Monday, June 12, 2006

A Time and a Place

The New York Times
A Time and a Place
Hermiston, Ore.

THE woman sitting across from me at a Chili's restaurant in Jacksonville, Fla., did not look old enough to be a widow. Twenty-seven years old, she had the just-cut bangs of a schoolgirl, a tattoo on her forearm and a trendy round purse at her side. How, she asked, would she tell her daughter, still a toddler, that her father had died in Iraq?

For the last few months, she told me, she has been replaying the moments of her husband's life, and his death. Antiwar protesters turned out at the funeral, the woman said. They lined the streets across from the service. Some carried signs and others shouted as her husband's flag-draped coffin was carried past.

The strange thing is that her husband, like many servicemen and women answering their country's call, did not support the Iraq war. That soldiers serve, and too often die, on the battlefield is a testament to their professionalism and character — virtues apparently lacking in the hundreds of antiwar protesters who appear at military hospitals and funerals, and at services like the one I attended at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on Memorial Day.

During that ceremony, I looked up from my folding chair and saw a man on the sidewalk above the memorial wall's Panel 9 East, on which my father's name is etched. The man carried a sign calling for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and he was engaged in a debate with a couple of Vietnam veterans. Their bickering distracted me from the ceremony I had traveled 2,800 miles to attend. So I walked up to where they stood.

To the sign-holder, I said, I respect your right to protest; I even applaud your position on this war. But this is not the place. Not one of the people named on the wall voted to go to war.

The man lifted his sign higher and said he was a veteran who had lost many friends to the war. You're not respecting my feelings, he argued.

I turned and asked the other veterans present not to debate him. They nodded, expressed sympathy for my family's loss and walked away. The protester lowered his sign but stood his ground throughout the ceremony.

Earlier that day, spurred by noisy demonstrations by a group that claims the deaths in Iraq are God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality, President Bush signed into law a ban on protests near national cemeteries during funerals. Violators face a fine of up to a $100,000 and as much as a year in prison.

But this law and others like it passed by states do not solve the whole problem; they do not keep protestors away from military hospitals or sites like the Vietnam memorial.

As a daughter of the fallen and a friend to families of today's casualties, I implore antiwar protesters to show some respect. March to the steps of Congress and the White House. Shout your protests at the president who drummed up this war. But grant some peace to the men and women trying to heal in our military hospitals, and the families grieving at funerals and memorials. Haven't we earned a moment of silence?

Karen Spears Zacharias is the author of "After the Flag Has Been Folded," a memoir.