Exercise at Camp Ripley: Right to free speech

Peace vigil, protest at Camp Ripley’s gates stirs controversy

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor

The exercises at Camp Ripley usually involve training soldiers and public safety agencies.

But the exercises at the National Guard base Monday involved the constitutional right to free speech.

A peace vigil/protest was held Monday by the Little Falls Partners for Peace and Occupy Little Falls in front of the gates of Camp Ripley. In addition to several demands, one of the group’s goals was to increase public awareness about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often called drones. Across the highway, veterans and civilians supporting veterans gathered to protest the vigil. Pictured holding flags (from left): veterans Matt Bagaglio and Chad Kieffer, and Gigi Dambowy, a civilian who came to show her support of the veterans.

Two factions with opposing views about war stood across from each other, both literally and figuratively, near the gates of Camp Ripley.

Standing north of Highway 115 in front of Camp Ripley’s gates, members of the Little Falls Partners for Peace and Occupy Little Falls held what they termed a “peace vigil” and drone protest.

About 14 in all, others were from the Brainerd Area Coalition for Peace, Women Against Military Madness from the Twin Cities, Alternatives to War, St. Cloud Occupy, Pax Christi and Alexandria Peace, joining the Little Falls contingent.

The purpose of the protest was to demand the immediate withdrawal of U.S. Armed Forces from Afghanistan, the end of drone bombing campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, as well as a peaceful resolution to the Syrian civil war and the dispute over Iran’s nuclear energy program.

A peace vigil/protest was held Monday by the Little Falls Partners for Peace and Occupy Little Falls in front of the gates of Camp Ripley. In addition to several demands, one of the group’s goals was to increase public awareness about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often called drones. Across the highway, veterans and civilians supporting veterans gathered to protest the vigil. Pictured are Doug Olson, left, Brainerd Area Coalition for Peace and Father Tony Kroll, St. Cloud Pax Christi and former pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Little Falls.

The group also objected to Camp Ripley being the site of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone facility.

The facility will be used to house UAVs, but Post Commander Col. Scott St. Sauver said no UAV would be used outside of air space directly over Camp Ripley.

Erected on the grounds of the vigil/protest were flags from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran and Syria, a flag that simply said, “Peace” as well as numerous signs.

“I wish to be a ‘bridge to peace’ with all those nations and peoples that reside there or here in America,” said Robin Hensel of Little Falls, sole organizer of the event. “Inclusion, understanding and dialogue are necessary to accomplish peace.”

Hensel, who also organized a peace rally in Little Falls in June, said the group protested drone activity because, “Drones have primarily been designed to murder people.”

The drones are also used for other things, such as surveillance, she said. “But their primary reason is to kill people … and it’s indiscriminate killing. It’s amazing how many miscalculations or wrong information is associated with killing innocent victims, people living inside these houses during night raids.”

That is one of the main reasons Hensel said she called for this protest and a protest planned for Friday, Sept. 21, also in front of Camp Ripley, at 11 a.m.

No one has called or formed a protest in front of Camp Ripley since 2006, Hensel said.

“I know people who have gone to Afghanistan and Iraq. Iraq never wanted us there,” said Hensel. “It was an illegal occupation we can never win.”

“We are in a huge quandary,” Hensel said. “Anyone who is pro-war should ask themselves, ‘How are we going to pay for it?’ That is the question that we all need to be thinking about.”

The peace activist was not happy with the conduct of the counter-protesters across the highway, as they revved motorcycle engines to drown out Larry Fisk’s singing of a peace song.

“It was childish stupidity,” she said. “Not acceptable behavior under their warrior mission statement.”

Those standing across the highway, holding American flags, were for the most part veterans who had answered the call to serve in whatever war the U.S. was involved in, as well as several civilians supporting veterans.

“It’s really distasteful to protest in front of a National Guard post,” said Justin Doerfler of Brainerd, who took on the role of spokesman for the group. Doerfler is a member of the National Guard and served in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010.

“It should have been done in front of the Capitol, not Camp Ripley,” he said.

Doerfler found out about the protest when the wife of a veteran sent him a text. Within 45 minutes, a group of about 20 came together to counter-protest, several showing up on their motorcycles, most holding American flags.

“They shouldn’t be calling for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan unless they know what is going on there,” Doerfler said. “What bothered me was that — and their claim that Camp Ripley was a training site for death.”

“We train to help people. We also do training with weapons to be able to respond when being attacked. That way, nobody panics under fire. We are trained to keep a level head and to try to isolate the threat,” he said.

As one of the freedoms people have in the United States that the military defends, Doerfler said, “They definitely have a First Amendment right to protest; we weren’t trying to stop that. But they need to be educated on why we’re over there.”

Doerfler said Col. St. Sauver called it, “Democracy in action.”

The veteran, who appreciated that the group wasn’t protesting against the troops, was especially bothered by one sign that said, “The bravest don’t need guns.”

“I crossed the street and talked to them. They said we could withdraw military forces, and we could send peace people over there,” he said.

“I invited them, not to stand on ground in the U.S. in front of a military base in peace and comfort, but to get a ticket and go over there,” Doerfler said.

“I asked if any of them (the protesters) had been to Afghanistan, because I have been, and I have seen the efforts going into rebuilding Afghan infrastructure,” he said.

Soldiers during his tour provided food and water to children and adults. “They were very grateful for that,” he said. “As soon as they saw us coming, they would come to the road and greet us and give us smiles. That was heartwarming in itself.”

When he came home and saw what was being reported about the conflict in Afghanistan, Doerfler said he thought to himself, “That’s not what happened.”

Only about 1 percent of the “bad stuff” reported was accurate, he said.

As far as Afghanistan wanting the U.S. military out of their country, “That’s the Taliban infiltrating the police forces and Afghan National Army,” Doerfler said. “They infiltrate and wear the uniform so they are in a better position to attack U.S. and NATO Forces,” he said.

Bill Kokett and Tom Spindler, two Vietnam veterans, joined the younger men.

“I can’t remember a peaceful protester saving anyone’s life,” said Spindler. “Help and support should be everyone’s job.”

Kokett often holds a U.S. flag during veteran funerals, “To honor veterans and show support for their families,” he said.

Monday, he held it again, for the same reason.

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