FAYETTEVILLE, N.C., March 19 -- Here at the heart of one of the nation's most deeply rooted military communities, nearly 3,000 peace activists, war veterans and their family members gathered Saturday to call for an end to the Iraq conflict on the second anniversary of the day it began.
They marched beating drums and chanting slogans through quiet suburban streets to a wooded park a few miles from Fort Bragg, which is home to the Army's 82nd Airborne Division and the U.S. Special Operations Command.
A pro-military demonstrator blocks the camera of an antiwar protester at a rally in Fayetteville, N.C., a few miles from Fort Bragg.
(Photos Logan Mock-bunting -- Getty Images)
Among the dozens of speakers who declared their opposition to the war, the loudest applause and only standing ovation were for Michael Hoffman, who served as a Marine artilleryman during the invasion of Iraq and who last July founded a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War.
"Two years ago today, many of us standing on this stage were ready to wage destruction on Iraq," said Hoffman, 25, wearing the top of his desert camouflage uniform and a pin that said: "Bush lied."
"We know that the only solution to the problem that we have created is to end the occupation now," he said.
Smaller rallies were held in cities and towns across the country -- a total of about 800 in all 50 states, according to the group United for Peace and Justice, which helps coordinate antiwar activities.
In New York, police made more than 30 arrests as a few hundred people gathered for speeches near the United Nations, then marched to Times Square, the Associated Press reported.
In Fayetteville, home to a small but entrenched peace activist community, organizers said the protest was the largest gathering of any kind since 1970, when a few thousand antiwar activists converged in the same park to protest the Vietnam War.
The protest leaders -- including representatives of several of the most prominent antiwar groups to emerge since the Iraq conflict began -- said they selected this town along the Cape Fear River because so many of its approximately 125,000 citizens have personally felt the impact of the ongoing conflict.
More than 10,000 soldiers from Fort Bragg are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, and since 2002, about 80 service personnel with ties to the region or its bases have been killed, according to the Fayetteville Observer.
"It was important to come here because there is hardly a single family in Fayetteville that does not have some connection to the military," said Lou Plummer, a local activist and veteran of the North Carolina National Guard. "When you're at church, when you're in the grocery store, when you visit your children at school, there will be someone there who is on active duty, or with a family member on active duty, or a veteran of the military."
Plummer's son Drew was discharged from the Navy after deserting his unit last year. On Saturday afternoon, both men addressed the crowd, which the Fayetteville Police Department estimated at more than 2,800 people.
Across the street were a few dozen demonstrators who objected to the antiwar protest. Some were members of local military families, while others said they had traveled to Fayetteville as part of a group organized by the conservative group Free Republic through its Web site.
"You're traitors to our country. Go home! You don't belong in Fayetteville," shouted Tammy Harris, who waved a small American flag, as did her four children, as the demonstrators marched past.