Military Families and Vets Speak Out
By Dave Collins
Saturday, August 23 was a typical central Texas summer day in Crawford (population 705, excluding the "Western White House"); temperatures ranged into the high 90s. What took place was, however, far from typical. A small group of dedicated activists from Austin, Dallas, Bastrop and other Texas towns traveled to the Peace House in Crawford to cement local efforts of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) with veterans' groups, most prominently Veterans For Peace.
The event was the brainchild of Candace Robison, the determined local voice of MFSO. The Peace House, a unique institution in Crawford dedicated to providing a local venue for journalists (particularly foreign) and activists, quickly stepped in to provide a center of gravity.
The day began with a press conference in the Peace House garden. Karl Rove screwed up. Though this event had been well-publicized, the Bushies returned on Friday from their arduous campaign, press corps in tow. You know, there really isn't anything to do in Crawford. So over twenty attentive journalists showed up, both print and TV types. Reuters was represented. So were network affiliates — even Fox. Each of seven organizations delivered prepared comments, largely on the common theme of the day: "Support Our Troops –- Bring Them Home."
Following a Peace House buffet were several different activities. Someone presented a slide show from a recent trip to Iraq. Many journalists stayed for interviews with individuals. Of course, there was a whole lot of "networking."
The main event was to be a rally at Crawford's park, located about a half mile away. By now the group had grown to about 150 people. In true activist tradition, we milled around a good bit until, through the influence of gravity of purpose, we more or less formed up for our march.
Among the many things that Peace House has done very well in Crawford has been to establish outstanding relations with the police. In evidence throughout the day, in an honestly friendly small-town sort of way, what looked like the entire force turned out to close down Main Street and block traffic on side streets, clearing our way for a loop through downtown and to the park.
VFP led the march with a U.S. flag-draped coffin. I joined to show the VVAW colors in solidarity. Out of respect for MFSO, we all agreed to forego the local VFP practice of two coffins, one with the U.S. flag and another with the Iraq flag.
As we arrived at the park we were greeted by the tunes of a local musician. After one organizer gave a rundown of the agenda, the rally was underway. The media, still lacking a good distraction, stayed with us in good numbers.
The agenda started with hardcore foreign policy. Dr. Bob Jensen (UT, Austin) and Rahul Mahajan (Peace Action) each offered thoughts regarding the imperialist agenda represented by the occupation of Iraq. Dr. Jensen emphasized that bringing troops home was simply a first step in attacking the problem of a misguided, neoconservative foreign policy. Mr. Mahajan cautioned that just bringing a halt to the horror that is Iraq would likely be a long, hard effort.
Candace came next. She is married to a 20-year army officer, a lieutenant in a reserve unit deployed to Iraq. She long had strong doubts about the war, but her gung-ho husband saw it as necessary and as his duty, she said. Candace became an activist when the letters and rare phone conversations with her husband became dominated by topics such as lack of mission, constant danger, poor supplies, lack of equipment and rapidly-eroding morale and faith in leadership.
Joe McFatter of the Dallas chapter of VFP followed. Joe spoke a bit about VFP as an organization, its history, membership and goals. He turned quickly, however, to his core message: bad war, bad policy, bad planning, bad outcomes. Bring them home now. Internationalize the occupation and bring them home, now.
Back to MFSO. A very determined, diminutive woman wearing a T-shirt reading "United States Military Academy –- Been There, Done That" confidently took the microphone and let loose with the speech of the day. Intelligently, eloquently and logically, she devastated the rationale, strategy and prosecution of the war. She explained that she was a West Point graduate who, after two overseas assignments, had to take a medical discharge due to a service-related injury. Her West Point graduate husband is in Iraq. Her message echoed that of the day's "Bring 'em Home" adding an important clarification: alive.
The grandmother of a young PFC in Iraq begged tearfully for his return. She thinks his respiratory condition is making him really sick in the heat. The audience was visibly moved by her heartfelt plea. What is less clear is how many connected the dots with the information that followed.
Dick Underwood, a prominent Austin VFP member, spoke on the issue of depleted uranium (DU). Space does not allow treatment of that terrifying topic. The most conservative estimates, by independent and knowledgeable sources, point to over 200,000 Gulf War I veterans seriously disabled by DU exposure. Although there are many other possible explanations, the tearful grandmother's grandson may also be exhibiting early symptoms of DU poisoning.
A few more words with a couple of journalists about veterans' benefits and this sunbaked old vet called it a day.
In addition to an opportunity to connect with others in the movement and spend a bit of productive time in the shadow of the Western White House, I had a third mission that day. It is time to build connections between the MFSO and veterans, particularly Vietnam and Korea vets. When the troops do start to come home, there will be few to whom they can turn for understanding. We need to begin getting that support network in place. Saturday will hopefully prove to have been a step in that direction. Candace said it was, and she is one determined lady.
Dave Collins is a Vietnam vet and a member of VVAW from Texas.