25,000 rally in D.C. to say: Bring the troops home now! End the occupation!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. The night before, more than 100 people gathered for a vigil by the Viet Nam War Memorial organized by Veterans for Peace.
People searched for the names of loved ones on the massive wall bearing the names of the 58,000 U.S. soldiers who died and traced out their names on paper. “What a tremendous waste of life,” said Christyne Harris, whose son-in-law is stationed in Baghdad with the 82nd Airborne. To the waste of life embodied in that wall must be added the 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.
“You look at that wall – we lost 58,000 of our brothers in that war,” said Dave Cline, Viet Nam veteran and national president of Veterans for Peace, as he kicked 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.”
Someone brought up the fact injured troops are being charged $8.10 a day for meals while they are hospitalized – an incredible insult. Dave Cline, himself a wounded vet, explained: “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. 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.”
For the next two hours vets like Cline, relatives of service members, and their supporters demolished the Bush administration’s case for war, denounced Bush’s callous disregard for the lives of both Americans and Iraqis, and exposed the war as a grab for oil and empire.
Patrick McCann, a member of the D.C. chapter of Veterans for Peace, spoke 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 explained why his military career was particularly short. “I volunteered for Viet Nam, I had orders to Danang. 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 Viet Nam, 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 Viet Nam. If I had gone in three years earlier, two years earlier, maybe even a year earlier, I’d have been in Viet Nam. 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.”
Julio Mendez, a cab driver from New York City, was typical of many of the people at this vigil. He was 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. His son is in North Carolina waiting to be redeployed in Iraq.
“We have no faith in our politicians. 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.”
The next morning, the veterans and military families contingent swelled to 1,000 people as they took up their position near the front of the 25,000-strong march. Around her neck, Nanci Mansfield of Burnsville, N.C., wore a heart-shaped sign with a picture of her son in military uniform and the words: “Love my soldier. Hate this war.”
Susan Schuman of Ashfield, Mass., was one of the military family members who addressed the rally. Her son, a member of the Massachusetts National Guard, has been in Iraq since March. “He is living in conditions that are very difficult. 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.”
“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 concluded. “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.”
Brenda Pearson stood quietly to the side, seemingly hiding behind her dark sunglasses. She wrung her hands, the anguish pouring out of her as talked 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 asked what her husband thinks of the situation, she paused in an effort to condense all that she can in a few words. “He hates it,” she said 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. 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.”
Nancy Lessin, one of the founders of Military Families Speak Out, couldn’t hide her happiness – she beamed from ear to ear as she surveyed the waves of signs saying “Bring them home now.”
“We started out with two military families last November in the run-up to war. 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, Cline led some of the best chants of the day. Using the traditional call and response of military cadences, Dave had the whole crowd following him:
“Dubya’s lies should make him choke
He must still be snortin coke
Saddam’s secret poison gas
Must be stashed up Rumsfeld’s ass
We’re veterans against the war
We know what we’re marchin for
Bring the troops back to our soil
We say no more blood for oil.”
“Am I right or wrong?” Cline chanted. “You’re right!” answered the crowd.
As the end of the march neared, Larry Syverson, a state worker from Richmond, Va., said that this demonstration showed that it’s time “to get the movement started again.”
“We know the ‘war is over,’ and ‘nothing is going on.’ But we that have family over there know that there are soldiers dying every day.”
He has two sons in the military – Bryce and Branden –, and one is 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 said. “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.”
As the march came to a halt along Constitution Avenue, the military families and veterans who marched together and shared experiences throughout the day said their good-byes. Roberto Resto, a USMC vet, explained the importance of the march this way: “A lot of people came out in the first big demonstration since Bush declared the war ‘over’. I have shrapnel in my feet from a booby trap in Viet Nam, but I made it through the whole march today because we need to bring all the troops home now.”
The atmosphere was giddy – especially for veterans of the Viet Nam War, who realize what had been accomplished. In a matter of months, military families and veterans accomplished in terms of organization and numbers what took years during the Viet Nam era.
As Dave Cline explained 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.”