Sunday, September 23, 2007

On Capitol Hill With Vets for Freedom and Families United

This week nearly 250 members of Vets for Freedom and 450 members of Families United For Our Troops and Their Mission gathered on Capitol Hill to tell our elected officials to stay strong in the fight, for others to get in the fight against terrorists. We wanted to let them know that there is another voice in America other than the one they hear from MoveOn, ANSWER, and Code Pink.

These veterans, Blue Star, and Gold Star family members were on the Hill to let their Senators and Congressmen know there are plenty of us out here who believe in persevering in the war on terrorists and that victory in Iraq is essential to long-term success over the terrorists.

Their visit to the Hill came on the heels of Gathering of Eagles rallying in Washington D.C. to counter the anti-war protestors the weekend prior.

I am a member of Families United For Our Troops and Their Mission as well as Vets for Freedom, one of two Nebraska state co-captains for Vets. Carl Hartmann, an infantryman, a Corporal in the Marine Corps and veteran of three combat tours in Iraq is the other co-captain.

For he and I, the event started on Sunday evening with a dinner and informational, training meeting with other state leaders, the executive director of Vets for Freedom, Pete Hegseth, as well as the original co-founders of the group, including Wade Zirkle and David Bellavia.

Staff Sergeant Bellavia is a highly decorated Army infantryman and the author of “House to House,” a must read for anyone who wants to get a picture of an infantryman’s life and what fighting in Fallujah was really like.

On Monday evening, after the arrival of the other vets through the day, a banquet was held for the entire group. Guest speakers for the event included Wade Zirkle, David Bellavia and:

  • Fred Kagan from the American Enterprise Institute, one of the nation’s leading scholars on Iraq
  • Retired Army General Jack Keane whose testimony before Congress got Kansas Congresswoman Nancy Boyda so worked up
  • Congressman Brian Baird from Washington who has shown more political courage than I can recall from a member of Congress with his new found support for the war
  • Congressman Jim Marshall from Georgia

Highlights from their speeches that I jotted down. Mostly just comments and ideas listed. Direct quotes as noted:

David Bellavia – “Every day is Memorial Day for us.”

Fred Kagan

  • The surge strategy was developed by military leaders frustrated with the strategy up until then. They were frustrated with the deaths and lack of progress.
  • There is Iraq and “Myraq.” Myraq is the distorted view that so many in Congress have.
    The number of troops was never the issue, the strategy was wrong – we weren’t doing what was needed.
  • The first that needed done was security for the populace.
  • Congress can’t legislate a strategy. Many actually want to revert back to and pursue the strategy that we pursued in ’05 and ’06 which didn’t work.
  • Why are we still there? Because of Al Qaeda and Iran. Fighting against them is protecting the vital national interests in the middle east.
  • There are no longer any Al Qaeda sanctuaries in Iraq. None. They are all gone.
    Baqouba is now clear because of the surge.
  • We need to go after the Iranians now which includes their Quds force, terrorist cells, Lebanese Hezbollah agents.
  • We are now disrupting those Iranian agents, closing up the Iranian border, trying to clear EFP’s.
  • Focus is shifting to stopping the Iranians.

