Saying `no' for 33 years

Her vocal efforts to stop the war in Vietnam attracted national attention. And at 85, Peg Mullen still will not be silenced.

April 05, 2003|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

WATERLOO, Iowa - The old woman sat in her dusty pink easy chair, watching the news and getting angry all over again. On her refrigerator were unflattering photos of the president, his mouth frozen in monkey-like frowns.

"Say NO to war with Iraq," said the sign propped in front of her mobile home, its words large enough to read from the nearby convenience store parking lot.

She had said "no" in as many ways as an 85-year-old woman can, which in her case meant attending rallies, giving speeches, calling congressmen, writing letters and traveling 100 miles from home to boo the president's limousine. And yet the dreaded war had begun, and here it was on her television: Explosions in Baghdad. Firefights in the desert. A grief-stricken father in Baltimore, raging over the death of his son.

"I want President Bush to get a good look at this, a real good look here," the father was saying, holding up a photo of the handsome young soldier. "This is the only son I had, the only son."

In her mobile home, Peg Mullen watched the angry father, listened as he dared to question the purpose of the war in which his son had died. She didn't know Michael Waters-Bey, the man from Baltimore. But she knew all too well what it meant to be the angry parent, what it felt like to speak out against the war that had killed your child. On the wall of the living room hung pictures of her own son, Michael, the dark-haired boy who'd dreamed of ending world hunger, killed in Vietnam at age 25.

"Friendly fire?" she'd cried to the soldier on that winter Saturday 33 years ago, reading the telegram that had been hand-delivered to her farmhouse door. "You didn't even allow him the decency of dying at the hands of the enemy?"

The anger that seized the farm wife that morning did not subside. Instead, it gave birth to a crusade. In the months and years that followed, Mullen and her husband, Gene, attracted national attention for their relentless, vocal efforts to stop the war in Vietnam. The oxymoronic term "Friendly Fire" became the title of a critically acclaimed book - and later, an Emmy award-winning movie - chronicling the Mullens' activism and their struggle to learn the details of the incident that killed their son.

The war ended, years passed, but the anger never faded away. Three decades later, now an octogenarian in an easy chair, Mullen is still going strong. Still writing, still rallying, still spouting off at the powers that be.

"I have no idea your age," she e-mailed a Des Moines columnist who'd written what she considered a dismissive article about local peace activists last fall. "But I hope you never have to stand in a quiet corner of an airport and say goodbye to a son in uniform, knowing in your heart that you'll never see him again. Hope you never suffer the horror of a military man sitting at your kitchen table trying to tell how your son died - then wait 10 days for his body to be returned and his casket unloaded in a darkened corner of the same airport."

She didn't know the Baltimore father. But as she sat in her living room last month, watching him on television, she was less surprised by the man's angry words than how often the networks replayed them.

"I just thought, at last, somebody's saying the right thing," she said. "Thank God somebody knows what's going on."

Her story may be history. But Peg Mullen isn't.

On the ninth day of war, the phone rings. It's one of Mullen's friends, wondering if she caught Bush's remarks on television that morning.

"Oh, I couldn't stand it," Mullen answers. "I haven't had it on. Was he worse than ever today?"

A pause.

"Oh, I think he'll get impeached, I do. That's our next move, you know."

Her hearing isn't the sharpest, and she avoids driving her Toyota on the interstate, but Mullen is as feisty and outspoken as ever. The end of the Vietnam War was far from the end of her public life. Twelve years ago, when the first gulf war made the term "friendly fire" ubiquitous, her phone rang so often with interview requests that she sometimes unplugged it. She took a 38-hour bus journey to a protest in Washington, where she held a sign that said "Abuelas [grandmothers] for Peace."

She was living in Texas then, where she and her husband had retired, which gave her a ringside seat for the governorship of George W. Bush. When Dubya ran for president, she wrote a harsh critique of his record and mailed it to friends and politicians across the country. She also sent letters to elected officials who supported Bush's campaign. "How can you not know about him?" she asked the governor of Montana in one letter. (Mullen's correspondence and other papers are preserved in the Iowa Women's Archives at the University of Iowa.) "I can't think of one instance where he made an honest dime off his own ability."

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