Originally created 11/25/03

Thousands demand closing of controversial Fort Benning school



COLUMBUS, Ga. -- Ted Sexauer attended airborne school at Fort Benning in 1967 before serving two tours as a medic in Vietnam, where he experienced the carnage of war.

Now the 57-year-old disabled veteran from Sonoma, Calif., is concerned the United States is mired in another divisive conflict in Iraq that will leave Americans wondering if the cost in young soldiers' lives was worth the price.

"It is obvious that this is as wrong a war as Vietnam," he said. "I feel for the soldiers who are there."

On Sunday, Sexauer sat in a lawn chair wearing an olive-green Vietnam-era field jacket with his airborne and medic badges while an estimated 10,000 demonstrators, ranging from teenagers to senior citizens, marched at the main gate of Fort Benning.

They gather there every November to demand the closing of a military school they blame for atrocities committed against the poor in Latin America.

"We are here to speak for them," said the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest who founded School of the Americas Watch and has been leading the demonstrations for 14 years.

"We oppose the violence generated by this school and Fort Benning soldiers. Our way is the way of love with our brothers and sisters who are victims of violence," he said.

Bourgeois vowed to return every year until the school is shut down.

The school moved to Fort Benning in 1984 and was known as the Army's School of the Americas. Now it is under the jurisdiction of the Defense Department with a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

SOA Watch prides itself on holding peaceful demonstrations, but some protesters engage in acts of civil disobedience.

Brig. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, the post commander, said seven protesters were arrested for trespassing Saturday and one person was arrested for damaging government property after he spray painted Fort Benning's main gate.

William Quigley, a Loyola University law professor and legal adviser to SOA Watch, said another 30-40 protesters were arrested on trespassing charges Sunday after crossing onto military property.

Those convicted of trespassing face sentences ranging from probation to six months in a federal prison and a $5,000 fine.

While SOA Watch has a single focus - the closing of the school - it was evident from the banners and signs on Sunday that many of the protesters, such as Sexauer, are concerned about the war in Iraq and the deaths of U.S. soldiers who are trying to stabilize the country.

"Life in a war zone is dehumanizing," said Sexauer, a member of a group known as Veterans for Peace. He said the troops went to Iraq thinking they would be treated as liberators.

"Instead, they're roughing people up," he said. "So my heart goes out to our younger brothers. I wish them luck with their healing."

Eric LeCompte, the protest's organizing coordinator, said it was the largest protest ever. "We believe our nonviolent action was effective," he said.

Freakley, speaking at a news conference Sunday morning with institute commandant Col. Richard Downie and Columbus Mayor Bob Poydasheff, said he was obligated to arrest those who trespass on the post.

Downie said he was encouraged that almost 600 protesters had attended the school's open house on Saturday.

"I find it somewhat frustrating that this group is trying to close an institution that is working for the same principals they are," he said.

He added that the school strengthens democracy and teaches soldiers and police officers their role in a democratic society.

The mayor said he found it repulsive for a group to hold a demonstration outside Fort Benning at a time when people have died in the war in Iraq.

Fort Benning's 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, helped lead the charge into Iraq and Freakley served there during the war.

"I don't deny them their right to demonstrate but don't do it when people at Fort Benning have died and are recovering from their wounds," the mayor said.

During SOA Watch's traditional funeral march outside the gates, the names of thousands of alleged victims of violence in South America were read as protesters raised their crosses to honor them.

Demonstrators faced about 60 civilian officers in blue uniforms and military police wearing camouflage uniforms.

The heavy police presence was partly due to concerns among fort officials that those protesting the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Miami may have joined the peaceful demonstration. Gas masks were slung over officers' legs, and people entering the area had to pass through a metal detector.

Medea Benjamin, a San Francisco peace activist, said she was pepper-sprayed in Miami and then joined the protest in Georgia.

"This is very special to me," she said. "It's so beautiful, so spiritual, you'll be touched for life."

On the Net:

SOA Watch: http://www.soaw.org

Western Hemisphere Institute: http://www.benning.army.mil/whinsec/