Back in September 2002, before heading off to their jobs, Charley Richardson and Nancy Lessin would get up at dawn and take their homemade posters to the rotary off Centre Street in Jamaica Plain. Their message: "Our Son Is a Marine. Please Don't Send Him to War for Oil."
When President Bush came to town that fall, they hauled their signs to his speech. They sent a letter to everyone they knew, with a picture of Joe attached, saying that an Iraq invasion would be a catastrophe. They filed a lawsuit against Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, seeking to stop the invasion. They marched in Washington and attempted to meet with congressmen.
Years before "gold star" mother Cindy Sheehan made headlines for camping out in Crawford, Texas, in opposition to the war, Richardson and Lessin were holding their own protest. It was a lonely road then: "weapons of mass destruction" were the operative words, and those who opposed the invasion were considered unAmerican and unpatriotic. Once a man snarled: "You're a disgrace to your son!"
At a Washington protest four months before the invasion, Richardson and Lessin were approached by Jeffrey McKenzie of Gasport, N.Y., whose son flew medevac helicopters for the Army. He, too, thought the invasion a disastrous move. The three decided to form an organization called Military Families Speak Out.
When the bombs dropped on Baghdad on March 19, 2003, the group consisted of 200 families. Today there are more than 3,100 families from every state, along with Puerto Rico, American Samoa , and military bases in Germany and Japan. They are Democrats, Republicans, and independents. More than 100 of the families have lost a child or grandchild in the conflict. Others -- like Joe Richardson -- have returned home safely. Some of the soldiers have come home maimed, some suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of their members' loved ones, says Lessin, have committed suicide upon return.
The group is nonprofit and nonpartisan, so it cannot endorse politicians. Though he and Lessin are liberals who protested the Vietnam War, they say their group includes members of the conservative John Birch Society and Daughters of the American Revolution. "We have members who protested Vietnam, and others who served in Vietnam," says Richardson. "We're all over the map on the social and political issues of the day. We've come together to oppose this war."
Getting out the message To be military is to remain silent: You never criticize your branch of service or your country. But Military Families Speak Out has done just what its name implies, speaking out on talk shows and at churches, colleges, and union halls. Richardson and Lessin and others have written letters to editors, called press conferences, and met with elected officials. They once held a vigil outside congressional offices, lining up hundreds of pairs of combat boots to represent troop deaths and hundreds of pairs of shoes representing Iraqi civilians killed in the war. Whenever they meet with congressmen, they place a couple of pairs of combat boots in the middle of the conference table as a reminder of those serving in Iraq.
The couple needed no operating instructions in activism. Lessin, 57, is health and safety coordinator for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. Richardson, 53, teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in the labor extension program. It is a second marriage for both; Joe Richardson, 28, is Lessin's stepson. Their Jamaica Plain home is a clutter of bumper stickers ("Bring Them Home Now!") and postcards ("Not Another Life"). Antiwar posters decorate the living room walls, and they both wear peace symbol buttons.
A picture of Joe, in uniform, is on the mantel. He lives in the Washington area and, after eight years in the Marines, now works in the private sector. He joined the service in 1998, after studying the classics at St. John's College in Annapolis. His ship was headed home from the Arabian Sea when the United States invaded Iraq. It turned around and headed for the Persian Gulf.
Though the couple say Joe is supportive of their efforts, he has steadfastly refused to talk to the press about their organization or his experience in Iraq. "He's proud of us for doing it, but he has asked us only to speak for ourselves," his father says.
Tomorrow, Military Families Speak Out, along with some Iraq war veterans, will attempt to deliver a petition to Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, calling for an end to the extension of troops that have already served one or more tours in Iraq -- a "back-door draft," they call it. "They don't want a draft, so they are overusing the troops that are there," says Richardson. One of the member families from Tennessee has three sons and two grandsons who, combined, have spent more than 90 months in Iraq.
A family's story Anne and Andrew Sapp of Billerica will be with them in spirit. They joined Military Families Speak Out after he was sent to Fort Drum near the Canadian border, and then Kuwait and Iraq. "We both felt very strongly from the start that this was a wrong war," she says. Andy Sapp, 49, was gone for 18 months with the Massachusetts National Guard, leaving his job as an English teacher at Concord-Carlisle High School, along with his wife and two daughters. He has been home for a year and is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"He's not even able to put his uniform on," his wife says. "The last time he tried to do that, he was in bed for a week." In April he will retire from the military with 20 years of service.
Anne, a special education teacher, had never been politically involved. "Because we are able to speak out as a group of military families, it is much more empowering," she says. "We've been able to express what we feel in a way that we've never been able to do. It's very traditional for military families to suck it up and be quiet."
Not all military families agree with the group's actions. Tracy Della Vecchia of Columbia, Mo., founder of MarineParents.com, says such protests are harmful to the troops.
"It gives ammunition to the terrorists, to the people who are against what we are doing," says Della Vecchia, whose son did three tours in Iraq. "[They] have the right to speak up, but if they're just criticizing and not offering a better alternative . . . I don't think it's appropriate."
As for the alternative, Richardson and Lessin say it's simple: Bring the troops home while helping rebuild Iraq. "The longer we stay, the uglier it gets," says Richardson. "Three and a half years into the war, we've destroyed the infrastructure of a country, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead, our own death toll is mounting, and there are hundreds of thousands of potential recruits for Al Qaeda."
They remember when Harvard was taken over by antiwar protesters during the Vietnam era ; today, students chatting on cellphones ignore the small group of regular protesters in Harvard Yard. The draft is the difference: "Iraq isolates the wealthy from the impact of war," says Richardson.
But there are positive signs, too. Nowadays when Military Families ' members speak out, they don't attract epithets or middle fingers. People, they say, are thanking them instead.
© 2006 Boston Globe