Anti-war Activists Planning Protests

Fort Bragg’s hometown is turning out to be the hottest spot to protest the war in Iraq.

Three anti-war groups with military ties plan to hold national meetings here this month. Another group of activists from across the South will gather downtown. And about two weeks from now, on the second anniversary of the war, thousands of protesters will rally again in Fayetteville.

March 19 promises a showdown on a subject that’s particularly touchy in a military town. Activists are using Fayetteville as a national stage for promoting peace in what they call an effort to support the troops, yet much of their audience here may not see it that way.

The largest anti-war coalition in the nation, United for Peace and Justice, plugs the March 19 rally on the front page of its Web site: ”Fayetteville is home to Fort Bragg – ground zero for the 82nd Airborne Division and many of the Army’s elite units. It is also home to a growing base of anti-war activists and organizations: military folks, veterans, families of active-duty soldiers and veterans, students, workers, housewives, clergy, educators, all are part of a vibrant, and growing, statewide network.”

The Web site for Military Families Speak Out, a group with more than 2,000 members, is more blunt: ”Many from the 82nd Airborne Division and the Army Special Forces Command realize that those who really support them are their families and their community. The appeal of the empty slogans and the yellow ribbon magnets of the right-wing pro-war zealots faded long ago. In 2005, real support for the troops means Bring Them Home Now!”

It began with a small but vocal group of people in Fayetteville, including Chuck Fager, director of the Quaker House, and Lou Plummer, a computer technician with a son in the Navy.

The two of them began talking to people across the country about Fayetteville. They traveled to national conventions and invited activists to attend a rally on the first anniversary of the war in 2004. On March 20, hundreds of anti-war protesters gathered at Rowan Park. A group of counter-demonstrators set up across the street. More than 100 police officers kept a watchful eye. Though demonstrators shouted at one another and motorcyclists revved their engines to drown out speakers in the park, both groups were peaceful.

This year, when other activist groups foundered after the presidential election and the second anniversary neared, Fager and Plummer were ready.

”We had a plan, a date and a track record,” Fager said.

Organizers soon had confirmation from national groups such as Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Gold Star Families for Peace. They lined up well-known speakers, including Lila Lipscomb, the military mother featured in the film ”Fahrenheit 9/11.” And it seemed as if Fayetteville’s peace movement had arrived when Fager appeared last Wednesday night on the ”The O’Reilly Factor,” the Fox News Channel program.

Last year’s one-day rally has grown into a three-day event that with include a hip-hop concert March 18, the rally on March 19 and the national meetings March 20.

Other voices

Like last year, the Old North State chapter of the national group Free Republic is planning a counter-demonstration. The group will be joined by veterans, military families and members of Carolina Troop Supporters, a group of students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Lynn Huber is a chairwoman of the Old North State chapter. It hurts military families, she said, when people rally to oppose the war.

”It hurts their feelings because they are making tremendous sacrifices,” Huber said. ”The anti-war people see them as evil, yet they are not. They (support the war) because they believe in the cause.”

But Fager says the protest is about supporting soldiers and military families. He believes Fayetteville is reaching a threshold, a time when the city will begin to see more soldiers speaking out against the war.

He isn’t the only one who thinks so. Nancy Lessin, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, says the idea for a national meeting in Fayetteville came from Fort Bragg families.

”Fayetteville is where we’re going to have our national presence,” Lessin said. ”This is where we should all be. These are our loved ones; these are our members.”

Military Families Speak Out is the mother group to Gold Star Families for Peace. It was founded by Cindy Sheehan in December after her son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq.

”I really believe that his death in this war was so needless, so senseless,” she said. ”He died for peace; he didn’t die for violence.

”Our goal is to end the war before any more families have to suffer the way we suffered.”

Veterans speak out

While Military Families Speak Out and Gold Star Families hold their national meetings here, so will Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Mike Hoffman is a co-founder of the group and a former Marine who now lives near Philadelphia. When he got home from Iraq in 2003, people congratulated him on a job well done.

”I didn’t feel like I did a great job,” he said. ”I didn’t know where to turn.”

He found support from Veterans for Peace and Vietnam Veterans Against the War. With the encouragement of both groups, Hoffman and other Iraq war veterans formed their own group last summer. Hoffman said Vietnam Veterans Against the War inspired him and other Iraq war veterans.

”They were one of the major forces in ending the Vietnam War,” Hoffman said. ”That’s what we all envision as the end game, when we are powerful enough to mobilize in front of the White House and demand withdrawal of the troops. We’re not there yet, but Fayetteville is a huge step.”

Iraq Veterans is still small, but it has members all over the country, Hoffman said, including soldiers from Fort Bragg. ”This war affects Fayetteville more than most cities, probably more than any other in the nation right now,” he said.

More than 10,000 soldiers from Fort Bragg are deployed in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since early 2002, about 80 service members with ties to local military installations or from the Cape Fear region have been killed.

Iraq Veterans still keeps a close relationship with its parent group, Veterans for Peace. The group is headquartered in St. Louis and is led by Michael McPhearson, who grew up in Fayetteville and graduated from Seventy-First High School.

McPhearson said he attended last year’s rally and plans to come here again. ”It’s not to come and say: People of Fayetteville – which are my people – you’re wrong, you shouldn’t be doing this. We – veterans, military families – we stand in solidarity with you. We want you to understand where we’re coming from. Your children, our children, should not be there.”

McPhearson said he felt strange, at first, returning to Fayetteville for the protest. ”It felt like a homecoming, from my perspective, to talk to my people about the truth as I see it," he said. ”Where did I get these ideals from? I got them from my mom, yes, but I still got it from the soil of my home.”

Plummer and Fager go to great pains to tell people that the protesters who attend the March 19 rally will not all be outsiders. Many of them are people with close military connections.

Plummer cites himself as an example. He grew up in Fayetteville. He graduated from Westover High School and joined the National Guard in Raeford. His father served two tours in Vietnam.

Plummer didn’t set out to become a peace activist, but he said the events after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, propelled him to act. Plummer, Fager and others say they oppose the war, not only because they believe it has done more harm than good in Iraq, but also because they see the way soldiers are stretched thin.

”This war in Iraq is so horribly wrong, that it has mobilized people who wouldn’t ordinarily speak out” Plummer said

Staff writer Allison Williams can be reached at williamsa@fayettevillenc.com or 323-4848, ext. 331.

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