Walter Reed Hospital Becomes Another Antiwar Battleground

Since spring, long before an angry mom named Cindy Sheehan set up camp outside President Bush’s Texas ranch, anti-war activists have been holding vigils outside Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Friday nights, when many soldiers and their families venture off-campus for steak dinners.

They’ve called for better health-care benefits for soldiers wounded in Iraq, protested an early policy of making some soldiers buy their own meals while in care and accused the military of purposely flying injured troops in under cover of night to play down the volume of casualties. And they’ve waved signs protesting the war and the Bush administration.

Organizers say they weren’t getting much media attention _ even after a pro-war group began gathering to protest the vigils _ and that the coverage they did get was generally positive, including a write-up in the military newspaper Stars & Stripes.

Until last week, that is. That’s when an online news service with politically conservative ties released a special report suggesting the vigils were actually protests aimed at wounded soldiers _ an accusation that infuriated vigil organizers, many of them family members of troops serving in Iraq and some of them veterans themselves. The Drudge Report previewed the story, and conservative television and radio hosts seized on it.

Now, vigil organizers are alleging that Cybercast News Service’s story is part of a strategy by President Bush’s supporters to hurt war protesters’ credibility in the wake of Sheehan’s public-relations success and sinking support for the war.

“It’s all part of a smear campaign,” Medea Benjamin, a liberal anti-war activist from San Francisco and a co-founder of CodePink, one of the groups organizing the vigils, said in a telephone interview. Sheehan, the mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, has gotten help from liberal donors, public-relations firms and groups including CodePink.

Friday night at Walter Reed, the counterprotesters outnumbered the 20 or so vigil participants by a 3-to-1 margin. They waved flags, yelled at anti-war activists and painted signs like this one: “Cindy Sheehan = Bride of Bin Laden.”

They said a hospital should be off-limits for political demonstrations, no matter the message. One counterprotester, Vietnam veteran Ted Sampley, said he had come from Kinston, N.C., for the day, to give the anti-war crowd a piece of his mind.

“Our wounded soldiers are not barter for them to use to try to push their cause,” he said. “It’s very transparent what they’re doing. They don’t care about soldiers’ health benefits. This is deja vu, Vietnam, Jane Fonda, John Kerry, all over again.”

Laura Costas of Silver Spring, Md., one of the vigil participants, said her brother served 14 months in Iraq with the Army and was injured when an explosive device hit his unarmored Humvee.

“He feels betrayed,” she said. “You sign up to defend the Constitution and you get Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.”

She described a shortage among troops of modern bulletproof vests, boots, even helmet straps. She said her brother, now home, must navigate a complex bureaucracy to deal with his hearing loss and post-traumatic stress.

“It’s patent nonsense to say a member of a military family who’s out here doesn’t care about the troops,” she said.

But counterprotesters said the anti-war side has sanitized its vigil since the controversy broke. Before, said Albion Wilde, a Baltimore-area counterprotester who has been coming for months, “They had nasty signs: ‘Maimed for a lie,’ ‘Died for Halliburton.’ ”

In the midst of all this, James Miguez _ a 28-year-old Army soldier from Iowa who has been recovering at Walter Reed since June _ walked out of the hospital gate to meet a pizza deliveryman, and looked bewildered about all the fuss.

An encounter in Iraq with an explosive device severed arteries, scarred his face and neck and covered his thighs with shrapnel, but he said his Humvee at the time was loaded with the best armor available.

“They can’t give us no more than we got,” he said. “Whatever we needed, we got it.” And he said, “The care here has been exceptional.”

At the same time, he said he didn’t get the sense the vigil participants were trying to shame him, or blame soldiers for the war. “I really can’t object,” he said. “I fight for them to be able to say what they want to say.”

Many, although not all, of the counterprotesters were local Republican activists who see CodePink’s leadership as anathema to their beliefs. Benjamin, who was not at last Friday’s vigil, slipped into the Republican National Convention last year and was yanked from the convention hall after waving an anti-war banner and shouting at Vice President Dick Cheney.

Meanwhile, the reporter who wrote the story that has generated so much controversy, Marc Morano, says he is not part of any ideological conspiracy. He heard about the vigils on his own and pitched his editors on the story, he said.

“There’s no agenda,” he said. “The only agenda is that a lot of veterans were outraged. These soldiers have to see these people every Friday night, and that’s what got these people upset.”