General Keane

  • The strategy we are pursuing, which is to protect the people is defeating the insurgency, including Al Qaeda, Iran, and any indigenous insurgents.
  • Security was the first step and is/will lead(ing) to political movement and economic development.
  • The surge was never designed to be permanent.
  • The surge is a classic counter-offensive campaign for those who think militarily.
  • There is significant progress in Iraq.
  • Al Qaeda is defeated. That coming from our very best intel guys.
  • The Anbar Awakening is the first significant push back by Arabs against fundamental Islamists.
  • We’ve now defeated Al Qaeda in the Diyala province as well, with the help of the local population. They started helping us in July.
  • We’re not letting Al Qaeda rest or reset this time. We keep after them.
  • The most profound event is what’s happening with the Sunni’s in Anbar. They have rejected Taliban-like thinking, Sharia law, beheading children, cutting fingers off for smoking. It was a political movement among the provinces leaders.
  • The Sunni insurgency is fading away. Those who used to fight against us are fighting with us.
  • The Iraqi government is reaching out to former Sunni insurgents. There is political reconciliation taking place.
  • Progress is growing exponentially.
  • The Shia militias are still a problem.
  • The Iraqi people demanding change/progress in the national government will drive even more progress far more than our brow beating them over their bench marks.
  • We have turned the corner.
  • We know for a fact that the objective of Al Qaeda and those loyal to Iran is to break the political and moral will of the American people.
  • The Shia are not as formidable a problem as Sunni’s and Al Qaeda.
  • The Shia militias exist to protect their own people, and really didn’t become a problem until Sunni’s starting direct attacks in ’06. (’04 was an exception).
  • A few of the Shia are irreconcilable, like Al Qaeda. With that exception we are able to work with the Shia.

Congressman Baird

  • “I can get another job, I can’t get another country.”
  • Petraeus and Crocker provided a stark contrast between professionals like themselves and politicians making 7 minute speeches during their testimony. The politicians “should have been shutting the hell up and listening to those who know what they’re talking about.”
  • Talk of withdrawal hurts the cause in Iraq, it doesn’t help pressure the Iraqi’s to work and stand up (like so many in Congress think). Why should they stand if we’re not going to help?

At the banquet I met Bill Kristol from The Weekly Standard and frequent guest and panelist on the Fox News Channel. I also had the privilege of sitting with two sisters whose brother had been killed with others from Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines near Haditha. One of the things that strengthens me is being able to stand with people like that, who’ve lost so much, but still believe in fighting through to victory in Iraq. If they can stay strong for victory, then I have to as well. Or in military parlance, if they can hack it, then I will too.

Tuesday, The Big Day, Starting at The White House

The next morning our Vets for Freedom group, Families United, members of the VFW and American Legion all had breakfast on the south lawn of the White House. The Marine Corps band played in the background from the veranda of the White House. We were treated to a speech by the President. Also in attendance were the First Lady, Secretary of State, and the Vice President. Many of those in attendance were able to speak with our nation’s leaders after the President’s speech, but others had to head for Capitol Hill to carry out the mission we were there for.

In addition to the honor of being there and having the President, Vice President and Secretary of State in attendance was getting to meet some of the Gold Star families, including the mother of the sisters I’d met the previous evening. This again reaffirmed and steeled my resolve to stay in this fight.

With Senator Hagel

Our first meeting of the morning was with Senator Chuck Hagel. If you’ve been reading my columns for the last year or so, you’ll know that I have not been a fan of the Senator’s position on Iraq. I’ve been quite critical.

We first met with his Chief of Staff, LouAnn Linehan, herself a Marine Corps Mom (her son’s a helo pilot) and the Senator’s MLA. LouAnn and I have had previous discussions on the phone after some of my columns appeared in Nebraska newspapers. LouAnn’s a nice lady, we just disagree on Iraq. Carl laughed when the Senator’s aid mentioned that she thought LouAnn and I had spoken before. I had previously joked that we’ll be lucky to get in the door after the relationship I’ve developed with his office.

The four of us had a good discussion for 20 minutes or more about our views on Iraq. They certainly see it differently than those of us in Vets for Freedom. LouAnn said almost all of their calls on Iraq are “get out now” calls. By the end of the next day, after visiting with the rest of Nebraska’s congressional delegation (except Fortenberry), I found this interesting because it is not consistent with what others said they are hearing from Nebraskans. Maybe it’s just a matter of people calling those representatives they agree with.

One lighter moment came toward the end of discussing deployment stress on us and our families when Carl told her he was volunteering for a fourth tour in Iraq next summer. LouAnn immediately switched from “political mode” into “concerned Marine Corps Mother mode,” and demanded of Carl, “What does your mother think of that?” I think Marines and their mothers can all appreciate the sincerity and humor of such a moment. Marines take care of each other, and so do their moms.

