Chester County Peace Movement keeps up vigil 10 years after Iraq war start

Karen Porter (left) with other members of the Chester County Peace Movement in 2003: Todd Rice, Phyllis Wax, and Emma Peabody.
Karen Porter (left) with other members of the Chester County Peace Movement in 2003: Todd Rice, Phyllis Wax, and Emma Peabody. (LA SHINDA CLARK / File Photograph)
Posted: March 22, 2013

In the beginning, when the war in Iraq was still making headlines and CNN was still showing footage of the air strikes in Baghdad, the Chester County Peace Movement could draw crowds as large as 700 to its weekly protests outside the county courthouse in West Chester.

These days, the group is lucky if more than a dozen show up. But every Saturday for the last 10 years, they have never missed a protest. And though the war in Iraq is technically over - U.S. troops pulled out in December 2011 - for the members of the peace movement, the protest never really ends. They will mark 10 straight years of weekly protests this weekend.

When the Iraq war began in March 2003, Peace Movement founder Karen Porter said her first reaction was simply fear.

Her son was 14, four years shy of registering with Selective Service, and Porter, who marched against the Vietnam War as a student at George Washington University, was afraid he would be called to service in a war that seemed to have no clear end.

"I could see the writing on the wall," she said, and that was how the protests began.

Others joined her: young and old, locals and out-of-towners, seasoned activists, and students who had never before picked up a placard.

Michael Berg, 68, was one of the seasoned ones, a longtime antiwar activist who has been protesting for peace since the 1960s.

When the war in Iraq started, "I just said, 'Here we go again,' " he said. "I had already been to the major protests in D.C. and weekly vigils we had in West Chester when my son was killed."

It's been nearly nine years since Berg's son, Nick, 26, died on a business trip to Iraq. He had been briefly detained and then released in Mosul in April 2004, only to check into a hotel in Baghdad and disappear four days later. His decapitated body was found in May 2004 under a Baghdad overpass.

"I was already against the war," Berg said. Nick's death "only made me regret that I hadn't done more sooner. But looking back at it now, what could I have done? What could anyone have done?"

The Peace Movement's 10-year vigil hasn't been without its rough patches. Five years ago, a group of pro-war protesters gathered on the corner opposite the courthouse to effectively protest Porter's protest. Tensions ran high; the Peace Movement received police protection during protests for some time, Porter said. Eventually the two groups learned to coexist, both turning out each Saturday on opposite sides of the street.

"Now it's just like, we're there and they're there too," Porter said.

Across town in the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, a few veterans lingering over drinks Tuesday afternoon said that they were familiar with the counterprotests - initially organized by a Navy veteran - but that they had not felt the need to join in.

"I don't agree with the protesters, but then again, it's freedom," said Staff Sgt. Shawn Carter, a veteran of the Gulf war and the Iraq war who serves as commander at the West Chester VFW. "They have a right, if they do it peacefully."

Carter has two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, a Combat Action Badge, and "a bunch of other stuff," he said, laughing. He served two tours of duty in Iraq and came home after sustaining a traumatic brain injury on a tour where his job was to find improvised explosives, he said.

He said he had no problem with the protesters at the courthouse - he's more concerned with protests like those the Westboro Baptist Church stages at soldiers' funerals - but said it was hard for civilians to fully understand troops' experiences overseas.

"People ask why we were there, what were we really fighting," he said. "But our job is just to make sure everybody that we work with comes home safe, and make sure that the government that we're fighting against is held accountable."

Still, Porter said the last 10 years of protesting had been "quite a ride."

"People ask us why we're still here all the time, and we ask them, 'Is there peace in the world?' " she said. "Our message is never out of date."

She'll be at the courthouse with a small group this Saturday, as always.

"The cast of characters has changed," she said, laughing. "We've seen students graduate and move on. We've seen people die. We've seen a lot of people over the past 10 years."

Berg has moved on as well. Once a familiar fixture outside the courthouse, he now lives in Norfolk, Va., where he settled to be closer to his children and grandchildren. He's still protesting, though not as frequently.

"The protests are more for myself than for an expected effect. I do it to confirm to myself that this is what I feel," he said. "I do it to be a voice that says, 'This is wrong,' as we're going down the drain."

Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112,, or follow on Twitter at @aubreyjwhelan.

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