This began as a story about the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) “Truth in Recruiting” campaign. But by the end, it seemed more like a story about whether or not we can still talk with each other in this country.
In the early morning chill of September 17, on the plaza in front of Union Station, members of IVAW set out literature and donuts on a card table and waited for the young International A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition activists to arrive. After a briefing, four-person teams left for various military recruiting offices and the campaign was underway. In addition to handing flyers to people walking into recruiting offices, the effort includes “Befriend a Recruiter,” a tactic intended to waste as much of a recruiter’s time as possible by talking with youth who have no intention of joining the military.
Within minutes, the teams at an Armed Forces Recruiting Station in the northwest quarter of the District called back to the IVAW post with a report that volunteers were being hassled by “Gathering of Eagles” members in town to dog peace activists throughout a busy week of activities in the nation’s capital. IVAW members Adam Kokesh and Mark Train, and Veterans For Peace (VFP) member Leah Bolger jumped into Kokesh’s aged Ford Bronco to offer assistance.
When they arrived at the recruiting office, D.C. Metro Police and Federal Protective Services officers were already on the scene and more were on the way. A dozen Metro Police formed a line between a handful of “Eagles” members in their 50’s and 60’s holding signs, and about a dozen 20-something activists in yellow A.N.S.W.E.R. t-shirts, walking and chanting in a picket line.
Already the volume on both sides was approaching a 10, on its way to 11. VFP president, Elliott Adams, a former Army paratrooper familiar with much more explosive situations in Viet Nam, had arrived with the A.N.S.W.E.R. activists and was talking with the police. Bolger, a retired Navy Commander, was soon in conversation with one of the women Eagles.
Bolger said she tried asking the woman if she was concerned about the civilian death toll in Iraq. “She thought the reported estimates were way off base,” Bolger related. “But when I started explaining what I thought was the case, she asked me how many abortions I’d had and whether I had a man waiting for me at home!”
Deborah King-Lile, 55, and a 25-year Navy veteran from St. Augustine, Florida who served in the Persian Gulf War, was the first to offer a comment to a reporter.
“We didn’t finish the job then (in 1991), so my husband had to go there in 2005. My son-in-law just returned from a one-year deployment and he’s prepared to go back if necessary to keep my granddaughter from having to go.” Nodding towards the picketers the neatly-coiffed woman added, “I’m sick of the vocal minority.”
Beverly Perlson said her son is on his fourth deployment in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne. The Oak Lawn, Illinois resident stressed, “He believes in the war.”
Pointing to the picket line she said, “It’s really painful for a mother of a soldier to see that. I wish they’d go somewhere else, like Iran. I don’t believe they represent mainstream Americans who are quiet and at work on a day like today.” Contrasting her version of mainstream America with the sight before her, she added disdainfully, “Just look at these people and look at their clothes.”
Before rejoining a colleague carrying a “Support the troops” placard from Veterans of the Vietnam War, Inc., Perlson said, “I’m tired of having Cindy Sheehan speak for me. I came out of my living room because of what she was saying.”
“That boy there called me a bitch, a fucking bitch,” Angela Lashley said, looking towards a picketer who was angrily telling one of the Eagles to “get back over on your side” of the police line.
“My son is in Iraq, I don’t know where,” Lashley added. “He educated himself; he didn’t need the education benefits. He felt compelled to serve.”
She pulled a c.d. out of her purse and pointed to a song on the label she wrote called “So Brave.” “It’s not about waving the flag or God bless America. It’s got nothing to do with a political agenda. What we need to do (about the war) is get the politics out of it and let the President do his job.”
“It’s painful to the parents of a dedicated soldier. We’re not warmongers. We are artists and teachers. When these children scream nasty words, it hurts. I tried to speak kindly to them. Screaming won’t help,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “The mothers of this country won’t tolerate people like this breaking the morale of our soldiers.”
