The IVAW bus tour kicked off on Saturday with a cookout at the Greenbelt Campground between Fort Meade and Andrews Air Force Base. Thanks to all of the help from local members like Tassi McKee, Garret Reppenhagen, and Geoff Millard, we had a great turnout of active duty troops and Veterans For Peace members. That day, IVAW grew by four active duty service members. While those of us who are out can be more effective in lobbying and reaching out to civilian supporters, active duty members are incalculably more valuable for recruiting more members, as they happen to be talking to soldiers all day. We also held our “Testimony to Incompetence” contest, and got about a dozen great entries. I told my “The Time I Almost Caught Al Zarqawi” story, but I disqualified myself and the prize went to one of our new members.
That night was the Tom Morello show and Liam Madden, Steve Mortillo and I spoke in front of a sold out crowd before introducing Tom. Except for one heckler, who I spoke to later, we were very well received and sold a lot of merchandise. That night we scattered around DC. The next morning I picked up Son of Nun at Union Station and we caught up to the bus at Norfolk. There I had the honor of meeting Jonathan Hutto, one of the co-founders of the Appeal for Redress. In the evening, Son of Nun performed a set for us downtown, and we met two new members on the street while promoting the event.
After a successful stop in Norfolk, the advanced party vehicle with Sholom Keller and myself punched out to Fayetteville to pick up Jimmy Massey on Sunday night. We met him at the America’s Best Value Inn around the block from the Catholic Workers’ house where he would be leaving his vehicle. The next morning, we all took much needed showers and got on the road to Jacksonville. We arrived at the Cabin Creek Campground in the afternoon and staked out a spot and an approach route for the bus. They were only about five hours behind us. It was a good thing the campground had wireless internet.
Before meeting us at the campground, the bus stopped for dinner at a small diner. When they got inside, a portly woman emerged from the kitchen. “Y’all ain’t gonna eat here, is ya?” “Yes, we were planning on it. What, you don’t serve veterans?” “How can y’all drive around with that there on your bus? My husband is in Iraq.” The guys did their best to win her over, but were not sure enough of their success to be fully confident in the contents of the food they were about to eat. A few of them ordered the clam chowder and immediately regretted it.
When the bus got in and situated, we made up a plan of attack for our promotional/outreach efforts. The next day we broke up into two teams. Team one consisted of the three Marines on the bus, Jimmy Massey, Liam Madden, and I. We decided that for outreach on base where things were most likely to be confrontational, it would be best to have Marines talking to Marines. We also decided that it might be dicey to be passing out fliers which could be construed as “subversive materials” or “propaganda” so we only carried business cards with the cookout info on the back and GI Rights cards.
We got on base with a one-day visitor’s pass and hit up the PX first. On the way in we gave cards to a couple of Marines outside and a couple coming out into the foyer. As we wandered into the PX, I thought we should have an excuse for being there so I directed the crew over to the sticker section. We were there for about two minutes when we were approached by security. The polite young woman asked us to not distribute any more “flyers.” We told her we didn’t have any flyers but had given business cards to a couple of Marines. She said ok, and we went about our business. As we were walking down the aisle a few minutes later, we were approached by the civilian manager of the store, who was accompanied by his posse of Marine employees. “You guys are going to have to leave. Your shirts are offensive. Plus, you can’t be flyering here.” “I had a few stickers in my hand and held them up. “We’re not flyering, we’re shopping.” “Well, you’re going to have to make your purchases and leave.” “OK, no problem.” So we leisurely made our way to the check out where we were approached by another manager. “You guys know why you’re being asked to leave, right? Your shirts are anti military.” “That’s not true. We’re actually pro-military. We happen to be all former Marines. You noticed the word veteran right?” “I don’t want to get into it with you. Just make your purchases and leave.” So we did.
Then we hit up the “Seven Day Store” and “Cash Sales.” When we first pulled up, we stopped to have a cigarette with a Marine outside, and had a great conversation with him. Inside the store we took our time purchasing a few cans of bug spray and a couple patches, talking to every Marine we passed. The worst response we got was, “No thanks, I’m not interested.” One of the Marines even recognized me and said, “Hey, aren’t you that guy who was on CNN?” “Yes I am.” “Damn. You’ve got some big balls comin’ on Camp Lejeune.” “Yes I do.”
As we left the Seven Day Store, a Marine in the passenger seat of his buddy’s truck leaned out as he was driving by and said, “I can’t believe you’re wearing those fucking shirts on base. That shit is fucking disrespectful.” “What do you mean?” “What do you think those young Marines are going to think? You’re not supporting them.” “We think the best way to support the troops is to bring them home safe and alive.” He gave us a little more shit before deciding it was a waste of time. As we were leaving, a Sergeant and Staff Sergeant approached us. The Sergeant started engaging us about how our t-shirts were “not supporting the troops.” His Staff Sergeant was backing him up, but seemed a little afraid to really engage us. Then the Sergeant listened to a bit about what we were all about and tried to be helpful. “Well then you need to incorporate something that says support the troops into your message.” We had a constructive conversation for a good twenty minutes or so and touched on a lot of good topics, but at the end he still didn’t take a business card when I offered him a chance to stay in touch. While we were talking a Sergeant Major was getting into his truck nearby and interjected, “You know, I’ve been over there twice and I’m getting ready to go back a third time. You know why? Because my troops are going. I respect your right to do what you’re doing, but you keep that shit away from my artillery area.” “Roger that, Sergeant Major.”