The Senator then stepped in and spent about 20 – 30 minutes with us. I know we didn’t change his mind, but at least we delivered our message and he listened, although he did speak his mind. I was thankful for so much time and his attentiveness knowing the busy schedule of everyone on Capitol Hill.

He is concerned with the deployment tempo on the troops and their families. I believe his concern for the lack of political progress at the national level overcomes his ability to see the impact the success of the troops and the surge is having on a broader scale. He hesitates to acknowledge any success in Iraq. He cited several examples of failures by the government, and seems to be solely focused on that.

It’s as if he’s stuck in a mode of criticism and pessimism, and can’t see beyond that.

Although he expressed concern that funds will get completely cut off and we’ll have to make the precipitous pull out which would send the whole middle east into chaos creating a bad national security situation for us, I was disappointed with his votes during the rest of the week. He voted for (and co-sponsored) the Webb amendment which is the back door way to cut off troops for the war and then voted with 46 others to bring all the troops home in 9 months. Those votes aren’t consistent with the concerns for a stable middle east.

With Senator Roberts’ (Kansas) Staff

Carl, Pete Hegseth, the lone VFF rep from Kansas on the hill, and I then met with Senator Roberts staff. They assured us the four of us that Senator Roberts intends to remain very solid for victory. It was reassuring after having been in Hagel’s office. It was also good to sit in the meeting with Pete as well, there was much to learn from him. He speaks to the issues very fluently, the benefit of doing so all day every day I’m sure.

With Senator Nelson

Pete Hegseth, Carl, and I then headed to Senator Ben Nelson’s office. Senator Nelson had just returned from his fourth trip to Iraq over the weekend. Although we were only scheduled for a few minutes with him, he graciously took more time to discuss some of the issues. We shared our views and concerns. He did the same for us.

My assessment of the meeting is that Senator Nelson understands the complexities and the obstacles to victory in Iraq which we all discussed. At the same time he is afraid that funding could get cut off forcing a precipitous withdrawal, a disaster for the region, and a bad national security situation for us.

He doesn’t want to impose hard time lines, only recommended dates as goals, nor does he want to tie the hands of our commanders on the ground in Iraq. He sees where we’re having success with the Petraeus plan at the local levels, but has concerns over the lack of progress with national political reconciliation.

I got the impression that he wanted General Petraeus’ plan to continue moving forward given the success it’s shown and is working to find some way to provide the political cover for that to happen. He’s been working hard on his Nelson-Collins amendment which he believes will do that. He didn’t phrase it in those terms, that’s simply my assessment of what he sees as the best route to victory, resolving this war, and what he’s trying to do.

His votes against the nine month pull-out deadline and the Webb amendment were consistent with the spirit and intent of what he told us during our time with him.

With Congressman Adrian Smith

Carl and I headed to Congressman Adrian Smith’s office. Being delayed at the White House earlier had set the schedule back and we had to cancel an earlier morning appointment with him. But we showed up unscheduled, happened to catch him in the office, and he graciously agreed to meet with us before he had to head to the Capitol for a vote.
(I am very surprised at the schedule’s all of our representatives keep. They are jam packed and non-stop well into the evening hours every day. Getting the chance to catch them for even 10 minutes is a challenge.)

Congressman Smith assured us he understands the complexities and obstacles of Iraq, but is committed to victory there. I felt confident and comfortable with his position after the meeting. Although the meeting was fairly short, he and I have spoken about Iraq before and I had a pretty good grasp of his position. His comments in this brief meeting reinforced my confidence in him.

At The Rally and Press Conference With Vets, Families, and Members of Congress

All the vets (who’d also been meeting with their members of Congress) then headed to the Upper Senate Park for a press conference and rally with the Families United members, about 700 of us in all. We were a little short of that number probably because there were still members of both groups meeting with their delegations.

