CAMP RIPLEY — Peace vigil supporters and veterans demonstrated on opposite sides of the street in front of Camp Ripley’s main gate Monday.
Post Commander Col. Scott St. Sauver watched the activity just inside the main gate. Music came from both groups on either side of County Road 115. A kite flew overhead, colorful flags and signs were carried and people on both sides voiced their opinions.
For St. Sauver it was democracy in action.
“The reason we do what we do is so they can exercise their rights,” St. Sauver said he tells his soldiers. “So that’s pretty important.”
And Monday they were doing just that, peacefully if vocally, on both sides of the highway. Although the roadway didn’t keep the two groups from interacting and at one point debating as they stood next to each other on the grass in front of Camp Ripley.
Little Falls Partners for Peace and Occupy Little Falls set up the peace vigil outside the main gate with a stated intent of demanding the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and putting an end to drone bombing campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The group planned a potluck dinner after the protest.
St. Sauver said the group went through all the right channels.
“It’s their absolute right to exercise democracy,” he said.
Spc. Justin Doerfler, a member of the National Guard who returned in 2010 after a year in active duty in Afghanistan, first heard about the protest Monday afternoon.
Less than two hours later he was at Camp Ripley with other veterans and civilians who quickly dropped what they were doing in order to form a counter protest. The group included veterans who served in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They’ve never been there,” Doerfler said of the peace vigil’s demands for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. “We’ve done more good than anything.”
Doerfler said soldiers gave their own food and water to Afghan civilians.
“People at home don’t know what is going on,” Doerfler said. “They see 1 percent of the news and they run with it. They are taking one bad aspect and blowing it up into the war.”
Doerfler said he’s personally seen the effort going into to rebuilding the Afghan infrastructure.
“Right now us leaving (Afghanistan) is a very bad idea,” Doerfler said. “We’d create more instability by leaving.”
Doerfler said he thought it was highly distasteful for the group to have its vigil outside Camp Ripley. Roy Pokovich, a Vietnam veteran from Brainerd, agreed, saying the peace vigil group’s message was a political one and should be addressed to the politicians not outside Camp Ripley.
“They should be writing a letter to our congressman not standing in the street making the families of those who lost loved ones feel bad,” Pokovich said.
Pokovich said when he came back from Vietnam, protesters had to be removed from the runway so his plane could land.
Across the road, Kevin Smith was detangling colorful streamers. The Minnetonka resident said he was a reserve officer from 1979 to 1983 and served in Germany. Smith said he supports the military completely but has concerns about drone warfare.
“Drone warfare is so indiscriminate,” Smith said. “I have a real problem with indiscriminate killing that’s pretty much why I’m here. ... We can still honor our service members by holding our politicians accountable. ... I hope we can come together for a better understanding.”
About 11 people were on the peace activists side with about 20 people with Doerfler.
Robin Hensel said a reason for the peace vigil was to bring awareness about the drone testing and facility at Camp Ripley.
“I think it’s the most appropriate place to go,” Hensel said, adding they wanted to include the military and welcome their comments. Hensel said they weren’t against the military but were against offensive wars and wars for resources. Hensel said they believe a difference can be made without guns.
“What we have going on right now hasn’t been working,” Hensel said.
Hensel, who is running for a Little Falls City Council seat in November, previously filed a lawsuit against the city in U.S. District Court maintaining the city violated her free speech by forcing her to take down political signs on her property. In addition to the drones and Afghanistan, the vigil supporters wanted peaceful resolutions to the Syrian civil war and the dispute over Iran’s nuclear energy program.
Camp Ripley has a drone facility. St. Sauver said the drones do not fly beyond Camp Ripley’s borders and have been used for rescue operations as well. The question of how drones can and should be used domestically is a serious national policy question, St. Sauver said.