Service members rally against troop “surge”

From Air Force Times, Jan. 16:

A small group of out-of-uniform active-duty service members, supported by veterans and academics, gathered inside a Norfolk, Va., church on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to hold a rally calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Speakers invoked King’s message of nonviolent resistance, along with his eventual opposition to the Vietnam War, as an example worth following during a war many at the rally said echoes that controversial conflict of an earlier generation – and is a war that should end now.

“It is time for U.S. troops to come home,” said Marine Corps Sgt. Liam Madden, speaking to a crowd of about 80 – not including reporters – gathered in the sanctuary of the Unitarian-Universalist Church in downtown Norfolk. He said active-duty troops have the right to speak out, and he said his opposition to the war is not driven by politics.

“It’s not political when people heed the call of their conscience,” said Madden, 22, who is stationed at Quantico Marine Corps Base and who served in Iraq with Okinawa’s 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit as a communications specialist. “Not one more of my brothers should die for a lie. This is my generation’s call to conscience.” The remarks drew cheers and a standing ovation.

“We’re not anti-war,” said Navy Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Hutto, 29, who enlisted in 2004 and is assigned to the Norfolk-based carrier Theodore Roosevelt, which deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2005-06. “We’re not pacifists. We’re anti-Iraq war.”

The group’s message, he said: “There is an organized, constructive level of dissent with the ranks on this war.”

Department of Defense directives allow active-duty service members to speak their minds – short of disrespect for their commanders or the president – or make a “protected communication” with members of Congress as long as, generally, they’re in the United States, out of uniform and off duty.

Madden, Hutto and the other active-duty members who came to Monday’s rally are signatories to an online petition to Congress sponsored by Appeal for Redress, a group for active-duty, Reserve and Guard personnel started last fall by Hutto and Madden that calls for an end to the war and the “prompt” withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq.

Hutto said they’ve gathered about 1,000 signatures, mostly from enlisted service members and nearly half from the Army, in ranks ranging from E-1 to O-6.

Members of the group will present the petition to Congress on Tuesday morning on the steps of the U.S. Capitol’s Cannon House Office Building. On hand to accept the petition, group members say, will be Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who opposes the Bush administration’s planned troop surge and favors cutting off funding for the war in an effort to halt that surge.

“Dr. King would be proud,” said Tom Palumbo of the local chapter of Veterans for Peace.

Group members say they hope other members of Congress also get the message.

“I want Congress tomorrow to realize that they are accountable to their citizens,” Madden said. “And their service members are on the front line.”

Matt Peters is one of those. A Navy electronics technician assigned to the Norfolk-based carrier Enterprise, Peters, feeling the call to arms following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, enlisted in November 2001. Then, said the now-23-year-old, “There really was no talk of invading Iraq,” he said. “We really went in a different direction than we’re in today.”

A 2003 Naval Academy graduate now in the Individual Ready Reserve used tougher words. “This administration has betrayed our armed forces,” said Lt. j.g. Fabian Bouthillette, 26. “I actually believe that the conduct of this administration is more detrimental to the Constitution than anything else. … This was begun on an immoral, illegal basis. And we were lied to.”

Peters said he continues to willingly serve despite his misgivings over the war. “I signed up and said I’m going to do this,” said Peters, who along with his shipmates returned from duty off Iraq and elsewhere in November and remains on tap to quickly redeploy if the carrier is called upon. “But I don’t believe in what we’re doing over there. I still do my job. Is it something that kind of hurts to do? Yes.”

“Like any job, you make some compromises,” said Navy Operations Specialist 2nd Class Dave Rogers, 34, of the frigate Hawes, also based in Norfolk.

While polls show that many favor pulling out of Iraq – and a Jan. 11 USA Today/Gallup Poll showed that 66 percent of respondents “moderately” or “strongly” oppose sending more troops – many also believe an immediate rather than gradual withdrawal would cause Iraq to collapse in sectarian violence. Upheaval would certainly follow a withdrawal, Madden and others said, but they said Iraq would right itself more quickly without an American occupation.

During the Vietnam War, anti-war troops had no legal protection against expressing their views and were forced to do so through underground newspapers, said David Cortwright, one of the day’s speakers. Cortwright is a former soldier who served in Vietnam and wrote a book about that era’s military resistance, “Soldiers in Revolt.”

But while the Internet has replaced those underground papers and service members enjoy the limited protections of DoD directives, Cortwright said, those “in uniform” who speak out must still endure critics who would call them unpatriotic. Or, worse, cowards.

“It’s not cowardice,” Cortwright said. “It’s an extraordinary expression of conviction and courage.”

None of the service members questioned said they’d received any reprisals or negative feedback from their chains of command. “I’ve had no one chastise me,” Madden said. “Some feel awkward around me.”

Added Hutto, “They understand that we’re serious, and the threat of reprisal isn’t going to stop us.”

Hutto said the reactions he gets from shipmates are twofold: “One, how do I sign up? And two, I’m not so sure I can support Appeal for Redress (, but I support whatever you’re doing.”

Hutto said he is careful to separate his anti-war work with his assigned Navy duties. “If someone comes up to me, I say, ‘Give me your number, I’ll call you in the afternoon’,” he said. “I tell people, ‘When you’re on duty, be on duty’.”

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