Last Thursday I was at the United States Military Academy at West Point for a book signing for Last in Their Class. (Shout out to Second Lieutenant Roberto Becerra Jr., Goat of the Class of 2007.) I was sitting next to Brigadier General John C. “Doc” Bahnsen Jr., USA (ret), USMA 1956, and his wife Peggy. Doc is a graduate of the Class of 1956 who went on to two tours in Vietnam, for which he was awarded 18 medals for gallantry. Peggy was also a retired Army officer and Vietnam vet, who in the early 1990s was the first female Regimental Tactical officer at the Academy. Doc was signing copies of his book, American Warrior: A Combat Memoir of Vietnam. Everyone who stopped by the table either served under Doc, had seen him give a speech, or had heard inspiring tales about him. It was very enjoyable to be able to talk to the Bahnsens and get Doc’s unvarnished view of world events.
At one point two men stopped by, Vietnam vets, dressed casually, wearing baseball caps with pins clearly identifying one as former Army, the other a former Marine. They were very happy to meet Doc, and exchanged a few Namisms in the friendly, easygoing way of members of that fraternity. The men were retired Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 George Samek, and retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant Larry Hoffa. They were representing Gathering of Eagles, in town to counter the planned demonstration during Saturday’s commencement ceremonies.
GOE started out as an event rather than an organization. Its members first gathered to counter the March 17, 2007, antiwar demonstration at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The protest was organized by Jane Fonda and Cindy Sheehan, among others, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1967 march on Washington. It was believed that some of the protesters intended to deface the Wall. Around 30,000 Eagles attended, making this one of the only times that the counter demonstrators outnumbered the demonstrators, who mustered no more than 20,000. Afterwards many Eagles decided that this was an effort that needed to continue. They formally stood up the organization, with the stated mission to support the troops and their families; educate Americans on defense matters; and restore patriotism and spirit in the United States. And, true to the spirit of their founding, to take their message to the streets. Said Larry, “We’re no longer going to be the silent majority. … Any time, any place, any weather, we’re going to be there.”
Since then the Eagles have participated in a number of events nationwide, often working with other patriotic organizations. George and Larry had just come from New London, Connecticut, where they faced off with protesters at the Coast Guard Academy graduation. President Bush was the commencement speaker. Demonstrators gathered near the entrance to the Academy, chanting and waving signs. They had defaced the front gate with slogans in chalk, and there were a few altercations. But around 100 Eagles and other counter-demonstrators turned out, and held their own.
At USMA the scene was similar. Cars filled with family members and other spectators were backed up along the main street through the village of Highland Falls, just south of Thayer Gate. GOE had placed small American flags along the route, and a 20-foot flag flew from a crane. The demonstrators had gathered at Memorial Park along the entry route. They had sued to be able to demonstrate on the grounds of the Academy but a court refused to issue the necessary injunction. The protest took the usual ritualized form, with signs, coffins, costumes, chanting, music blaring. Many signs mocked the vice president, who was the guest speaker. Numbers are hard to estimate, but based on several accounts there were 350-500 demonstrators, and 40-150 Eagles. Eagles came from as far north as Maine, as far south as North Carolina.
The protesters were not as aggressive as the group at New London, and there was some constructive dialogue. “There was one young Iraq vet,” George said. “He came up the hill to shake my hand. I hugged him, shook his hand and we prayed for his buddies still fighting in Iraq. … This was the finest moment of the visit. I made him think. He will be back. I loved this guy. He was brave to do that in front of these people. He got my respect — I got his — good swap!” Larry too had some good conversations with protesters. It is noteworthy that the Eagles will invest the time to try to reason with the demonstrators, trying to convey positive messages and get the demonstrators’ thinking. Confronting without being confrontational. Their assessment of the event at West Point? “As far as I’m concerned,” Larry said, “it was total victory.”
“I’ve never done stuff like this in my life,” Larry added. He recalled when he arrived back from Vietnam in 1969, flying into San Francisco. Protesters were at the airport, very hostile, with signs saying “Baby Killer” among other things. Larry went directly to the restroom and changed out of his uniform. He had no idea things were so bad in the U.S., and did not want to be the object of hatred. But now he wants to make sure that today’s Marines won’t have to go through what he went through.
George’s motives are similar, and he spoke intensely when explaining what he told the protesters. “You spit on me when I came back from Vietnam,” he said. “You will not spit on this generation of soldiers. You will never again spit on my Army.” He smiled. “You know, I quit my job to do this. My wife said — sic ‘em!”