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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Families to Confront Bush on Use of Guard

Protesters gather in Las Vegas, where president will speak today to National Guardsmen.

September 14, 2004|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

When President Bush arrives in Las Vegas today to address a convention of National Guardsmen, a group of families will be there as well, intent on protesting the Iraq war and a president who they say used his Guard service to avoid combat.

The protest comes a week after a controversial report on "60 Minutes II" that renewed questions about Bush's National Guard record during the Vietnam era.

The demonstrators said they were not supporters of Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, but were trying to look after the interests of the country's guardsmen.

"We think the real issue now is the Iraq war, it's not the Vietnam War," said Charley Richardson, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, which organized the protest. "But we can't help notice the irony that a person who managed to avoid going to combat by joining the National Guard is now sending the National Guard into combat in a war based on lies."

Bush and his representatives have defended both his service during Vietnam and his rationale in sending the military into Iraq 18 months ago. They note that Bush received strong reviews during much of his time in the Texas Air National Guard, before being honorably discharged in 1973.

Bush has justified the war by arguing that Iraq was a threat to the United States, even though the weapons of mass destruction that he said were possessed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein have not been found.

Some political observers have challenged the relevance to the current campaign of questions raised about Bush's service more than 30 years ago, but the Guard families said the issue was pertinent.

The Richardsons are among those who argue that Bush sought to avoid the dangers recently faced by their son, Joe, 26, in Iraq. Joe Richardson was an Arab linguist with the Marines, serving in the Arabian Sea and then for about six months in Iraq. He has finished his active-duty service but could be called back.

Charley Richardson and his wife, who live in Boston, helped found Military Families Speak Out in November 2002, shortly after their son was deployed. The group now has a membership of about 1,700 families nationwide.

The half a dozen families attending today's news conference in Las Vegas have relatives who have either died in Iraq or are currently serving there. The National Guard and reserves will soon account for nearly half of the 140,000 service personnel in Iraq.

Dante Zappala, 28, traveled to Las Vegas from Venice, Calif., because his 30-year-old brother, Sherwood Baker, was killed in an explosion in Baghdad on April 26.

"My brother was the first National Guard from Pennsylvania to die since 1945," Zappala said. "He reminded us of it before he left -- that members of the National Guard don't die in combat. But it's a different world, according to our president. Our National Guard are on the front lines."

Zappala said he believed his brother's death exemplified the missteps in the administration's handling of the war.

Baker spent seven years in the National Guard training stateside as a forward observer, someone who goes ahead of tank and troop lines to scope out missile strikes and help realign troop movements, Zappala said. But when he was deployed to Iraq, he was sent as convoy security -- "nothing he was familiar with," his brother said -- after being retrained for two months at Ft. Dix, N.J.

"Before my brother left, they suggested he buy his own flak jacket," Zappala said. "Many were wearing Vietnam-era flak jackets."

The families will be making their case as the National Guard Assn. of the United States meets for its 126th conference and exhibition. Kerry is to speak to the group Thursday.

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