Troops halt, accept Obama’s olive branch

Protesters find respect

By Chris Bragg

Just outside the Pepsi Center, 40 members of Iraq Veterans Against the War march slowly towards a barricade. Behind the barricade tower three SWAT team “cherry picker” vehicles, elevated high into the evening sky. Thirty police stand ready on the vehicles, pepper-spray guns pointing downward towards the veterans.

The vets, though unarmed, have a psychological edge. They are uniformed, adorned with medals, aligned in two formations of about 20 apiece and include marines, airmen and soldiers.

They tell police they demand a meeting with Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama or one of his advisers. If they don’t get one, they say they may charge the barricade.

In the public mind, these are far from typical protesters. This is not Recreate 68.

Police clashing with war veterans outside the Democratic National Convention is probably the last image the Obama campaign wants to cultivate.

Most of the veterans have served in Iraq. These guys have seen combat, and they look ready to take on the police if they have to.

And on this Wednesday night outside the Pepsi Center, the third night of the DNC, one among their ranks, Matthis Chiroux, will — for the second time in a month — test the limits of civil disobedience in this country.

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Chiroux did not serve in Iraq but instead took an action that is, to some, equally brave. To others, it was tantamount to treason.

Chiroux believes he is the first person in this war who has publicly refused to go to Iraq and wasn’t prosecuted for it.

A mere 24 hours earlier a confrontation with police still seemed in the far-off future. On Tuesday, Chiroux relaxed, drinking a Margarita at Bushwhackers, an old-fashioned saloon on South Broadway. He told the recent story of how he single-handedly took on — and beat — the Army.

Chiroux, a broad-shouldered, handsome, messy-haired Southerner, grew up poor in Auburn, Ala. He joined the Army at 18, seeing it as an opportunity to expand his horizons and fight the global war on terror. Chiroux supported the war in Afghanistan. And after enlisting in June 2002, he realized he loved being a solider.

Then, in March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq.

“I had the best time in basic training. I thought I was going to be a career soldier,” he says. “However, when we invaded Iraq, all of this military doctrine somehow became illegitimate.”

Chiroux’s voice is hoarse from protesting, but he still speaks so forcefully that people at the bar
move away.

Chiroux, a sergeant, spent five years in the Army, mostly in Japan and Germany, working as an Army journalist — he says a “propagandist.” Chiroux says he never bought into the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He also considered the invasion unconstitutional because it violated international agreements.

And he says living in Japan and Germany — and witnessing the reactions of those countries to the war — only reinforced those antiwar views.

Chiroux was honorably discharged in July 2007. He began attending classes at Brooklyn College in New York City. But then, last March, Chiroux received what he calls a “go to war or go to jail” letter. In essence, he was told to deploy to Iraq through a policy called “forced reactivation.”

Chiroux says he spent the next month alone in his room and became suicidal.

“My soul felt black from what I would be forced to do,” he says. “I was worried if I died there, no one would know how I felt. Or, I would live and never be able to forgive myself.”

Chiroux finally broke out of his funk as he participated in an antiwar march in Brooklyn on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War. That’s when he first learned about the IVAW, a national organization of more 1,300 members who demand immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq.

In this group, Chiroux says, he gained his first sense as a civilian of belonging to something bigger than himself. He went to Washington D.C. with other members of the IVAW to lobby Congress. And, during a meeting with members of the House of Representatives Progressive Caucus, Chiroux announced that he would refuse to return to Iraq, invoking conscientious objector status.

Chiroux also announced his decision formally in a widely disseminated YouTube video. In it, he gives a fiery 10-minute speech about his antiwar beliefs. Some called Chiroux a hero. But many who watched the video labeled Chiroux a coward.

“He is a traitor and a deserter,” writes one poster on YouTube in response to the video, “He knew the risks of war when he joined up.”

Chiroux pressed on, spending a month in Washington D.C. lobbying every antiwar member of Congress he could contact. He says that included a number of meetings with Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee.