As vets we were joined on stage by about 18 different Senators and members of the House. Some were there for the duration, others floated in and out as their schedules allowed. The Gold Star and Blue Star Family Members sat in the chairs in front of us. We in our khaki shirts, they in their red.

There were also about 3 dozen anti-war protesters from MoveOn, ANSWER, Code Pink and maybe some other groups. That was my first time around any of them. They did not make a good first impression. “Wacky,” “loony,” and “lunatic” seem to be the words of choice for describing them by many on the Hill. I would agree.

I was surprised at how nasty they really were and some of the crummy things they were willing to say, especially to the Families United members who had lost family members. They even harassed Merilee Carlson, who lost her son in Iraq, when she got up to speak. As much as I dislike and disagree with Cindy Sheehan, I would never do that to her or say to her the things these protestors were saying. I think they showed how low and ghastly of people they are.

I was thinking that the moms weren’t going to tolerate much of it, and at one point the protestors must have said something really nasty (I didn’t hear) because a wave of red clad moms all headed for them at once, but stopped themselves short of an altercation. Overall, our group showed a good contrast being what was right, and what was crazy. It was also a contrast in civility and decorum between our group and theirs.

Senators like Cornyn from Texas were there, as was Thune from South Dakota. The place got loud when Lindsey Graham showed up, then went crazy when John McCain and Joe Lieberman showed up. Those three defenders of the troops were shown much appreciation for all the hard work they’re doing.

When Joe Lieberman got up to speak, the protestors went nuts. Several headed for the stage shouting at the top of their lungs. I’ve seen and heard pure unadulterated hatred before, and this was it. A few were arrested by the Capitol Hill police who had a small showing at first, but quickly gathered in numbers as the protestors gathered. Senator Lieberman gave it right back. I think the words “despicable” and “stupid” were used, especially as he referenced their actions and linked those groups to the attack on General Petraeus the week before.

Mary Katharine Ham from Townhall had a nice story on the event as well as a video.

The whole experience of Tuesday was quite motivating. It was humbling to be in the presence of so many Gold Star families at the rally. It was invigorating to stand with so many others of the same mind. Hearing the Senator’s speeches was enough to fight another day, and to the end. I believe it was Lindsey Graham who called us vets and families “the political cavalry” so many on Capitol Hill had been waiting for.

Seeing the protestors, understanding how nasty and fanatical those involved in the anti-war movement are gave me a first hand revelation of how intent they are on destroying the life we love in pursuing their own motives and desires. Fighting against what they’re trying to do to our country is more than enough to stay in this fight.

Wednesday Morning in Pursuit of Lee Terry, Jeff Fortenberry, and Brian Baird

The next morning, on my own, I headed back to Capitol Hill in search of Nebraska’s other two Congressmen. I was able to speak with Lee Terry’s Chief of Staff for a while, even though I had shown up unannounced. He was quite gracious with his time. I am confident after visiting with him, that Congressman Terry has a reasoned and solid position for victory. I was also impressed with his Chief of Staff’s ability to immediately cite some of the most important and informative web sites on Iraq; obviously their office makes a regular study of events in Iraq.

I proceeded to Congressman Fortenberry’s office. He had requested an appointment with us on Tuesday, but we weren’t able to match his schedule with ours. I popped in anyway and visited briefly with the staff members on hand. The staffers present felt that we shared similar ideas on the war, but no real details were shared or ideas discussed. I asked them to let Congressman Fortenberry know we’d have his back as long as he stays strong for victory.

I then went to Congressman Brian Baird’s office. I wanted to let the Washington Congressman know how much I appreciated his strong stand and political courage. He wasn’t in the office, so I wrote and left him a thank you note. Seeing that kind of political courage is a reason for all of us to have hope. A note was the least I could do.

It was then time to catch a cab for the airport and head back to Nebraska.

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