Crash of Symbols

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Crash of Symbols A grieving family gets pulled into an anti-war demonstration

In a clash that illustrates the power of symbols over good intentions, a candlelight vigil last week honoring 1,000 troops killed in Iraq triggered a screaming confrontation between the family of a fallen soldier and members of the Dallas Peace Center.

"We got tricked," says Kathy Herriage, a family friend of the soldier. The ugly debacle left Channel 5, the publicist who promoted the vigil and leaders of the Peace Center blaming each other.

On September 7, members of his family received the news that Specialist Chad H. Drake, 23, of Garland had been killed in Iraq. The family began getting calls from TV stations; some reporters informed them that Drake was the 1,000th soldier to die in the war.

Anti-war groups had been anticipating the "1,000 dead" milestone. MoveOn.org began coordinating vigils around the country. Candance Robison, member of an anti-war group called Military Families Speak Out, sent messages to media on behalf of the Dallas Peace Center promoting a "Service of Mourning & Remembrance for 1,000 U.S. military war dead in Iraq" on September 8.

Though the Department of Defense did not describe Drake as the 1,000th casualty, somehow Drake got singled out. Ginger Drake, Chad's mother, and other members of the family declined to do interviews but gave Steve Alberts of KXAS-Channel 5 photos and information about Drake's life.

"He did a beautiful presentation of my brother," says Jennifer Ott, Chad's sister. "At the end, it said the Drake family would like to invite everyone to a candlelight vigil."

The Drakes felt the broadcast made it seem as if they were involved. Ott called Alberts, who assured her the vigil was non-political. She then spoke to Sherry Bollenbacher, a member of the Peace Center, who also reassured her it was non-political.

"I looked at my mother and said we have to go," Ott says.

About 20 of Drake's relatives arrived at Dallas City Hall just before 7 p.m. When the family arrived, only a handful of people were there, Herriage says, though they could hear drums. "I thought there was a band. Then it just didn't feel right. I could tell it wasn't like a marching band."

Herriage says a woman approached them and asked if they were there for the vigil. Mrs. Drake introduced herself and asked about the drums. "If this is some kind of protest," Mrs. Drake said, "I'm not going to participate."

Bollenbacher introduced herself and reassured her: "Oh, no, we're just here to comfort you in your grief."

Mrs. Drake saw a man with a basket full of fliers accusing Bush of war crimes. Bollenbacher again reassured her.

"I had told him he couldn't hand those out," Bollenbacher says, but she allowed a banner that read "Vets for Peace."

The Drakes saw that banner and then realized the drummer was wearing a T-shirt that said "Drums Not Guns." Believing it was an anti-war protest, Mrs. Drake burst into tears. She started screaming, "Somebody has lied to me."

Herriage says the situation turned even uglier when another woman walked over, grabbed the weeping Mrs. Drake and shook her. "She said, 'Shut up and I'll explain our cause to you,'" Herriage says. "That's when Ginger went ballistic."

The Dallas Observer identified the woman as Jan Sanders, 73-year-old wife of U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders. "I did not touch her," Sanders says. "I spoke in a calm voice. I didn't challenge her."

When one of the Drakes' supporters blocked a TV cameraman, he pushed back and ran into Mrs. Drake. "Ginger thought he shoved her," Herriage says. After police and Homeland Security officers descended to sort things out, the family left.

Furious, the Drakes demanded that Channel 5 issue an on-air apology.

Alberts says he was horrified and apologized to the Drakes. The station didn't air an apology but posted a story on its Web site quoting an e-mail from a family supporter alleging that Mrs. Drake was "harassed and yelled at, booed and hissed, told her son died for nothing." (None of those interviewed by the Observer reported hearing that.) The story included an apology from Fort Worth state Representative Lon Burnam, director of the Dallas Peace Center.

Burnam blamed Alberts, saying the event was intended to have political overtones and the family should have been informed. "I would have to question the judgment of the people who encouraged her to come to something sponsored by people opposed to the war," Burnam says.

Alberts believes he was misled by Robison, who e-mailed him, other media and the Drakes an apology. "I told each and every one of you that this event was going to be a non-partisan event open to anyone who wished to attend and honor the troops," Robison wrote. "Unfortunately, there was another plan in the works that I was unaware of, and the event turned into yet another political anti-war event. Had I known there was going to be drums, a bullhorn and fliers, I would've never encouraged this family to attend. I feel their grief was exploited by several organizers of the events."

Robison points to Hadi Jawad, coordinator of the Dallas Peace Center's "End the Occupation of Iraq Committee." But Jawad insists the event wasn't political. The drums were supposed to symbolize heartbeats, he says, and the bullhorn was necessary because several speakers were elderly ministers.

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