Washington, DC – Susan Tileston sets a half-full mug of beer on the table, and pulls an eagle's-head pendant and dog-tags from their hiding place underneath her jacket. The talismans are from her son, Army Specialist Levi Modrelle, who she says is "missing in action." Levi was part of the initial invasion of Iraq, and served almost eleven months with the 101st Airborne before coming home to Kentucky in late December of 2003.
Susan was reunited with her 18-year-old son on Christmas Eve, but he was not the boy who went to war. "He barely talked. That wasn't like him. And he was shorter by about an inch and a half. I don't know why, but he was. He also had scars on the back of his head."
The military isn't actively looking for her son, and Susan says she's gotten no support from the local police. Instead, she's found both a haven and an outlet in Military Families Speak Out, a grassroots organization of more than 3,100 military families who have been protesting the war in Iraq since it began. Susan and ten other MFSO members joined the hundreds of demonstrators who converged on Capitol Hill last week for three days of activities calling for an end to the war in Iraq and the impeachment of President Bush.
Members of the 110th Congress were still making their way to Washington while activists gathered at the Memorial Bridge for a January 2nd vigil to commemorate the death of 22-year-old Specialist Dustin Donica, the 3,000th soldier killed in Iraq. Several dozen people clustered at the corners of the intersection, their plastic-cupped candles flickering in the dark, carrying on subdued conversations about the uncounted casualties of war, including the 22,257 soldiers wounded in combat, and the devastating toll sustained by military families and veterans.
As the body count continues to rise and the fourth anniversary of the invasion draws near, what many of those gathered were asking was "Why aren't more people here?"
"We Used to Have Coke, Now We Have Pepsi"
Event organizer Pat Elder, co-founder of the DC Area Anti-War Network, has been speaking out against the war since before the invasion of Iraq. He has watched as the percentage of Americans opposed to the war escalated but the number of protesters diminished, and he wonders about the inverse correlation between conviction and action. Like everybody else at the vigil, Pat is a volunteer, strapped for cash, time, and energy. He's worried that "people are complacent, now that the Democrats are in power." Debby Churchman, a Quaker from the DC area, doesn't see the political power shift as much reason for hope. "We used to have Coke, now we have Pepsi."
The day before the Democratic majority was sworn in, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi's historic installment as the Speaker of the House of the 110th Congress, anti-war activists clogged the hallways of the Cannon House Office Building in front of her office.
Cindy Sheehan and Juan Torres of Gold Star Families for Peace were joined by members of CodePink and other war protesters as they attempted to deliver papers calling for US troops to be pulled out of Iraq. Congresswoman Pelosi (D-Calif.) was not available to receive the papers, and the group was asked to leave the office. They proceeded upstairs, where they interrupted a press conference being conducted by Congressman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) with chants of "De-escalate! Investigate! Troops home now!"
Some Kind of Normal
Frann Robertson, whose nephew is scheduled to leave for his third deployment in less than a week, wants him to be able to stay home and her family to find some kind of normal. Ms. Robertson came to the Capitol to deliver handwritten letters from her family members to Pelosi's office. She fell in with the protestors, clutching a fistful of carefully worded notes, inscribed on creamy cardstock. One read:
Nancy Pelosi: My father and two of my uncles were drafted in the 1960s. They were all in Vietnam at the same time. This was not [supposed] to happen. My cousin is getting ready to return to the Iraq War in the next few days for the THIRD time. Please help us all and do not put this third time burden on his wife and three little children. We are all from New Orleans.
Frann and her family evacuated New Orleans two days before Hurricane Katrina struck. Several months later, with rebuilding at a virtual standstill and few immediate plans to re-open the city's public schools, she was one of 7,500 teachers and employees who were effectively fired when the Louisiana state legislature voted to take over most of New Orleans' public schools. Slowly shaking her head, Frann whispered, "After all of these years … Vietnam … I can't understand how American people could allow this again."
"Off the Table and On the Floor"
Vietnam veteran and Veterans for Peace activist Bill Perry also thinks that history is repeating itself. Bill carries the physical and emotional scars of his time in-country, and they offer an alternative fuel that drives him to participate in anti-war activities up and down the Eastern seaboard. He was one of the hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Upper Senate Park on this unseasonably warm Thursday afternoon for a rally sponsored by World Can't Wait/Drive Out the Bush Regime.
With the Capitol dome glistening behind them, about 30 hooded protesters in orange jumpsuits stood as silent witnesses, denouncing what they believe is government- sanctioned torture at US Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Posters calling Mr. Bush a "torturer," "war criminal" and "murderer" provided the backdrop as activist David Swanson, founder of AfterDowningStreet.org, stepped onto the stage.
Addressing Democrats' intent to "prod" President Bush to change his strategy in Iraq, Swanson said, "Prodding Bush is like teaching calculus to a pig. It annoys the pig and makes you look silly. Now, they are telling us that impeachment is off the table. If war crimes, torture, and crimes against humanity are not reason to impeach, what is?"
The crowd swiftly responded, yelling, "Off the table and on the floor!" before marching down Independence Avenue to the Hart Senate Office building, where jubilant Democratic Senators and supporters, including President Bill Clinton, were mingling in the lobby. Protesters unfurled four 20-foot black banners from the building's balconies, imprinted with the words "War. Torture. Lies." while they screamed, "We will not be silent."
In the decidedly quieter marble hallways of the Russell Senate Building, the reception for newly-minted Virginia senator Jim Webb, who ran on a strong anti-war platform, was standing-room only. One floor below, Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was navigating a swarm of supporters and lobbyists, vying for his attention. Spotting a t-shirted activist, out of place in the crush of suits, the senator hugged her and promised, "We're working to bring them home."
"What happens then?" asked the wife of an Iraq War veteran who has not received treatment for his Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Part of the MFSO contingent, she cried quietly while talking about the recent end of her marriage, one of more than 56,000 Army marriages that have been broken by the war, according to a 2005 Department of Defense report, which doesn't include the Marines, Sailors, or Airmen who have also been affected.
Geoffrey Millard, who joined Iraq Veterans Against the War after serving 13 months in Iraq, said, "I don't think any of the guys in my National Guard unit that went over are married any more." Since the 2003 invasion, divorce rates in the military have skyrocketed, with a 28 percent increase among enlisted, and almost 80 percent among officers, according to MSNBC. Experts estimate that there will be at least 100,000 war-related divorces by the time the war ends. The veterans and military families here today say that, for them, "It never will."
Stacy Bannerman is the author of When the War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind, (Continuum Publishing, 2006). She is a member of Military Families Speak Out, and can be contacted at her web site.