Rallies show universal support for soldiers

Jane Mair of Kirkland, one of a number of people who came to Freeland Saturday to protest the prospect of war with Iraq, carries a sign voicing her support for U.S. troops. - Matt Johnson
Jane Mair of Kirkland, one of a number of people who came to Freeland Saturday to protest the prospect of war with Iraq, carries a sign voicing her support for U.S. troops.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

During the busiest weekend of war, peace and military rallies on South Whidbey during the past six months, hundreds of people putting their various opinions in front of the driving public seemed to agree on at least one thing: The want U.S. troops to be as safe as possible.

Two rallies at Bayview Saturday -- one supporting military action in Iraq and another opposing it -- and a mobile peace rally Sunday that made stops in Freeland and Coupeville, kept the welfare of the troops at their heart.

Unlike some confrontational rallies that took place in Oak Harbor last month, the South Whidbey rallies were courteous in nature. The two Saturday rallies took turns waving signs at the corner of Bayview Road and Highway 525, avoiding confrontation when one group finished and the other moved in.

Though those attending rallies during the weekend expressed support for U.S. military personnel, the differing groups did not agree on what the methods. Darrell Guenther of Clinton attended a rally Saturday at which many attendees supported military pressure and action on Iraq. He said U.S. troops need to know groups with this view are behind them. In his view, the media is covering only the nation's peace movement, which he, as a retired Navy veteran, sees as something that can only weaken morale.

"You think 'Wow! What am I doing over here?'" he said, taking the viewpoint of the troops currently in the Persian Gulf region. "Then you realize this is not the majority."

Kendra Setlow, who stood a few feet away from Guenther during the morning rally, spent much of her time trying to turn his words into pictures. She was taking photos of the rally to send to a nephew and a friend's son who are serving in the military. Setlow's daughter, Liz, said those photos will make a difference.

"It makes their day to feel they're not the only people who feel the way they do," she said.

Military parents favor side of peace

Though criticized by some for undermining military morale, the weekend's peace rallies still drew a number of people who chose to express very personal support for the military by opposing war. Several parents of military members showed up Sunday for a peace rally that drew both islanders and members of a Seattle peace group, MVP.

Ron Safford of Clinton, whose daughter is stationed with the Air Force in Alaska, said he probably won't win any points for attending peace rallies. He said his daughter is anxious to go to Iraq; he's just as anxious to see her stay away from combat.

"I'm scared," he said. "It's my baby."

Also in the crowd of 130 people, who spend part of the morning gathered at the intersection of the highway and Fish Road, was Sally Salazar. Last year, her son, Eric, signed up with the Marines. This year, her worst nightmare is coming true -- her son is aboard a ship in the Persian Gulf awaiting deployment into a war zone.

This is not what she or Eric expected when he joined up. Now, she said, both are regretting the decision.

"He feels like he made a very bad choice," she said.

Holding a sign that read "Mr. Bush - Bring my boy home," Salazar was unabashed in her opposition to war. In fact, she has emailed photos of the peace rallies she has attended to her son.

"He was proud to see his parents protesting," she said.

Away from the rallies, another South Whidbey parent made her statement to both support her Marine Corps son and to oppose war. Stephanie Neis, an accountant, placed a sign in the window of her downtown Langley office this week emblazoned with the words "Pray for Peace." The sign included a photo of her son, Gerald Madsen, in his Marine dress uniform.

In the service since graduating from South Whidbey High School in 2000, Madsen is trained as a field cook. Neis said she believes her son is in Kuwait at the moment (he is not allowed to tell her where he is) and is serving with an artillery unit. Last month, he called his mother to ask her help in preparing his will and to make funeral plans.

Already opposed to war politically and on principal, Neis said seeing her son in a place where he could lose his life makes the subject something she has trouble discussing.

"I've reached the point where I won't turn the news on in the morning," she said.

Her son is also leery of combat, especially after being briefed about the sorts of weapons Iraq could use against U.S. troops.

"He said 'Mom, they're telling us bad stuff,'" she said.

Even veterans can't agree

Split between the South Whidbey war and peace movements over the weekend were veterans. Darrell Guenther, who was adamant in his support of the military and of the cause to end Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq, also respected those who wish for peace. He said that if the aims of the U.S. government can be met with non-military means, that would be his preference.

O'Kelly McClusky, a World War II and Korean War veteran who served with the Navy and Air Force, was even more forceful in his opposition to a war. He came to the Island from his home in Mukilteo Sunday to attend the Freeland peace rally. He walked among the throng of people gathered for the protest carrying a thin fabric flag commemorating prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.

Disabled in combat, McClusky protested against U.S. involvement in Vietnam and in the Gulf War in 1991. He was at the rally to communicate just one thought.

"I don't want any more disabled American veterans," he said.

Future rallies are planned by both pro-military and pro-peace groups for future Saturdays at Bayview.

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