Former Army medic Robert Tesh remembers the moment he really began to mistrust the system. It was when he carried the funeral coffin for Sgt. Michael Ingram, who died on April 17, 2010 from an IED blast in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Tesh says his view of the war, and of the government that wages it, was never the same.
“That funeral, in particular, had a real effect on me,” said Tesh, 24, who like Ingram, hails from Michigan. “That is what kind of swayed me in the antiwar direction.”
Less than two years later, Tesh finds himself on stage addressing a swelling crowd of fellow vets and active duty military who share not only the same aversion to war and distrust of government, but their support for Ron Paul, the only presidential candidate who they say has been straight with the troops, from the beginning. That’s where Antiwar.com caught up to him yesterday, at the Ron Paul is the Choice of the Troops rally on the National Mall.
“So many troops share these views,” said Tesh, wearing a black Army beret that set off his black and white kaffiyeh scarf (apparel which the right-wing mobosphere once condemned as a terror symbol), to clever effect. “Because they see how it is, firsthand.”
That was the oft-repeated theme, as one veteran after the other took to the small stage adjacent to the Washington monument on Monday: a keen sense of betrayal and anger at the government, scorn for the mainstream media, and disgust with corporate war profiteering. Not to mention exhaustion, fighting in and defending a war they no longer believed in. One by one, they explained how once they glimpsed the reality of the war machine, much like the Matrix, it was nearly impossible to return to the blissful ignorance they once shared with everyone else.
“I did my duty, I did not complain,” shared Jared Laureano of Fort Worth, Texas, who spoke to the President’s Day crowd. He served two tours as a Marine in Iraq, but says he is wiser now. “I for one am fed up and I’m tired,” he charged, noting in particular the war drums banging for Iran by the same policymakers and pundits who led the nation to war in Iraq. “We’re not dumb, none of us are. Listen to the servicemen … I ask everyone here to spread their stories. All tyranny needs is your silence.”
One active duty Marine who traveled from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for the march, told me he served four tours from 2006 to 2010 in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He spent a good deal of that time early on engaged in a futile search for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. He gets frustrated with what he says are the shallow platitudes offered to service members by Americans in the form of bumper stickers and yellow ribbons. “If you support the troops listen to what they have to say, don’t just put a sticker on your car. Do something about it.”
Paul, he said, has “been consistent from the beginning and I think that’s why the troops like him. The military likes someone we can depend on. He wants to bring us home and that’s the best part of it.”
This 26-year-old Marine wasn’t the only one on active duty who spent the day marching on behalf of Paul. Most stayed out of their uniform, however. Several who spoke with Antiwar.com said they didn’t care if the military frowned upon their speaking out at political events and for a specific candidate; as far as they were concerned, they were exercising their Constitutional rights.
Plus, they insist they are not alone, that there is an open and burgeoning interest in Paul throughout the military community. Though it’s hard to tell for sure, they may be right, according to at least one metric: Paul is now getting more military contributions than any other candidate in the presidential election, according federal election records.
“Military people support Ron Paul in a big way,” declared Cpl. Jesse Thorson, the soldier who found himself at odds with his superiors when he not only spoke on a CNN camera about his support for Paul, but later got up on stage, in uniform, with the candidate after the Iowa caucuses. On Sunday he was out of uniform, but not silenced. “I don’t feel like I’m addressing a thousand Ron Paul supporters. I feel like I’m addressing a thousand brothers and sisters,” he said to generous whooping and hollering from the sunny day audience.
“I see a thousand people who are here for what they believe in, and they aren’t afraid to exercise their first amendment rights!”
Active duty service members are barred from wearing their uniforms at such events. Furthermore, according to a DoD directive, they cannot speak or participate at partisan political rallies in or out of uniform, which may have put more than a few of these active duty men and women in hot water yesterday. Event organizer Adam Kokesh, a Marine Corps veteran and host of the Internet program Adam vs. the Man, said they were all aware of the rules, but many of them chose to be there, and to be vocal, despite the risk.
“Screw that,” he exclaimed to the crowd, referring to an email circulating from an apparent military source that seemed to warn against active duty and even retirees’ participation in the upcoming rally. “(They) just drew a line in the sand, and we all know what side we are on. We’re on the side of Ron Paul all the way.”
At 2 p.m. Kokesh and the rest of the organizers pulled all the soldiers and vets into formation and they walked alone to the White House, a silent sea of camouflage and khaki, in many cases mixing with their black and white Ron Paul jerseys, bracelets, hats and pins. The rally — freak flags flying among the service flags heralding the Navy, the Marines and other branches — followed behind, chanting in powerful unison on the way back to the monument from the White House.
None of the participants yesterday appeared particularly gloomy over Paul’s primary prospects, which seem to get dimmer as the contests wear on. Many said they plan to write in Paul’s name if and when he doesn’t win the nomination. Others said they wouldn’t vote at all if he’s not on the ballot. Still others noted that it was the “message not the man,” and the message was ultimately gaining momentum despite Paul’s losses.
“It’s a campaign of ideas,” said supporter Robert Mitrocsak who was waving a Ron Paul sign and an American flag at the side of the road. “(Americans) may vote for someone else. But there is still this cognitive dissonance in their heads, telling them that something’s wrong. And I think that’s growing. Be encouraged, that is what I say.”
“We’ve been had, people are starting to wake up,” said Army veteran Tim Nelson, 35, who traveled from Oklahoma to march with the others to the White House. He said “we’re all for Ron Paul, every single one of us.”
Another common theme, beyond Paul’s character and his genuine concern for veterans (former Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who is running for Congress in Virginia, told the crowd that Ron Paul is a “man of principle, man of honor, common sense, integrity — he’s the man, that’s it”) was a shared sense of urgency. Iran was invoked many times, along with the feeling that we are all operating on borrowed time.
“We’re either going to blow ourselves up or come together as one nation under a groove,” said Nelson. “I for one hope it’s the latter.”
Follow Kelley on Twitter @kelleybvlahos.