By Thane Peterson
What would it be like to have a loved one fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan and be against the war? Most of us tacitly accept the stereotype that military families tend to be politically conservative and strongly supportive of the war. But, in fact, military families span the political and social spectrum, from wealthy liberals like John Kerry who volunteered to serve in Vietnam, to conservative, working-poor people like Lila Lipscomb, the bereaved mother in Fahrenheit 911 who lost a son in Iraq.
In some cases -- as with Kerry during the Vietnam War and Lipscomb now -- their experiences turned them against a cause they once supported. But when I interviewed members of Military Families Speak Out, a grassroots organization of mainly liberal military families to which Lipscomb belongs, I discovered military parents who were against the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. Indeed, many of them demonstrated against the Vietnam War in their youth.
"SUCH A WASTE."
Now, because their offspring have very different priorities and political beliefs or simply needed money to pay for college, these antiwar parents find themselves with children on the front lines. (Lipscomb's representative didn't respond to my request for an interview, but more than 70 families did agree to talk to me, many times the number I could include in this column).
The stories they have to tell are neither more nor less noble and heart-wrenching than those of families that support the war. But I suspect these parents differ from pro-war parents in that they often feel isolated within their own families and communities. And there is a terrible added poignancy to knowing your loved could be killed in a war you regard as unjust.
It would be "such a waste" to lose a child in Iraq, says Larry Syverson, 55, an environmental engineer from Richmond, Va., whose four sons have served in the military. Two of then, Branden, 32, and Bryce, 26, are serving in Iraq. "This is the first time I've ever opposed one of my sons' deployments," says Syverson. Adds Jim Crate, a retired editor with Automotive News in Detroit, whose son John is a medic attached to a Marine unit in Iraq: "If this war had a purpose, I still wouldn't want my son to be in harm's way, but I would understand. There is absolutely no need for my son to be where he is now."
"WAR ON THE CHEAP."
A fair number of these parents supported the first Gulf War and the invasion of Afghanistan as responses to aggression by Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, but they are passionately opposed to the current war in Iraq. "This war is about oil -- and it's a personal thing between the Bush family and Saddam," contends Syverson. Adds Allena, a young military wife from suburban Atlanta who didn't want me to use her full name: "My husband is a great soldier, and I support him. But I can't support an Administration that would sacrifice his life so needlessly."
Many of these family members are deeply angered by what they see as the severe underfunding of the war effort. Alex Bellotti, 50, a photographer from Harrisburg, Pa., whose son Christopher, 20, is a reservist transporting prisoners to and from a prisoner-of-war camp, says his boy had to buy his own Kevlar vest. Several parents told me their children didn't have enough food, partly because civilian support crews won't go into the most dangerous war zones. "My son and his [comrades] are writing us asking for more food, for God's sake," says Crate. His son's unit lives in a primitive camp near the Iraq/Syria border and is under frequent enemy fire. "We're doing this war on the cheap."
These parents also believe some Americans are being asked to sacrifice too much. Adele Kubein of Carvallis, Ore., says her daughter M'Kesha Clayton, 26, was kept on active duty even after a steel plate in one of her legs was jarred loose and she could barely walk. Her daughter now faces extensive surgery that may not be covered by insurance unless she re-ups with her National Guard unit.
Stacey Paeth, 41, who works in medical records at a hospital in Michigan City, Ind., went on national TV in April to complain that her son, Justin, had been sent back into battle with his leg in a cast after he ruptured his Achilles tendon. "The military is short of people so they just patch them up and send them back out," Paeth says. "They said his trigger finger was still good, but he was worried that he wasn't mobile enough to defend himself."
BETRAYING THE TROOPS?
While many military families view any public expression of doubt about the war as a betrayal of the troops, these parents -- such as Paeth -- are often quite outspoken. Syverson has picketed against the war several times a week for more than a year. My friend, Dace Kezbers, a self-described "liberal Democrat" from suburban Chicago whose son, Juris, is a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, says people constantly ask how she can have a son in the military and be against the war. "I tell them I do support him, but I want him back alive, and all the other soldiers back alive, and all the Iraqis alive," says Kezbers. "When my family pickets against the war, we believe we're picketing for my son, not against him."
The soldiers rarely express their views publicly. "My son says 'This is my Commander-in-Chief' so he would never speak out against President Bush," Kezbers says. Yet most of them also strongly support their parents' right to speak out. Martha Winnacker, 60, was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and raised her son David in liberal Berkeley, Calif., so she was surprised when her son enlisted in the Marines after college. She says she was "incredibly moved" to learn in a letter from him that just before the invasion of Iraq he had given a talk to the Marines under his command about how important it was that the folks back home were free to openly criticize the war.
Many military family members feel isolated by their opposition to the war. Allena, for one, is the only liberal on either side of her extended family. "My family keeps saying I'll grow out of being a liberal, but I haven't," she says. She finally found people who share her views by doing Google searches for phrases such as "military families against the war" and joining antiwar groups. Bellotti says his father and brother have both sharply criticized his and his wife's outspoken opposition to the war. "There are tensions when we get together," he says. "We have a whole list of things we don't talk about."
Passionate as they are, though, these parents say they tried not to impose their political views on their children. Bob Drury, 57, of Dubuque, Iowa, was exposed to Agent Orange during his tour as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War and is now housebound and on disability as a result of strokes and post-traumatic stress. He wishes that his son, Ben, who is now deployed in Afghanistan, had never joined the Iowa National Guard. Yet, he recalls, "I got furious when some lady once asked me: 'How could you let him go? As if I had a choice. Hard as it is to say, you have to let your kids make their own decisions." Many of those kids, no doubt, say the same thing about their parents.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his State of the Arts column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Patricia O'Connell