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Grandmothers Try to Enlist By Judith Scherr

Friday February 17, 2006

The people banging on the door of the downtown Oakland Army recruiting center on St. Valentine’s Day weren’t your typical military wannabes. 

They were mostly women, mostly over 60. Some sported flowered broad-brimmed hats covering grey or white or tinted hair, others dressed for the occasion in camouflage chic or valentine red. A few steered walkers steadily through the crowd, others stood in silent vigil, while some leaned on friendly arms or rolled along in wheelchairs. Some held the hands of small children. 

“Let us in!” the women yelled at the locked glass door, with no person visible on the other side. “We want to enlist! Are you afraid of a bunch of old ladies?”  

The noon-time event, sponsored by Grandmothers Against the War, Women for Peace, Bay Area Women in Black, and other organizations attracted some 300 women and a dozen or so men to the Armed Forces Career Center at 2116 Broadway. Similar protests were held in 13 cities around the country. 

“I want to try to enlist, but they locked the doors,” said Barbara Ellis, grandmother of a 7-year-old and a 10-month -old. Tongue in cheek, of course, Ellis said she had come hoping to trade places with a soldier fighting in Iraq. 

“I want to bring home one of the young people,” she said. 

Great-grandmother Mary O’Donnell carried a sign that read, “Great grandmother, take me, bring two home.” The sister of celebrated Berkeley peace activist the Rev. Bill O’Donnell, who died two years ago, O’Donnell said she was protesting in the spirit of her brother. 

“He stood for justice and peace,” she said. “He would be appalled by what’s going on in the country right now. I’m here because I love my country. And I want them to bring our troops home.” 

This was a protest without speeches, but the organizers read a statement in a call-and-response mode, which explained why they’d chosen Valentine’s Day for the event: 

“We are grandmothers heartbroken over the enormous loss of life and limb in Iraq,” the women chanted. “We are appalled by our leaders who make war on other people’s children—a war and occupation that our leaders justify with lies and deceit . . . On Valentine’s Day we are demonstrating our love for this country and its young people by enlisting in the U.S. military to replace the children and grandchildren too long deployed there.” 

Several choruses performed or led group singing during the hour-long event, often using old songs with new words. The San Francisco Chapter of the Raging Grannies sang a version of “God Bless America,” with lyrics written by Lynn Kalmar of Oakland: “American as apple pie / a loving grandma too / no more recruits for us must die / take us instead of you,” they sang. 

Reflecting on the significance of grandmothers demonstrating, Kalmar said: “It has real meaning when it is grandmothers who are trying to make life continue. It doesn’t matter if it’s an Iraqi grandmother that’s suffering or an American grandmother that’s suffering. I have a grandchild and if anything happened to that grandchild, I would be devastated. And I know that’s what many Iraqi grandmothers are feeling today. I want my grandchild to be able to grow up in health and in peace.” 

Hal Carlstad was among the grandfathers supporting the event. 

“I’m much better with a rifle than Cheney. He needs to go back and get in the military and learn how to shoot,” he said, referring to the recent hunting incident where the vice president shot another hunter. “Give him a chance to fight his war rather than other people fighting their wars.” 

Great-grandmother Miriam Singer, 86, used her walker to help her move along in a picket line that stretched along the block. “I want change,” Singer said. “I want the war to stop.”  

While demonstrators marched and sang and rapped on the glass door, the army recruiter who usually staffs the office was standing across the street, watching. 

“Everyone has a right to their opinion,” said the man, in an interview inside the spacious office later that afternoon. The recruiter declined to give his name. 

The recruiter was alone in the 10-desk office at the time of the interview—no one walked through the open door. The Daily Planet asked him if the Oakland office was having problems finding enlistees, as has been reportedly the case around the country. 

He said the army no longer is pushing for a specific number of recruits. “We want to recruit quality people to serve the country,” he said. 

Asked who would join the armed forces, given the possible danger, the recruiter said, “My job is to offer people an opportunity for education and a change of life. Some people have it bad here.” 

Some people live in dysfunctional families and Oakland is a place with high crime, drugs and drive-bys, he said. “It’s a way out.” 

The recruiter said he has been in the Army for 20 years, but had never seen combat. Asked how he felt about sending young people to Iraq to possibly die, he answered that he knew of only one of his recruits who went to Iraq. Another of his recruits served in the army for two years, then went to West Point, he said. 

If protester Carol Levy of Emeryville had her way, there would be no more recruitment and no more war. Levy’s grandchildren are 5- and 3-years-old. 

“I am so outraged,” she said during the protest and holding a sign that posed the question, “How many dead children? If we don’t do something, this war will still be going on when my grandchildren are 18.”  



Photo by Richard Bermack:  

Jane Scheer at the Grandmothers Against the War Valentine’s Day action in Oakland Tuesday..