Marching with the Military Families

Veterans and family members of soldiers now in Iraq mobilized in large numbers for the October 25 demonstration in Washington, D.C. to show their opposition to Bush’s war and occupation. Their contingent swelled to 1,000 people as they took up their position near the front of the march. The night before, more than 100 people gathered for a vigil by the Vietnam War Memorial.

Friday, October 24

9:15 p.m. I have met Christyne Harris, whose son-in-law is stationed in Baghdad with the 82nd Airborne. Together, we are walking through the damp, dark night in Washington, D.C., searching for the Veterans for Peace antiwar vigil.

Suddenly, we find ourselves confronted by the massive wall bearing the names of the 58,000 U.S. soldiers who died in the Vietnam war. People are searching for the names of loved ones and tracing out their names on paper.

“What a tremendous waste of life,” Christyne says. To the waste of life embodied in the wall must be added the incomprehensible figure of 2 million–the number of Vietnamese who died because the U.S. embarked on an arrogant effort to wipe out resistance to its plans to impose its will on an entire people.

9:30 p.m. “You look at that wall–we lost 58,000 of our brothers in that war,” says Dave Cline, national president of Veterans for Peace, as he kicks off the vigil. “And if their deaths are not to be in vain, we have to learn something from that experience.

“A Commander in Chief that calls on our enemies to attack our soldiers is an irresponsible Commander in Chief. And it’s time that we say no more to the lies that got us in this war, no more to the deceptions by the White House, no more to the betrayal by Congress of the American people. It’s time to again stand up…This is going to be a long struggle, we know this is a hard fight. This demonstration is just the beginning of a new wave of public actions against the war.

“We have to stand up for our liberties, which today are being threatened by the so-called Patriot Act. We have to become vocal and take it back into the streets. The only way they’ll listen to us is if we open our mouths, and that’s what we’re doing tonight.”

For the next two hours, we listen–as vets like Cline, relatives of service members, and their supporters demolish the Bush administration’s case for war, denounce Bush’s callous disregard for the lives of both Americans and Iraqis, and expose the war as a grab for oil and empire.

10 p.m. Patrick McCann, a member of the D.C. chapter of Veterans for Peace, speaks about the campaign his chapter is launching on November 11–Veterans Day–to publicize the neglect of veterans’ medical needs at Walter Reed Hospital, the largest veterans’ hospital in the country.

“We’re developing the kind of [inside] information that didn’t happen during the Vietnam War, or that took 10 or 20 years to happen,” he said. “We’re going to be ahead of the curve on this one. We’re going to have contacts in there, and when things happen on that ward, we are going to know about it.”

Later, Patrick explains to me why his military career was particularly short. “I volunteered for Vietnam, I had orders to Danang,” he said. “But I met the Black Panthers in Chicago on December 4, 1971, on the second anniversary of the killing of Fred Hampton, and the Black Panthers won me over.

“I refused to go to Vietnam, wound up getting a bad discharge–did 30 days in the stockade for antiwar activities. And you know what? I don’t regret one second of it. My father was CIA. His immediate superior was Gen. Westmoreland in Vietnam. If I had gone in three years earlier, two years earlier, maybe even a year earlier, I’d have been in Vietnam. But fortunately, I was able to learn from the people who came before me. We stand on the backs of people who came before us.”

10:15 p.m. Dennis O’Neil isn’t a veteran, but a postal worker and member of the American Postal Workers Union Local 10. “In the last 30 years, only five Americans here in the U.S. have died as a result of weapons of mass destruction. All five died in an anthrax attack in the aftermath of September 11. That anthrax attack was not conducted by Iraqis, by Arabs, by Muslims.

“That was homegrown anthrax that killed five people…Two of [them were] my union brothers, postal workers right here in the Washington area.”

Silence falls over the crowd, as the hypocrisy that Dennis has ridiculed turns into respect for the loss that Dennis feels. “After they died, they played the tape of Thomas Morris Jr.’s last words. He called emergency, struggling to breathe, asking 911 to send an ambulance to his house.

