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Wednesday, December 3, 2003
N.M. Priest Takes on Guardsmen
By Joseph Ditzler
Of the Journal
The Rev. John Dear, pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Springer and an outspoken anti-war activist, makes no apologies for his run-in with a group of National Guard members last month.
"As a priest, I don't want my people to get hurt or killed," he said Tuesday. "Out of love and respect, I don't want any of them to go to Iraq to kill or be killed."
The subjects of his concern were National Guard troops of the 515th Corps Support Battalion, based in Springer, called up last month for duty in Iraq.
Dear encountered some of them Nov. 20, just after the 515th learned it will ship out in December for 18 months active duty.
The priest claims 75 soldiers on a fitness run about 6 a.m. pulled up in front of the church and rectory, his home, on Springer's Maxwell Street and jarred him from his prayers.
"I didn't know what they were doing, or what was going on. They sure weren't coming for morning Mass, to sing Christmas carols or for spiritual direction," Dear said by phone Tuesday.
He said the troops stood in the street chanting "Kill! Kill! Kill!"
"Their chants were disturbing, but this is war. They have to psyche themselves up for the kill," the priest wrote in an account titled "The Soldiers at My Front Door." His account is posted on his Web site, which includes some of his sermons, excerpts from books and his speaking schedule.
"I decided I had to do something. I put on my winter coat and walked out the front door right into the middle of the street. They stopped shouting and looked at me, so I said loudly, publicly for all to hear, 'In the name of God, I order all of you to stop this nonsense, and not to go to Iraq. I want all of you to quit the military, disobey your orders to kill and not to kill anyone. ..."
"God does not support war. Stop all this and go home. God bless you."
However, the National Guard denies the troops chanted anything of the sort.
Lt. Col. Richard Rael, who said he organized the morning run through Springer that day, agreed with some of the elements of Dear's story. Members of the 515th, a rear-echelon supply unit, were exercising that morning, and Dear came out to exhort them to quit the military in the name of Jesus Christ.
But agreement ends there.
Rael by phone Tuesday said nobody chanted "Kill! Kill!" anywhere, much less outside a church. Rael said he is Catholic but not of Dear's parish. He said the troops in fact had a hard time coming up with a cadence everyone could understand and keep up with.
"I'm a little upset" by Dear's account, the colonel said. "He's writing there that we're chanting 'Kill, kill, kill?' That's a negative."
The troops started their run at a parking lot across the street from St. Joseph's and ended there, Rael said. He said Dear came out as they were cooling down and stretching.
Rael said Brig. Gen. Kenny Montoya, New Mexico National Guard commander, was present. Montoya complimented Rael on the demeanor of his troops following Dear's extemporaneous address, the colonel said. "Not a single soldier even looked at the man," Rael said.
Dear said once he finished his plea, he and the troops stood silently looking at one another several seconds before they started laughing and their commander ordered them to fall out.
Dear said he didn't believe he'd been singled out for harassment by the troops but that some parishioners told him he was targeted, "because I'm so notorious."
Dear does not shrink from confrontation, and his views against the war are well-known.
In October, at a small gathering at the University of New Mexico, Dear, 44, called for the immediate return of all U.S. troops from Iraq. The war, he said again Tuesday, "besides being immoral, is a total disaster." He also spoke out earlier this year when Archbishop Michael Sheehan barred him from appearing at an anti-war gathering in Los Alamos on the anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima near the end of World War II.
A Jesuit, Dear has worked in an El Salvador refugee camp, in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Middle East, the Philippines and Northern Ireland. He led a delegation of Nobel Peace Prize winners to Iraq, according to his Web site.
He also spent eight months in jail in his native North Carolina, hammered on an F-15 fighter bomber in an act of protest and has been arrested over 75 times for "acts of nonviolent civil disobedience for peace."
Guard spokeswoman Maj. Kim Lalley said 59 Guardsmen and women from the Springer unit are headed for Iraq.
Many joined the Guard for the added paycheck or the educational benefits. Students, mechanics, civil servants and correctional officers are among those in its ranks. One is a single mother.
The 515th traces its lineage back to World War II, when some of its members walked the Bataan Death March.
They had been training for their upcoming deployment and decided on a morning run through Springer as a morale booster, Rael said. Lalley said only 18 troops took part. Rael said the troops also meant to show their hometown their spirit.
"The locals really enjoyed it, people were looking out the windows," the colonel said. "Colfax County is proud, and a lot of people are stepping up to the plate to take care of business overseas."