By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007
As war protesters marched toward Arlington Memorial Bridge en route to the Pentagon yesterday, they were flanked by long lines of military veterans and others who stood in solidarity with U.S. troops and the Bush administration's cause in Iraq. Many booed loudly as the protesters passed, turned their backs to them or yelled, "If you don't like America, get out!"
Several thousand vets, some of whom came by bus from New Jersey, car caravans from California or flights from Seattle or Michigan, lined the route from the bridge and down 23rd Street, waving signs such as "War There Or War Here." Their lines snaked around the corner and down several blocks of Constitution Avenue in what organizers called the largest gathering of pro-administration counter-demonstrators since the war began four years ago.
The vets turned both sides of Constitution into a bitter, charged gantlet for the war protesters. "Jihadists!" some vets screamed. "You're brain-dead!" Others chanted, "Workers World traitors must hang!" -- a reference to the Communist newspaper. Some broke into "The Star-Spangled Banner" as war protesters sought to hand out pamphlets.
"Bunch of hooligans in motorcycle jackets!" one war protester shot back.
The large turnout surprised even some counter-demonstrators. Polls show public opinion turning against the war in Iraq, and the November election was widely seen as a repudiation of the administration's policy.
"I've never been to a war rally. I hoped I'd never have to," said Jim Wilson, 62, a Vietnam vet from New Hampshire. "We're like what they used to call the silent majority."
In some past antiwar rallies, the number of counter-demonstrators has ranged from a handful to a few hundred. "Our side got apathetic," said Debby Lee, whose son Marc, a Navy SEAL, was killed in Iraq and who came to the rally from Phoenix in a caravan organized by MoveAmericaForward.org.
But the war protesters have gone too far, Lee and others said. At a Jan. 27 antiwar rally, some protesters spray-painted the pavement on a Capitol terrace. Others crowned the Lone Sailor statue at the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue with a pink tiara that had "Women for Peace" written across it.
Word of those incidents ricocheted around the Internet.
"That was the real catalyst, right there," said Navy veteran Larry Bailey. "They showed they were willing to desecrate something that's sacred to the American soul."
Well before 7 a.m., hundreds of people milled about near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in an effort to, they said, "occupy the ground" and keep any disrespectful war protesters away.
"This is sacred ground to us," said Rick De Marco, 62, a Vietnam veteran from Cleveland.
K.C. O'Brien, 65, a Vietnam vet from Fairfield, Calif., said: "We believe in freedom of speech. We're here to defend the right of people to say whatever they want. But we will not allow any desecration."
Within days of the spray-painting, people were using he Web to organize, making it their mission to protect the monuments, support the troops and accept nothing less than victory in Iraq.
Gathering of Eagles, the group that organized the protest, was so worried about threats to the monuments that it hired private security to guard the Wall, said Harry Riley, 69, a retired Army colonel from Florida. Other vets patrolled the area through the night and early morning, he said.
By early morning, the National Park Service had installed two metal detectors and carefully controlled entry along the path leading to the Wall. Blue-helmeted riot police were stationed along the length of the Wall. For a time, a handful of vets paraded back and forth with American flags waving in the stiff, cold breeze.
By 2 p.m., with the war protesters across the Potomac River, the metal detectors had come down. The path along the Wall was quiet as the occasional veteran paused at the name of someone remembered.