The Few, The Proud, The Shattered

Tina Richards' son returned, suicidal, from Iraq battlefields. Now, the Missouri woman is waging her own war in Congress.

It's the afternoon of July 17, 2007, just a few hours before Illinois Senator Dick Durbin will see that cots and deodorant are delivered to colleagues in anticipation of the Senate's all-night debate on the war.

Richards is busy choreographing a press conference, rally and march for Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), part of its "Funding the War is Killing the Troops" campaign. Television cameras are out in force, trained on Richards and three IVAW members. The event is to culminate with symbolic gravitas: the delivery of tri-folded, funeral-size flags to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina and Hoyer.

Because Democratic leaders are difficult to reach inside the Capitol, the plan is to deposit the flags at their legislative offices. In the middle of IVAW's media briefing, however, Richards learns that Pelosi is about to hold a news conference on the Capitol steps. IVAW decides to march with some 40 followers to confront the Speaker directly.

Friends of Cloy Richards kick off the "Funding the War is Killing the Troops" campaign on Capitol Hill on July 17, 2007.
Charles Steck
Friends of Cloy Richards kick off the "Funding the War is Killing the Troops" campaign on Capitol Hill on July 17, 2007.
Richards wears her son's Marine cover during peace actions, a getup decidedly less radical than some of her fellow activists'.
Charles Steck
Richards wears her son's Marine cover during peace actions, a getup decidedly less radical than some of her fellow activists'.

As soon as the activists arrive on the sun-scorched terrace, Capitol police come jogging toward the group and promptly erect steel barricades to prevent the protesters from reaching Pelosi's podium. "You've got to have permits, ma'am," police officers demand. "You can't be on the terrace."

The determined look on Richards' face indicates she's tempted to breach the barricade. In the five months since the 44-year-old Marine mom became a rising star in the escalating anti-war movement, she's twice been arrested by Capitol police for disorderly conduct.

Richards seems to reconsider, though, as she glances toward the Iraq war vets standing rod-straight on the Capitol steps, each of them holding the flags waist-high as if at a military funeral. She makes up her mind and dials Hoyer's office to urge someone to come outside and accept the flag.

A taskmaster who describes herself as "pro-military," Richards grows impatient a few minutes after hanging up with Hoyer's office. She calls again. "It's really hot out here, and the soldiers are wearing black shirts. Will it be much longer?"

Just then Terry Lierman, Hoyer's chief of staff, comes bounding down the steps. "There she is!" he calls, reaching to embrace Richards.

Just a few weeks prior, Richards and Lierman talked about the war that's claimed more than 3,600 American lives and the troubles veterans face upon their return home. It is but one of many meetings Richards has secured with the political establishment since she temporarily moved to the nation's capital as a citizen lobbyist.

"I go in with a story of a soldier and a face to pierce the political bubble of Capitol Hill," Richards explains. "There's no humanity there, no humanity whatsoever. It doesn't matter the number of people who send letters, or how many people have called, or faxed, or whatever. That doesn't touch them — where going in person does."

The cameras swarm Lierman as an IVAW member gives him the flag and begins rattling off Democrats' failures since they gained the majority. Lierman listens for a moment, smiling, before interrupting the veteran. "There're two sides to every story, but I'm really proud you're doing this."

Lierman turns back toward Richards. "It was good to see you, my dear," he says, planting a kiss on her cheek. "This means a lot to me."

On the night of March 20, 2003, the 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment crosses over the Kuwait border into Iraq. Cloy Richards mans the radio in his truck. The plan is to plow through southern oil fields on the way to the Fertile Crescent. It will be a treacherous, 115-mile trip from there to Baghdad as the Marines try to navigate a web of canals, swamps and unsteady bridges — plus thousands of Saddam Hussein's supporters.

During the first four days of the three-week trek, Cloy's unit takes on sporadic gunfire. On the fifth day, all hell breaks loose. As Cloy tells it, his Alpha battery is approaching Nasiriyah, a city just north of the Euphrates River. A perfect storm erupts: a blast of thunder, sheets of rain and the piercing whistle of rocket-propelled grenades. It's an ambush.

The Marines dive for cover as a mortar explodes a few vehicles ahead of Cloy's and blows off his commanding officer's hand. Cloy and his fellow gun bunnies ready their cannons and aim for a series of lean-tos, the mortars' probable source. When the command to fire comes over the radio, says Cloy, "We took the cannons to the mud huts and blew them all to hell."

Two months later, when it's time to return to Camp Pendleton, Cloy is told he'll be staying behind in Iraq and reporting to Najaf to support the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment until October. The extension exasperates but doesn't surprise him.

"Right before we'd left, the cops caught me at a hotel party with other Marines and civilians, lots of marijuana and Ecstasy and underage drinking. They booked us all, dropped us off at the base, and we got tested for alcohol and drugs. Those who tested positive got kicked out after we came back from Iraq. Those who popped clean were in trouble for a long time. I popped clean, but I got chosen for some pretty crappy duty in Iraq."

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