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A Scourge, Not a Surge

One American who is not going to be impressedby George W. Bush’s arguments this week for escalating the war in Iraq is Harriet Elaine Johnson — or Momma J, as she likes to be called. Her 22-year-old son, Army Specialist Darius T. Jennings, was part of the president’s original surge into Iraq, a participant in the invasion of March 2003. One surge was enough for this family — for her son never came back. Specialist Jennings was killed, along with 16 other U.S. soldiers, eight months after the invasion, when their Chinook helicopter was shot down near Fallujah.

Jennings was the third African-American soldier from the town of Orangeburg, South Carolina — population a mere 13,000 — to die in this war, a stark symbol of the radically unequal sharing of sacrifice imposed by this catastrophic conflict. In a town plagued with 9 percent unemployment — almost twice the national average — Jennings had few options other than working as a bagger at Winn-Dixie, which he did briefly. After a short stint in college, he joined the Army in 2001 as a way to get some direction, some discipline, and to make some money for a future he would never see.

I sat on a bench on the Washington, D.C., mall a few weeks ago, talking to Johnson about the loss of her son, when she handed me her business card. The top of the card, in bold print, reads “Military Mom on a Mission.” Standing out, there’s a picture of her son in uniform. Johnson is a diminutive 43-year-old former industrial-quality inspector, and her name on the card is as understated as her physical stature. Down at the bottom, in small print, her occupation is listed simply as “activist.”

At her son’s memorial service, she denounced the president for sending troops to die in a trumped-up war. Then, she got a call from the White House inviting her to meet with Bush. She was flown to Fort Carson in Colorado Springs and soon found herself with a handful of other grieving families in a makeshift building out on the training field. “I should have slapped him right there,” she said of her meeting with the president.

She recounted the scene: “When Bush asked us the name of each of our children, and I said mine, he said, ‘I know who you are,’ ” Momma J recalled with a bitter laugh. “And I told him that I knew who he was too. And then I said, ‘Why was my son killed?’ ”

“ ‘Because he was on a mission,’ Bush answered. And that’s when I told him: ‘You’re telling me I’m hostile? I’ve got a dead son in Iraq, and you’ve got two daughters out there partying. I’m gonna keep with you, Mr. President. I’m gonna be on your front door and I’m gonna be on your back door. Now I’m the one on a mission.”

Her mission, she said, was to end the war, bring the troops home and make sure they get the care they need. I met up with Momma J when she joined two dozen other military families who had come to Washington to lobby for their cause. And they weren’t just pressuring the White House. They were nearly as impatient with the newly elected Democratic Congress — one of their first meetings was with a staffer from Nancy Pelosi’s office.

Momma J doesn’t want to hear about oversight and investigative hearings, nor does she countenance the mealy-mouthed Democrats who speak in terms like “phased redeployment.” She wants the troops out, period.

“I would hope they would already have a plan,” she said of the Democrats. “They’ve had three years to think about this. We’re not gonna sit around and watch them play political checkers. I’m not gonna let up on them because they’re Democrats. I’m gonna push them even harder. Gonna turn up the heat even higher.”

Since I spoke to Momma J, Democratic leaders Pelosi and Harry Reid have, rather belatedly, issued a public letter opposing the president’s proposed troop escalation. But that’s still far from a definitive plan or policy of ending the war. Indeed, it was watching Pelosi’s rather grotesque self-congratulatory ritual at her televised swearing-in that brought my talk with Momma J rushing back into my head. I mused how much more appropriate it would have been had Pelosi, instead of showcasing her privileged grandchildren — heirs to a fabulous multimillion-dollar estate and in no danger of ever facing military service — called for a moment of silent remembrance for those killed in Iraq. And then to have used that bully pulpit, right there and then, to vow an end to the war.

But that would be asking too much from a hack politician like Pelosi. Whenever this war finally comes to an end, it will be because of the enduring, relentless efforts of people like Momma J. The politicians will be the last to act.

A fit of depression provoked by the loss of her son has cost Momma J her blue-collar job. “I’ve had to go out and buy my own health insurance,” she said. Her husband supports her work by driving a truck. Most of her days are spent working with other members of Military Families Speak Out, lobbying on behalf of their children — those who have been killed and those still wearing the uniform. She spends as much time as possible talking and visiting with the young men who served alongside her son.

“They say, ‘Keep up the good work, because it’s all bullshit, Momma J. Just plain bullshit.’ ”

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