While activists in America's urban centers stepped up their protests to the war in Iraq, Sgt. Kelly Dougherty was cruising sand-whipped highways strewn with bent metal and charred bodies.
The 26-year-old soldier in Iraq had a strong impulse to protect her fellow Americans, but it didn't stop her from agreeing with what the critics back home were saying about the president's war.
"We never found the weapons of mass destruction," Dougherty said. "They weren't there."
Troops didn't find al Qaeda either, she added. The news may come as a bitter pill for staunch proponents of the war, but Dougherty says the U.S. occupation appears to be turning indifference into resentment against Americans.
After completing a 10-month, prolonged tour of war duty with the National Guard's 220th Military Police Company, in July Dougherty joined a handful of Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans across the nation to launch the anti-war group Iraq Veterans Against the War.
The fledgling group, which is urging President Bush to bring the troops home, has just 60 members and the Colorado Springs chapter doesn't yet have a phone number. Yet Dougherty is optimistic that will soon change -- that the ranks of anti-war veterans will continue to grow amid unanswered questions about the war.
Dougherty's group is just one of many that have formed across the country to oppose the war. Military Families Speak Out, she notes, was organized in 2002 with just a few families. Today that group claims 1,700 members.
Bush, meanwhile, has remained steadfast in pressing the war. Less than a week after a narrow victory over Democrat John F. Kerry, Bush launched attacks on insurgent strongholds in Fallujah.
Some local anti-war activists, like Bill Sulzman, director of the nonprofit Citizens for Peace in Space, are watching Dougherty's group closely, hoping it will grow as reservists and National Guard troops are returned home.
The rights of veterans
But it is still too early to know if as many citizens and political leaders will heed the veterans' stance and messages as in the anti-war Vietnam War era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, said retired Army Lt. Col. Joe Gmelch, who was a battalion major in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.
Gmelch supported the Vietnam War to prevent the spread of communism and today supports the Iraq war as a way to bring democracy to a people repressed by decades of dictatorial rule.
He also supports the right of veterans to disagree with wars.
"If they've gone and served and started participating in an anti-war effort, I've got no problem with it, so long as they've earned their stripes," Gmelch said. "They're not being unpatriotic; they have a right to speak."
Dougherty has also been featured at several local rallies or events with anti-war themes. She recently spoke to a small crowd who gathered inside the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission's downtown office.
A Cañon City native and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs biology senior, she began classes eight years ago after enrolling in the National Guard to earn money for college. She plans to graduate in December.
Now she wants Americans to know that troops occasionally wonder if they are being sent into harm's way for futile causes.
"A lot of people became disillusioned with our mission there," she said.
Protecting scrap metal
She also said that many of the troops are disheartened because there is no clear exit plan in the one-and-a-half-year conflict that has resulted in the deaths of 1,100 U.S. soldiers and untold tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Troops, she said, sometimes lack equipment; the Humvee she traveled in while in Iraq, for example, lacked protective armor plating.
Dougherty describes situations in which she and small groups of three to six soldiers were often sent to guard semi-tractor trailers abandoned by a U.S. contractor. Crowds of Iraqi men and boys would swell around them, even as Dougherty and other troops aimed guns to deter crowds from the trucks.
"People would come from everywhere, hoping to get maybe a piece of scrap metal so that they could sell it and feed their families," Dougherty said. "It was frustrating because we were risking our lives for this piece of scrap metal."
Dougherty never disregarded an order, but said she can empathize with the up to 19 soldiers under Army investigation for refusing last month to participate in what was they deemed a suicide mission.
-- Michael de Yoanna