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Making a House Call on Congress

Military families are determined to bring their troops back home -- even if they have to talk to every politician in Washington.
 
 
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When Congress voted to "stay the course" in Iraq on June 15, many military families were furious.

"I watched the entire mock debate on C-Span for 13 hours," says Stacy Bannerman, a member of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO). "That day, I decided that if they wanted to 'stay the course,' they would have to explain their rationale to my face."

A week later, Bannerman left Seattle for Washington, D.C., where she launched Operation House Call, an MFSO campaign to highlight the ongoing human toll in Iraq. Since June 22, Bannerman, whose husband served in Balat, Iraq, from March 2004 to March 2005, has been joined by over 50 families of U.S. troops who are serving, have served, or were killed in Iraq.

So far, the families have met with several politicians, including Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. They're hoping to meet with Sen. Hillary Clinton in the coming days, but say they have yet to hear back from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chair of the Armed Services Committee.

"When a handful of members of Congress have loved ones in the military, they have no idea what staying the course looks like," says Bannerman, who has written a book about her experiences, titled " When the War Came Home." "This war is being waged on .4 percent of the American population. The rest of the people in this country -- 99.6 percent -- have no connection to the war. They are not being asked to sacrifice or allowed to see the human cause of this war."

For many of the families, Operation House Call is their first foray into political activism. "I never even voted until 2004," says 44-year-old Georgia Stillwell. "I never registered. I never cared. I was as apathetic as they come. And then it got personal."

Stillwell's 22-year-old son spent his 19th and 20th birthdays in Iraq, and is now dealing with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. In January, he drove his car over an embankment in excess of 120 mph. Miraculously, he survived the crash. "I know I should be grateful he's not dead, but he's dead inside," says Stillwell.

On July 12, Stillwell shared her son's story during an emotional 30-minute meeting with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "The congressman compared Iraq to a football game about changing strategies," she says. "I touched his arm and said, 'Congressman, children don't die in football games.' He said nothing. I also showed him a picture of a friend's son who was killed in Iraq. He was unblinking and unfeeling."

After the meeting, Hastert's press secretary said the speaker thought Stillwell was a "very patriotic woman who was proud of her son's service in Iraq."

"That's amazing, right? He just called an anti-war protestor patriotic," said Stillwell laughing.

When the families aren't meeting with politicians asking them to bring the troops home, they're braving the heat on the steps of the Senate Russell Building. There they surround themselves with footwear -- one pair of military boots for every soldier who has died since June 15, and a pair of shoes for each Iraqi civilian who has died.

"I came to D.C. decades ago as a child, and had anybody told me then that I would be spending the better part of my summer in the sauna that is D.C. standing out here, having meetings with politicians, many of whom don't want to know the truth, dealing with staffers who snicker when we come into their offices carrying empty combat boots, I wouldn't have believed them," says Bannerman.

The MFSO members also ask passersby to sign postcards supporting an end to the war. The families then hand-deliver the postcards to senators and congressmen. Stilwell says interacting with the locals and tourists has been an eye-opening experience.

"Bush supporters often say, 'I'm sick of you people.' They look at us with such hatred. I don't get it. We have military recruiter flyers for them," she says. "But what's even worse are the people who won't even look at us. They won't meet our gaze or look at the boots, and they're mostly corporate people."

The families say they've also received a number of surprisingly positive reactions. "A few congressional staffers have stopped by to say they're in full support of what we're doing even though their bosses aren't," says Nancy Lessin, MFSO co-founder.

Despite its efforts, Operation House Call has received little media coverage. MFSO released a second announcement on July 25 hoping to garner attention from the national media.

A number of families from around the country will continue meeting with politicians until they leave D.C. for summer recess on Aug. 4. The Waste family wants to talk about the impact the war has had on their three sons and two grandchildren. Together, they have spent 81 months in Iraq. One son is currently deployed with the First Armored Division; another son is scheduled to return to Iraq this fall with the First Cavalry Division.

Cathy Smith hopes to talk about her eldest son, who was paralyzed from the chest down by an AK-47 round while serving in Iraq, and her middle son who is currently serving with the Army.

Once the families leave Washington, D.C., Lessin says they'll follow their elected officials home. "Our 26 chapters will jump into action and meet with politicians in their home districts, at their offices, their homes and vacation homes. This war doesn't end for us. We can't take a vacation from it."

Rose Aguilar is a San Francisco-based journalist who is writing a book about her road trip through the " red states ."