Military Families Speak Out
Activists Balance Anger At War, Love For Children Who Choose To Fight

PARENTS: Activists Balance Anger At War, Love For Children Who Choose To Fight
April 9, 2003
By LISA CHEDEKEL, Courant Staff Writer

Jeff McKenzie is not used to holding out on his son.

After Jeremy's mother died in a car accident when the boy was 10, McKenzie had pulled his son in tight, coaching his soccer team, confiding in him, bringing him along on trips to 35 states and abroad.

So when word came last week that a Black Hawk helicopter was down in Iraq, killing seven soldiers, McKenzie's first instinct was to tell Jeremy how he felt.

"All I can do is hope you were not in the chopper, but I also know a number of families are worrying about the same thing," he wrote in an e-mail to U.S. Army Capt. Jeremy McKenzie, an air ambulance helicopter pilot. "I wish I could say the cost in lives was worth it, but it's not. ...

"We are going to see massive casualties, or to be honest, Iraqis are. I should honor the fallen `heroes' on our side and believe they have defended my freedoms and proved once again we are a mighty nation. ... But I have to wonder if the most powerful administration on earth isn't the real source of evil. ...

"If it is you that has been mangled in metal, what will I do?" he wrote. "I wish I could do something to make it all stop."

When he finished, McKenzie, 48, a Meriden native who now lives in upstate New York, stored the message. He could not bring himself to send it.

Like other military parents who oppose the war in Iraq, he has wrestled with how to balance his devotion to his son with his activism against the war. While Jeremy McKenzie, 26, flies missions to rescue the wounded, his father marches in protests, wearing a jacket that says, "Support Our Troops: Say `No' to a War in Iraq."

It is a complicated paradox - one that history cannot help him navigate. During Vietnam, college-age sons and daughters bucked their World War II-era parents to lead protests against the war. But the Iraq war has turned that around, exposing a divide between activist parents, some of whom were shaped by Vietnam, and their more conservative children, who were shaken by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

So Jeff McKenzie, who stocks shelves at a Wal-Mart garden center, has had to wing it. He has tried not to let his anger about the war change his relationship with Jeremy. He could have gone on for pages with his rant, but this was his boy, his pride, the last person he'd want to bring down.

He wrote a new message, short and upbeat:

"I hope you are okay. We heard a Blackhawk went down, but [Grandma] said it was a utility one, not a medical one.

"I love you and we are all concerned about your safety and the safety of everyone else over there. I'm sure everyone else is wondering also, [so] I will pass along the info when I hear from you.

"I think we should have a weapons exchange program and only allow everyone to use Nerf toys. Better yet would be no guns, how about a game of chess or checkers?"

It was not all he wanted to say, but all that he could.

A Role Reversal

There is no way of knowing how many military families oppose the Iraq war, but clearly they are in the minority. Polls show seven in 10 Americans support the war.

Still, the war's timing - 30 years after Vietnam - means the college-age generation of the 1960s and early '70s is likely to be the parents of some of those now serving in the military. In the same way, the World War II generation became parents of the protesters and soldiers of Vietnam.

Polls taken before the U.S. attacked Iraq indicated that people under 25 were more likely to support military action than were people over 45.

However subtle the role reversal is, hundreds of families scattered across the country are living it.

In Waterbury, Ray Odiorne, 56, an ordained minister who works as a psychotherapist, reflects on the days he used to take his two young daughters to peace vigils around New England. He told them stories of how he had marched against the Vietnam War while attending seminary school in Massachusetts, how once he had run all the way from Harvard Square to downtown Boston after a face-off with police firing tear gas.

Few people know it, but he is a military dad. His youngest daughter, Kathryn, 23, enlisted in the Army last year. When she broke the news to him in October, he felt punched in the gut.

"I was stunned. It was so out of the blue. I mean, good grief, she went to Wellesley," a liberal arts college, he said. "I couldn't help but wonder if it was a way to get back at dear old dad."

Odiorne's relationship with Kathryn has been strained since he and her mother divorced.

Now, Odiorne worries that his daughter could be deployed to Iraq. He has written her several e-mails - unanswered so far - letting her know that while he doesn't agree with her decision, "I'm still your Dad and I love you." He has tried not to come on strong, recalling the hurt he had felt years ago, when his father tore down a poster he had tacked up for a Vietnam anti-war rally.

"The way I view it, the best way I can protect my daughter is to keep her from going anyplace where she might be in harm's way," he said. "And that would be making sure, as they say, there ain't no more war."

