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Death of son in Iraq means different life for mom
Woman who questioned first lady now is activist against the war
BY KATIE WANG
The Star-Ledger (New Jersey)
The firehall in Hamilton Township was alive with hundreds of giddy Republicans when Laura Bush stepped to the podium last September to deliver a campaign stump speech for her husband.
The first lady was in the middle of her remarks about the war in Iraq when a loud, booming voice cut her off.
"If this war is so justified, why aren't your children serving?" barked Sue Niederer.
All eyes turned to Niederer, a stout, bespectacled woman who stood wearing her dead son's floppy Army camouflage hat and a white T-shirt stamped with his wedding day photo and the message, "President Bush, You Killed My Son."
The incident helped transform the real estate agent and high school substitute teacher from Mercer County into a leader for anti-war activists.
Since then, Niederer, 56,has traveled to Greece, Iowa and Washington, D.C., as a protester, often introduced as the T-shirt lady who stood up to Laura Bush. She works with a network of military families who have lost loved relatives in Iraq and want to bring the troops home.
"She's amazing," said Cindy Sheehan, president of Gold Star Families, which opposes the war. "She's very out there, involved and very inspirational."
Niederer's activism is her way of coping with the loss of her only son, Army 2nd Lt. Seth Jeremy Dvorin, who was killed while defusing a roadside bomb on Feb. 3, 2004. He was a 24-year-old newlywed when he died.
Since then, she has used her anger to drive her anti-war activities.
"I want vindication," she said. "I want Bush and Rummy (Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) standing in front of me with an apology to hundreds of those families and say, 'I was wrong.'"
Niederer didn't always feel this way.
When the war started, she was apathetic. Except for a stint as an Old Bridge councilwoman in the 1970s, she was not politically active. When the anti-war protesters hit the streets before the Iraqi invasion, she was at home.
Her ex-husband, Richard Dvorin, who is Seth's father, isn't moved by her activism.
"Where was she with her mouth when the first soldier died? Or the 400th soldier died?" Dvorin asked. "Why did she wait until 527 when she jumped on the bandwagon? If it wasn't for the fact that she lost her son, she wouldn't say anything. I find her actions to be repulsive."
Her daughter, Rebekah Dvorin, supports her mother's beliefs, but said she does not like seeing her brother's memory used in anti-war protests. Nor does she support her mother's tactics. When Niederer was arrested at the Laura Bush rally, Rebekah said, she was embarrassed.
"She looks for trouble. She looks to have her face on TV," Rebekah said. "People grieve differently."
Niederer acknowledges being "ignorant" until her son was killed.
"I should've done it before," she said. "American people sit on their hands until it affects them."
She, too, sat on her hands until a few weeks after her son died. That was when a group called the Coalition for Peace called Niederer and invited her to attend a rally in Princeton where then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was speaking. She accepted and marched with other protesters carrying a sign that said, "Powell Lies. Who dies."
Niederer was angry.
She wanted an apology. It didn't happen. But she left with new connections in the anti-war movement, giving her a way to turn her grief into something she saw as productive.
She created a new e-mail identity -- antiwarmom -- on her Internet account.
Then, last August, she made the infamous T-shirt after protesting in Central Park during the week of the Republican National Convention. Another person saw her sign, which said, "President Bush, You Killed My Son," and suggested she put it on a T-shirt.
She brought a picture of Seth on his wedding day to Kinko's and had the shirt made.
On the day of the Laura Bush event, Niederer carried the T-shirt in her hand and slipped it over her 5-foot-2 frame once inside. There were more than 700 people there, eager to see the First Lady.
When Bush arrived and started talking about the troops and their needs overseas, Niederer grew agitated. That's when she jeered Bush.
Bush supporters drowned Niederer out by chanting, "Four more years! Four more years!"
One woman yelled, "Your son chose to fight in that war."
Niederer shot back, "You should be thankful my son enlisted -- it saved yours."
Secret Service agents swarmed and asked her to leave. She felt someone push, so she shoved back.
"You took everything," she said to the police that day. "Go ahead and arrest me."
They did and charged her with deviant trespassing.
The charges were eventually dropped, but Niederer was sought after by many protest groups. In January, she was in Washington, D.C., for Bush's inauguration. Marching in the streets, she screamed, "Mr. Bush. You killed my son."
In March, she traveled to Athens, where she delivered a speech in a worldwide protest marking the second anniversary of the Iraq invasion. After she returned, she was on another plane -- this time to Iowa, where she delivered three speeches in two days. In June, she spoke at a peace forum in Maplewood.
Over the July 4 Fourth weekend, she was in Philadelphia, where she was introduced as the "Little Big Mouth," because of her petite size and boisterous persona.
Then there are seminars and awards ceremonies she attends in her son's honor. She pays for most trips out of her pocket and usually goes alone. Her husband, Greg, a Republican, does not accompany her. But he supports her and also thinks the war in Iraq is a mistake.
"People think she's crazy for what she does," said Greg Niederer. "They don't understand. If they were in her shoes, they would understand better."
This summer she is asking all of the high schools in the state to send her a copy of their policies regarding military recruiters. She plans to ask all schools to invite "counter-recruiters," people who can offer a different point of view about the military. She is already doing that on her own -- speaking to the children of friends who are thinking about enlisting.
"I could do this full-time, between coordinating events, speaking, going different places and helping organizations," she said. "This could be a full-time job. I just could really not afford to do that."
In between all of the events, which she keeps track of in her head and pocket calendar, she steals a few quiet moments. There are the visits to Seth's grave and trips to a park bench in Mercer County Park that was dedicated to him by a friend. It is there, far from the protests and the rallies, where Niederer grieves in a different way.
She cries and she talks to Seth, whom she calls her best friend. She will continue her activism, she said, until the troops come home or until Seth tells her to stop.
"I still function," she said. "Do I still function the way I used to? Do I come back to being more of a human being? I lost my child. No parent buries a child."
Katie Wang may be reached at email@example.com or (973) 392-1504.