Voices of veterans rise in protest
More than 300 people converge for a rally to demonstrate against the war in Iraq in its third year.
By ANDREW MEACHAM
Published March 19, 2006
TAMPA - Jenn Coolidge, a 48-year-old Army veteran from Lakeland, and her son created a startling statement for Sunday's third anniversary rally against the Iraq war.
They attached an American flag and a red and white flag bearing a swastika to a short pole.
"We're killing innocent people just like Hitler did to the Jews," said Coolidge's 20-year-old son, Tim O'Connor.
Coolidge said she has another son fighting in Afghanistan and wants all the troops home.
Raymond Simmons, a former Marine Corps major who wore his military fatigues to the rally, was rankled by the flag.
Simmons, 36, who was wounded in the Persian Gulf War, said he came to support the Tampa Bay Veterans for Peace, which organized the rally, even though he believes troops should remain in Iraq for now.
"That flag is hateful," he told O'Connor. He held up a white flag with gold fringe, naming four branches of military service and bearing the words "America, Our Home" and a pledge not to forget those who served their country in uniform.
"This is another flag, a beautiful flag," Simmons said.
The clash brought the contradictory nature of the antiwar demonstrators into sharp relief. As the movement has grown, it has attracted a widely divergent group of supporters, organizers said.
Sunday's rally, which drew more than 300 to Joe Chillura Courthouse Square, was the first of its kind in Tampa. It also was larger than previous rallies, said Jay Alexander of St. Petersburg, who founded the Tampa Bay chapter of Veterans for Peace, a national nonprofit organization.
"It's grown exponentially," said Alexander, 48, who said he served in the Army in Panama in 1989 and 1990. Alexander, the acting president of Tampa Bay Veterans for Peace, said he communicates regularly with Veterans for Peace chapters in Idaho and Oklahoma and answers e-mails from France. Sunday's turnout tops a 2005 anniversary protest in Williams Park in St. Petersburg, Alexander said.
The crowd roared to life with a surprise call from antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan.
As Alexander held his cell phone to a microphone, Sheehan congratulated the crowd for showing up.
"We're going to get the troops back, and we're going to get George Bush impeached this year," Sheehan said to applause.
Around the park's perimeter, various organizations posted signs and banners condemning the war. Some sold buttons or CDs.
Tom Lincoln, a "full-time volunteer" from New Port Richey, handed out a documentary CD arguing for another investigation into Sept. 11. Lincoln said he believes that the government orchestrated that tragedy and that a bunker-busting missile, not an airliner, struck the Pentagon.
As for the passengers on that plane who have not been seen since, Lincoln said, "They could have been taken some place and killed."
Members of the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgendered and Allies group took a stand against the war.
"It's all about the money," said Ercilia Albistu, 42, of Tampa. "It's not about weapons of mass destruction anymore, they dropped that argument."
For Oscar and Norma Aviles of Tampa, the issue is intensely personal. Their son, Lance Cpl. Andrew Aviles, died in Iraq in 2003.
"I come just to make sure we don't count the soldiers as numbers," said Norma Aviles, 52. "They are somebody's brothers, daughters, parents, whose lives are going to be changed forever."
As her voice faltered, Oscar Aviles came to her side and slipped an arm around her shoulder.
A succession of bands and speakers entertained and stirred the protesters.
The Rev. Bruce Wright, who leads The Refuge for the homeless in St. Petersburg, led off the event.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, not the warmongers," Wright said.
Don McKeating, who started a Veterans for Peace chapter two years ago in Madison, Wis., said that veterans are becoming more emboldened to speak out against the Iraq war.
A retired police officer who has moved to Gulfport, he cited falling poll numbers both for President Bush and the war and argued that a post-Sept. 11 mentality is slowly wearing off.
"Under 9/11, people were under the spell of Bush and seeking revenge," said McKeating, who served in 1968 and 1969 in the Army in Vietnam.
"Now I think people realize that 9/11 was a crime, but it pales in the light of what is going on in Iraq."
Veterans Against the War has grown by 15 or 16 chapters in the past two years, said Dwight Scarborough of Boise, Idaho, where a crowd of 500 attended a rally on Sunday.
"A lot of veterans have had an epiphany," said Scarborough, 52, who manned a Navy submarine in the late 1970s. "They are realizing that death and destruction are not for them."
Veterans of the Iraq war are trickling into the ranks of the disaffected, Scarborough said. A fledgling group called Iraq Veterans Against the War started after Iraq veterans mingled with Veterans Against the War at a conference in Boston in 2003.
A movement depends on more than numbers, said the Rev. Charles McKenzie, who addressed protesters along with several congressional candidates, Norma Aviles and others.
McKenzie, the Sarasota liaison for RainbowPUSH Coalition, said that the success of any movement depends upon a "galvanized minority" and not on large groups of people.
"Big crowds attract media attention," McKenzie said. "But most of the success of the movement is done by dedicated small groups who represent the heart and soul of the movement."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at 813 661-2431 or email@example.com
[Last modified March 19, 2006, 22:57:02]
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