OUT IN FRONT of the White House last week there was a man picketing with a sign saying something about Bert Lance and another guy with some complaint about his wife. Then there was Olivia Casamento, 50, with her sandwich-board appeal to President Carter about her husband, Tony, and the way the government has been treating him. The right thing, she said - she wants the government to do the right thing.
She marched back and forth before the gate, just another picket in a town full ofthem, nobody knowing thatthis was her eighth day of a hunger strike and that Tony,back home in West Islip, Long Island, wanted her back. He had feared for her health, so he wrote a letter.
"Can you please help me? My wife has been picketing in formt of the White House since Sept.11 and now is on a hungerstrike for seven days trying to see President Carter. She has not eaten any food in the hope of trying to see the President in relation to my award case, which some of the enclosed write-ups and my letter to the President will help to explain why she is there.
"I will be grateful if one of your reporters can talk to her and tell her to come home."
Along with the letter was a copy of a newspaper story telling how Casamento, then a 20-year-old kid from East Harlem, fought like some kind of comic book hero in an engagement on the Mata-nikau River of Guadacanal. In his version of events, substantially corroborated by the Marine Corps, he held off the enemy with machine guns and hand grenades, in a fight that cost him most of his men. It was Nov. 1, 1942, and he was wounded 14 times, leaving him permanently disabled and deserving, he thinks of the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Marines have offered the Navy Cross, its highest honor.
The rest of the story tells how Casamento has been rebuffed in his effort to get the Congressional Medal of Honor - how at first there were no witnesses to the fight and then when witnesswere found it was too late. It goes on and on and there are three congressmen involved and lawyers and the Marines and the Navy and the Secretary of the Navy. If you callthe Marines they know right off who you mean and it is not too much to say that at the Pentagon there is a Casamento specialist -someone who knows that file of more than 400 pages like it was his own.
So what you can say is that this is a story of how one man gets the run-around from his government or you can say that this is a miracle - what the Founding Father had in mind. What a fight! What a display! One man against the government. No one tells him to buzz off. No one is rude or nasty or ignores him. He engages all the branches of government. He gets the Secretary of the Navy involved. Unfortunately, it goes against him. In his lawyers' own words, it's a judgment call Casamento is a Navy Cross hero. He is not a Medal of Honor heor.
Now this is Sept. 30, 1977, and Olivia Casamento is picketing outside the White House. It is a clear, beautiful morning, a slight chill to the air. Olivia Casamento is wearing a sleeveless white sweater, white blouse, white pants. On her head is a straw skimmer and she is carrying a sandwich board that shehas sewn herself. I go up and introduce myself and show her the letter.
"Tony?" she asks. "Have you talked toTony?" No, not yet. She looks disappointed. She explains that she never calls. It's too expensive. "It's $2.05 for three minutes." I ask how she is and she says she'slosing weight."To be honest with you, I'm kind of new at this." Then she starts to talk about her husband and the government and it is like you pressed a button. The words come spilling out - "until 35 years of injustice is corrected . . . cover-up . . . someone has got to take a stand." The words are louder now and people are beginning to notice. The tourists coming out of the White House are staring. I feel uncomfortable. She tells how she wrote three letters to Carter. She followed him to Clinton Mass., for his town meeting. Three letters, the last certified. "He just can't says he didn't get it."
A small group has formed. I suggest that wemove to a side street where my car is parked. I explain I am illegally parked, and I might get a ticket. Maybe it was something in what I said or the way I said it - she turns and stares.
"I am not a nut."
No, no, of course not. It's not that. It's something else. It's fighting the government all these years. It's how you become - how you become a tape or a machine or a recording. Press the button and you give your spiel. The crowd is still watching, hearing. My notebook is out, I am trying to look official. A lady wearing a hat moves in. "Pardon me, dearie," she says, "is this where you catch the bus to the FBI Buildings?"
Mrs. Casamento points, and the lady and her group move off.
Now it is Monday and now there is a message to call Casamento. I call and Mrs. Casamento answers the phone. She has come home, she explains. She fainted on G Street late Friday afternoon. She has come home.
"I told Tony that when I feel better I'm going to go down again," she says. "After all, there's a right and there's a wrong."
Not in Washington there isn't.