Fervor fills war rally; crowds don't

The event in Tampa draws about 60 people amid lots of empty chairs.

Published June 17, 2007

TAMPA -- The signs stuck in the grass around Joe Chillura Courthouse Square downtown said things like LAND OF THE FREE BECAUSE OF THE BRAVE and WE WON'T BETRAY OUR TROOPS.

When the church bells sounded at 10 a.m., Terry Kemple, who organized this rally, switched on his microphone.

"You better get over here quick or you might not get a seat," he said.

Then he paused.

"That's a joke. Hopefully more people are on the way."

The "Florida Victory Rally" -- put on across the street from the Hillsborough County Center by the local Community Issues Council, a Christian group, and national Vets for Victory - turned out about 60 people, and two dogs.

And a politician turned up -- Ray McKinney from Savannah, Ga., who is campaigning to be vice president and has a bodyguard.

Gov. Charlie Crist, Sen. Mel Martinez and Rep. Gus Bilirakis also sent staff stand-ins.

There were lots of empty folding chairs, but those who came were staunch supporters of the war looking to send a message to the soldiers: We're behind you.

"We have to win no matter what the cost," said Dave Smith, 51, a peacetime Army veteran from Tampa who heard about the event on the radio Friday. "Defeat is not an option."

They blamed liberals and celebrities for attacking President Bush. They blamed congressional Democrats for hurting troop morale. They blamed the media for not telling the American public about the good things that happen in Iraq.

"The biggest mistakes being made in this war are being made on the home front," said Scott Rutter, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who commanded the unit that captured the Baghdad International Airport.

"The insurgence is emboldened by what our media have done," said Cathy Davis, 48, of Tampa, who took home two yard signs that said AMERICANS ARE NOT LOSERS. "I've had these feelings for a long time, but there's no voice for it."

And when it comes to supporting the troops, there is no room for nuance, nor withdrawal.

"Wars are not won by withdrawals, but by victory," said Steve Russell, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who led an infantry battalion on the hunt for Saddam Hussein. "We believe in America, and we believe in winning."

When the speakers finished and the people walked away, a man wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt and ponytail collected the folding chairs. Martin Van Buren, 53, said he drove down from Brooksville to support his sons, a former Marine and an Army sergeant who is going back on active duty this week.

He said he understands how people feel differently about the war, but he remains steadfast in his support. He said he has to, for his sons.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.