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Page 18
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<< 17. Spring Break: Operation Dire Distress19. Total Support >>

Petition from Veterans Rejected at White House

By Jan Barry

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Taking a petition to Washington signed by more than 2,000 veterans opposed to a preemptive war in Iraq is one thing. Getting someone to accept it is much more difficult.

"We cannot accept anything," said a police officer at the White House. "Put it in the mail."

As bombs exploded in Baghdad and battles erupted across Iraq, more than 400 military veterans and family members demonstrated Sunday in the nation's capital demanding the safe return of our troops. Months of effort to collect signatures on an Internet petition and deliver the message to the Bush administration and Congress seemed undone by the abrupt military assault launched just days before.

Nonetheless, a determined group of veterans and family members gathered near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at noon to deliver a sobering message. Wearing black armbands in mourning for casualties of this brand-new war, attired in military hats and shirts adorned with military ribbons and medals, and carrying American flags and protest signs, the veterans' group was nearly encircled by television camera crews and mounted police.

To a mournful tune on a bagpipe and the haunting beat of a drum, a five-veteran delegation marched with a wreath to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This scene was repeated at the construction site of the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters.

Gathering on the Ellipse by the south lawn of the White House, the marchers sent a five-person delegation to deliver the Veterans Against Iraq War petition to President Bush. Two Vietnam veterans, a Gulf War vet and a female veteran, accompanied by Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, approached the security fence and spoke to a police officer on duty in front of the gate.

"We would like to deliver this petition to the president," Stewart Nusbaumer, a Marine veteran who lost a leg in Vietnam, said, leaning on a cane. The lone officer gently but firmly declined to accept the red folder containing the petition with 49 pages of signatures.

"Is there anyone here who can accept it?" a television cameraman interjected. "No, we cannot accept anything," the officer replied. "If you want to, you can mail it."

That's the way Operation Dire Distress went. The White House refused to accept the petition. Congress was out of town. Squadrons of armed cops, many in SWAT team flak jackets, others on horseback and motorcycles, surrounded the veterans as they marched through the streets of Washington near the White House.

But when a heckler taunted the demonstrators with obscenities and provocatively charged the line of marchers, mounted police quickly moved in and pushed the young man back onto the sidewalk and warned him to desist. "He called me a faggot," said Jaime Vazquez, who was wearing a Marine sergeant's coat bedecked with combat medals. "That's verbal assault." Then Vazquez shook off his anger and resumed his peacemaking duties as a parade marshal.

After a silent procession through the war memorials on the mall, the marchers broke out into cadence calls as they marched up 17th Street towards the White House.


Next to the Executive Office Building, a spontaneous chant erupted and echoed among the government buildings, surely reaching the adjacent White House.


Among the forest of signs: "I served in Vietnam, my son served in the Persian Gulf, Bush serves the oil industry." Another one said: "Our son is a Marine, don't send him to war for oil." A third said: "We are patriots, we served, did you?"

A large banner near the head of the march said: "Support our troops, bring them home." A small homemade placard said: "Honor vets, stop this war."

Veterans came from as far away as California. One man drove from Cleveland after hearing about the march on C-SPAN, which broadcasted a teach-in at American University on Saturday that kicked off the weekend of protest. A woman veteran flew in from Atlanta. A Gulf War vet flew in from Utah. A bus full of veterans came from New York City. A vanload of vets arrived from St. Louis. Many wore combat insignia from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War.

The theme of the Operation Dire Distress march was that the highest patriotism means speaking out against misuse of the men and women in our military to conduct an illegal, unnecessary war. Addressing the assembly on the Ellipse, Vasquez, director of veterans' affairs for Jersey City, New Jersey, pointed out that America's founding fathers challenged the government of their day. "Patriotism means challenging our government today," he said.

New York City, February 15, 2003

At the teach-in at American University on Saturday, retired admiral Gene LaRocque said that now is the time to stand up for the right to dissent, to save democracy. Bobby Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, brought the audience to its feet with a call to go out and educate the American public about the deadly reality of the Bush administration's dumping of diplomacy to launch a war of aggression. Gulf War vet Charles Sheehan-Miles spoke about the death and destruction in Iraq that was never shown on television at home.

To express their distress, veterans threw military memorabilia into a green body bag, including combat medals and unit insignias. "We are not going to leave stuff here at the White House," announced Dave Cline, president of Veterans For Peace, "because the president's not listening to us, and he'll just throw it away." The body bag and its contents will be taken to future speak-outs as a symbol of our nation in dire distress.

Thirty-five veterans fanned out to speak with members of Congress and their aides from a number of states. A copy of the petition was presented to an aide for Senator Jon Corzine of New Jersey, to be read into the Congressional Record, during a veterans' lobbying effort on Capitol Hill. The petition addressed to President Bush was mailed to the White House.

Jan Barry was VVAW's founding national president, 1967-71.
A coeditor of "Winning Hearts & Minds," he is a journalist based in New Jersey.

Veterans Against the Iraq War

The video of the Operation Dire Distress teach-in at American University is available for purchase.
It is three hours and 39 minutes long.
The cost is $24.95 plus shipping.
It can be found at http://store.yahoo.com/c-spanstore/175679.html

Daniel Ellsberg, Operation Dire Distress - Washington, DC
March 21, 2003

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