“He just said, ‘You know, you boys are right — and I’m supporting you,’ ” Chiroux remembers Conyers saying.

In the end, 13 House members, including Conyers, signed a letter supporting conscientious objector status for Chiroux, and sent it to President Bush.

Somehow, it worked.

Chiroux received a letter from the Army one month ago telling him he wouldn’t be prosecuted if he didn’t report back. Chiroux credits his luck to the fact that he had already been honorably discharged, and to his choice to remain in the country instead of fleeing.

While Chiroux says he’s personally happy about the letter, he also hopes it sets a precedent for other war resisters.

“Nobody else in the history of the U.S. has ever gotten a letter like that,” Chiroux says. “To organize Congress — into what basically is a war resistance caucus — is a once-in-history thing.”

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Chiroux walks the block back from Bushwhackers to the Denver headquarters of the IVAW, on the second floor, above an Apple retail store. Inside, about 10 veterans mill around.

The room looks something like a military barracks. On the wall, an intricate chart details protest actions planned for the week. Another labels each potential media inquiry. Several veterans work on computers. A side room contains bunk beds.

On the front porch is Sean Valdez, a native of Colorado Springs who served two tours of duty in Iraq. Valdez, 26, just joined the IVAW at the beginning of the Denver convention.

He is haunted by war memories, particularly of a lieutenant who was killed by a vehicle-borne IED. Valdez was assigned to be his lieutenant’s “life saver” — the first person to respond if his platoon officer got into trouble.

Valdez says he has tried to find therapy, but hasn’t succeeded. As a substitute, he has turned to the IVAW in the hope that it will bring him the peace he seeks.

“The hardest thing back here is missing the ‘buzz’ of the Army, and that support group,” he says. “And this kind of gives me that purpose back.”

But what purpose?

Can a group of war veterans peacefully demonstrate, or will they seek conflict? Already, conflict seems in the works: their planned march on Wednesday has not been authorized by the city of Denver.

The IVAW platform is threefold: first, to end the war immediately; second, to ensure adequate health care for every veteran; and third, for the United States to pay reparations to the Iraqi people for the damage caused to the country.

Obama, meanwhile, has said he would pull out troops, but only within 16 months of taking office.

The goal of the march is to personally present the group’s three-part platform to Obama, or to one of his representatives, and to have it read before convention delegates.

The group will march on Wednesday from the Denver Coliseum — where a concert by the rap/metal band Rage Against the Machine is being held on their behalf — and bring thousands of protesters with them the four miles southwest to the Pepsi Center.

If the Iraq veterans don’t get to meet with Obama or one of his representatives, Chiroux says, the group will try to force its way into the Democratic Convention and face arrest.

“Nobody has more of a right to do this than us,” Chiroux says. “Goddamn — we fought for this.”

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At 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the concert ends and the Iraq veterans line up in two four-row by five-row formations outside the Denver Coliseum. Behind them come thousands of concertgoers who have just attended the largest protest of the Democratic National Convention in what has otherwise been a week of fairly subdued protests.

The veterans are separated from about 4,000 civilian protesters by a huge orange banner that reads, “Support GI Resistance” in black spray paint. The civilians include members of Rage Against the Machine.

Protesters are given instructions. When — and if — it’s time to get arrested, anyone who wants to join the Iraq veterans can run in front of the banner and join them.

Hundreds of police in riot gear are 0n all sides as the veterans start marching south on Brighton Boulevard. A helicopter buzzes overhead.

Some protesters fear police will immediately stop the unauthorized march. But a police ATV, lights flashing, holds an electronic sign on the back meant to lead the protesters through a makeshift parade route. The sign reads: “Welcome to Denver. Follow us.”

The veterans reach the end of Brighton Boulevard, then head southwest through downtown. While the protesters behind them chant, the veterans are eerily silent — except sometimes they sing call-and-response military songs.

