At Creech Air Force Base, drones land, protesters chant, and one man waves a flag


Phil Frank, right, speaks with Johnnie Bobb of the Western Shoshone National Council. (Dan Zak/The Washington Post)

The peace walkers arrived sweaty and gross, feet blistered and knees creaking, and Phil was waiting for them. Phil had his signs up, his American flags out, his star-spangled cap on. He extended a tight-fisted thumbs up toward the cars exiting Creech Air Force Base. A couple hundred yards away, every couple of minutes, a drone glided earthward with a baleful elegance.

Predator. Reaper. Reaper. Predator.

“Thanks for keeping us safe,” Phil said toward the driver of a white Ford F-150. If the driver had looked to the right, he or she would’ve seen Phil in his tinted glasses standing in front of homemade signs with red and blue lettering, offering drive-through reassurance:

HOME OF THE FREE
BECAUSE OF YOU

If the driver looked straight, he or she would’ve seen two dozen peace walkers, on mile 40 of their 56-mile journey to protest nuclear weapons and armed RPA (remotely piloted aircraft, or drones). The driver would’ve seen signs that said:

DRONES:
STATE-SPONSORED
TERRORISM

At quitting time at Creech last week, a line of cars snaked through the desert from an artificial oasis of squat, beige buildings near the brown foothills of the mountains of the Cactus Range. Phil knew the peace walkers would be at the base with their signs and accusatory chants, so he would be there with his words of thanks and encouragement — until some of the peace walkers started to meander across Route 95 to his territory, on a gravelly median between the highway and the base’s entrance. Phil didn’t like this.

“Two opposing views aren’t supposed to intermingle,” he said as they came over with drums and paper cranes. A couple minutes later a voice came from the bullhorn of a nearby police vehicle.

“Hey guys, the man with the flag was there,” the unseen officer said. “Plenty of room. Spread out.”

The man with the flag is nearly 70. Phil Frank served six years in the Navy, he says, and retired from construction to live here in Indian Springs, population 900-something, a 40-minute drive north of Vegas. There’s one casino, with its $6.99 steak-and-eggs special, and one motel, whose rooms are $19.99 a night, and one Air Force base, from which RPA are piloted overseas. Some of these RPA are armed with Hellfire missiles. Some of these missiles reportedly kill confirmed or suspected terrorists. Some of these missiles reportedly kill civilians.

People who object to the U.S. drone policy show up at Creech now and then. When Code Pink started trotting out fabricated child-sized coffins several years ago, Phil began his occasional vigil to offer a counterweight.

“It’s a show of support for our military men and women, for the sacrifices they make to help our country be a safer country,” Phil said later that evening in the sleepy casino restaurant, which is just down the road from a nuclear test site, Area 51 and a pagan-wiccan peace temple — dedicated to an Egyptian goddess of fertility — where the peace walkers were staying for two nights.

It’s a strange stretch of Nevada in a strange stretch of America.

The next morning at 6:30, when the walkers reached Creech to face the commuters, Phil was already there with his signs, his flag, his camping chair.

We are a part of you, the activists said to him.

“You are not a part of me at all,” Phil replied.

Soon surrounded by protestors, the man with the flag huffed and paced and shook his head. The sun vaulted up from the mountains. Cars streamed into the base from the highway. The groomed young airmen behind the wheel ignored the menagerie on the median. Phil traded terse words with protesters but had a friendly chat with their supporter Johnnie Bobb of the Western Shoshone National Council. The Western Shoshone tribe laid first claim to much of the surrounding land.

Just before 8 a.m., nine of the peace walkers crossed the line onto base property to deliver their war crimes indictment and demand the arrest of Col. Jim Cluff, commander of air combat units at Creech. They were arrested for trespassing on federal property but were released in time to rejoin the protest at quitting time Wednesday.

For the evening commute, Phil had brought his wife, his daughter and his grandson — three generations waving little flags at departing cars and listening to Kris Kristofferson twang “Why Me?” on a satellite radio.

“Maybe, Lord, I can show someone else 

What I go through myself 

On my way back to You.”

The peace walkers unfurled a quilted banner with the names and ages of children killed by drone strikes, as tallied by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s “Covert Drone War” project.

Ayeesha, 3

Abdul, 17

Shafiq, 2

And out came the cars, some of which presumably contained drone pilots.

“We all have the same idea, just a different philosophy of how to get there,” Phil said to a Code Pink member named Toby Blome as she passed his set-up.

“Maybe we can talk about that,” Toby said.

“Not here,” Phil said.

At dusk, after the peace walkers had eaten dinner on the temple grounds, a visitor arrived in his SUV, with its bumper stickers that say “Don’t Forget Benghazi” and “9-11-01 Never Forget.”

Phil took a seat next to one of the leaders of the walk, a man named Marcus Pegasus, who was wearing a red mystical tunic and a hairstyle that’s somewhere between hippie and punk rocker. Over the course of an hour, Phil and the activists faded into silhouettes. They talked about the philosophy of nonviolence, the conundrum of conflict, the guiding principle of religion.

Nearby cottonwood trees murmured in the night breeze as Phil told a story about a break-in at his home several years ago. He described how the intruder attacked him. How he readied his gun to shoot the intruder if he didn’t relent. How he broke out in a cold sweat when the intruder let go of him. How he praised God that he didn’t have to do the unthinkable.

“Would it have been better to have a robot then?” Marcus asked. “To have a robot kill someone who might kill you?”

“Absolutely,” Phil said.

“So I understand why you think technology can save us,” Marcus said. “You’d save yourself the suffering of having killed someone.”

The conversation meandered and doubled back and tied itself in knots, eventually arriving at a cordial “good night” instead of a clean resolution.

“I just came by,” Phil said as he left, “to let you know who I am.”

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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