On New Years Eve I was honored to stand next to Harriet Elaine Johnson and her husband for an hour at our weekly peace vigil in front of the South Carolina State House. Ms. Johnson held a sign that said: "Support Our Troops, Send Them Home" as we stood beneath the Confederate Soldiers monument with the Confederate flag rippling in the breeze overhead. Elaine Johnson's 22 year old son, Army Spc. Darius Jennings was one of 17 U.S. troops killed in Iraq on November 2, 2003 when the Chinook helicopter he was aboard was shot down by Iraqi insurgents. Darius Jennings was also one of three young African-American members of the United States military killed in Iraq this year who graduated from Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School in Orangeburg, S.C.
Since September, 2002, the Carolina Peace Resource Center and Women in Black have sponsored the silent vigil every Wednesday evening from 5 to 6 PM with a diverse group of from 10 to 150 people in attendance. We hold peace signs for the drive-time traffic to contemplate like "No Blood For Oil", "War Is Not The Answer", and "Hope Not Fear, Peace Not War".
Ms. Johnson is a shift worker in a factory in Orangeburg and she told me the main reason Darius joined the Army was the promise of Army recruiters to pay his college expenses. According to an article by Chuck Crumbo of "The State" newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Elaine Johnson found herself struggling to understand why her son had to die in Iraq. She told Crumbo, "I've asked God to deal with my anger, but I know my feelings will never change". She said "The Iraqis don't want us over there...We need to bring our babies back to us where they are loved and wanted". In our conversations, Elaine said her anger was based on the firm belief that her son was killed because President Bush lied to us about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks and used the lies to frighten people into supporting the war against Iraq.
Elaine Johnson became even more upset when President Bush came to South Carolina on November 10 for a $2,000.00 a plate political fund raiser for his re-election campaign and didn't contact her to offer condolences. Spc. Jennings was stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado before being sent to Iraq and a front page story on November 19, 2003 in "The Gazette" of Colorado Springs was headlined "Mother of slain soldier accuses president of lack of sensitivity"..."No calls or visits, woman says", along with a photograph of Ms. Johnson. "Evidently, my son wasn't important enough to him dead for him to visit the family or call the family. As long as my son was alive, he was important to him because he sent him over there".
"The Gazette" article also said that fellow troops, commanders and friends remembered Jennings as a soldier who did his job well, had a bright disposition, and believed strongly in God. His commander, Captain James Dayhoff said at a brief memorial service that Jennings "was without a doubt one of the most loved soldiers....He had no barriers, no walls. He was an open room with a picture window". Staff Sgt. Kevin Brown was in Jenning's unit and was injured in a grenade attack on April 30. Sgt. Brown said Jennings came to his side after the attack to pray with him. "For that he will always have a place in my heart", said Brown.
The story also quoted White House spokesman Jim Morrell who admitted that President Bush had not attended any memorial services for soldiers killed in Iraq but had met privately with some family members. Coupled with Harriet's story on 1-A in the Colorado Springs newspaper was a story announcing that Bush would visit Ft. Carson the following week to meet with the family members of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq. As folks say down in South Carolina, Elaine Johnson "called him out", and President Bush had to finally give more attention to the real people who are fighting and dying in Iraq.
Elaine Johnson's courageous search for answers as to why her son had to die challenges the "bring 'em on" bravado and swaggering self-importance of President Bush. As the son of a rich and politically powerful man, Bush avoided combat and any chance of his own death in the war in Vietnam by joining the Texas Air National Guard and then failing to report for duty for more than a year.
After the New Years Eve vigil we asked the Johnsons to join us at a social event, but they were going to a "Watch Night" service at their church to pray for peace in memory of her son, Darius and his fellow soldiers who have died in Iraq. With tears in her eyes, Elaine said, " I hope he did not die in vain."