Thousands gather to show soldiers unconditional support

Sunday, March 16, 2003

MOUNDSVILLE, W.Va. -- As he sailed to some secret destination on the other side of the world, Marine Pfc. William Whitelatch wrote to girlfriend Latrisha Durbin, distressed by news coverage of anti-war protests.

"He was worried that people hate them," Durbin said. "They knew that people weren't real supportive."

That's why Durbin, 22, and the couple's 3-year-old son, Clinton, joined a red-, white- and blue-clad crowd of more than 3,000 on a high school football field Saturday afternoon for a pro-troops rally.

"I don't know that we ever want to go to war," Durbin said, "but I want them to know we support them."

Organizers billed the event as a show of support for the servicemen and women who have already been deployed, not for President Bush and his war plan. Many in the crowd made the same distinction.

As tens of thousands rallied against the war worldwide, from Washington to Greece, 21-year-old Alicia Johnson dressed her 7-week-old son, Gavin, in a blue cotton T-shirt that read, "Littlest Marine."

Gavin slept as cameras filmed the silent tribute to the father he hasn't met, Staff Sgt. Daniel Johnston -- deployed one week before the birth.

Johnson, who had been living in Yuma, Ariz., came back to West Virginia to be with family while her husband is away.

"We're just here to show we're all supporting them and we can't wait 'til they get home," she said.

Johnson's mother, school bus driver Debra Kittle, said she also came for two young people she once drove to school every day. Both are now soldiers stationed overseas.

"There's a lot of love and support here for them," she said. "I'm glad there are young men and women who enlist in the armed forces so I don't have to."

So far, 3,051 West Virginia guardsmen and reservists are among the 188,592 nationwide who have been called to active duty to assist in the buildup to a possible war with Iraq. That includes 511 soldiers in the National Guard's 1092nd Engineering Battalion, which has a unit in Moundsville.

Gov. Bob Wise, who appeared briefly at the rally, also visited five National Guard detachments Saturday to "look every soldier in the eye and say 'Thank you."'

Four Guard units with 460 soldiers were activated Friday, along with about 20 members of a Ripley-based Army Reserve postal unit.

Wise praised the Guard for consistently rating No. 1 nationwide in readiness. "When the country turns and calls up its best, they call West Virginians," he said.

Rally organizer David Knuth, director of the Marshall County Chamber of Commerce, said videotapes of the rally will be sent to troops from northern West Virginia.

That will encourage soldiers who are worried about survival, not the politics of their deployment, said Army Maj. Michael Hummel, a scout platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division during the Gulf War.

"Knowing you are fighting for great American patriots such as yourselves -- people who respect you, who care for you, who are 100 percent behind you -- is a very powerful combat multiplier," Hummel said. "We must put the politics aside, and recognize and honor the selflessness of these men and women."

John Nanny, a 61-year-old Marine Corps veteran from Wheeling, also said the rally had little to do with supporting the war plan.

"There's nothing more demoralizing than going into combat and not hearing something positive," he said.

Although several small groups have gathered around the state in recent month, mainly to protest the impending war, the Moundsville rally was the state's first mass gathering.

In January, some anti-war organizations combined the commemoration of Martin Luther King Day with concerns about Iraq, marching in Wheeling and gathering at the state Veterans Memorial in Charleston.

In February, anti-war students picketed at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown. And earlier this month, hundreds of students at West Virginia and Marshall universities staged war protests as part of a nationwide effort.

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