'ALWAYS THERE': THE VOICE OF A GOLD STAR MOTHER
by Walter M. Brasch
American reporter Correspondent
BLOOMSBURG, Pa. -- Laura Bush was at the Colonial Fire Hall in Hamilton, N.J., telling 700 pre-selected ticket-holding Bush faithful why they needed to vote for her husband.
The First Lady went through the usual litany of what she believed were her husband's accomplishments, frequently invoking the memory of 9/11. And then she told the crowd why the nation needed to support her husband's war. "It's for our country, it's for our children and our grandchildren, that we do the hard work of confronting terror and promoting democracy," said the First Lady.
That's when Sue Niederer, a 55-year-old teacher and Realtor, standing at the back of the hall, just couldn't take it any more. "If the Iraq war is so necessary," she called out, "why don't your children serve?"
That's when the Secret Service came by, when Republican volunteers pushed and shoved her and raised Bush campaign signs around her to block her from talking and to prevent the media from turning their cameras to her. A few in the crowd had tried to come to her defense, one person shouting out, "She has a right to speak. She's a mother."
But the "right to speak" was drowned out, as were Niederer's own comments, by the partisan chant, "Four More Years! Four more years!" - just in case Niederer or anyone else had anything to say that the crowd thought might be high treason.
Until she spoke out, exercising what she believed were her First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, most had not seen her shirt. Shortly before she spoke out, she put on a T-shirt with a picture of her 24-year-old son, and the words, "President Bush, You Killed My Son."
Sue's son was 2nd Lt. Seth Dvorin, of the Army's 10th Mountain Division. He was wounded in November 2003 from a roadside bomb; on Feb. 3, 2004, he was killed in Iraq by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), sometimes known as booby-traps and land mines. Dvorin wasn't trained for bomb disposal, says his mother. What he was trained to do was to be an air defense artillery officer. But training matters little in war. His unit had been sent to locate IEDs along the roadways.
"It was a suicide mission," says Niederer. "They're still sending out patrols on foot to locate IEDs," she says.
After their son was killed, Niederer and her ex-husband, Richard Dvorin, Seth's father and a retired New Brunswick police officer, both sent letters to the President; the only response was a form letter asking for campaign contributions. She spoke out a number of times since then, but now with Laura Bush in town, this grieving mother wanted to make sure that another mother heard her anguish.
Secret Service and Hamilton police forcibly removed Niederer from the hall.
"They told me, 'This is a private party,'" she recalls. She showed authorities her ticket; they confiscated it. Outside the hall, she was handcuffed; she demanded to know what she was being charged with, but was never told. Police put her into a police van, drove her around for more than a half-hour - probably to keep her from the media - and then took her to the police station, where she was charged with defiant trespass. The next day, the Mercer County prosecutor refused to pursue the police charge.
Only a few local newspapers picked up the story; the national media essentially ignored it. But videotapes of her arrest were shown to her son's troops in Iraq. The intent, she says, was to say, "Look at how unpatriotic she is; look at what she did." Opposing the Bush Administration is not seen by that Administration or their followers as a First Amendment right, but as unpatriotic disloyalty, the greatest sin.
Her son was pursued by recruiters since high school.
"I told them that Seth was going to go to college," she says, "but they kept going after him." He had majored in criminal justice at Rutgers University, hoping to become an FBI agent. The Army, says Niederer, "convinced him that they would train him for the FBI, that he'd never see the front lines." His three month Officer Candidate School training "was a total positive experience," she says.
Shortly after completing OCS, he was sent to Iraq, a few days after being married. The Army first claimed Dvorin was killed while disarming a bomb, and then changed the official reason for death to having been killed by the IED while on patrol. The Army ordered an autopsy and then embalmment for the devout Jew, something the religion doesn't permit and which, says Niederer, the Army knew.
"There was no necessity for it," says Niederer, "but his widow gave permission." The Army claims a rabbi was present at the autopsy. The Army also promoted Dvorin to first lieutenant, and then rescinded that promotion because he didn't have enough time in rank. With four different conflicting reports, it took almost nine months for the Army to give his family its final version of his death.
Greg Niederer, her Republican husband, is supportive of her anti-war campaigns. "He wasn't at the beginning," she says, noting, "he didn't quite understand what I was doing and why." He had never spoken out against the government, no matter which government was in control. It just wasn't his nature.
And then they went to the premiere of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." After seeing that film, he turned to his wife and apologized for not supporting her more strongly. "Everything you've been yelling about," she remembers him telling her, "it's right there." He now attends more rallies with her.
Sue Niederer's anti-war campaigns began after her son died. During the Vietnam war, she says she was young, "and I didn't get involved in too much." To her, "it was more important to bring up my children," to be a stay-at-home mom. Nor did she protest mini-invasions into Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, and other countries. Nor the first Gulf War. She didn't promote the various military incursions; she didn't oppose them; she just was apolitical.
"I wasn't doing what I should have been doing," she says. "I should have been more actively pursuing what I believed, but I allowed others to do what I should have done." The death of her son shook her into understanding that silence - her silence - the silence of those who didn't speak out - gave credibility and substance to those who believed that war was the solution to myriad problems - foreign, domestic, and political.
