Veterans and Families Hit the Hill

A gaggle of Code Pink anti-war protestors lined the sidewalk of the Upper Senate Park yesterday bearing signs that read “healthcare not warfare”– one of the sign holders an overweight smoker. Another was a nose-pierced man in a suit wearing a feathery pink crown. But the circus sideshow was overshadowed by a platform of tan and red-shirted men and women standing in representation of Vets for Freedom and Families United, a grassroots coalition of Gold Star and Blue Star families.

The two groups came together Monday and Tuesday in effort to rally Congress in support of the troops and their mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 250 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and 350 Gold and Blue star families from every state met Tuesday with "nearly one hundred congressmen", according to a press release. After last week’s report from Gen. David Petraeus, VFF Executive Director Pete Hegseth seemed encouraged by the response and high attendence of the event.

In an appearance greeted by enthusiastic applause, — and clearly inspired by these Iraq and Afghanistan veterans — presidential candidate and former POW Sen. John McCain said,. “[The soldiers] are sending a three-word message to Congress:  Let us win.”

McCain left soon after, saying, “I’m going to leave you and go to the floor and begin this debate [now].”

McCain and others, including Sen. Joe Leiberman, Sen. John Cornyn, Sen. Lindsay Graham and House Republican Leader Rep. Roy Blunt, took a break from voting on the Senate and House floors to speak to the group.

“We’ve got a slew of them comin’ — the’re voting, but they’re coming,” said Hegseth, who hosted the event.

Veterans stood patiently beneath a hot sun in front of a crowd of families and supporters. One woman’s button declared, “Half my heart is in Iraq” and Lynard Skynard’s “Simple Man” blasted out of the speakers.

“Congressman hear everyday from a very loud and very organized minority,” Hegseth said, referring to the protestors (several of whom were arrested and dragged away.) “But they don’t get a chance to hear from America’s warriors…and hear that the current counterinsurgency campaign is the right one.”

Hegseth urged Congressmen not to, “legislate strategy” and to “do everything they can to bring our troops home with honor.” Freedom and protection of basic rights — especially free speech — dominated the discussion, as speakers consistently referred to the protestors ability to dissent because of the soldiers they condemned. The now-infamous advertisement libeling Gen. Petraeus in last week’s New York Times was discussed as well.

Sen. Cornyn said he hoped Congress would “bipartisanly condemn MoveOn” and Sen. Leiberman said he had his own version of the advertisement: “General Protect Us.”

Leiberman thanked the soldiers for, “keeping the flame of democracy alive” and reminded the protestors that if America allows Iranian-sponsored terrorists to win, “they’ll come here and they won’t distinguish between who was for the war or who was against the war.”

There were some rationale protestors that did engage in civil dialogue with members of the groups. One man stood quietly at the edge of the crowd wearing an "Iraq Veterans Against the War" t-shirt — making a more substantial point than the disrespectful screeches that interrupted Sen. Leiberman.

Rep. Blunt told the crowd to stand up the enemy, saying it was, “critically important the state of [Iraq] when we leave” because it is a “message to friends and enemies around the world.” He added, “If we’re right — they have to be wrong.”

According to their website, VFF has a mission of supporting policymakers, “who have put long-term national security before short-term partisan political gain.” With over 15,000 members nationwide (7,000 of which are Iraq and Afghanistan vets), VFF has been able to get their message across in a substantial way. They sponsored “10 Weeks to Testimony” — a campaign that encouraged different weekly grassroots activities for 10 weeks before Gen. Petraeus reported on the surge. VFF also has a strong media department, issuing politically motivated YouTube messages and advertisements to specific politicians to get their point across.

Hegseth appears frequently on political talk shows to debate those on the opposite side and VFF has used every outlet available to spread their message. Marilee Carlson of Families United said the past two days were “a learning experience for our families…and congressional leaders who learned we will stand beside them when they stand by our men and women in the military.”

Sen. Lindsay Graham thanked the “political calvary” and enthusiastically took the stage. He yelled, “we didn’t start this war but we’re gonna end it,” — also mentioning that those who said the surge was failing in April likely consider Gen. Petraeus their “worst nightmare.”

The conference ended with the crowd singing “God Bless America.”