“They asked him, ‘Were you exposed to anthrax?’ And he said, ‘Postal management says I wasn’t, but I have a tendency not to believe these people.’ Those were the last words he spoke. That’s the way I feel about the Bush administration. I have a tendency not to believe these people, and you all should too.

“That anthrax was refined right over that way, in Fort Dietrich, Md., by the U.S. Army under the direction of the Pentagon and the U.S. government. If they’re serious about wanting to do something about weapons of destruction that threaten Americans, you don’t have to send 150,000 people to Iraq, you don’t have to kill thousands and thousands of Iraqis, you don’t have to put American soldiers in harm’s way.

“It would take about 2,000 troops to surround Fort Dietrich to demand that they surrender–to move in and completely decontaminate and destroy the germ warfare apparatus there. That would do more than anything to find weapons of mass destruction.”

Now silence has been replaced by anger and cheers as Dennis yells, “Bring them home now!”

10:30 p.m. Julio Mendez is a cab driver from New York City. His son is in North Carolina waiting to be redeployed in Iraq. Julio is typical of many of the people at this vigil. He’s one of many people with a relative in Iraq who never saw themselves as political activists, but who have been pushed by circumstances to search for some way to get the politicians to understand their concerns for the safety of their relatives.

“We have no faith in our politicians,” Mendez tells me. “We called them, we complained to them, but we have no faith in them. We don’t know how to fight this, but we’re doing little things. I drive around with my nephew’s picture in my cab.

“And before I came to Washington, we collected all the oil credit cards in the family–and we only have three credit cards–but we cut them up. We’re writing letters to the companies, and we’re telling them that our troops are worth more than their future profits.

“We have to speak out. They’re the reason why we’re there, and they’re not fighting for anything but corporate profits. They’re not fighting for democracy or liberty.”


Saturday, October 24

10:30 a.m. The sun is climbing into the sky, but still everyone is a little nervous at the gathering point for the rally in Washington. The demonstration is supposed to begin in half an hour, and the turnout seems sparse.

I run into Christyne again, and she tells me more about her son-in-law in Baghdad. “His father wanted him to join for college money and to learn to be a man,” she says. “When he was given an opportunity to come home for two weeks, my son-in-law didn’t want to, because he didn’t think he had the willpower to turn around and go back.

“That’s just extreme–come see your family and loved ones, and then turn around and go back. Now it’s coming out that there’s a certain percentage who aren’t showing up.”

Christyne tells me that she has just met a woman whose daughter signed up with the military a month ago. When I ask why, Christyne explains that the woman’s daughter couldn’t find a job–in Utah, in Austin, anywhere. She was desperate.

“That’s who they prey on,” says Christyne. “At the University of Texas, there’s a dormitory, 30 stories high, the largest dormitory in the country. Ground floor, there’s a U.S. Army recruiters’ office. Some kid flunks an algebra test, gets bummed out–well, they’ll just suck you right up.”

11:30 a.m. The crowd reaches a more than respectable size, and some of the edginess subsides. The speakers begin to rise one by one to present another facet of the lies, the barbarism, the injustice of this war.

By this time, the mainstream media has found the veterans and military families who have come together to the right of the stage. Camera crews and notebook-toting reporters work the crowd. The military families take the opportunity to tell their stories and patiently field the same question over and over.

Susan Schuman of Ashfield, Mass., is one of the military family members scheduled to address the rally today. Her son, a member of the Massachusetts National Guard, has been in Iraq since March.

“He is living in conditions that are very difficult,” she tells me. “He has lost 50 pounds. He was rationed to two liters of water a day when the temperature was 125 degrees.

“The cynicism with which this government treats its military is incredible,” Schuman continues. “When they say support our troops, they’re not supporting our troops–$175 million proposed cuts to veterans’ benefits, closing military hospitals all over the country, people coming back from Iraq with undisclosed illnesses which they aren’t telling us about.

