While Gen. David Petraeus spent the day hammering sometimes unwilling senators with facts and stats about Iraq, all with unwavering patience, more than 400 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts gathered on the Hill to give wavering Members of Congress something to rally behind besides the cardboard charts of Senate tradition.
The Vets for Freedom ended a three-week national bus tour in Upper Senate Park Tuesday morning, and were met with significantly more media attention than they garnered during their last visit to the Hill in September 2007. Full video coverage of that event, here. The group set up more than 300 meetings with Congressmen and senators, and planned to drop in on those with whom they couldn’t get appointments.
The message was simple: “Let them win.”
“We’re here to tell Congress not to micromanage the war from air conditioned offices on Capitol Hill,” said Vets for Freedom Executive Director Pete Hegseth to hearty applause as he introduced presumptive Republican presidential John McCain at the rally. Pictures, here.
McCain spoke briefly, thanking those in attendance, those who choose to re-enlist despite hardships, and praising Petraeus as one of America’s “greatest generals.”
"No one hates war more than the veteran,” McCain said. “But the veteran also knows the consequences of defeat is greater sacrifice and greater numbers who are wounded and killed...My friends, we will never surrender to the extremists."
David Bellavia, a Bronze and Silver Star recipient who served in Fallujah in 2006, bemoaned the necessity for the gathering, precipitated by a faction of the American political environment he said is invested in losing in Iraq. He also stressed the trouble vets had gone to to get to Washington, D.C.
“These young men decided to give up four days of their vacation time to stand in the cold,” said Bellavia. “No one sober can look at the progress in Diyala and Anbar and argue that the surge is not working.”
During last year’s visit, no one was able to land a meeting with Democratic leadership, and this outing was no different.
“There is no reception,” Bellavia said. “It’s shameful. It’s absolutely shameful.”
Kate Norley, who served 16 months as a medic in Iraq, was told on her September visit with Hillary Clinton, “you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” She did not meet with Clinton again on this trip.
Bellavia recounted a story of a visit to Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-Va.) office in which Webb assured the vets they were “on the same team” because of Webb’s military history and support of veteran legislation. While he was talking, troops noticed a large, prominently placed thank-you card from Code Pink on Webb’s desk.
Code Pink was up to their usual shenanigans and getting plenty of attention for it. A crew of about 6-8 Code Pink protesters made it into the hearing room, dressed in black mourning gowns and wearing pale face make-up, as the Code Pink blog puts it, “to demonstrate the ongoing killing as a result of the U.S. occupation.”
They were warned by Sen. Carl Levin (D.-Ill.) that they could stand in the hearing but not disrupt it. They didn’t last long:
Not long after that, a friend of ours, Zool, started yelling "Bring them home" over and over. He was removed and arrested. While he was being dragged out, several pink signs such as "END THE WAR" were visible on the CNN footage.
The blog post goes on to boast about the copious media coverage these outbursts received.
During Vets for Freedom’s last visit to the Hill, they won and welcomed converts to the cause like Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who was compelled in August by a trip to Iraq to write an op-ed arguing that the troops had “earned more time” to succeed in Iraq.
One of the most liberal members of Congress, he was thanked for his truth-telling with a MoveOn attack ad campaign but held firm.
Bellavia praised Baird for his “intestinal fortitude” and hoped this trip by veterans would give him and others like him the strength to stand up for the surge and the men and women behind its success. He noted they planned to devote particular time to senators Warner and Hagel, both Republicans critical of the Iraq war.
The veterans were joined at their rally by Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), and Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.).