VERMONT - Lisa Johnson was opposed to the war in Iraq even before it claimed the life of her only son, U.S. Army Capt. Pierre Piché, on November 15, 2003. She'd marched against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the Gulf War in the 1990s. However, Johnson felt it was "inappropriate" for her to attend antiwar rallies while her son was serving in Iraq. Instead, she focused on his safe return. Even after she became a "Gold Star" mother - one who's lost a son or daughter in combat - Johnson kept her grief, and her views on the war, private.
All that changed on March 2, when Johnson testified in Montpelier before the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs in support of S.R.11, a resolution calling for the immediate, orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Johnson decided to go public now, she says, in part because she feared that Vermont soldiers' deaths are becoming politicized.
"The deal with grief is that it's an extremely personal and individual experience," she says. "There is no better or worse grief. It's all horrible. The difference is, [the families of fallen soldiers] have to relive it and re-experience it every day."
Johnson isn't the only Gold Star parent in Vermont troubled by the use of other people's losses to advance political agendas. Relatives on the other side of the Iraq war debate have expressed similar sentiments, particularly after antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan was invited to testify before the Senate committee. Sheehan, who founded the national antiwar group Gold Star Families for Peace, was in Vermont earlier this month to lend her support to local ballot measures calling for troop withdrawal and the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
Vermonter Vicki Strong of Albany lost her 24-year-old son, U.S. Marine Sgt. Jesse Strong, to a rocket-propelled grenade in Haditha on January 26, 2005. Strong, an evangelical Christian, supports Operation Iraqi Freedom and expresses pride in her son's service and sacrifice in Iraq. She's given numerous interviews to the media, in part because she feels "healing and comfort in sharing my pride that Jesse's life was definitely not in vain." But when questions arise about the politics of the war, "I try to lay low because that gets a little dicey," Strong says.
War, even thousands of miles away, always has a domestic, political front. And in these skirmishes, few weapons are as potent as a mother's grief. But as the Iraq war enters its fifth year this week and more Americans unwillingly join the Gold Star club, difficult questions arise for politicians, the public and the press.
Among them: What is a fair yet respectful way to deal with bereaved family members who wade into the political fray? New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once wrote, "The moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute." If that's the case, whose morality holds sway when those parents disagree? Few want to be seen as attacking widows or grieving parents. But are family members' opinions, like their grief, beyond reproach?
These hot-button issues took center stage on March 2 in the Vermont Senate chambers in the debate over U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. To balance the proceedings, Committee Chair Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex-Orleans) staggered the witnesses speaking for and against the nonbinding resolution. His committee heard testimony from veterans of wars past and present. Johnson and Strong both spoke, as did Marion Gray of East Calais; her stepson, U.S. Army Sgt. Jamie Gray, was killed by a roadside bomb on June 7, 2004.
Gray began her testimony with an extended quote from former U.S. Senator John Glenn (D-Ohio), who compared the relatively small number of servicemen killed in this war to the many who died in earlier conflicts. Soon, however, Gray took aim at Sheehan and her supporters.
"Miss Sheehan, you are a discredit to your son's life, his service to his country, his ultimate sacrifice, and a disgrace to the term 'mom,'" Gray said. "If you think you can come to this state, use our fallen soldiers, the grief of our families, play on the sympathies of Vermonters, demoralize our current brave, serving soldiers as pawns for your 30 seconds of fame and glory . . . you've come to the wrong place."
Gray's remarks were met with cheers, boos and a shout of "That's offensive!" One man was physically removed by Capitol police. Illuzzi, who seemed momentarily tongue-tied by the outburst, asked that future witnesses limit their remarks to the resolution at hand.
"I've never said I speak on anyone's behalf except my own," Sheehan told Seven Days during her Vermont visit. "I can't even speak on my son's behalf. He's dead . . . I just wish everyone would honor my position the way I honor theirs."
Last week, Gray spoke with Seven Days, but she later requested that none of her comments be used in this story. The family members of two other fallen Vermont soldiers who initially agreed to be interviewed backed out as well, underscoring the highly sensitive nature of this topic.
For her part, Johnson said she sobbed the night she saw how the evening news portrayed the Senate hearing. "It was awful to watch. It was just hideous," she says. "You don't say that. You just don't. This was not the place for name-calling and cruelty."
Johnson also expresses concern about Vermont Fallen Families, a supposedly nonpartisan support group that was formed to help the families who've lost loved ones in the war. In Johnson's view, the group, which is led by Gray, has become more partisan and pro-war over the last year.
For example, she points to a letter to the editor that appeared last October in newspapers around the state endorsing Republican candidates Jim Douglas for governor and General Martha Rainville for Congress. That letter, which claimed to represent the 28 "Vermont Fallen Families," was signed by only 11 people.
"That bothered me," Johnson says. "I really don't appreciate being represented in a way that doesn't reflect my opinion."
Accusations of partisanship cut both ways. In August 2005, four national military family organizations - American Gold Star Mothers, Gold Star Wives of America, Sons and Daughters in Touch, and American WWII Orphans Network - asked Sheehan to stop using the name "Gold Star" in antiwar demonstrations. The group's joint statement read in part: ". . . the Gold Star symbol - authorized by Congress to honor a family's loss in service to the nation - must not be tarnished by partisan political demonstrations."
Johnson and Strong, who hold opposing views on the war, both say the public needs to hear from more military families, not fewer. "I think that parents of soldiers do have an insight more than other people," Strong says. "You hear a lot of people tell their views on this war, but they have very little invested in it, emotionally or personally. And that hurts those of us who have invested all."
Johnson says she simply wants people on both sides to show more respect for their opponents and not make any assumptions about their politics. She tells of a phone call she received from a man she didn't know in upstate New York. He told Johnson that he'd recently visited Crawford, Texas, where Sheehan and other antiwar protesters had placed white crosses to represent all the soldiers killed in Iraq. The caller, who disagrees with Sheehan's views, informed Johnson that he'd removed his own son's cross as well as one for her son.
"I didn't ask him to do that," Johnson says, "just like I didn't ask Cindy Sheehan to put one there for my son, either."