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Letter to the Commanding General of Fort Lewis

On October 12, 2002, People for Peace, Justice, and Healing addressed the following letter to Lt. Gen. Edward Soriano, Commanding General of I Corps and Fort Lewis:

          People for Peace, Justice, and Healing
          c/o Associated Ministries
          1224 South "I" Street
          Tacoma, WA 98405
          October 12, 2002

Army Lieutenant General Edward Soriano
Commanding General, I Corps and Fort Lewis
Fort Lewis, WA 98433

Dear General Soriano:

We are sorry to have to write to you about an incident that took place in Tacoma on Monday, October 7.

We are addressing ourselves to you because under our Constitution, the president of the United States is "commander in chief of the army and navy of the United States," and is thus your commander in chief. In becoming president, he took the following oath: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." We therefore believe that it is an important part of your mission to help him fulfill this solemn duty.

Since 1791, the Constitution's Bill of Rights has guaranteed certain rights to the citizens of this country. Among them is the first amendment "right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

People for Peace, Justice, and Healing is a Tacoma civic group devoted to encouraging people to speak together about ways to understand better the paths that lead to peace, justice, and healing for the United States and for the world. On Monday, October 7, we were in the process of exercising our right peaceably to assemble outside the Federal Courthouse in Tacoma for the purposes of commemorating the loss of innocent life during the campaign in Afghanistan during the past year. The president himself said, on July 6, 2002: "I can say to the Afghan people exactly what I told to Chairman Karzai: Any time innocent life is lost, we're sad. . . . Our country values life, all life. And we'll find out what the facts are and then address it."

Despite our clear right to act as we did, and despite the evident propriety of our concerns, it seems that a number of soldiers under your command at Fort Lewis who learned of the event on the television news decided to come to downtown Tacoma with the purpose of harassing us. They were dressed as civilians, and we certainly do not contest their right to be there. But their conduct was unbecoming. They stood together in a group, aggressively chanting "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" Since we had planned to close the event with a moment of silence commemorating the innocent dead, one of our members approached the group of about a dozen young men in a conciliatory manner to request that they respect this silence, only to receive this answer: "Fuck, no!" As the event drew to a close and as darkness started to fall, this group of young men, which had at first kept at a distance, moved closer and formed a rather menacing line that, for a few moments, faced off opposite a group of young people on the opposite side of the street, blocking the painted crosswalk that people were trying to use to leave the event. The tension in the atmosphere was palpable. Fortunately, the peacekeepers our group had designated were able to defuse the situation by persuading people not to respond to the provocative behavior with which we were confronted. In the end, there was no violence, but the situation might have turned out differently. Many of those present were disturbed by what had happened. Some feared for their own safety.

Almost as disturbing as the behavior of these young soldiers is the fact that they seemed utterly ignorant of the impropriety of their behavior. Sworn to defend the "blessings of liberty" that U.S. citizens enjoy as their birthright under our Constitution, it is not too much to say that in this instance they acted to repress them. The young men did not hesitate to identify themselves as soldiers from Fort Lewis to the police and to a reporter from the Tacoma News Tribune, who reported on what happened in an October 8 front-page article. One of the soldiers was quoted in the paper as shouting: "You don't love America! You don't belong in America!" Another told the reporter: "It's like a total slap in the face for all the soldiers who have already gone overseas to fight and defend this country. It's a slap in the face to say, 'We're sorry you're dead, but we don't agree with the reason you died. We don't appreciate you trying to save us.'"

These are not, of course, our sentiments. It is certainly the case that most members of our group have a high regard for the vocation of the military, and profound appreciation for the readiness of those serving in the military to put their lives on the line in our defense. A number of us come from military families ourselves, so we fully grasp the nature of their commitment. Also, many members of the military who are our friends have expressed to us their deep regret about this incident and their support of our right peaceably to assemble without fear of harassment from military personnel. But these facts are beside the point. Regardless of the sentiments of those involved, citizens of this country are free to express their views and free peaceably to assemble. This is one of the essential freedoms upon which this nation is founded. We need not remind you that thousands of American soldiers have died during the past two centuries believing that they were defending these freedoms.

We would like to emphasize that we are certainly NOT interested in seeing any disciplinary proceedings instituted against these young men, and will even be more upset should we learn that this has occurred. Rather we believe that the blame for this incident should be assigned to those who prepared them as military personnel. For this reason, we are writing to you, as commanding general of I Corps and Fort Lewis, to request a clarification, in writing, on the training that your military personnel receive with regard to the importance of respecting the freedoms guaranteed to the citizens of the nation that they have enlisted to protect. We would also appreciate reassurance about your own views on these matters. Members of our group would be happy to meet personally with you to discuss these things further, should you deem that appropriate.

Like you, we have a deep and abiding love for this country and its traditions. As we are all people of good will, we feel confident that we can reach a clearer understanding of our mutual regard and respect for one another, and in the future avoid incidents like the one that occurred in Tacoma on October 7.

Very sincerely yours,

Mark K. Jensen
Benjamin A. Peters
Cathy Tashiro
Dorothy Burkhart
Carl Anderson
Elaine Edgar Nevins
Karen Konrad
Amy Biskovich
Colleen Waterhouse
Ken Jones
Marge Renfroe
Vivi Bartron
Marion Hogan

In late November, People for Peace, Justice, and Healing received the following response:

Department of the Army
Headquarters, I Corps and Fort Lewis
Box 339500
Fort Lewis, Washington 98433-9500

November 22, 2002

Office of the Commanding General

People for Peace, Justice and Healing
c/o Associated Ministries
1224 South "I" Street
Tacoma, WA 98405

Dear Representatives of the People for Peace, Justice, and Healing:

This letter is in response to your inquiry regarding a concern about the conduct of our soldiers.

Thank you for bringing to my attention the conduct of Fort Lewis soldiers on October 7th in Tacoma. As soldiers we are sworn to support and defend the constitution, and we support those who lawfully exercise their rights. Department of Defense and Army regulations allow soldiers to express their personal opinions on political issues as long as they do not imply the U.S. Army has taken a position on those issues, and they conduct themselves in a manner consistent with acceptable standards of conduct. Soldiers receive training on regulations and standards of conduct on a continual basis. We will continue to remind soldiers within my command to conduct themselves appropriately.

I hope this information is of assistance to you.


Edward Soriano
Lieutenant General, US Army

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Last updated: December 7, 2002