Remember MLK (Remember MLK)

He tried to lead the way (He tried to lead the way)

But he was shot one day (But he was shot one day)

So early in the morning (So early in the morning) …

The protest proceeds slowly as the veterans stop from time to time to read their list of demands through a bullhorn. One such halt holds up foot traffic on the 16th Street Mall for a solid 20 minutes. Many onlookers cheer as the veterans pass.

Marine Lance Corporal Jeff Key, a tall, charming Southerner honorably discharged in 2006, is first in rank, and gives the orders.

Finally, the veterans reach the Auraria Campus near the Pepsi Center at 5:30 p.m. Police escort the protesters southwest towards the so-called “freedom cage,” the fenced in protest area designated by the city. But the protesters refuse to enter the protest area.

Key, trumpet in hand, begins reading a letter he wishes to give to Obama.

“We request at this time that you endorse the three tenets of the IVAW if you so wish to represent the antiwar constituency of our country,” he states.

“I just want to stand at the platform and tell the delegates that,” Key says. “I became a Marine because I believe in representative government and I believe in democracy.”

At 6:30 p.m., Key asks members of the media if anyone has a cell number by which the Obama campaign can be reached. Holding his cell phone with the white glove of a Marine, he leaves a message for Phil Carter, Obama’s veterans’ liaison.

But what if no one from Obama’s campaign comes to meet Key?

“I’m a Marine,” Key says. “My mission is to get in … No, I am not going home. No, I’ll stand my ground. As long as it takes. I’m a Marine.”

Rumors spread that that the veterans are about to be tear-gassed. The veterans announce they are making a “strategic” shift and turn their ranks around. They go instead to the intersection of Speer Boulevard and Market Street — an area near one of the entrances to the Pepsi Center.

It’s there that the cherry-pickers, bearing police, wait with tear-gas guns. Dozens more police wait on the outside of the Pepsi Center barricade, near the Iraq veterans.

At 7:15 p.m., as dusk begins to fall, one veteran yells to police over a bullhorn.

“We see you as our brothers and sisters in arms,” he says. “We are non-violent … we want to see Senator Obama. We do not want to hurt you. We do not want you to hurt us.”

And with that, much of the tension seems to evaporate.

“I have to tell you right now. This is as far as you’re going to get,” a policeman responds to another veteran who has come to speak with police personally. “But we’d love to keep it peaceful.”

At 7:26 p.m., the veterans march two steps forward as a group. They then request that, at least, one member be allowed inside to deliver the letter. At 7:34 p.m., a veteran is allowed through the gates by police.

He briefly meets with Obama’s staff.

Four hours after the march began — and an hour into the standoff — Key announces the veterans have been granted a meeting with Phil Carter, the Obama veteran liaison, later that night. Key says he’s been promised that Carter would discuss how — and when — their letter would be read to convention delegates.

An enormous cheer erupts, first through the veterans, then back to the protesters.

“Yes we can! Yes we can!” the protesters chant.

Chiroux’s eyes begin welling. He bear-hugs several of his brothers-in-arms. At 7:45 p.m., the veterans turn towards the police and salute. Everyone then gets down on a knee for a long moment of silence for the dead.

Chiroux’s messy, long blond hair is tied up in the back, and covered with an Army cap. Chiroux takes his hat off and puts it on his chest.

“Our mission was accomplished today,” says Key. “It was just a mission. Our goal is immediate withdrawal from Iraq.”

“Senator Obama,” he says. “We’re going to remember this!”

“Fall out!!”

The veterans walk away peacefully into the night and are swarmed by reporters and photographers. Chiroux is asked how it feels to have again successfully stood down the government.

Even if he doesn’t agree with the Iraq War, Chiroux says, his experiences over the last month, as just one person taking on the Army and the police — and those institutions responding peacefully towards him — have gone a long way towards revitalizing his belief in American democracy.

“It’s been so hard to keep the faith, to keep the hope,” he says. “But this makes me sleep safer at night. I’ve never felt so proud of my country.”