KEENE, N.H. — In a dingy meeting room with walls the color of day-old oatmeal, 40 people in plastic chairs formed a ragged circle. Sharing first names, they went around the room: teachers, students, nurses and at least three active-duty service members. They had come to hear about military buildups around the world, but what they really wanted to do was hash out their feelings about the Iraq war.
Fred wanted to know what to tell his 10th-grade grandson, who already worried that he would be sent to Iraq. Catherine questioned whether the high school students she counseled should believe the promises they heard from military recruiters. Army veteran Tom asked if conditions for the troops were as bad as he had heard.
Finally, the circle ended with Ann. With her smiling sincerity and sleek hairdo, she looked like she belonged on the suburban charity circuit. Not hardly: As an Army colonel and diplomat, Mary Ann Wright served her country for more than 30 years in some of the most isolated and dangerous parts of the world -- then quit because she felt she could not defend this war.
"I resigned when the Iraq war began in March 2003 because I felt the policies of this administration were making the world more dangerous," Wright said. "I felt it was an illegal war and I could not be a part of it."
For more than two years, this unlikely activist has carried her message to small audiences, arguing that the war has increased animosity toward the United States. Wright is part of a tiny network of individuals who crisscross the country to speak out against the Iraq war.
Ron Kovic, a disabled Vietnam veteran from Redondo Beach, pulls out his bullhorn at rallies in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington. Michael Berg, whose civilian contractor son Nicholas Berg was beheaded in Baghdad in 2004, said he was so "obsessed" with ending the war that he once gave the same speech 16 times in seven days.
These independent antiwar speakers often appear on platforms arranged by peace groups. Like Wright -- a member of Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change and Veterans for Peace -- some belong to organizations. But as they address rallies, student groups and whoever else invites them, they represent only themselves. They pay their own expenses and do not accept speakers' fees.
"That would be obscene," said former California state Sen. Tom Hayden, a freelance antiwar speaker.
Wright, 59, brings a distinctive perspective. "I come at this as a foreign service professional," she said. "This is not a political rant. This is a well-reasoned argument of why I thought it was necessary to resign."
Even those who dislike her views do not dispute her right to contest U.S. policy. Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, noted that Wright was now a private citizen. "The 1st Amendment, that's what we're fighting for," Krenke said. "She is basing her views on what she has experienced -- and she has obviously had a wide and expansive career."
James Jay Carafano, a national security analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said he didn't think Wright had special credibility because she spent time in uniform. But, he said, "This is how democracies wage war. In every war, you are going to find people who don't like it."
Operating out of the limelight, activists such as Wright are influencing public opinion about the war, said Bill Dobbs, communications director of United for Peace and Justice, an antiwar coalition in New York. "Their impact is subtle, but they must get serious credit," he said.
No one was more surprised than Wright to find herself among war opponents. She had been part of the system since she was 20, after she heard an Army recruiter's pep talk at the University of Arkansas. Wright was one of two daughters of a Bentonville, Ark., banker who gave Sam Walton a loan that helped launch his Wal-Mart empire.
Her career options in the 1960s were largely limited to being a teacher, nurse or homemaker, but Wright wanted something different. Mostly, she wanted out of Arkansas. "The recruiter made it sound glamorous: 'Join the Army, see the world,' " she said. "So that is what I did."
She saw the Army as an escape, not a career path. But the structure of the military suited her. Starting with her first posting at San Francisco's Presidio during the Vietnam War -- followed by a stint at a NATO station in the Netherlands -- Wright loved being in the Army.
She served 13 years on active duty, broken up over several tours, and 16 years in the Reserves. She never saw combat, though she was stationed in Grenada, Somalia, Nicaragua and Panama. She earned two master's degrees and a law degree while in the Army. In the early 1980s, she began trying to open up new military assignments for women.
Retired Brig. Gen. Pat Foote said she expected to see maybe a dozen women in uniform when she attended one of the "women in the military" meetings Wright organized at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Instead, she said, "I was amazed; there were over 200 women in the room."