March 21 2007
Patriots can suffer all manner of indignities for their country. Nathan Eckstrand is no exception.
The 23-year-old philosophy student is one of about 90 people from Hampton Roads who joined 30,000 others from around the country to march in the nation's capital Saturday against the Iraq war. It wasn't his first demonstration.
Somewhere between 21st and 22nd streets along the march route, Eckstrand says, counter-demonstrators awash in black leather, camouflage, Marine insignias and the American flag lined both sides of a sidewalk.
It was a gantlet of abuse.
"They were literally shouting in our ears," recalls Eckstrand, who is volunteering at a Mediation Center in Norfolk before starting grad school this fall. Eckstrand's mother marched a couple of paces ahead.
"One of them I guess was carried along with momentum and the feeling of hatred on their side," he says. "He spat on me. And as I was walking away I heard him call me a traitor."
He called Eckstrand another name as well. Expletive deleted.
Clair Langford of Poquoson marched the gantlet, too. She's 26-year-old student government vice president at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton.
She's also an Army veteran. So she was placed with other veterans near the head of the march.
Langford had never demonstrated before and had high hopes. When she first got off the bus, she was so overwhelmed, so grateful to see so many people of like mind that she wept.
Later, at the gantlet, tears streamed down her face again. But they were tears of another sort.
"There was so much anger and so much hate," Langford says. "They were cursing us. They were flipping us off, spitting. That was very difficult for me to go through because there was so much hate in the air."
So much hate, heading into the fifth year of a quagmire.
So many towns and cities feeling the hurt.
While Eckstrand and Langford marched for peace, Smithfield was mourning a young man killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq just days before he planned to marry. Army Sgt. Michael Peek is the latest of 28 men with connections to Hampton Roads to die in this war.
And on Monday, the fourth anniversary of U.S. bombs dropping on Iraq, reporter Stephanie Heinatz profiled just a few of countless local impacts.
A local military mother and retired Navy captain who had to face her own son's deployment. A war widow who is learning to love again. An employer buckling down to cover for a worker called up for his third tour. High-school students struggling to grasp the ethics versus realpolitik of war.
After four years, communities here and all over this country know the reality down to their bones. They've buried their share, too.
They've also taken in thousands of men and women so badly broken from combat that they will never be the same. Lost limbs, scarred souls. Brain trauma, post-traumatic stress.
Everyone hopes that the spilled blood and torn flesh, the body bags and the grieving at gravesides won't be in vain.
A sizable portion of the population fears that it will.
It's fear that put protesters and counter-protesters in Washington on Saturday. One side afraid that good men and women are dying for no good reason. The other side afraid that that will be the verdict of history - and furious at the prospect.
So, with no clear enemy to engage, they bully the peacemakers.
With a tragically flawed grasp of the individual rights their own country stands for, they try to choke off protest and dissent.
As if the loudest voice wins. As if pinning a flag to your chest makes you a patriot.
As if American-style democracy is forcing everyone to goose-step to the same tune.
The ones who spit on their own countrymen for the sin of marching for peace, for calling for our servicemen and women to be brought home safe and soon, and for indicting the president and his cabal for instigating chaos need a more robust appreciation of democracy.
Eckstrand, for instance, didn't want to lash out at the man who spat upon him, but talk with him.
"On one hand, I'm actually glad they showed because I think it's always healthy for democracy to see disagreement," Eckstrand says.
"But obviously the way he expressed it was way over the line. His side was trying to shut down disagreement. Disagreement is a good thing. It's out there and they need to respect it, appreciate it.
"The American flag doesn't mean anything if you don't put any faith in it."
Tamara Dietrich can be reached at email@example.com or 247-7892.
Copyright © 2007, Daily Press