View Full Version : Not all military families support the war

03-31-2004, 10:40 PM
By Paula Span
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2004; Page A01

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- On the night last month he learned that his son had died in Iraq, Richard Dvorin couldn't sleep. He lay in bed, "thinking and thinking and thinking," got up at 4 a.m., made a pot of coffee. Then he sat down at the kitchen table and wrote a letter to the president.

When the invasion of Iraq began, Dvorin -- a 61-year-old Air Force veteran and a retired cop -- thought the commander in chief deserved his support. "I believed we were destroying part of the axis of evil," he says. "I truly believed that Saddam Hussein was a madman and that he possessed weapons of mass destruction and wouldn't hesitate to use them."

By the time Army 2nd Lt. Seth Dvorin was sent to Iraq last September, however, his father was having doubts. And now that Seth had been killed, at 24, by an "improvised explosive device" south of Baghdad, doubt had turned to anger.

"Where are all the weapons of Mass Destruction?" Richard Dvorin demanded in his letter. "Where are the stockpiles of Chemical and Biological weapons?" His son's life, he wrote, "has been snuffed out in a meaningless war."

His is not the only military family to think so. In suburban Cleveland a few days later, the Rev. Tandy Sloan tuned in to the "Meet the Press" interview with President Bush and felt "disgust." His 19-year-old son, Army Pvt. Brandon Sloan, was killed when his convoy was ambushed last March. "A human being can make mistakes," the Rev. Sloan says of the president. "But if you intentionally mislead people, that's another thing."

In Fullerton, Calif., paralegal student Kimberly Huff, whose Army reservist husband recently returned from Iraq, makes a similar point with a wardrobe of homemade protest T-shirts that say things like "Support Our Troops, Impeach Bush."

The number of military families that oppose Operation Iraqi Freedom, though never measured, is probably small. But a nascent antiwar movement has begun to find a toehold among parents, spouses and other relatives of active-duty, reserve and National Guard troops.

A group called Military Families Speak Out -- which will figure prominently in marches and vigils at Dover Air Force Base, Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the White House next week -- says more than 1,000 families have signed up online and notes that new members join daily. Other outspoken family members -- Dvorin, for example -- have never heard of the group but, for a variety of reasons, share its founders' conviction that the war is a "reckless military misadventure."

Most frequently cited, when military families explain their antiwar sentiments, is the absence to date of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. "They'd have these inspections and they'd find nothing," says Jenifer Moss, 29, of Lawton, Okla. Her husband, Army Sgt. Keelan L. Moss, died in November when a missile downed his Chinook helicopter, leaving her with three children and the belief that "he was sent out there on a pretense."

They are also angry at the Bush administration's insistence that its policies are nonetheless justified. Cherice Johnson's husband, Navy Corpsman Michael Vann Johnson Jr., was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade last March. "I'd love to say I back [the president] 100 percent, but I can't," she says, weeping during a telephone interview. "How many more people are going to die because he can't say, 'I'm sorry, I made a terrible mistake'?"

In interviews, families complained about the continued unrest in Iraq; worried about whether their service members had adequate equipment and supplies; feared post-traumatic stress syndrome. One mother who lost a son in Afghanistan last March took deep offense at the launch of a subsequent war when, she feels, the first remains uncompleted.

And, of course, they all watch the casualties mount, to 553 deaths and nearly 3,200 wounded, the Pentagon says.

In South Haven, Mich., Marianne Brown, 52, has joined the weekly peace vigil in front of the closest thing her small town has to a federal building: the post office. Most of the vigil-keepers -- who number 10 or 15 at most, shrinking to three or four stalwarts on the bitterest winter days -- hold a memorial photo of the faces of service members killed in Iraq. But Brown holds a photo of her stepson, Army Reserve Pvt. Michael Shepard, 21, an MP stationed west of Baghdad.

South Haven has not been uniformly receptive. Brown has had her Jeep scratched with a key. She's been shouted at when she goes to the bank. She's been called a traitor. "It's kind of scary, but it's changing," she says. "We used to get a lot more attitude. Now we're getting more thumbs-ups. I think it's slowly seeping in that this [war] was based on something other than what we were told."

A Way to Connect

It's the power of the Internet that's allowed relatives in far-flung places to know that others are also suspicious, bitter or ready to march on Washington. "That kind of sentiment has probably been there in every war we've ever had, but this time they have a ready means of identifying one another," says John Guilmartin, a military historian at Ohio State University and a decorated Vietnam War veteran.

Military Families Speak Out started before the invasion with two families, added 200 more when the first troops crossed into Iraq and another 200 when the bombing began. There were spikes in Web traffic and membership registration when the president declared the end of major combat and when he invited Iraqi insurgents to "Bring 'em on."

Even those who aren't affiliated with a peace group (Moss and Johnson are not; Brown is) use the Net to bolster their opinions, stoke their outrage or find others who share their beliefs.

When Seth Dvorin died, sympathetic Web sites picked up local newspaper stories about his divorced parents' outspoken responses. A few days after his funeral, his mother, Sue Niederer, was startled to get a call from a stranger in Columbus, Ohio. Jackie Donoghue has a son serving in the same region of Iraq and had looked up Niederer's phone number online. "I just wanted to console her," Donoghue says. "I wanted to tell her she wasn't alone, that other people with sons and daughters in the service feel the same way."

Of course, most people with relatives in wartime service, a group historically more likely to express approval than distrust, don't feel the same way. Though public support for the war was found to have declined in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, most military families say their support for the action and the president remains unwavering.

They think the weapons he warned of may have been moved or may yet turn up. Some feel Hussein's tyranny was in itself ample justification for war, even if the weapons are never found. They believe that their loved ones are helping to liberate a tortured nation and that there's more good news from Iraq than the news media have reported.

The night before Pfc. Jesse Givens, a 34-year-old Army tank driver, left for Iraq, he sat down with his 6-year-old son to explain. "He said, 'There's a bad guy over there and he hurts mommies and little kids and he has to be stopped,' " his widow, Melissa Givens, 27, of Fountain, Colo., remembers. Now, "the times I start to feel like I'm against it -- because my husband's gone and he's never coming back -- I hear what he said."

Christine Dooley, who's 22 and living in Murrysville, Pa., with an infant daughter, is mourning the loss of her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Micheal Dooley, 23, killed in June. "The fact that I lost Micheal does not change my feelings about what we needed to do over there at all," Dooley says via e-mail. "Many Americans forget that we were attacked on 9/11. . . . We need to kick some butt and clean up!"

Another group of families can probably empathize with Cathy Neighbor. A 45-year-old truck driver in rural New Lexington, Ohio, she's too overwhelmed by grief for her paratrooper son to figure out what she thinks about the war that took his life. Army Cpl. Gavin Neighbor was 20 when he was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in June.

"I still don't know what to feel," his mother says haltingly. Some days she questions why the troops were sent to Iraq; on others, she thinks they should have been. "I'm angry as hell and I'm proud as hell," she says. "And everyone says my son's a hero, and I didn't want him to be a hero."