The trial comes at a time when the antiwar movement is gaining strength, which has added to its symbolic importance. Almost overnight, Watada has become a poster child for critics of the war – a sort of Cindy Sheehan in fatigues. He speaks at public rallies. His father addressed the antiwar protest in Washington D.C. last weekend.
Yet beneath it all lies the story of how a one-time Eagle Scout and model patriot came to be a war resister – one willing to suffer time in prison to prove the "generals, the Congress, and the president" are a "threat to the Constitution."
As a child growing up in Honolulu, Watada remembers "playing war. Who didn't? Who didn't watch 'G.I. Joe'?" His mother recalls "a reflective child. When I would take him to soccer practice he always listened intently to his coach; he wasn't horsing around like the other kids."
Young Watada was a two-sport athlete: soccer and football. He also rose to the top in the local Boy Scouts. "Some of that desire to be in the military came from that," he says – "the dedication to service, loyalty, morality."
In his early 20s, Watada delivered packages during the day while finishing school at night. Then terrorists struck in New York and Washington. "I always wanted to join the military – and, especially after 9/11, a lot of us wanted to do more," he says. "We had this call to duty."
Watada already had a strong military heritage in his family, which is of mixed origin: his mother is Chinese-American, his father Japanese-American. Both grandparents on his mother's side served in the US Army and were stationed in China. Two of his father's brothers enlisted as translators and interrogators in World War II. Another died in Korea, and a fourth later joined the US Marines. "We served when we were asked," Watada says. His father, Robert, took a different path. Ehren Watada says his father saw Vietnam as a "very racist war." So he joined the Peace Corps and went to South America.