As co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace with Cindy Sheehan, she stood with her friend as she camped on the side of the road to President Bush's home during the vacation he took in August. "It was important that the media didn't believe the anti-war protest was just a few mothers who lost their children to war," Niederer says. With little to do while the President cut brush and took bicycle rides for almost five weeks, the media focused on those who stayed in tents outside Crawford, Tex., to protest the war. The longer the President refused to meet with Sheehan, the more the media showed this domestic conflict.
Niederer has been on a national crusade to invigorate the anti-war movement and to bring truth to those who still support the invasion and occupation of a nation that had no weapons of mass destruction but did have oil. "I may stay behind the scenes at times," she says, "but I'm always there," just as the death of her son is always with her. She is there at schools and universities as part of a nationwide counter-recruiting campaign, telling students there are options other than volunteering for the military.
"I'm not against the military," says Niederer, "I just want students to make an informed decision." She has protested in front of the Pentagon; at the Walter Reed Army Hospital, which treats many of the wounded; at Dover Air Force base, where the dead soldiers are returned from war. She was at the Republican National Convention, at President Bush's second inaugural, and the Stop the War rally in Athens, Greece. She's at community clubs, at small and large rallies, in rural villages and urban cities, wherever there's an audience.
In Cape Girardeau, Mo., as has been common at most of her speeches, she found an enthusiastic audience - and a strong counter-protest movement. Some protests are much stronger, occasionally more violent, than others.
Outside the Osage Community Centre were about a dozen men of Protest Warrior, a national organization based in Austin, Texas, and whose founders say was "created to help arm the liberty-loving silent majority with ammo - ammo that strikes at the intellectual solar plexus of the Left." They say they are the people "who believe in the core values of this country." Their tactics include in-your-face counter-protest. In the home town of their personal hero, conservative mega-mouth Rush Limbaugh, in one of the most conservative parts of America, they planned to make sure reporters and everyone inside the Centre knew that the heartland of America was behind President Bush and his war.
On the back of one of their pick-up trucks was a banner, "Hate America Rally," which they believed accurately portrayed the rally organized by the Southeast Missouri Coalition for Peace and Justice. On pro-war signs, they declared, "America: Freeing People Since 1776" and "Do Not Dishonor Your Son's Valor."
There was no question in their minds - Sue Niederer, although a grieving mom, was misguided and ill-informed. They planned to guide and inform her. They were loud, aggressive, and determined to make their voices heard. To anyone who disagreed with their views of the world, they freely threw around the labels of "Communist," "socialist," "Marxist," all of them, in their limited world, the same as "liberal" and "left wing."
During weekly anti-war protests, members of the Coalition, said Robert Pollock, its founder, "were regularly subjected to the vilest verbal abuse imaginable by some motorists; people also approached us on foot making taunts, which included everything short of physical violence." There was every evidence there would be a confrontation this evening. To reduce that possibility, the police placed the Warriors a comfortable distance from the rally, and made sure these militant counter-protestors knew they wouldn't be allowed to attend the rally.
And then the woman who describes herself as a "short, fat Jew" walked into their lair. "The police looked at me like I was friggin' nuts," she recalls. The rally coordinators "looked at me like, 'You've got to be joshing me.'"
The Protest Warriors, shaken at first, quickly recovered. She invited them to come into the rally with her. "You have a right to speak," she said, "a right to be heard." They didn't believe her.
They believed it was a trick, and that once they stepped into that hall, they would be arrested. "Oh no you won't," she said determined, making sure the police and the rally supporters knew. But the Warriors still weren't convinced; they were sure not only would they be arrested, but that the people who hate America and all it stands for, would get even more media coverage for their traitorous acts.
But Niederer was just as determined. "If anything happens to you," she said, "I will walk out of the meeting." She meant it. "I trusted them to be peaceful," Niederer said, "and they trusted me to my word."
Three of her most caustic critics walked with her into the hall. They sat through what they called was a rant by the organizer, and they sat through Niederer's inflammatory speech, sometimes chuckling their disapproval, sometimes protesting, occasionally jeering. Bobby Hunsacker, the Protest Warrior chapter leader who had said Niederer outside the Centre had "conducted herself in a respectful manner [and] was kind to us," would later say that Niederer's speech would reveal her to be a "stark-mad moonbat."
To him, and to his followers, everything said in that hall was nothing less than sedition, rising to levels of treason. But at least he was in the hall to hear what she said. The pretend-guerilla Warriors asked shrill questions and when others tried to shout them down, Niederer intervened, as she promised, to make sure all people knew the Founding Fathers were adamant that all views should be heard.
The Cape Girardeau confrontation was Sept., 16, 2005, one day short of exactly one year since Laura Bush, surrounded by a cadre of Secret Service agents, had gone to Hamilton, N. J. - and Sue Niederer, surrounded by the Secret Service, local police, and some very angry Republican volunteers, was arrested for exercising her First Amendment rights.
In the year between when Niederer was arrested and when she spoke out in Cape Girardeau, and showed that the rights of all people need to be protected, 870 American sons and daughters were killed in a war begun by a series of lies, and perpetuated by cowboy jingoism. In Iraq, 1,895 Americans have been killed; 14,641 have been wounded, some permanently.
Their voices are heard in their deaths. Like Seth Dvorin, they are all our children.
Walter Brasch's latest book is America's Unpatriotic Acts; The Federal Government's Violation of Constitutional and Civil Rights (Peter Lang Publishing, 2005). You may contact Dr. Brasch through his website, www.walterbrasch.com].