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The Toronto Star
Sep. 29, 2006. 01:00 AM
DIETLIND LERNER, SPECIAL TO THE STAR
In August 2005, Staff Sgt. Bryce Syverson was in a military hospital on 24-hour suicide watch. Three months later, back at his base in Germany and on antidepressants, he learned that his tour of duty had been extended by 15 months.
Last month, the U.S. military, desperate for soldiers, sent him to Iraq. He recently wrote to his father from the war zone to say he’d gone off his meds. What’s a concerned parent to do?
Honk for Peace.
Standing in front of the Richmond, Va., courthouse for his 217th solo demonstration with a sign reading “Iraq’s Oil Isn’t Worth My Son’s Blood,” Larry Syverson knows vitriol.
“At first I was called a communist, a traitor and even a homosexual. … People told me to get a job, get a life, some people even yelled, `Go back to France!'” he says. The insults were a shock to a man whose use of profanity is limited to “golly.”
“I was never a flower child or a peacenik,” he explains of life before Operation Iraqi Freedom. Indeed, when each of his four sons (Branden, Brent, Bryce and Brian) decided in turn to join the military, he recalls being “very honoured and proud.”
And when Bryce was sent to the Kosovo-Albania border in March 1999, it was with his father’s blessing. “I backed it 100 per cent and supported him being there because of the ethnic cleansing that was going on with the Muslims,” Syverson recalls. “They needed us to be there.”
But when U.S. President George W. Bush’s claim that Iraq was a threat because it had weapons of mass destruction was proved false, something in Syverson snapped.
“I think we invaded Iraq this time because Bush was settling a vendetta, and also I think Iraq was about getting access to oil and that’s not what my boys signed up for. Golly, that’s not worth their lives.”
An environmental engineer for the Virginia government, Syverson protests daily when one of his sons is in Iraq, and on Fridays and days he feels “particularly blue.”
“I figure standing out here is nothing compared to my sons getting shot at in Iraq,” he says.
Some pro-war motorists began honking their horns at Syverson. “That drove me nuts,” he says, “so I made a sign saying `honk for peace’ and confiscated their honk. All of a sudden it was very quiet!”
From the sidewalk, Syverson watched support for his anti-war stance grow.
“I think the first sign that things were really changing was in April 2004, when in one week two (U.S.) helicopters were shot down over Afghanistan. All of a sudden I started getting more approval honks. … Last week while the cars were stopped at the light, one car started honking, then a second car joined in. Then a third. Then a fourth. Finally, there were so many cars honking all at once, it was deafening. It was such an exciting and spontaneous event.”
Bryce served two tours of duty in Iraq before being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in April 2005. That August he had what his father said was a nervous breakdown and was transferred from his base in Germany to the U.S. for four weeks of intensive psychiatric treatment.
“He was a completely different person very bitter, very mad and sure everyone was plotting against him,” recalls Syverson.
Bryce was sent back to Germany, but the Syversons thought he’d return home for good last November, when his tour of duty officially ended. It never occurred to them he might be “stop-lossed” ordered to remain in the armed forces though his enlistment was over.
Bryce Syverson’s unit, the 1st Armoured Division 1st Brigade Combat Team, is having its tour in Iraq extended by six weeks.
“It just shows how desperate the situation is in Iraq for them to have to send in soldiers like Bryce,” his father says. “The administration is more interested in the quantity of soldiers, not in the quality of the soldiers.”
Then he heads out for lunch-break protest number 218.
Dietlind Lerner is a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in France.