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The rally on the other side of Clinton Street
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
For over three years, on the first Saturday of every month, demonstrators gather on the Allen County Courthouse Green in downtown Fort Wayne to protest the war in Iraq.
But in the last eight or nine months, there’s been another kind of demonstration slowly growing across Clinton Street. These people are here because they want to send a message of support to the soldiers overseas.
Rex Mercer, a 27-year old from Columbia City, started the rally late last year. For the first two or three months, it was just Mercer and his wife Melissa. Mercer didn’t recruit anyone else, but word spread.
Mercer himself has never been in the military, and though he’s too young to remember Vietnam, his father was a Vietnam vet who was hurt by the reception the soldiers got from anti-war protestors when they returned home. “A lot of the anti-war was really negative,” Mercer says. “It hurt him a lot. When he raised me, he always let me know that when the troops come home, you want to be positive, and show them we appreciate everything they do.”
Though he agrees that the attitude towards U.S. soldiers is not nearly as negative these days as it was during the Vietnam era, he does worry that the attitude of some protestors is demoralizing to the troops. “There are a few people who go way too far in my mind,” he says. “Some of the negative signs I don’t like at all. Like ‘no blood for oil.’ Our troops aren’t over there killing people for oil. And signs like ‘I vow not to kill your children’… stuff like that really crosses the line.”
Mercer himself tries to keep the rally focused and as free of politics as possible. He thinks overt politics just muddies what he is trying to do. “I always make that very clear before they come out that I don’t want any political signs out there,” he says. “Everybody has an agenda, you know. I just don’t want it at this rally.”
“Everything is always polarized now,” he adds. “I’m tired of everybody blaming each other. It’s always Republicans vs. Democrats, or George Bush vs. John Kerry… the troops don’t need that. For me, the time to complain about things, was before the war happened. After that, I think everyone should be behind them.”
A few veterans have come out to the rally to show their support. One of them is Air Force veteran Emery McClendon, the founder of Amateur Radio Military Appreciation Day (www.armad.net). Every Memorial Day weekend for the last three years, McClendon has set up ham radios to let people send messages of support to the troops around the world. This year, he’s going to be in the parking lot of Wal-Mart at Coldwater Crossing. “The troops and their families deserve our thanks and our appreciation because they don’t all get that, and they need to hear it from home,” he says. “I get so many e-mails from troops all over the world — Germany, Japan, Philippines, Iraq, from ships, from the Blue Star moms, saying thank you. We’re over here enjoying ourselves, we can still go to the movies, we can still go to games, we can still go to the final Four and have a lot of fun. Those guys are over there sleeping in the sand. They need our support.”
Another vet is specialist Anthony Lewis, who was over in Kuwait and Iraq during the build-up and initial stages of the war. He has a scrapbook full of momentos, including Iraqi currency with Saddam Hussein’s image on it. “Most important for me is to be out here is so that when people drive down the street, they have a chance to see that there are two sides to this debate,” he says. Lewis adds that he saw what was happening on the other side of the street, and wished there was also someone out here saying “just support the troops.”
Like Mercer and other people at the rally, Lewis says he doesn’t have any personal animosity towards the anti-war protestors. He understands why people would protest, especially if they’re worried about friends and family members being in danger over there (“If anything happen to me, Cindy Sheehan wouldn't have had a damn thing on my mom! She wouldn’t be on the other side of the street, she’d be in the street”), but he’s here to make sure the troops don’t get lost in the debate. “It’s an American freedom,” he says. “There are thousands of troops over there right now, that if they could be here — and really, they probably wouldn’t be involved, because most soldiers don’t get involved in this kind of stuff — but if they were here, they would say ‘thank you for remembering us.’ That’s what I see on this side of the street. That is why it is important for me to be here.”
When Mercer is asked whether or not he thinks the anti-war protests really hurt the troops, he wavers. “That’s a hard question,” he says, stressing that this is his opinion. “They’re really nice people across the street. I’ve talked to Tim Tiernon (the organizer). They’re great people. The soldiers fight for what they’re doing too, you know, and I’m sure everyone would agree with that… But I think it kind of does, because some of the extreme signs demoralize them a little bit.”
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