First I'd like to say thanks to Pete Hegseth for all the work he put in to organize Vets For Freedom and the speaking and public appearances he's put in. The same goes for David Bellavia and everyone else who rode around the country on a bus telling their stories and drumming up support to "Let them win". I don't know if we changed any minds on Capitol Hill yesterday but it really felt good to be there and at least make our position known.
VFF put us up at the Sheridan National Hotel, which by the way is very nice. So nice in fact that the first thought I had when I walked into the lobby was, "uh oh, this place is way too fancy for a bunch of war vets". Not that it was too snooty because it wasn't the staff was very respectful and polite. But because I know how vets act when they get together. We drink.
We tell stories and lies and drink some more. All in good fun but there's always the chance that something could go wrong. We had to get up at about 4:30 a.m. Tuesday morning so I wanted to get to bed early but it just wasn't happening. It was amazing how a bunch of people who had never met, but had the common bond of being war vets could get together and act like old friends. I forced myself to call it quits and head up to my room at about midnight because I didn't want to be a complete zombie while meeting with elected officials.
We started with breakfast and some speeches in the hotel conference room
First Pete Hegseth talked and later we were honored to have former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen Richard Meyers We were also happy have Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson III, though unfortunately I did not get a good picture of him.
After the speeches at the hotel we headed out to the morning press event at the Hill.
There were a number of cameras there but I don't know if any of the footage actually made it to TV
The real guests of honor were of course Senators McCain and Lieberman.
There were more senators than I can remember names, and others have more and better pictures than I do so I won't post all of those here. I would be remiss however if I did not note the lone Democrat on stage yesterday, Rep Jim Marshall from Georgia.
The real meat of the event really came after this though when we, as individual veterans went to our state officials to say what we had to say. I know the nutroots think that we are partisan Bush shills but nothing could be further from the truth. We all have our own stories and experiences and were there because we wanted to be.
Minnesota veterans did their state proud yesterday having, I think, the largest delegation with about 45 veterans. I'm not positive that we beat out some of the bigger states in total numbers but I know we accounted for 10% of the total vets. Even with such a large delegation there was only one Democrat from Minnesota who agreed to meet with us at all, even if that meeting was with his staff and not the Congressman himself. As much as VFF thinks that winning in Iraq is an "American" issue and not a Republican-Democrat partisan issue, the fact that most Democrats had zero interest in meeting with their veteran constituents tells you how our politicians view this war.
Our first meeting was with Senator Coleman who was very gracious and met with us for almost an hour in his office. I found Sen. Coleman's knowledge and understanding of what the war in Iraq means to the country to be very heartening. He also made the point that if we abandon the forces of moderation in Iraq and allow the radicals to win, that the ripples of that would be felt around the world. Particularly in places like Indonesia and the Philippines. He may never be the hawk that McCain is, but he gets the war (update: and we're lucky to have him).
While in the Senate building we decided to take our 40+ veteran delegation to Senator Amy Klobuchar's office and see if we couldn't get a meeting with her. Her secretary tried giving us the run around saying that, oh the Senator is very busy, there are a lot of things going on, she's not available. We said, OK we'll wait.
Mind you this is not just any group of veterans. We are all Minnesota citizens who are represented by Sen Klobuchar. Normally, I think that 40 citizens showing up at your office would rate a slightly different response. Especially when the senator knew that we would be there. So we waited and happened to catch Sen. Klobuchar as she was coming back to her office. She said that her office wasn't big enough to hold all of us so she couldn't invite us in. She talked to us for about 5-10 minutes in the hallway but I don't think she really heard a word we had to say. She just had no interest at all. VFF had contacted every senator to try and schedule meetings, she declined, she knew we would be in Washington but still didn't make an effort to see us. She has the right to do that, but guess who I'm not voting for when she's up for reelection.
As much as I didn't support his election, and question his relationship with CAIR, in the spirit of credit where credit is due, I tip my hat to Congressman Kieth Ellison from Minneapolis for being the ONLY Democrat or Independent from Minnesota to schedule a meeting with Vets For Freedom. The Congressman wasn't there himself but he did have his chief of staff and legislative aide there to meet with us. I think we had a good meeting. I don't think we changed their minds, but I'm hopeful that a couple points made it through and will actually give them something to think about. Specifically, the point that I wanted to make was that public pronouncements by politicians that the war is lost, unwinnable, awful, and that we should withdraw immediately are disastrous to the effort. That those statements are broadcast into Iraqi homes and it causes them, the average Iraqi, to hedge their bets. These statements prevent Iraqis from coming to our side because they question our commitment. The statements of Harry Reid and others do, as a matter of fact, prolong and worsen the war.
I know this from personal experience. The personal story I told every politician and staffer I talked to is that I was very close with many of the local Iraqi interpreters. And that even on our little postage stamp of a base we had satellite TV and watched the news regularly. Well, one day we're sitting around having tea and who comes on but Harry Reid talking about how the war is lost and we need to leave. Mind you I'm sitting with people who are risking their lives just to come to work on base. And this Senator comes on TV talking about how we need to pull troops out. That's a death sentence for these guys and the look at me to explain what this guy is talking about. They don't know that he's just one nutty senator and doesn't have the authority to do any of the things he's talking about. So I have to explain who Harry Reid is, that he's a nut, and that we aren't going anywhere as long as Bush is in office. What do you think other Iraqi's who don't have an American sitting right there with them think? Is that going to encourage Iraqis to turn on al Queda and the Shia Militias and come over to our side? Or is it going to make the situation worse by pushing the average Iraqi away? Is it going to prolong the war and make it harder for us to make political and security gains?
My statement to them is in direct opposition to their belief that by threatening to withdraw troops, we put pressure on the Iraqi government. The origins of that argument aside, they never considered the effect on the Iraqi people and if I was able to make one thing stick, I hope that was it. We also talked about how to get more public involvement with Iraqi reconstruction and I think we talked them into pushing for a Sister City initiative with Iaqi cities. I think that would be something that could help with domestic public opinion and something that could help Iraqi's at the same time.
Our other scheduled meetings were with Michelle Bachman and John Kline. Unfortunately they were scheduled at the same time so I couldn't go to both meetings. I tried to meet with my own Congressperson Betty McCollum, and of course she couldn't be bothered to come back a few hours early to meet with us, nor did she have a senior staffer even in the office so I went to the John Kline meeting instead which was very good. Congressman Kline is a retired Marine and he's been great on the victory in Iraq issue.
Overall, it was a good day. If nothing else I was happy to get together with other vets and talk about our shared desire to "win" in Iraq. It was disappointing to see first hand how partisan this issue is though. I have to say that seeing Washington in action has motivated me to become more active. I had always had a passive approach, not so much to debate, but to the political machine. I always just assumed that the machine would work itself out. This event has made me realize that it won't. We, as veterans and supporters of the war, really are going to have to get more involved with the politicians. We need to come together and make our voice heard as a large voting bloc that cannot be easily ignored.
Also, one last note about protesters. I walked all over Capitol Hill yesterday and saw, two. That's it. Two. Here's one
The other was one guy with a little sign in one of the senate office buildings. So we had nearly 500 veterans on one side, and what, half a dozen nuts on the other. Who did you see more of on the news?