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Woman Feels a Town's Wrath After Peace Protest

March 29, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

A peace vigil in Twentynine Palms last month was tiny compared to the massive rallies around the world in recent weeks.

But the demonstration by about 60 people in this military town in the south Mojave Desert sparked a controversy that continues to generate high emotions -- even charges the city's business leaders punished one of the vigil's organizers for expressing her opposition to the war in Iraq.

The unlikely center of the dispute is Rae Noel, a 73-year-old great-grandmother and retired real estate agent who had never taken part in any protest until she helped arrange the one in the home of the nation's largest Marine base.

Noel and her friends say that on the day before the demonstration, she was fired from her volunteer job at the Twentynine Palms Chamber of Commerce for helping to arrange it.

Chamber officials say she was not fired, but was asked to turn in her keys to the building until they could check into accusations that she used chamber resources to organize the vigil -- a charge Noel denies.

Noel said she is still feeling the sting of the episode. She said she has received several angry, anonymous calls from people who labeled her a traitor.

"It's unfortunate you can be treated this way over a volunteer job," said Joseph Matoush, a pastor in Twentynine Palms and a retired Navy chaplain who helped with the vigil.

The rally polarized the desert community that is home to the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center. During peacetime, the base houses about 10,600 Marines. An additional 8,200 dependents live in military housing or in nearby Twentynine Palms.

The base is an economic engine for the city, generating $321 million in military salaries. Perhaps its no surprise that the downtown is adorned with red, white and blue banners -- sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce -- and yellow ribbons are tied to the palms trees that line the city's main thoroughfares.

Business leaders would like the dispute involving Noel to blow over. They worry it will give outsiders the wrong impression of the town. But it has been the subject of several stories in the local press and on television news programs.

Noel still chokes back tears when she talks about the dispute. The gray-haired mother of four had volunteered at the chamber since 1996. She also offers her time at an interfaith volunteer group that helps elderly and underprivileged residents of the region.

Noel said she began to oppose the war when, through her work at the chamber, she met dozens of parents of Marines who came to town to see off their sons and daughters being deployed to the Middle East. She saw parents cry, fearful that they would never see their children again.

Noel turned to her pastor, Matoush, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, and asked if he would help her organize a peace vigil.

The day before the demonstration, Noel said, a secretary at the chamber told her the organization's president wanted her keys because he had heard accusations that she used the office's copy equipment to make fliers for the event. Noel said she made the fliers at a local office supply store and has the receipts to prove it.

"I was in a state of shock," Noel said.

The executive director of the chamber, Dee Thompson, said she returned from an out-of-town trip and called Noel, telling her she was not fired but was under investigation for misusing chamber resources. In an interview, Thompson said the chamber had heard from several people that Noel had used the office when planning the vigil. She did not identify the tipsters.

Thompson insisted that the chamber is not punishing Noel for organizing the rally. "It would not have mattered what event it was," she said.

But Dean DeMorrow, the owner of a local jewelry story and a retired Marine who served in Vietnam, said: "I know of a lot of [angry] people who put pressure on the chamber" to get rid of her.

Noel said that after she was told to turn in her key, she never returned to the chamber. Thompson said she never completed her investigation.

Noel said she didn't expect a fair shake, noting that several chamber board members took part in a counter-demonstration across the street from the peace vigil. "To these people, you either want peace or you want war," she said. "It's all black and white."

One of those counter-demonstrators was Greg Mendoza, past president of the chamber and owner of a local auto repair shop. Mendoza called the peace vigil inappropriate and said he joined the counter-demonstrators to show support for the troops.

But, Mendoza said, Noel did not lose her job because of her opposition to the war. "It is clear in my mind that it had nothing to do with the peace vigil," he said.

Still, he said, "the whole thing has gotten polarized, and it shouldn't be that way."

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