In military communities across the United States, a debate over the Iraq war is being waged by reluctant, neophyte activists. Their microphones chirp and squeak, or don't pick up their quiet voices at all. Their signs are too small. They forget the banners.
"This is my community. I don't want to offend people here. But my husband is a soldier; he can't say anything. So it's my duty as a citizen to speak up," Kara Hollingsworth, a D.C. native and Army wife at Fort Bragg whose husband served two tours in Iraq, said as she took a seat on a panel of antiwar activists last week.
A few hours earlier, another Army spouse stood in the red-brick village square near the base and held up a handmade sign supporting the war. She threw it together after she heard that an antiwar caravan was coming to town.
"I've never done this before. I'm usually a quiet military wife. But I can't take this anymore," said Marlene Lowrey, whose husband also served in Iraq. "This isn't right, coming into a town like this with that antiwar stuff. Those people don't realize this brings down morale."
Military families, stoic and tight-lipped during most of the nation's wars, have become a powerful voice on both sides of the bitter argument over U.S. involvement in Iraq. And their growing prominence will add a poignant note to Saturday's antiwar march and rally near the White House.
Organizers of the protest, who anticipate a crowd of about 100,000, estimate that thousands of military families and veterans will join in the demonstration. Three busloads of military families have been touring the country since Aug. 31 and will converge on Washington today to promote Saturday's rally.
In recent weeks, war supporters have been countering those bus stops, rallies and vigils with demonstrations of their own. They've got their own bus touring the country and are planning three days of counter-protests in Washington this weekend.
Both sides embrace the slogan "Support our troops." They just disagree on how to do it. They also were inspired by the same person: Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in combat and kept a vigil near President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex., through most of August.
Because of Sheehan, "military families across the country are stepping forward to speak out" in support of U.S. policy, said Iowa state Sen. Charles W. Larson Jr., who recently served a year in Iraq with the Army. "You don't normally see people like this do that. They are angry and frustrated, and that is why they have become engaged in the debate."
Sheehan also galvanized Phil and Linda Waste, who were riding one of the "Bring Them Home Now" buses through the hills of North Carolina last week. Their three sons, grandson and granddaughter are all in the military and have served a total of 58 months in Iraq, and the Wastes have white-knuckled their way through each of those tours of duty.
They sat in their Hinesville, Ga., living room for months, cursing at the television reports from Iraq.
"Then we saw Cindy in Texas," said Linda Waste, holding tight to the table's edge on the bumping bus. Her husband picked up her thought: "And then we heard people call her unpatriotic. And that was it."
The Wastes finish each other's sentences and kiss each time they say "bring them home now" in unison. The people on the bus have started to call them Philinda.
"It's something I've got to do. Otherwise, I can't live with the guilt of what I did to my sons," Phil Waste said. He served in the Navy and has the blurry, sagging tattoos to prove it. He never fought in a war and used the mechanical skills he learned in the military to earn a decent living repairing elevators. "I told them the military was a good place to start out, a good place to learn a skill." He shakes his head and begins to cry.
The three buses have stopped in small towns and state capitals, the riders helping one another step onto makeshift stages to tell their stories and assure other folks that being antiwar doesn't mean being anti-soldier.
"You wouldn't believe how many people in the military are relieved to hear us speak. It's like they have permission to be angry now," said Julie Cuniglio of Dallas, who comes from a large military family. She joined the bus tour in Crawford, mourning the death of her nephew, Staff Sgt. Aaron Dean White, who was killed in May 2003 in Iraq.
The antiwar tours have hit 51 cities in 28 states, covering the South, Midwest and North.
Sheehan has met up with each tour at various times, flying from one city to the next, making quick speaking appearances and signing a few autographs.
Some families have joined the tour for a few days. Others, such as Philinda, are in it for the long haul -- from Crawford to Washington in 24 days.
Last week, the riders on the southern tour had been wearing the same clothes for days and were begging their chain-smoking, ex-Navy driver, who goes only by "Chito," to stop for a bite to eat. In some cities, like-minded families served them fried chicken and potato salad dinners and sometimes put them up for the night. Other nights, they slept on the bus or occasionally splurged for a cheap hotel.
Sometimes, the mere threat of the tour barreling through town spurred people on the other side into action. In downtown Raleigh, N.C., a group of veterans quickly assembled a small rally to counter Sheehan's message. The antiwar tour never showed up at that spot, but Matthew Delk did.
"I'm really not into going to protests. That's not me," said Delk, a beefy Iraq war veteran who spent weeks recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from burns on his hands and chest. A National Guardsman, he is the manager for Halifax County in North Carolina, and he was sweating in a charcoal suit far different from his desert fatigues. "As a soldier, I'm not supposed to get involved in this stuff. But I believe that our mission is a noble mission. And I feel like I had to come here and say my piece."
Carolyn Culbreth, whose father is a retired Special Forces soldier, came to downtown Fayetteville on her lunch hour to meet the antiwar bus. "What they're doing is unpatriotic," Culbreth said, spangled head to toe in red, white and blue. "And in a place like this, it's just like a slap in the face."
When Chito parked the Bring Them Home Now bus in the center of Fayetteville the next day, cars whizzing by it honked and drivers barked at the slogans all over the windows and sides.
A woman in a silver Mercedes leaned out and shouted, "Go home!" A man in a red muscle car gave members of the group an obscene gesture. A soldier in a beat-up Olds Cutlass gave them a peace sign.
Carolyn Culbreth, left, demonstrates against the antiwar tour in Fayetteville, N.C., on Friday.
Susan Franzblau, left, and Myra Kinderkecht protest the war in Iraq at a rally in Fayetteville, N.C. A touring group of military families who oppose the war stopped in the town.