(Originally published in The Alberni Valley Times, May 7 2004)
TORONTO (CP) -- A young American soldier who garnered international attention with his refusal to fight in Iraq said Thursday that those who vilified him as a cowardly traitor are beginning to understand his pacifist message.
The large number of American casualties have muted the critics, said Stephen Funk, 21, who served five months in a military prison after he became the first U.S. soldier to refuse to report for duty in Iraq.
"People are waking up from their patriotic haze, from this spell they were put under," Funk said in an interview.
"I don't find people coming out and attacking me anymore and it's because a lot of people are realizing it was a mistake and (the war) wasn't worth it and they were lied to about the reasons we went into it in the first place."
Looking barely old enough to drive, the marine reservist became a hero to many across the U.S. and around the world when he went public with his decision to become a conscientious objector last year.
Funk, whose middle name is Eagle in deference to his father's native American background, was charged with deserting. Prosecutors portrayed him as a coward who was trying to evade dangerous duty.
Convicted in September at a court-martial on the lesser charge of being absent without leave, he was given a six-month jail term -- considered a harsh sentence -- along with a bad-conduct discharge. He was released in February, a month early for good behaviour.
Supporters organized rallies around the U.S. and collected thousands of dollars to help him defray his legal expenses, while thousands from as far as Australia signed petitions pleading his case.
He received hundreds of supportive letters in jail and was given a hero's welcome home after his release.
"Being labelled a hero is a bit confusing," said Funk, who was in Toronto with his mother to speak about his experience at the Marxism 2004 conference.
"I didn't expect it to go all crazy big like it did. I decided to go public because I wanted people to know what conscientious objection was."
Originally from Seattle, the painfully shy Funk graduated from a "hippie" high school, where he earned physical education credits with chess, ultimate Frisbee and breakdancing, and headed to San Francisco.
As a 19-year-old living on his own for the first time and working at a pet-food store, he found himself depressed and aimless when he fell for the smooth patter of a military recruiter and enlisted in the marine reserves in February 2002.
It was only later during basic training that he came to understand the job of a soldier is to kill when told to do so -- and that it went against his most fundamental beliefs.