Ruppersberger's plan gives much-needed lift to soldiers

November 11, 2003|By Michael Olesker

EVERYBODY says the weekend's car bombing in Riyadh, killing 17 and injuring 122, was the work of al-Qaida. Unless it wasn't. Six months after the United States disbanded the Iraqi army, everybody says it's time to put it back together again to relieve beleaguered American forces. Unless we shouldn't. The White House is using the Patriot Act to undermine civil liberties, everybody agrees. Unless they don't.

In our national confusion over the terrorist wars, public opinion emerges from a blurry sandstorm of images. The politicians, feeling their way like everyone else, seek clarity at the edges of things. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger found some at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, one of three airports where returning military personnel grab connecting flights to hometowns across the country.

Like everybody else, he watched the heart-warming television scenes of soldiers heading home for a few weeks' rest. But Ruppersberger wondered what happened after the TV cameras went away. Three weeks ago, he went to the airport for a closer look. Out of this came Operation Hero Miles. In a time of great confusion, it's a way for Americans to put aside politics and express support for those risking their lives overseas.

"These young men and women are doing what they've been ordered to do," Ruppersberger was saying the other day. "When they hear us arguing about the war, they need to know it's not about them. They're putting their lives on the line. When I went to the airport, I asked these folks what they needed.

"They said, `We have to pay our own way home, and it costs a lot, and we're not making any money.' I thought, `This is outrageous.' So, in my office, we figured the least we could do is help them get home."

Operation Hero Miles came out of this.

It allows air travelers to donate frequent flier miles to returning service people. Ruppersberger says the Web site he set up - www.heromiles.org - has had more than 11,000 hits from people around the country, who have donated more than 20 million miles. Also helping out: Delta, Southwest and Alaska Airlines.

"It shows that Americans really are patriotic and want to help our men and women serving in Iraq," Ruppersberger said. "It also shows our troops and their families that we value their sacrifice. The response has been inspiring. But we need to keep it going."

Ruppersberger remembers another time, and another war - Vietnam - when many Americans failed to differentiate a disputed war policy from those being ordered to carry it out. Soldiers returned home to indifference, or disdain. This time, he thinks, we're making distinctions.

"We're going to be at war for a long time," he said. "Maybe this brings the country together a little bit. People want to get involved, want to help these young people who are helping the country. We see our own people getting knocked off every day over there, and it tears you up. These are our sons and daughters. Whether you're for or against the war, we're there."

Ruppersberger serves on the House Intelligence Committee, which closely monitors the fighting and the intelligence agencies.

"Should we have gone to war with Iraq?" he asked. "My bottom line is, North Korea is just as pressing. But once President Bush said we're going to war, we had to stand with our military. That doesn't mean I support everything. I still think we need a coalition of nations.

"Sometimes," Ruppersberger said, "you have to realize you've picked the wrong strategy and re-evaluate. We're like sitting ducks out there right now. It's not working. We need a strategy for fighting guerrilla warfare. That's not the same as taking control of Iraq. As a leader, you have to have the courage to admit what's not working, and find a way to make it work.

"I'm not saying we should just pack up and get out. Our military people tell me the majority of Iraqis like it that we're there, but they're reluctant to get involved. Saddam Hussein hasn't been found. If the old regime comes back, there's fear of retaliation. What we have to show is that the world's going to get involved now - and not just the Americans."

It's a time of considerable confusion. The nation still wonders about the alleged connection between Hussein and the events of Sept. 11, still wonders about the alleged weapons of mass destruction, still wonders about America declaring war on a nation that had not attacked us.

But Operation Hero Miles takes us away from our confusion.

"These are our children," Ruppersberger said. "They chose to protect our country. You know, we had so many kids messed up by Vietnam, and messed up by people's response when they came home. These men and women didn't make war policy. They're just risking their lives. And we should show them our appreciation for that."

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