where I had more nightmares about the Army coming and arresting me and putting me in prison than I was about Iraq.”

Anderson’s return to Kentucky, where he had grown up, was tumultuous.

He was welcomed home by several dozen anti-war activists at the news conference outside Fort Knox, but denounced by others as a coward and traitor.

In November he went on the road, joining a protest at Fort Benning and eventually traveling west on a yellow school bus operated by the Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Anderson arrived in Washington state earlier this month. Since his arrival, he has been a front-line speaker as the anti-war movement seeks to gain new momentum here to block President Bush’s plans for a troop increase. He parked the bus near Fort Lewis for several days this month.

In the days ahead, Anderson will be helping to organize a new round of vigils outside Fort Lewis for the Feb. 5 start of the Watada trial. He hopes the trial will draw busloads of people from around the region and piggyback on protest efforts against Bush’s call for troop increases.

Yet, Anderson does not always feel at ease with fellow war opponents. At rallies, he sees some people laughing, or hooked into their iPods. Some appear to be happy to get a chance to protest rather than angry about the misfortunes the war has wrought.

For the anti-war movement to succeed, he believes protesters must reach out to soldiers. They won’t do that, he says, by calling Bush a “terrorist,” but instead by showing soldiers that they care about them.

“People come up and tell me about their politics. I don’t care about their politics. Tell me you marched through the snow to a base to talk with a soldier,” he said. “Tell me something you lost.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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