No Longer Bound By Military Restrictions, Veterans Join Protests Around The Country

Jun 4, 2020
Originally published on June 17, 2020 8:16 pm

For some veterans, the demonstrations against police violence are a chance to find their voice.

Army veteran Aubrey Rose cuts a striking figure at Denver's ongoing protests. Wearing his formal Army jacket with all his ribbons and medals, he's come day after day to march with an upside-down American flag dangling over his shoulder, a symbol of the nation in distress.

"The way that these police have been behaving, any military service member that would behave like this would be in Leavenworth right now," said Rose, who served 18 years in the Army, including combat tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bosnia. "The fact that we're letting these guys get away with murder, and there really isn't the stressors of a war zone here, is ridiculous."

For Rose, the protests have given him a new sense of purpose he hasn't felt since his medical discharge.

"For the first time, as an adult, I'm able to utilize my constitutional rights because I couldn't do it before when I was active duty," he said, surveying the chanting crowd. "I feel nothing but pride right now."

The Defense Department says servicemembers can't wear their uniforms when taking part in political activities, like protests. They also can't do anything that seems to disrespect the chain of command, including the President. Those restrictions go away when troops leave the service, but by the time they retire, many veterans are used to living with them.

"I'm sure it's an internal conflict and an internal struggle" for some veterans, said Leanne Wheeler, an organizer with the progressive veterans group Common Defense.

Wheeler described having former servicemembers take part in protests as a "gamechanger."

"It does make a difference, for those who have served the country to be engaged in this conversation," she said. "You can't ignore that service, and we bring it full throated: We've served, here's what we understand about the constitution."

More than 40 percent of the military's active duty personnel are people of color. And as the protests have spread and become more chaotic, active duty military personnel are now in the spotlight. The Pentagon moved some units to the Capitol area to back up local police in Washington D.C., and President Trump threatened to take similar actions nationally.

"If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them," the President announced in a Rose Garden address.

Later, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he opposes using the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active duty military to cities.

While the idea of using active duty personnel to contain protests is controversial, nearly half of states, including Colorado, have deployed the National Guard to try to maintain order.

But some worry that will only lead to escalation.

"What we're afraid of is history repeating itself with something like the Kent State massacre," said Shawna Foster, a Denver member of About Face -- a group of post-9/11 veterans who now organize against U.S. militarism at home and abroad. Foster deserted from her National Guard unit during the Iraq war after it was revealed that Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction.

About Face is encouraging members of the Guard to refuse any orders that involve confronting protesters. The group says it has received dozens of calls from servicemembers worried about being called up against protests.

"To be deployed against your own neighbors? To be using those weapons of war against people, civilians? The military's not really trained for that. We are trained to engage enemy combatants," Foster said.

Those who are deployed to protest sites may spot familiar uniforms in the crowd, like the one worn by Shenika Mosely. The Iraq War veteran said she chose to wear her Army dress jacket to a recent protest in Colorado Springs so those around her would know what she'd done.

"I proudly fought for my country," she said, "and I just came out here to wear it today to let everybody know I fought for my country, and that they fight for our country too."

Mosley said the protests against police brutality are about making sure, everyone -- with a uniform and without -- has a voice.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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