Fayetteville is the quintessential military town, then and now. In the early 70’s, a bus affectionately named the Vomit Comet ferried soldiers from Ft. Bragg to Hay Street, a seedy strip of topless bars and pawnshops. Every effort was made by Hay Street merchants to separate basic infantry training graduates from the last paychecks they would receive before departing for Vietnam.
Not all of Fayetteville’s citizens were predatory, however. In 1969, Dean Holland became the first soldier at Ft. Bragg to receive conscientious objector status after receiving help from North Carolina’s Quaker community. With Holland’s leadership on the ground in Fayetteville, Quaker congregations from across the state raised money to open a GI counseling center in Fayetteville.
The center, Quaker House, was a catalyst for the growing GI resistance developing in the military at the time. With the help of angry young war veterans, the Quaker House staff helped organize a rally in a nearby park featuring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. The rally drew 4000 protesters, including over a 1000 GIs, many of whom attended wearing hats and wigs in an attempt to avoid detection by military police. Four days after the rally, Quaker House was fire bombed in a case that was never solved.
Undeterred, Quaker House reopened. It remains open to this day, a part of the GI Rights Network. Over 50,000 members of the military have received counseling on discharge and other issues from its tireless workers. In recent years, Quaker House has also been at the hub of an anti-war movement in Fayetteville driven by vets and members of military families.
The impact of anti-war organizing in a military town is hard to measure. Ft. Bragg is home of the 82nd Airborne and the Army’s Special Operations Command. Those institutions have loud voices and impact the community in many ways, economically and socially. In Fayetteville, a small grassroots group formed soon after September 11th. Rarely are more than a dozen organizers present at business meetings, although occasionally 50 to 100 people attend its various events. When the group conducted a series of vigils during the opening weeks of the invasion of Iraq, counter-demonstrators routinely outnumbered and outshouted the peaceniks.
As time passed and the body count from Iraq grew steadily higher, the counter-demonstrations ceased. More and more passers by, including troops in uniform began offering honks of support. More thumbs up signs were seen. The wives and parents of service members began to appear. Several veterans made and held their own signs for the weekly one-hour vigils. My son, an active duty sailor assigned to the USS Dwight D, Eisenhower, was prosecuted for disloyalty by the Navy for speaking to a reporter at one of the demonstrations he attended while home on leave, a development that received national and international attention.
SP4 Jeremy Hinzman, a paratrooper assigned to the 82nd Airborne attended meetings regularly both before and after deploying to Afghanistan. In January, Hinzman left Fayetteville with his wife and son to apply for refugee status in Canada after his application for conscientious objector status was denied and his unit received orders for Iraq. Chuck Fager, the director of Quaker House, recently visited the Hinzman family in Toronto.
Connections were made with a broader network of peace activists, most significantly Military Families Speak Out and the Bring Them Home Now campaign. The support from these two groups was notable for their ability to redirect requests for help (usually in the form of email messages) from Ft. Bragg families back to activists on the ground in Fayetteville. Newcomers to Ft. Bragg, and there is a steady stream of them, are often at a loss on how to make connections with local people. It is easier for them to find the web site of a national organization than it is for them to know how to contact smaller groups. One can’t exactly look up the listings for “Peace and Justice” in the yellow pages.
Few military family members have any experience in organizing. Fortunately, a few of the civilian members of Fayetteville Peace With Justice are veterans of the civil rights, anti-nuke and women’s rights movements. Their experience and connections with members of other grass roots groups helped develop relationships with a loose network of like-minded people across the state.
As happened during the Vietnam War, Quakers and other peace activists partnered with vets and military families in Fayetteville and elsewhere to plan a rally in the same park where Fonda and Sutherland appeared 34 years ago. The March 20 rally drew over 1000 people.
The crowd marched from an assembly point on Hay Street to the rally site. The marchers passed the Airborne And Special Operations Museum and Freedom Park, where memorials to the local war dead stand. While once Hay Street was lined with topless bars and pawnshops, it is today much more gentrified. Still, soldiers who may one day be memorialized at the park regularly travel the street.
Veterans from several states led the march, including former Marine Michael Hoffman, who last year was marching through Iraq during the invasion. Members of military families, including the wives and parents of soldiers from Ft. Bragg also helped guide the procession. Because of threats made on the archconservative website FreeRepublic.com, there was a significant police presence, especially as the crowd passed a small area where approximately 50 counter-demonstrators stood.
It took the crowd nearly 30 minutes to pass through a security checkpoint where handbags and coolers were searched. The temperatures were in the high sixties, the sun was shining and a festival atmosphere quickly developed. Some were attracted to the peace truck, a project of the group Public Assembly. Much work had been done to have the truck present and presentable since earlier in the week the truck was heavily vandalized and its peace murals covered in red paint.
Patrick McCann, of Veterans for Peace in Washington, DC took the stage to lead the crowd in a chant done in the style of a military cadence;
One year ago this very day
Under the scrutiny of over 150 police officers and BATF agents, complete with video cameras and binoculars, the crowd settled in for a variety of speakers and cultural performers. People of color, women and immigrants all serve in the military. They all also served the peace movement as they told their deeply personal stories on Saturday. A visibly nervous Beth Pratt, whose husband is serving as a truck driver with a unit from Ft. Bragg stationed in Iraq brought many in the crowd to tears as she eloquently explained how she never watches the news or reads the newspaper for fear of reports on military casualties. “It’s hard living without your best friend” Pratt said as she explained that after returning from Iraq, her husband was certain to be redeployed soon afterwards.
Other well know activists such as Nancy Lessin, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out and David Potorti of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows appeared throughout the afternoon. Cultural performers such as Fruit of Labor, Hip Hop Against Racist War, and Vietnam Veteran singer songwriter Ralph Baldwin offered entertaining respites from the heavy emotion conveyed by the speakers.
Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia is a Florida National Guardsman who served in Iraq. He refused to return and turned himself in to the military on Monday, March 15 along with a 40 page Conscientious Objector application. He was invited to speak. Major General William G. Webster Jr. did not allow Staff Sgt. Mejia to leave Ft. Stewart to address the Fayetteville gathering, so his family came and read a statement on his behalf that reiterated his position opposing the war and thanked everyone for their support.
Elaine Johnson, from Cordova, SC, whose son Darius was killed in Iraq on November 2 gave an especially riveting description of her anguish near the end of the nearly three hour program.
Long-time activist Dennis O’Neil, a member of the national coordinating committee of the Bring Them Home Now! campaign traveled from New York for the event. O’ Neil said, “ I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve been to more marches than I can count, but today is one of the best and most inspiring events I’ve ever attended.”
As the crowd left the park, organizers were already making plans for continued support of the movement in Fayetteville. It took a long time and a lot of senseless killing during Vietnam for elements of the left, members of the faith community, vets and military families to combine their strengths. Today, only a year after the invasion of Iraq, those groups are already working together. They are making an impact. Their voices are being heard.
Lou Plummer's son Drew, currently stationed aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, is a member of the fourth consecutive generation of his family to serve in the military. Lou was in the Army National Guard from 1983 to 1989. He also worked for eight years in the North Carolina prison system. He is a member of Military Families Speak Out and actively organizes for various social justice causes in his home town, Fayetteville, NC, home of Ft. Bragg and the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.