Nancy Lessin carried a body bag to the U.S. Congress last year. She wanted to ask her representatives, “Do you think now is the time to send my son home in one of these?”

Lessin and Charley Richardson are co-founders of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO). They brought their “special voice” to the Toronto peace movement recently. Over four days earlier this month, they spoke out against the war in Iraq on radio interviews, public forums and union meetings.

Lessin and Richardson said they could not stand by and “watch our son used as cannon fodder for empire building.” They formed MFSO in the fall of 2002.

The group is a U.S.-based organization of people who have loved ones in the military and are opposed to the invasion of Iraq. It now has over 1,000 members in every branch of the U.S. military including the U.S. Marines where Richardson’s son/Lessin’s stepson serves. Joe was deployed to Iraq in August 2002. He returned from Iraq at the end of May 2003.

Since its founding MFSO has brought its “special voice” to union halls, churches, universities, high schools, mosques and town squares across the U.S. and around the world. The group was behind the lawsuit against George Bush for the illegal invasion of Iraq. Its members have engaged in non-violent civil disobedience, letter writing campaigns, organized military families contingents at peace demonstrations and lobbied members of Congress.

Lessin opened the Toronto forum thanking the Canadian peace movement for “standing up and preventing the Canadian government from being blackmailed by George Bush. We celebrate your status as members of the coalition of the unwilling.”

She drew the links between corporate globalization and the war on Iraq. “If the main resource of Iraq was olive oil, we wouldn’t be here tonight,” she said.

As members of the Steelworkers union, Lessin and Richardson were involved in the anti-globalization movement.

“We saw the war on Iraq as military globalization,” said Lessin. “The winners will be Halliburton, Bechtel and the Carlyle Group and the losers will be the troops, the Iraqi people and the world.”

The turning point for MFSO was Bush’s response to the growing Iraqi resistance to the occupation. As U.S. military casualties mounted, Bush’s response was “Bring ’em on!” MFSO, along with Veterans for Peace and other Vietnam veterans’ organizations, mounted a campaign to “Bring Them Home Now!” In the first week, 6,000 emails and letters poured in. Many said, “Thank God I found you. I thought I was alone.” The group’s fastest growing membership is military families who have lost a loved one in Iraq.

Lessin shared a sample of letters to MFSO and the “Bring Them Home Now” campaign. A female member of the U.S. military based in Iraq wrote: “I did not sign up to be a pawn in a grudge war between two dictators.” The 27-year-old wife of a U.S. soldier asked George Bush if her six-month-old son would know his father. “If not, the blood of his father will be on your hands,” she wrote.

The mother of an 82nd Airborne Division member responded to accusations that to support the troops, Americans must support the war. “I support our kids, not the policies that endanger them.”

“How dare you shout ‘bring ’em on’ behind the shield of our loved ones,&#0148 demanded a self-described “die-hard Republican” of George Bush.

MFSO work has reached beyond military families and the U.S. One writer from the Middle East told MFSO of his conflicted reaction to the success of the Iraqi resistance saying, “I don’t want ordinary Americans to suffer for the actions of the warlords in the White House.”

Richardson spoke of the low morale of U.S. troops in Iraq. Post conflict casualties number more than 500 but what is mentioned less often are the 8,800 military personnel decommissioned as a result of injuries. The suicide rate amongst troops has sky rocketed and the increasing number of personnel going AWOL also remains underreported. In one unit alone, 30 members did not report back to duty after their two-week rest and relaxation leave. There have also been 32 reported rapes of female troops by male troops.

“There is a draft in the United States,” said Richardson, citing the military’s institution of “stop loss.” Troops at the end of their enlistment must serve an additional year. And there is an economic draft. The military is one of the few places where people can find “a good job, health care, enough pay to afford a house and a family, a pension,” he said. Military recruiters also take advantage of rising tuition rates, promising “money for college.”

“They will not institute an actual draft in an election year, but I think all bets are off after November,” he said.

“It’s going to take a global movement to stop this war,” Richardson told the audience. MFSO is part of that movement, gearing up for the March 20 international day of action: “The World Still Says No to War.” Organized contingents of military families will march in demonstrations across the United States, including an MFSO organized rally outside Fort Bragg — home of the 82nd Airborne Division. Lessin delivered the message of peace campaigners, union members, community groups, church organizations, veterans and military families at Fort Bragg: “Not one more day. Not one more dime. Not one more life. End the occupation and bring the troops home now!”

Erin George spoke with Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) co-founders Nancy Lessin and Charley Richardson during their Toronto Coalition to Stop the War public forum.

rabble: What was your son’s reaction to the work that you and Charley are doing with MFSO?

NL: First, just to make it clear, we don’t speak for him. But, he has been absolutely supportive of our right to speak out and he thinks that’s what citizens should do — speak out on issues that are of importance to themselves and to the country.

rabble: You called the MFSO a “special voice” Can you speak to the importance of your organization’s involvement in the peace movement?

NL: When we first formed we felt we had a very special need to speak out, but also a very special voice with which to speak. One example of that is we are positioned to take on the myth that supporting the troops means supporting the war. We can, as military families, say “of course we support the troops — they are our hearts, they are our souls, they are our loved ones. What we do not support is the illegal, immoral, reckless military misadventure that they have been sent on.” We recharacterize it by saying, “supporting the troops means opposing the war. Supporting the troops means opposing the policies that are putting them in Iraq.” As military families we can stand up and say that.

And we can have conversations with people who might slam the door on other people. When we start with “our son is a Marine,” there are doors that are open to us and we can start conversations that maybe wouldn’t happen if other people tried to start that conversation. And we think that is really important for building the movement.

rabble: What reaction has MFSO received?

NL: We’ve really been welcomed into the peace movement in the U.S. We spoke from the stage on February 15 in New York, at large demonstrations and small neighbourhood talks. We feel part and parcel of the peace movement. We spoke at a big rally in Boston right after the bombs started to drop (on Iraq) and there were about 50,000 people. I welcomed everybody and thanked them for coming to the largest support-the-troops rally that we had ever seen because in our view supporting the troops means opposing the war.

rabble: As members of the Steelworkers union, you and Charley were part of the anti-globalization movement. Can you speak to the link that you see between the war on Iraq and corporate globalization?

NL: There is the corporate globalization agenda that has been so devastating for working people around the world. What we see in Iraq is the next step. Armed globalization. They are using military force to get the access for the corporations. They will do it through a treaty or they will do it through a gun. The United States is using both and we’re going to be opposing them.

rabble: How is MFSO reaching out to those young potential economic drafts?

CR: Members of MFSO go to high schools and do what we call counter-recruiting. They speak the truth and talk about what the military is really like so at least people can make a decision based on reality not on the video game vision of the army that the military presents. One of the things that they do is write down everything the recruiter says and then ask them to sign it. There are a lot of promises made that when you read the fine print aren’t really true.

rabble: What’s the next step for MFSO?

CR: The next step is for MFSO is March 20. We’ll be with people all over the United States, in small towns and large cities, speaking out against the war — uniting with veterans and others to join the world in saying no to this war.