The Kitsap Sun links about the 2004 incident don’t work any longer and given the hurricane we have all been fixated with, this topic is incredibly old. When the Cindy Sheehan affair was still alive in the media, including stories I wrote here and here, I began thinking of an incident I had the week after July 4, 2004.
On that day I went to Bainbridge Island’s Grand Old 4th celebration. The residents put on an old-town parade that’s purposely low-tech. There’s a group that marches Basset Hounds. There might be a band. In 2004 it seemed like an endless parade. I saw part. What I didn’t see was the trouble.
Toward the end of the parade all the local candidates and people campaigning for the presidential nominees marched.
There is an organization that calls itself Women in Black that on Bainbridge stands vigil near a well-traveled intersection every Friday. They’re a peace group and on the island they enjoy a lot of affection. They didn’t march in the parade, I don’t think, but it’s important to know that much about them.
The political groups started off with a group of Republican women with pro-Bush signs carrying a sign “Women in red, white and blue.” Now, Bainbridge being the liberal island that it is (I think Kerry got 70 percent of the vote there), there is some offense taken when the only views considered patriotic are the Republican ones. I’m sure the grumbling among some was immediate when they made the connection between the two groups of women.
Somewhere at the beginning of the parade an announcer saw one parade marcher’s poster that read “Veterans for Bush.” She asked him what war he was a veteran of, but apparently her tone sounded accusatory for his tastes. He didn’t answer. To hear his mother explain it, that question launched a chorus of boos that continued throughout the parade route.
The veteran had served in the most recent Iraq conflict and was wounded there. He said people attending the Bainbridge parade booed him personally, bringing up images of the welcome Vietnam veterans said they got when they returned home.
A Bainbridge guy who didn’t see the incident e-mailed me complaining about the treatment the vet received. That e-mail arrived Tuesday, because I had taken the holiday off. The next day I spoke with him and he said the vet’s mother only wanted to speak to a particular reporter who had covered something she had done before.
Bear in mind this woman is a passionate servant for veterans. She’s done incredibly good works and there is no reason to doubt her patriotism or her honor. In short, she’s a good woman and a great mom. Her experience with the other reporter was when she helped spearhead some community giving on behalf of a veteran’s wife, whose home had been robbed, or something like that. I could be wrong about those details. Again, the links don’t reliably work anymore.
The other reporter wasn’t having any luck getting in touch with her, however, because he couldn’t find the phone numbers he had used three months earlier. And no one in the family was in the phone books we had in our office. That’s an important thing to remember too. She wasn’t in the book and I wasn’t on the story. I was putting together the Bainbridge Islander that week, so I was swamped.
The other problem the other reporter was having was he was working on six, yes six, stories that were to be submitted within two days. The parade incident wasn’t his beat and he had plenty of other things to do.
Despite all that I was concerned some other media would get it. By late Thursday our editor had decided it would be a good thing to address in my column (which ends next week, but that’s another story), because it was becoming dated and losing value as a news story.
The same decision was made at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer where Robert L. Jamieson Jr. wrote a column about the incident. It appeared Friday.
Conservatives were ticked, not only because of the incident, but because they had to find it on the Drudge Report.
So we wrote a story about how the story moved nationally. I spoke with the vet and his mom called me at home that night. She wanted to make sure I knew how big this story would become, that it was getting national attention. It did, but only on conservative Web sites and talk shows. She got the following posted on Michelle Malkin’s site.
When I picked up the local paper on Monday I was stunned to see a glowing report of the parade with not a mention of the shameful way in which many acted towards our group.
That’s because none of us saw it. I left the parade route before the incident happened.
I don’t want to diminish the incident, but I didn’t know about it until after it was over. Other stories never appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times or even the Washington Times like I had been told it might.
Then I wrote a column giving some of the back story behind how we ended up writing what we wrote. In short, we were skeptical of everyone, but were willing to quote the vet’s own words, once we finally got in touch with him. In fact, we didn’t get the family’s phone number until someone did a LexisNexis search using his own personal search account. I later found out that if I had looked the family up using InfoSpace, I would have found the number. A couple weeks later the new phone books came out and there they were.
The day the column appeared the vet’s mom called a local conservative talk show host and lit into me.
I think she suggested we didn’t want to do the story. – Not true.
She said her family’s number was in the phone book. – Not true.
Personally, I was enraged. I called my editor and he listened to me yell, over the phone. He was great about it. It was my first experience with that kind of untruth being said about me over the airwaves. Within about an hour and a boat ride over to Seattle for a Mariners’ game later, I was fine, considering it a rite of passage for someone who wants to write editorials. If I’m good, that kind of experience will happen often.
She got attention from other conservative media outlets, such as the New York Sun, where Alicia Colon wrote that we “refused” to do the story, then dismissed it as “overblown”
I don’t know if the mom told Colon that, but it wasn’t true. Then again, I understand that you’re left with taking my word for it. All I can say is we didn’t refuse to do a story, even when we had decided to address it in a column. Nor did we consider it overblown. We couldn’t. We didn’t witness it. We reported what people told us. That’s it. Believe me or don’t. I wouldn’t blame you for believing the vet’s mom more. That’s kind of the point here.
That there was booing and people yelling things such as “murderer” is undisputed in my mind. That it was directed at the vet is possible, but it wasn’t something we had more than one eyewitness to.
Later the mom wrote a column that appeared in our paper and other places online in which she wrote:
What worried me the most was a quote from Bremerton Sun columnist Steve Gardner who said on July 15: “We can expect plenty of the same partisans in communities across the country as our increasingly polarized electorate moves toward this fall’s election.
True, I wrote that. But she goes on . . .
I pray that this is neither a call to action nor a prediction on Mr. Gardner’s part . . .
without including my ending.
It would be nice to think more people might choose a more polite form of expression.
That, in itself, might even be newsworthy.
She finished . . .
for if we cannot learn to accept each other’s differences without degrading one another, every one of us who live in this great and free nation will lose.
In fact, I still think the vet’s mom is a great woman and a great mom. I never met her. That she caused me some anger probably says more about me than her. I found out about all the publicity she was getting because I was searching the Internet for references to her name. And mine. She got some publicity for a while, then seemingly as sudden as it started, it stopped. I don’t know why. I thought it might be because she’d had enough. If so, I think that deserves some of my respect. Some people get addicted to publicity. I think she had her moment, then got back to her life.
The reason the Cindy Sheehan circus reminded me of this incident is because of the thought process I underwent in the midst of my anger. At first I thought, “How can I begin to argue with a veteran’s mother? There’s no way to win.”
When I was through being mad, it changed to “Why would I argue with a veteran’s mother?” If there is anyone in this world who deserves some slack it’s her. If the veteran is wounded or, worse, killed, even more slack. I’m not saying President George W. Bush should have met with Sheehan again. I am saying some of the venom spewed her way was vulgar.
Some might consider my view condescending, and I understand that. But I will never know what a mother ever goes through, let alone a mother who loses her son or daughter or sees one forever changed. That makes my discomfort a small thing.
Field of Steve