Memorial Day isn’t until Monday. But for Rich Davis, a 20-year veteran of the Navy, it seems to come every Saturday. That’s when he pulls out a handmade sign and heads for a street corner near the Chester County Court House in this suburban Philadelphia community.
Mr. Davis, 54, is a pro-military protester who makes a public stand each week in support of the troops and their mission.
In 2001, Mr. Davis retired from the Navy and ended up settling in West Chester, where he spent 2006 and 2007 watching antiwar protesters rally each Saturday from 11 a.m. until noon outside the courthouse near his apartment. The Chester County Peace Movement, Mr. Davis would later learn, had been demonstrating at the site since March 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq. At first he hoped someone would challenge the protesters, speak up for the troops, and defend their mission. On Sept. 8, 2007 he decided that someone had to be him.
Mr. Davis had been building to such a decision for a long time. He was just a kid during the Vietnam War, but he is still bothered by the disrespect heaped on returning Vietnam vets in the 1960s and ’70s. In part that is because, in 1967, Mr. Davis attended the funeral of a man he idolized – his sister’s boyfriend, Marine Lance Cpl. Alan R. Schultz from Levittown, Pa. Schultz was killed by mortar fire in Vietnam.
“Al was a great guy,” Mr. Davis remembers. “When we got the word that he had been killed, I felt the bottom fall out. I cried the rest of that summer.”
Even today, Mr. Davis can’t look at an antiwar protest without thinking that Schultz, his comrades and their modern-day counterparts are being disrespected. So after seeing the war protesters each week, Mr. Davis said to himself, “Not this war. Not this time.”
“We’re not silent anymore,” Mr. Davis told me. “We refuse to let antiwar protesters have the stage to themselves.”
Not that he wants to stifle dissent. He just doesn’t want to go unanswered the signs and protests that he believes encourage the enemy and demoralize U.S. troops. So, sign in hand in September, he walked to the corner praying he would have the strength to stand there, to be seen and heard.
Seen he was. Though there was plenty of room on the corner, he says he was bumped, shoved and challenged. One person asked, “Do you live in fear?” Another demanded, “Why don’t you go and serve?”
“They had that corner for five years, every Saturday, unopposed,” Mr. Davis told me. “They couldn’t stand the thought of one person having a sign they couldn’t tolerate.”
More people than the antiwar protesters took notice. A few weeks after he started his own weekly protests, Mr. Davis had about 40 sign-holding, flag-waving supporters at his side, thanks to support from the Gathering of Eagles, a national organization supporting the troops.
The number of antiwar protesters began to swell in response, which led to an increase in taunts hurled between the two groups. Mr. Davis admits the childish behavior cut both ways. “At times we have been confrontational and done things that were inappropriate, especially in the early days.” But now, he says, “I have zero tolerance for yelling and buffoonery.”
In March, an angry antiwar protester hit a woman who covers the weekly demonstrations on her pro-troop blog. That led the local police to lay down a few ground rules. Now each group is to keep to its own side of the street, and the two groups swap sides of the street each week.
There are a few other changes. Mr. Davis’s once informal group is getting organized. They have a name, Chester County Victory Movement, and a Web site (www.americansheepdogs.com) that they use to share information about welcoming troops home, sending care packages, and joining discussions at West Chester University.
Mr. Davis also sends weekly emails to thank people for their support, and to pass on encouragement. A few members of Mr. Davis’s group meet regularly to discuss problems. At these meetings, some people raise ideas aimed at embarrassing those on the antiwar side of the street. But Mr. Davis constantly refers back to the reason that brought him to the corner in the first place: letting the public and the troops know that there is a reservoir of support for the sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines who risk their lives to fight the war on terror.
“Every time we go out, I remind the guys that we represent more than ourselves,” he told me. “The troops and their families look at us. So I hope we present ourselves with the same type of dignity, courage and honor that our own sons and daughters are showing in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
What Mr. Davis wants those troops to see is the solid wall of red, white and blue of his group’s flags and “Support Our Troops” signs. He averages about 30 supporters a week, but hopes for a larger turnout for Flag Day, June 14.
Mr. Davis notes that he has been accused of being part of a vast right-wing conspiracy that trains and pays pro-troop advocates. Asked about that, he offers an answer that may inspire others to join his efforts.
“In a way they’re right,” he told me. “I was trained by a family that taught me to love our country, not blame it. And I am paid by troops and their families who say thanks for doing this, thanks for being here.”
Mr. Ferris is an assistant editor and columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer.