Sunday, September 25, 2005

Margaret Johnson, 54, came to the District yesterday to remember her 29-year-old son and honor his sacrifice.

Clutching a photograph of Army Capt. Christopher Johnson, the American Gold Star Mother said she couldn’t be more proud of him.

“He did make a difference in this world; I don’t care what anyone says,” said Mrs. Johnson, of Excelsior Springs, Mo. “I am here to speak for my son. I am here to support him. He knew the cost of freedom and that it was not free, and he volunteered to go to Iraq anyway.”

A member of the 25th Infantry Division (Light), Capt. Johnson was killed in a midair helicopter collision Oct. 16 in Iraq. He spent 10 months in Iraq and was getting ready to come home, Mrs. Johnson said.

“He was good at what he did, and he loved it,” she said as she wiped tears from her face. “This photo is a self-portrait. He was so happy.”

Mrs. Johnson was among an estimated 400 people who gathered on the Mall yesterday to show support for the troops in Iraq. Those who attended the Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission rally wore American flags and yellow ribbons.

The rally yesterday was held to counter Saturday’s anti-war protests, which attracted as many as 100,000 people, according to police estimates.

Amid banners and signs proclaiming support for U.S. troops, several speakers hailed the effort to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan and denounced those who protest it.

Many demonstrators focused their ire at anti-war mother Cindy Sheehan, who kept a 26-day vigil last month outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. Her 24-year-old son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq in April 2004.

Mrs. Sheehan was among the speakers on Saturday.

At the rally yesterday, one sign read “Cindy Sheehan doesn’t speak for me.” Another sign reading “Arrest the traitors” listed Mrs. Sheehan’s name first among several who have spoken against the war.

“Cindy Sheehan, in my opinion, is a traitor,” said Diane Ibbotson, of Albion, Ill., whose son was killed by insurgents. Her 21-year-old son, Army Cpl. Forest J. Jostes, was in a vehicle behind Spc. Sheehan when they were killed.

“Cindy Sheehan has a right to protest, wave signs, march or whatever, a right she wouldn’t have had it not been for men like our sons,” Mrs. Ibbotson said. “I resent the fact that she says she ‘speaks for the millions’ and is the face of the Gold Star families. That is not so.”

Gary Qualls, of Temple, Texas, raised a white cross that bore his son’s name, Marine reservist Lance Cpl. Louis W. Qualls, who was killed Nov. 16 in Iraq.

“[Anti-war protesters] never asked for my permission to put up a cross for my son for their cause. They are not respecting our sons and daughters,” Mr. Qualls said.

Choking up, Mr. Qualls said his son was admitted to duty “when he witnessed what happened on September 11 and knew we could not afford to keep sitting around and wait for another 3,000 to be killed by terrorists, or another 3,000, or another 3,000.”

Arkansas Army National Guard Spc. Kevin Pannell, 26, who lost his legs in a grenade attack in Iraq, told the crowd he was proud of the troops.

“I can walk around and be proud of what I did,” said Spc. Pannell, of Woodbridge, Va., who wears on a chain around his neck the pin pulled from the grenade that wounded him. “This is a wonderful country that 100,000 radicals can get out on the streets and shout all things bad. They cannot do that in Baghdad.”

More than 30 Gold Star family members who attended the rally wore burgundy shirts emblazoned with the Gold Star logo.

The military presents Gold Stars to the relatives of service personnel killed in action.

The rally was the first opportunity for many of them to talk with others who had lost loved ones in the war.

“It’s wonderful talking to all the Gold Star moms,” said Debbie Ellsworth, 44, of Wixom, Mich., whose son Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Ellsworth, 20, was killed Nov. 13. “We were content to sit at home grieving, but it’s better to be out here and talk about it.”

Police said they had no problems with the demonstrators yesterday.

Several police officers were sent across Fourth Street Northwest when more than a dozen anti-war protesters taunted the Gold Star mothers, fathers and supporters as they left the Mall after the three-hour rally.

“Fascists go home,” protesters said. Others held signs that read: “Impeach Bush” and “American People Supporting a Dictatorship.”

“Why should they do that? Why is the war my fault?” Mrs. Ellsworth said. “I gave my son, so why are they screaming and yelling at me?”

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