Two Easton veterans take opposing positions on war

At courthouse, men hold rallies about Iraq conflict

April 17, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON - In front of a courthouse that dates to the earliest days of the nation, the wrought-iron fence is decked with yellow ribbons. Veterans who served in wars from the Revolution to Vietnam are honored with plaques and stone monuments across the shaded lawn. There's even a statue to remember Confederate dead.

As far as Rick Cross and Bruce Butler can figure, the 209-year-old brick building that dominates this Eastern Shore town of 11,000 is the ideal backdrop for playing out their conflicting views of patriotism.

Cross, 54, is a combat veteran who spends much of his time as a leader of Veterans of Foreign Wars and Vietnam Veterans of America chapters. He supports the U.S. effort in Iraq - and feels that no American should protest a war once troops have been placed in harm's way.

Butler, 55, also a veteran, devotes his energies to promoting nonviolence and racial harmony through a hometown group called PEACE, short for Peace, Education and Community Effort. His deep religious faith is the foundation of his opposition to this war, any war.

Every Thursday afternoon for the past year, Butler has led a handful of activists who have stood as silent witnesses against the war. Passers-by have for the most part taken little notice of the low-key vigil. But last week, Cross decided he'd had enough and organized a group of veterans who handed out flags and occasionally dished insults and a few curses at the anti-war protesters standing silent on the sidewalk.

Today, the 52nd Thursday since the peace vigil began, both sides vow they'll be back, staking out spots along Washington Street in the three-block-long business district. It is a snapshot of the debate that has been taking place across the nation since before the war began.

"They've been out there through rain and snow and cold for a year," says Cross. "You've got to admire their determination, but that is absolutely the only thing I admire about it. This kind of stuff wasn't proper in the '70s and it's not proper now."

Of course, Butler disagrees. Protest, particularly in time of war, is an obligation for him.

"What could be more important than facing this issue at the local level?" asks Butler, who founded PEACE in 1996. "I oppose violence because I'm a Christian, but we have a wide range of people who've stood with us - some veterans of Vietnam, Korea, World War II. I want to be able to talk to people, my neighbors, about the war."

Cross, who has lived on the Shore for almost 30 years, sees a lot of familiar faces standing with Butler. A retired Annapolis firefighter, he is a life member of Talbot County's volunteer fire association and he has friends in every firehouse around.

"I've seen a lot of people I know or recognize out there, and I've known Bruce for a while," says Cross. "They have their right to be there. But I don't care who you are, it's different once we're at war."

Cross and Butler know each other fairly well. Their wives work in the same Easton optometry office. The Butlers have visited a couple times for the Cross family's annual Christmas open house.

Butler wound up developing an unlikely friendship with the JROTC instructor at Easton High School a few years ago when they worked together on a seminar about school violence. The two reached an agreement banning from campus the military parade weapons used by students in drills.

One stalwart at the courthouse vigil has been Becky Otter. At 77, Otter says she has marched for peace many times, "against the Vietnam War and all the illegal wars in Central America." A Talbot County resident for 12 years, the retired University of Maryland guidance counselor says she isn't expecting much in the way of compromise with Cross and the others who share his views.

Still, the silent vigil against war stands in marked contrast to many big demonstrations she has attended in Washington over the years. "We all live together here, which really is kind of our long-range point about the war," Otter says. "It's more personal, deeply personal, but not as political at this level."

Otter, like others who were confronted by Cross and other veterans, complained about profanity, particularly when some in the anti-war crowd refused to accept American flags. Cross acknowledges a few such "slips" last week. It's an example, he says, of how strongly people feel about criticism of the war in Iraq and the Bush administration's global policy.

Cross says he remembers newspaper accounts of massive anti-war protests in the United States 30 years ago. As a young Air Force enlisted man stationed at DaNang in 1970 and 1971, he couldn't understand the animosity directed at returning soldiers. As a Vietnam veteran, he vows not to forget it.

"My parents sent me newspapers with pictures of the marches in Washington," Cross says. "It was heartbreaking. And to this day, still is."

Gene Mechling, who retired to Easton 16 years ago after 29 years as an Air Force pilot, agrees that much of the current opposition to U.S. foreign policy has its roots in the Vietnam years. He scoffs at what he calls his naive neighbors, the ones he has noticed at the courthouse.

"I think these people are misguided," says Mechling. "This is a different world today, no matter what your politics, and we have to protect ourselves.

"In the end," he says, "they're not changing their minds and we're not changing ours."

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