By Anna Varela
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/12/05
Mary Ann MacCombie didn't protest Vietnam. She was in her early 20s and wasn't sure she understood that war well enough to take a stand.
And she didn't know anybody who died there.
When the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, she was "cautiously supportive." And when her son's Army unit joined the fight, she thought it would be like the Gulf War in 1991 — few casualties, "in and out."
In April 2004, MacCombie's son was killed in Iraq. Suddenly the war became personal.
On Thursday, two years after the invasion of Iraq, MacCombie spoke out at an anti-war demonstration for the first time. It took her more than a year to trust herself to talk about her son without breaking down, a year spent in a state of shock and coping with the bureaucratic details that follow death in a faraway place.
She joined about three dozen protesters who gathered in front of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Decatur to show support for Cindy Sheehan, the California mother who lost a son in Iraq and has camped out on a road leading to President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he is vacationing. Sheehan has vowed to stay until he meets with her personally.
MacCombie read a speech she wrote ahead of time because she didn't think she could speak off the cuff. "It's too late for my son," she said, "but not for his best friend and thousands of their fellow soldiers and Marines. Now is the right time, the right place, the right mission — to bring our troops home."
Afterward, MacCombie admitted she was nervous. She knows she shook a little during her speech. But she thought she did OK, and she's willing to do it again.
She's thinking about going to Texas to join Sheehan.
When Sgt. Ryan Montgomery Campbell settled in for his yearlong tour of duty, MacCombie supported her son by sending video games, music CDs and a laptop computer, making sure his bills got paid, and e-mailing him regularly.
The 25-year-old swapped gossip with his mother about friends back home in Kirksville, Mo. They talked about the intense heat of the Baghdad summer and the college classes she was taking. Toward the end of the tour, Campbell e-mailed his mother to suggest she meet him at his base in Europe so they could see Germany and Spain together.
But a few days before he was to leave Iraq in April 2004, he e-mailed her with bad news: The Army had ordered his unit to stay for four more months.
Morale 'at an all-time low'
The extension was a shock. The soldiers in his unit had already packed and shipped their personal items to their home base in Germany. Campbell dropped plans to re-enlist, intentions based on assurances that he could be stationed in Hawaii. Now, he wrote his mother, he couldn't trust the Army to keep its word.
On April 10, 2004, he wrote:
"Well, the days are just dragging by over here ... before at least there was something to look forward to. ... I continue to hate this place. I hate the Army."
He e-mailed his sister, Brooke Campbell, and urged her not to vote for Bush. On April 26 he sent his sister another e-mail, noting that he was pulling 16-hour workdays providing security for an engineering unit assigned to dig up roadsides where Iraqi insurgents often hid bombs.
"My morale is at an all-time low," he wrote, "and the days are hard. Our mission is more dangerous than ever before."
On April 28, Campbell called his mother twice, sounding very discouraged. She didn't know how to console him.
The next day, he was killed by a suicide bomber along with seven other soldiers from his unit.
Mom's Bush ranch protest
MacCombie buried her son in Arlington National Cemetery on May 11, 2004. The next week she moved to Atlanta to be closer to Brooke, a graduate student at Emory University.
MacCombie had remained in Kirksville so Ryan would have a home to return to. When he died, there was no point staying there, she decided. She dropped out of college because she didn't have the heart to go on.
She lives in a rented duplex in Virginia-Highland and drives the red Jeep Wrangler her son bought on his last two-week leave home. At 59, she thinks she probably looks silly in "his dream car," but it makes her feel closer to her son.
MacCombie has been slower to go public with her opposition to the war than her daughter. Brooke, 29, appeared in an anti-Bush TV ad that was aired in swing states during the 2004 election campaign.
MacCombie long ago concluded the president's stated reasons for going to war in Iraq were untrue. One of her first steps toward protest came July 22, when Bush visited Atlanta to promote his Social Security plan and the new Medicare prescription drug benefit. She stood silently in a black T-shirt with "Bush Lied" on the front and "They Died" on the back. Names of U.S. troops who died in the war cover both sides of the shirt. Her son's name runs across the middle of the B in "Bush."
She is monitoring the situation in Texas, where news reports Thursday said more than 50 war protesters had joined Sheehan. Rumors were flying that Sheehan would be arrested. If that happens, MacCombie is ready to take her place to show Bush that the California mother "speaks for a lot of us."
Several opinion polls show support for the war has slipped. In a USA Today-CNN-Gallup Poll released this week, 56 percent of Americans surveyed said the war was going badly. The same poll asked if they supported sending more troops, keeping troop levels the same, a partial pullout or a complete pullout. The leading choice was complete withdrawal, with 33 percent favoring that option. Twenty-three percent supported a partial withdrawal.
MacCombie rejects the idea that mothers like her endanger the troops by speaking out. She feels they are already demoralized and nothing she says will put them in greater danger than they already face. She also knows that many people, including some mothers who have lost children in Iraq, see her criticism as bringing dishonor to the soldiers who have died. She said she respects their feelings and hopes they will respect hers.
She thinks about the mothers whose sons and daughters are still fighting. More than a thousand U.S. soldiers and Marines have been killed in Iraq since her son died. "How many is enough?" she asks.
"Maybe it's going to take more speaking out. ... It just seems to be the right time for me personally."
And, she notes sadly, she didn't speak up during Vietnam.
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