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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Media Coverage of VFF in Evansville

Tri-State welcomes Vets for Freedom
By Gavin Lesnick (Contact)

Monday, March 31, 2008

Listening to a group of Iraq war veterans share stories and urge support for the troops during a rally Sunday afternoon, Gary Kissinger heard a message that hit close to home.

Kissinger, an Evansville native whose 25-year-old son recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, agreed with the speakers that pulling out from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan too early would be a costly mistake.

"We need to support the whole effort," said Kissinger, 62 and a member of the local group Tri-State Marine Families. "We can't stop in the middle of it. If we do, some time down the road, we'll be right back again. We need to make sure we get the job done now."

He was one of about 75 people who stopped by the LST 325 on Sunday to see the Vets for Freedom National Heroes Tour, a coast-to-coast bus tour featuring a cast of decorated war veterans talking about the war. Evansville was the 14th of 20 stops as the tour inched closer to Washington, D.C., where the speakers and several hundred veterans plan to meet with members of Congress about the war.

Among those on the tour is Vets for Freedom Executive Director Pete Hegseth, an Army captain who served a yearlong deployment in Iraq from 2005 to 2006.

Let the troops win

Hegseth told the crowd the purpose of the tour is simple.

"The message is let our troops and our Marines win," he said.

"Let them win and let's highlight the incredible progress that's been made by Gen. David Petraeus and the new counter-insurgency strategy."

Troops have made considerable gains in Iraq in the last year, Hegseth said, adding that the progress is too often ignored. Also, American casualties are declining, down more than 70 percent since June, he said.

He said since June of 2007, attacks throughout Iraq are down more than 70 percent, sectarian violence throughout the country is down 90 percent and sectarian violence in Baghdad alone is down more than 95 percent.

"If they haven't gotten the memo, the civil war in Iraq is over," he said. "There are different complications and there are different problems, but that's not what we're facing today."

"The good news stories that are happening in Iraq and Afghanistan are not reaching the ears of the American people," he said.

Julieann Najar, founder of the group A Soldier's Wish List, drove to Evansville from St. Louis with two friends to see the National Heroes Tour for the second time in three days.

Najar, whose son was wounded while serving in the Army in Iraq, said the speeches from the veterans on the tour resonated with her views.

"We believe in what the troops are doing," she said. "I could listen to (the veterans on the tour) over and over and over again. They have to keep saying it until other people get the message we're getting. The rest of America has to pay attention."

Not everyone at the event agreed with its message.

Gary May, co-chairman of Veterans for Peace, said he questioned the speakers afterward about the lack of public support for the war and if it had translated into any bill, funding shortfall or public policy decision that jeopardized the troops.

"He couldn't think of any," May said. "... I think (this) is much more about the political needle being moved than it is about the true merit or the true contents of what's being said."

Hegseth, though, said the Vets for Freedom group is non-partisan and that there is division even within its own ranks about the war. While none of its members support an immediate pullout, he said some do think it was a bad decision to invade Iraq in the first place.

All of them now support completing the mission, he said.

"We want to bring the troops home," Hegseth said. "But not until there is a stable Iraq."