“We don’t hear anything about the wounded. We don’t hear about the mysterious pneumonia. And they talk about supporting our troops? They’re lying! Bring the troops home now–right now. There’s not a military solution to the situation in Iraq. We’ve got to stop the occupation.”

“I do agree that the U.S. has a responsibility towards Iraq,” she concludes. “But that responsibility is not going to be carried out by continued occupation. I don’t want Justin replaced by Jorge, by Turkish soldiers, by Japanese soldiers, by the son of someone in Latvia. End it now.”

11:45 a.m. Brenda Pearson stands quietly to the side, seemingly hiding behind her dark sunglasses. She wrings her hands, the anguish pouring out of her as she tells me about her husband, a Tennessee National Guardsman who’s been overseas since February.

“Early on, my husband was a heat casualty three separate times and was hospitalized once. And since the third time in August, they’ve not been able to stabilize his blood pressure, so he’s not been going on any missions. But they continue to keep him over there.

“They have a number in his unit who aren’t doing what they were sent there for. The average age in his unit is people in their forties, and a good many of them are in their fifties.”

When I ask her what her husband thinks of the situation, she pauses in an effort to condense all that she can in a few words. “He hates it,” she says finally. “He says that this is the closest thing to prison he’s ever been.”

“I feel that the Bush administration has betrayed not just military families but the entire American people,” Pearson tells me. “On September 11, 2001, the American flag went up in front of my house. Those flags are down, and they won’t go back up as long as Bush is president.”

12:15 p.m. Woody Powell is the executive director of Veterans for Peace and a Korean War vet himself. He explains that the organization has more than doubled in the last year, and that many veterans are realizing that this is the time when they need to make their voices heard.

Powell says, “I myself really didn’t get involved in anything until 1991”–the year of the first U.S. war against Iraq. “I was ready to think of something other than myself, my career, my immediate family. And for many of us, it’s amends-making.

“We did some really rotten shit sometimes. We weren’t ourselves–or our better selves.” He pauses. “Well, really,” he continues, “we were ourselves–we were human, we were malleable, we were easily influenced.

“I can speak for myself, and I bought into a lot of stuff about manhood and what constituted manhood, which mean being violent. I don’t buy that now. And I’m ashamed. I deal with that shame by making amends. I can do that now. I can say that I was wrong. I want my president to be able to say he was wrong.”

1:45 p.m. As the contingent of military families, veterans and supporters assembles itself to lead a march through downtown Washington, it’s clear that it is one of the largest. Apprehension about the size of the crowd earlier has turned to enthusiasm. Nancy Lessin, one of the founders of Military Families Speak Out, can’t hide her happiness–beaming from ear to ear as she surveys the signs saying “Bring them home now.”

“We started out with two military families last November in the run-up to war,” Nancy tells me. “We’re now up over 1,000 military families. In the beginning, there was a very clear understanding that this war was not about defending the U.S., it was about oil. But we have many members who actually supported the invasion–they thought that the U.S. was in imminent danger. It was because Bush’s lies have been exposed that we have had many members join.”

Just a few feet away, Dave Cline is leading some of the best chants of the day. Using the traditional call and response of military cadences, Dave has the whole crowd following him: “If they tell you to go, there is something you should know. They wave the flag when you attack, when you come home, they turn their back.”

“Am I right or wrong?” Cline chants. “You’re right!” answers the crowd. “Am I right or wrong?”

“You’re right!”

2:45 p.m. Dave takes a break from leading chants, and we walk together for a while. We talk about the desperation that a soldier must feel when he or she decides to go AWOL–absent without leave.

The penalties are harsh, and Dave–a disabled Vietnam vet–points out that it’s even harder, considering that any soldier going AWOL today goes it alone. “During Vietnam, a lot of people went AWOL, and a lot of people deserted,” he says. “There were whole exile communities in Europe and Canada. That doesn’t exist today. So people today are on their own.