In Boston, Charley Richardson and Nancy Lessin demonstrate against the war, as they did during Vietnam. But they also wait anxiously for word from their son, Joe, a 25-year-old Marine radio-reconnaissance commando stationed in the Persian Gulf.

Unlike some other protesters, they are not pacifists. Lessin likes to quote Joe's grandfather, a World War II veteran: "War is never a good thing, but sometimes it is necessary." But she and Richardson can see no justification for the war in Iraq, which they believe is about oil and "empire-building" rather than defending America.

"The hardest thing by far would be to lose Joe in a war we think is unjust and unnecessary," Lessin said, her voice cracking. "It would be unbearable. We would never be able to let go of our grief and our anger."

After a chance meeting at an anti-war rally in Washington, D.C., in October, Richardson and Lessin joined with Jeff McKenzie to form a group called Military Families Speak Out, which has grown in a few months to more than 200 members. They have been swamped with grateful e-mails from other anti-war families who feel isolated and conflicted. But they also have had to field accusations that they are "traitors" to their own children.

"We've heard, `Go back to Iraq.' `Move to France.' `Why don't you give me your son, since you're not good parents,'" Richardson recounted. "A lot of those people, I think they feel trapped into thinking that the only way to support the troops is to support the war. ...

"But you can love the warrior and hate the war. Having a loved one in the military doesn't mean you have to blindly follow a wrong policy."

While some young soldiers have questioned the reasons for the Iraq war, many have not, their activist parents say. Absent memories of Vietnam, their image of war has been shaped by the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 - relatively quick and antiseptic - and by the attacks of Sept. 11, which made ridding the world of terrorists a noble calling.

Parents whose children enlisted in the military during the relative calm of the Clinton years say they did not foresee this kind of first-strike conflict. Still, even those who strongly oppose the war accept that their children are bound by the decisions of the commander-in-chief.

"We're like a bizarre anomaly," said Peter Hansen, a California real estate agent and writer whose 21-year-old son is a Navy medic. "Not only am I anti-war, I'm anti-war with my only son over there. Plus, I convinced him to go because it was the right thing to do, to honor his commitment."

He paused.

"I have to live with that every day."

Making Adjustments

Like most soldiers of activist parents, Jeremy McKenzie knew before he was deployed to Iraq that his father would be speaking out against the war.

Jeff McKenzie said his activism grew out of the U.S. response to Sept. 11. He was disturbed by the calls for revenge and the bombing of Afghanistan. Jeremy knew that.

"It wasn't like we had arguments," Jeff recalled. "I remember once he said to me, after Sept. 11, `Dad, I'm having a really tough time staying with you on this.' I said, `OK, but remember, I always taught you to look at both sides.'"

For the McKenzies, the role reversal has been dramatic. It was Jeff who signed up his 14-year-old son for flying lessons and later enrolled, with Jeremy, in the Civil Air Patrol, the civilian auxiliary of the Air Force.

After Sept. 11, "I switched from being his father who said OK to being in the military, to this peace activist," Jeff said. "That was tough on him."

But Jeremy apparently has adjusted. In a March 18 message from Kuwait labeled "last e-mail for a while," Jeremy thanked his family and friends for sending letters and care packages.

"Some of you have showed your support through peace protesting, and I also appreciate your obvious love for democracy and idealism," he said.

If Jeremy has reservations about the war, he hasn't let on. In that "last e-mail," he wrote: "Take comfort in the fact that I am a member of the most powerful and mighty armed force that the world has ever assembled. ... May victory come swift on the battlefield."

More recently, after his father's anxious inquiry about the Black Hawk crash, he replied with a brief, matter-of-fact response.

"I am fine, don't know who crashed but it wasn't our unit. Well I will let you go, not much to talk about here. Let everyone else know I'm fine."

In some ways, Jeff McKenzie is relieved at his son's businesslike tone. But he also misses the naive, light-hearted kid who was convinced, almost until the war started, that the president was "bluffing" about Iraq.

"I take comfort now that he's focused on his mission," Jeff said. "But I worry about the psychological effects when these kids come home."

Last week, after he had abandoned his angry, anti-war e-mail to Jeremy, Jeff changed his mind and sent it, with a preface:

"The e-mail I sent you last night was not the one I originally wrote. That one appears below. ... I have decided to share it because too often we don't tell people what we want and then later regret it.

"I ask you to forgive me for mistakes I have made in the past and those I make now, but I'm doing my best. Be careful, fly safe, watch out for yourself and those under you. Don't let your heart harden and don't just see black and white."

He said all he needed to say - but, at the same time, more than he knew he should.