Corps Convictions

Back in 1990, when Bruce Yamashita heard he was being kicked out of the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School (OCS) two days before graduation, he thought it was a joke. The reason, the Marines informed him, was "leadership failure."

The 10-week officer-training course was supposed to have been a formality. Yamashita wanted to be a Marine Corps lawyer—he'd already earned his J.D. from Georgetown University and a master's from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service—but to join the Judge Advocate General's Corps, he needed a commission.

But officer training proved taxing in ways the Hawaii native hadn't expected. In addition to the grueling physical regimen at the Quantico, Va., facility, Yamashita says, his Marine training officer routinely hurled racial epithets at him.

"In the military, no matter what you say or the equal-opportunity manual says...there's a long tradition of using race as a tool to harass people," he says. "There are a lot of old-school Marines who think it toughens people up."

Yamashita learned that lesson when he complained to an officer about how he had been treated at the school. The officer, he recalls, told him such hazing was just part of the process. "He said, 'When I went to OCS, they called me all these dirty names—and I made it.'"

Yamashita didn't let the setback derail him. He returned to Hawaii and began a multiyear legal battle against the Marines. Data he obtained from the Corps about dropout and graduation rates at OCS revealed what he says is a pattern of discrimination against nonwhite candidates. Over the eight-year period he examined, Yamashita says, "the minorities were washed out."

In 1994, after Yamashita argued his case before a military review board, the Marines granted him the rank of captain. He flew back to Quantico for his commission ceremony. He left the service soon afterward.

Yamashita chronicles his ordeal in Fighting Tradition: A Marine's Journey to Justice, which comes out this month. On Oct. 8, a Hawaii PBS affiliate aired An Unlikely Hero, a documentary about Yamashita's court case; the film is slated to air in the continental United States next year, and Yamashita says a book signing at the Smithsonian Institution is in the works for early 2004, as well.

Yamashita began Fighting Tradition shortly after he received his commission, and he spent five on-and-off years working on it. He lost his first publisher when the company was bought out; the project had been dead for nearly two years when he got a call from a University of Hawaii Press editor who was interested in publishing it.

"In a way, it was a blessing in disguise. The book is much better now since I had a chance to put it down," Yamashita says. "If I had done it right away, it would have been a different book, less reflective."

Few of his D.C. colleagues and clients know of his other life as a civil-rights crusader. Walking the halls of D.C. Superior Court, Yamashita is just another defense attorney. (He originally picked up criminal-defense work because it offered him flexibility while he finished his book and went on speaking engagements; these days, he handles a full load of assault and drug-possession cases.) He says being a criminal-defense attorney is often like being a social worker, especially when he has to coax a client into drug treatment or figure out how to get a defendant to court. It's not exactly the work he envisioned for himself when he set his sights on military law—but he says that's OK.

"I've grown very spiritual. God has a plan for all of us," he says chuckling. "After '95, I was so anti-government, I didn't want to work for the government any more." —Annys Shin

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