Then it was getting time for evening chow and we made our way to the nearest chow hall we could find. We got in as soon as it opened at 1630, and when we were done eating, the crowd was at its peak. I got up on a chair and made an announcement. “Listen up Marines! My name is Adam Kokesh and I’m a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. We think the best way to support the troops is to bring them home now. Tomorrow, we will be hosting a BBQ and you’re all invited. It will be at 1900 at the Cabin Creek Campground. There will be free food and free beer. We look forward to chatting with you all and hearing what’s on your mind. For more info you can talk to Jimmy Massey or Liam Madden or myself. We’ll be right outside the hatch here.” This was particularly meaningful for me because at my separation hearing on June 4, the prosecutor said in his final statement that I had read the letter in the chow hall in Ansbach at an Army post because, “if he had tried to do that at Camp Lejeune or Camp Pendleton” he would have never gotten away with it.
Well, fuck you Captain Sibert, because I just did it at Camp Lejeune and I was greeted with a small chorus of “Hoorah” and “Semper Fi!” The ironic part about that is that afterwards as we were leaving and a Marine sitting down asked me for some info, a Gunny (an E-7, same level as the soldier who approached me in Germany) came up to me and very quietly said, “You guys need to leave now.” “Roger that, we were just on our way out, Gunny.” But this time, instead of getting off post right away like we did in Germany, we stood outside and spoke to every Marine who left the chow hall for the next half hour.
Team two consisted of all the former soldiers on the bus, Nate Lewis, Mike Blake, Sholom Keller, and Steve Mortillo. They hit up the strip by the base and distributed fliers to GIs while Jim guarded the bus. While parked in the lot next to the Kettle Diner where they had lunch, a biker driving by noticed the bus and was apparently upset by it. He pulled in, got off his bike, and started pounding on the locked door of the bus. Jim was inside having a coffee and ran out to talk to the guy. “Who are these veterans? I want to meet them!” Jim told them they would back soon and he could speak to them himself. “They’ve all been to Iraq.” The biker went inside to raise hell with the management for letting us park the bus there and recruited some other customers to his cause.
Just then Liam got the frantic call from Jim as we were on our way back from base. “Liam can you get back here.” “We’ll be there in ten minutes.” “Can you make it any sooner?” “We’ll get there when we can, Jim.” We picked up Steve and Nate and booked it back to the bus. I jumped a couple curbs to get the most direct route to the bus and zoomed in between the bus and the big black SUV next to it. Jim was talking to the driver, but it turned out to be the owner of the restaurant who was cool, said he was on our side but still wanted us to leave for the sake of his customers as long as we were done eating there. So Jim was just telling him we would be leaving soon when we pulled up. Then Jim took us inside to meet the biker who started to get into it in the restaurant, but then asked us to step outside like he wanted to fight. He spoke in a mostly exasperated fashion while we calmly explained our position.
For dinner we went to a Golden Corral where we had to park the bus in the Wal-Mart parking lot next door. As we were finishing up, Nate went outside to get some flyers off the bus and ran into a young former Marine who was screaming at the bus. It seemed like a PTSD moment, but this guy was seriously angry. Nate did his best to talk to him and his posse, who were lingering in the shadows a ways away. He went back into the restaurant to get everyone, and as we got back to the bus, the small crowd was still there. Jim noticed that the electrical panel on the side of the bus was cracked open, and we noticed that a few wires had been snipped. While Jim got the bus ready to roll and did a complete function check, Liam and I engaged this former Marine and got a bit of his story. He had been in Iraq and seen a number of his friends die. This was actually a bragging point for him. When he asked why we were doing this, Mike said, “So I don’t lose another friend like I did in February.” “You lost a friend? That’s great. Well I lost three!” “We don’t want to see that happen again.” He also had a leg full of shrapnel and a medical discharge. He had tried to reenlist but was denied. The bus was ready and pulled out while a few of us watched from the Bronco as the former Marine continued to cuss at it and his friends flipped it off. That night we pulled fire watch on our campsite, just to be safe.
The next morning we hit the streets and passed out flyers all along the strip in front of Camp Lejeune. We got our supplies for the Cookout and got back to the campground to set up. We put up signs for the parking area and set up the BBQ in the woods behind the campground. The first two Marine guests showed up early, and it turned out that for all the outreach we had done by foot, they found out about the event from the website. Both ended up joining. We were joined by a handful more throughout the evening with mixed results. The biker from the Kettle Diner showed up, but just rode through the parking lot, shook his head and took off.
It was that evening we had the pleasure of meeting April, who had been staying at the campground with her family. Apparently, since we had shown up she had wanted to talk with us, but was afraid to. Finally, at the prodding of her oldest daughter, she decided to introduce herself. I finally got to sit down with her towards the end of the event when I was on bus watch. Her brother had been in the Army. He did two tours in Iraq and was diagnosed with PTSD. His doctors had deemed him undeployable, but he was sent back for a third tour anyway. When he came back, after telling April of his plans many times, he killed himself. I sat and listened to her for hours about what she had been going through. Later that night she decided that she wanted to give us the flowers from his funeral that were wilting on her desk to take with us on the bus. The next morning, Jim was more than happy to properly enshrine them on the bus. Then it was back on the road.