A few minutes later she was in conversation with IVAW board member, Adam Kokesh. “I respect you. I can see in your eyes you are good. But I also see much hurt and disappointment. I’m glad you served. I’m just sorry that whatever happened to you made you feel like this. But while you’re doing this you’re breaking the morale of our soldiers. It’s hard for me but I try to be kind. Didn’t Cindy Sheehan’s words have a bad effect on you?”
“Cindy Sheehan had no effect on my morale,” the former Marine replied. “My morale was low because we couldn’t get the equipment we needed.”
Larry Bailey identified himself as Chairman of Gathering of Eagles. From Chocowinity, North Carolina, the gregarious 68 year-old is a retired Navy SEAL Captain. He smiled and said, “I like talking to people with a measurable IQ.”
“Our group is ad hoc, we don’t have membership fees so anybody who feels like they’re part of us just is.” He said that the Eagles who came to Washington this week “paid our own way, just to get in the face of these people we call the ‘moonbats.'”
Asked what motivated him to travel to Washington, he answered, “I’m a Vietnam vet. I’m doing this to make sure the troopers from Iraq and Afghanistan don’t get the same as troops coming back from Vietnam. Back then, the American people didn’t counter the left-wing propaganda. I’m not pro-war. I’m pro-troops.”
Later, Bailey and Kokesh began conversing about whether Iraqi civilians have been killed in the war.
The Eagles chairman, referring to a widely-quoted Johns Hopkins study published in the British medical journal, Lancet, said, “Six hundred thousand Iraqisthat’s the number we’re supposed to have killed. That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I can guarantee you that our military did not directly kill any such number of Iraqi civilians.”
Kokesh countered, “That number is based on a scientific survey
“Come on,” Bailey laughed,” We both know that you can make scientific surveys say anything you want.”
“I’ve heard of the Lancet,” he continued. “It’s right up there with the top medical journal here. But you know who controls the medialet me tell you what La Monde (a prominent French publication) did.”
He related to Kokesh a brief anecdote about a story La Monde did on a Gathering of Eagles demonstration in which the magazine published “completely untrue” crowd figures, making it look like his group was greatly outnumbered by their opponents.
Although they interrupted each other at times, their conversation continued and it seemed that both of them were looking for something on which they could agree.
Bailey offered that he was a Libertarian. Kokesh smiled and said so was he, and repeated his earlier concern that in Iraq he saw U.S. troops that were poorly equipped. Larry responded that he had given one hundred dollars to help purchase helmets for U.S. a troops.
A spokesman for Gathering of Eagles, Kristinn Taylor, said he has three family members in the military, including one who was in Afghanistan.
He related a number of details he considered important background about the groups involved. “The IVAW was started by Veterans For Peace, you know, and that’s a Marxist front. VFP had a ‘water project’ for the Sandinistas, and the same thing for Cuba and even Iraq.”
A middle-aged man in business casual dress, wearing a USEPA I.D. tag, watched while he took a smoke break. He offered that he was a Vietnam veteran, and when asked if the actions of protesters of that era affected his morale, he answered with a smile, “Ruin my morale? I was wishing somebody over here would pay attention to them!”
Two construction workers eating lunch on the sidewalk looked preoccupied with their sandwiches. When asked their opinions, one said he had no comment and the other replied, “Well somebody’s got to go. It (war) is inevitable, isn’t it?”
Meanwhile, the picketers, numbering about 20 with the addition of two VFP members, continued to march in a loop in front of the recruiting station, chanting loudly, “Hell No We Won’t Go,” and “No Justice; No Peace. U.S. Out of the Middle East.” Four TV cameras and what appeared to be assorted independent videographers eventually showed up to cover the ruckus. Bullhorn-amplified chants continued for another hour.
Asked if he viewed the morning’s activity as a success, Kokesh said, “We got some help doing our job and no one got recruited here today. There must be 30 cops here. Do you think any kid is going to go in there and talk to a recruiter with this going on?”
MIKE FERNER is a former Navy corpsman and author of “Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq”, available on his website www.mikeferner.org