It was discussion time at Campbell Heights Apartments, and the residents who had gathered in the activity room had plenty to say about the day's topic: the war. But it was not always the fighting in Iraq that occupied their thoughts.
Alice Terry, 77, could not help remembering how her younger brother returned from the Korean War with a head wound and "a silver plate in his head, until the day he passed away." He was never the same after the injury, she said.
"He tried to talk about it, so that's all I know," she said. "It's sad. So many people get killed, so much stuff gets blown away. He said they were always running around scared."
The senior citizens who live at Campbell Heights are not scared now, at least not for themselves. They have endured many wars. They see the mounting security measures in the Washington area not so much as enhancements to their safety but as dollars taken away from health care and education. And they view the troops in action halfway around the world as kids who may or may not come home to a country that may not be fully aware of what they have gone through.
"Every day since this has been going on, I've practically shed tears because I see these families talking about the soldiers" who are dead or missing, said Dempsey Hinton, 75, a Korean War veteran. "I'm very emotional about it, because I've seen people protesting against this war, and I know good and well the president has to look at these things."
Such discussions are held often at Campbell Heights, a federally subsidized, 175-unit complex for senior citizens at 2001 15th St. NW. Sometimes the participants talk about news events; sometimes, personal goals. In many ways, this recent discussion was little different from other informal debates occurring in activity centers and classrooms across the country -- a means of expression about a war that many find confusing and controversial.
"What war is this anyway?" Alma Matthews, 92, asked the gathering. "Do y'all think this is World War III?"
Several people nodded yes.
Sandra Butler-Truesdale, the resident services coordinator at Campbell Heights, said the talks are a valuable exercise that can relieve stress. "Oftentimes, seniors suffer from depression and stress," she said. "These people are very highly intelligent people, but they often don't have anybody to talk to."
Most of these residents have lived in the nation's capital for many decades, many since birth. They can recall a lifetime of victory parades and veterans' ceremonies. At the recent meeting, some arrived in wheelchairs, others slowly made their way to seats. While they said they support the troops, many seemed skeptical about the reasons behind the conflict.
"Most young people I've talked to, they feel like the war is unjust," said Hinton, a retired tour guide who works part time as a cabdriver. "They feel they don't have things right at home, so why should they go fight a war?"
Butler-Truesdale, 63, who served eight years on the D.C. school board, led the discussion. She shared a childhood memory of watching the Korean War veterans parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, with the segregated black troops dancing as they brought up the rear. She also wondered what kind of message the Iraqi war is sending to the nation's youth.
"I was watching a kid the other day [on television] say, 'Oh, I'm not scared, I'm a trained killer,' " she said. "When they come back [home] and blow everybody away, who takes the responsibility for the aftermath of the war? In the schools, they are telling our children they must not fight, they must not join gangs, they must be involved in conflict resolution."
Hinton agreed. "The penitentiaries are full of veterans right now," he said.
An 86-year-old woman, wearing a black baseball cap with "I'm having a senior moment" stitched on it in white, declared that she never had seen a president act like President Bush. "I just want to say, he doesn't have to worry about who's going to get injured or killed because they're not his," she said, declining in no uncertain terms to give her name. "But there are people over there who are people's fathers and sons and daughters and everything. I don't know why they didn't sit down and negotiate."
When it comes to their safety, however, these seniors seemed unconcerned. Yes, yes, they know Washington is a prime target for another terrorist attack, they said. But most of them seemed to follow the lead of Matthews, who quoted Scripture: "Let not your heart be troubled . . ."
Butler-Truesdale asked the residents whether they knew what to do should they have to evacuate.
"Go down the back stairs," the more ambulatory participants answered.
"And then what?" the moderator prodded. There was silence. Butler-Truesdale urged them to create a plan. She admitted that she, too, needed to work on preparing for an evacuation. "If something happened this minute," she said, "I don't know if I'd be ready, either."
The meeting ended with a series of prayers. One by one, the residents remembered the fighting soldiers. Hinton made no bones about where he stood.
"Our Father, go over into the war zones, dear Lord, and touch those that's over there, carrying those weapons and whatnot, that they will do the right thing," Hinton said. "You say in your word, dear Lord, 'Thou shalt not kill.' If that's the case, dear Lord, we would ask for help in that particular area."