FEATURE ‌ Freedom Lovers 

War supporters gather in Columbia to encourage national unity

click to enlarge Flag wavers of all ages congregated on the statehouse steps last week to show their support for the efforts of the U.S. military in the middle east - JOSHUA CURRY
  • Joshua Curry
  • Flag wavers of all ages congregated on the statehouse steps last week to show their support for the efforts of the U.S. military in the middle east

Debbie Lee is a gold star mother. Her son, Mark Allen Lee, died on Aug. 2, 2006, the first Navy Seal to perish in the Iraq war. Mark was shot after entering the line of fire in an effort to protect his fellow soldiers.

"I think about our nation and about a lot of the atrocities I see, and what some of the people in Congress are doing," said Debbie, surrounded by 20 Horry County third-graders waving American flags. "I know Nancy Pelosi and Cindy Sheehan wouldn't be willing to lay down their lives for us. It's our soldiers, airmen, and Marines who are willing to do that."

Debbie spoke on the steps of the Statehouse last week as part of a caravan of war supporters traveling from California to Washington, D.C., organized by MoveAmericaForward.org (MAF). The group arrived in Columbia last Wednesday afternoon, honking and waving flags from the 10 trucks and RVs they travel in. Around 70 supporters, both independent and from local organizations, greeted them with cheers and shouts of, "These colors don't run!"

"Our message is to support the troops and what we're trying to accomplish in that region," says John Ubaldi, director of communications for MAF. "Most people don't have any idea of the complexity of the Middle East's history and culture. When I watch cable news, I see a misinterpretation of what's going on there."

Ubaldi got involved with MAF after serving in the Marines in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He feels that polls are the worst barometer of opinion on the war. "In America, we can demonstrate and have opposing viewpoints. Over there, you state the line of whatever terrorist or insurgent group is ahead," he says. "You're not going to get their honest opinion because they're scared. You can see it in their eyes."

Just before the rally officially began, a woman wearing a "Got freedom?" T-shirt and a "Proud to be a Republican" cap entered the crowd, yelling "They think we're brain-dead! Speak up! Be proud!" She explained that a "squirmy little Democratic politician" had just told her she was brainwashed.

"Democrats support the troops like a mother-in-law supports a marriage when she shows up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning," said the woman, Ruth Russell, the wife of a 20-year Army veteran. She feels that pulling out of the Iraq war would be a disservice to those who have sacrificed their lives -- "exactly what we did in Vietnam. The troops don't feel supported by politicians undermining their mission."

"We are battling tyranny, and if we were to abandon this noble mission, we'll surely have to fight those committed to killing us right here on our home soil. Clear-thinking Americans understand that great risk," said Gen. Richard Eckstrom, the comptroller general of S.C., in his address to the rally. "This movement obviously speaks for most Americans," said Eckstrom, declaring that those fighting in Iraq are in "common cause with our early patriots who fought to defend our colony 230 years ago."

Eckstrom also criticized the anti-war movement, saying that "Cindy Sheehan and her ilk endanger our troops, destroy morale, divide our country, and send all sorts of confusing signals to allies of America looking to us for resolve."

The MAF caravan continued on from Columbia to a major pro-war rally on Sat., Mar. 17, at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., coinciding with thousands of anti-war protesters gathering at the Pentagon. Charleston Peace, Thinking People, and Code Pink Charleston also hosted a peace rally at the Custom House in Charleston on Saturday morning.

"It's unfathomable to me that people who are saying 'bring our troops home' can be seen as anything but patriotic," says Merrill Chapman, founder of Thinking People, a local organization of over 300 peace advocates. "We have veterans joining in the cause, people who supported Bush and the war, all saying this is absolutely wrong and does not make our country any safer. In fact, it's festering the sore of terrorism and we're creating more enemies than we can put down."

Chapman feels that the billions of dollars in no-bid contracts granted by the Bush administration are a clear indication that this war is motivated by financial gain. She points to growing suicide rates and stories of rats, nurse shortages, and unchanged diapers on injured veterans at the Walter Reed VA hospital in Washington, D.C., as evidence that the government is largely ignoring the welfare of its soldiers. "We're calling them heroes and treating them like dirt," says Chapman. "That's not supporting our troops."

MAF's Ubaldi has been to Iraq and believes that if we shouldn't be there, more soldiers themselves would be speaking up. "The ones who complain are the ones who've never been there, and the ones who support what we're doing are the ones over there," he says.

To win the war, Ubaldi emphasizes the necessity of Americans uniting and understanding "what's behind what's going on."

"People have to understand that it's changing the whole mentality of the Middle East," he says. "We can do it by force, and by empowering the Iraqi people so they can empower themselves." He sees the terrorist attacks during the '90s as evidence that negotiations don't work, and believes something had to change.

The MAF trip was organized and publicized almost entirely through email groups, and as a result, very few protesters turned out at any stops -- none were present in Columbia. Organizations like Operation Thank You were on hand collecting postcards of support for the troops, and Charleston's Sea Island Republican Women stood with a banner. MAF has collected over 7,500 American flags along the way, placing them in the National Mall on Saturday before sending them to soldiers in Iraq.

"Everyone in this country must remain faithful to the American military until we win this war on terror," stated Deborah Jones, a blue star mother of a Marine currently on his third tour in Iraq. "We are going to Congress to tell them our colors are not going to run, and we're not going to waver under liberalism or them waving the white flag of surrender." Jones decried the media for "voting them (the current U.S. Congress) in," saying "we need to dictate to the media how this country's going to be run."

This week marks the fourth year of the Iraq war. At press time, 3,217 U.S. troops and as many as 670,000 Iraqi civilians have perished. "The fate of western civilization hinges on the outcome of this struggle," said Gen. Eckstrom. "It's a conflict between radical Islamists and those of us who worship a loving God, who commands us to pursue justice and show mercy to the oppressed, and that's what we as a country are doing in the Middle East today."

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