“It really comes down to people going AWOL, figuring they’re going to go back at the last minute, hoping they get thrown out, instead of going back to Iraq. Because the military can tell you all they want about hospital benefits and college education, but if you’re going to get your ass blown up, that isn’t going to help you. And a lot of people are looking at it that way.”

At the vigil the day before, I learned that injured troops are being charged $8.10 a day for meals while they are hospitalized–an incredible insult. When I ask Dave about it, he really gets going. “Back in the mid-90s, this provision was stuck into some pork-barrel bill, because the government is always trying to ‘pare down’ the military,” he says.

“But they don’t cut the big weapons-manufacturing contracts, that’s what they want the money for. When it comes to soldiers, they try to nickel and dime them every way they can. Say you got your leg blown off, and they put you in the hospital for a month before they send you home. You go home without $240 or your leg. It’s outrageous when you think about it.

“A lot of this stuff comes back to shortchanging soldiers, privatization–and this was going on before Bush. Rumsfeld is a major architect, but it was also happening during the Clinton administration.”

3 p.m. One of the most powerful arguments used by Washington war makers to bully the public is that antiwar protest is a betrayal of U.S. troops. And all along the march route, I see people stand, clap, cheer and chant as the contingent of veterans and military families swings into view.

Those lining the route are inspired by the sight of this contingent. Its existence exposes the hypocrisy of the Rumsfelds and Cheneys and Bushes, who claim to “support the troops” even as they send them to their deaths, even as they trade their blood for oil, even as they expend the lives of both Americans and Iraqis to fulfill their dreams of empire.

3:40 p.m. We’re nearing the end of the march, and Larry Syverson, a state worker from Richmond, Va., tells me that this demonstration has been so very important–and that it’s time “to get the movement started again.”

“We know the ‘war is over,’ and ‘nothing is going on,'” he says. “But we that have family over there know that there are soldiers dying every day.” His sons–Bryce and Branden–both enlisted to pursue military careers, and his other two sons volunteered for college money, but aren’t in Iraq.

“Bryce voted for Gore, and Branden voted for Bush, but they both want out now. And the conservative one has already told his supervisors that he won’t reenlist and gets out in September. It’s surprising because he really wanted to go over there and fight a war. So I think they’re disillusioned. And they hate Rumsfeld, it’s like they’ve directed all their energy toward him. “‘We hate him,’ my son told me. ‘We don’t like him because he sent us over here, won’t tell us why we’re here, and there’s nothing for us to do, but he won’t let us come home.’

Larry can’t believe how the military won’t even come clean about how long his sons will be stationed in Iraq. “The administration is saying that they’re not going to be there very long,” he says. “But with Bryce, they put him in air-conditioned tents. And they have guys there whose only job is to make sure the generators for the tents are working.

“The interesting thing is that they opened a Burger King at the Baghdad Airport in May, only one month after the city fell. And Halliburton has a 10-year contract to build barracks at the airport. They say that they’re getting them out as soon as possible. But they’ve opened fast-food restaurants to feed them, and they’re building barracks to house them, so I don’t think they’re coming home any time soon.”

3:50 p.m. As the march came to a halt along Constitution Avenue, the military families and veterans who marched together and shared experiences throughout the day say their good-byes. The atmosphere is giddy–especially for veterans of the Vietnam War, who realize just what has been accomplished.

In a matter of months, military families and veterans have accomplished in terms of organization and numbers what took years during the Vietnam era. As Dave Cline explained to me earlier in the day, the turnout today in Washington “reflects a change in the forces of the peace movement.

“I’ve said this before. We have to base ourselves on the working people and how the war affects people–both their kids in the military, and in their jobs and communities. Some people in the peace movement got discouraged when Bush went to war because they thought we couldn’t accomplish anything. It made us more determined.”

ERIC RUDER writes for the Socialist Worker.