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Larry Syverson in front of the old federal courthouse at 10th and East Main streets, where he protested 235 times between 2003 and 2008, usually during his lunch break. Syverson works at the Department of Environmental Quality, three blocks away. (Photo by Tina Eshleman)
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Syverson’s 100th protest in front of the old federal courthouse in Richmond on Dec. 12, 2003. This was the largest group to protest with him during his 235 protests in front of the courthouse. (Photo courtesy Larry Syverson)
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Syverson at his very first protest, March 15, 2003, in Washington, D.C. Soon after the protest, he changed son Bryce's picture on his sign. (Photo courtesy Larry Syverson)
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Syverson spoke at a protest rally in Union Square in September 2004 during the Republican National Convention in New York City. (Photo courtesy Larry Syverson)
Larry Syverson is not a firebrand. It’s hard to imagine him yelling. But the soft-spoken groundwater remediation specialist has made his voice heard across the country in places like Cincinnati, Seattle and Key West, Florida, and overseas in Finland, Japan and Slovenia.
His message is simple: Don’t put our troops in harm’s way unless we have to, for the defense of our country.
Between 2003 and 2008, starting even before the United States launched the war in Iraq, he staged 235 protests at the federal courthouse in Richmond, often with others, sometimes by himself.
He carried a sign that read, “Iraqi oil isn’t worth my sons’ blood,” accompanied by pictures of two of his sons in their military uniforms.
He was jeered. Some passersby gave him the finger. When drivers honked at him, he’d reach down and pick up a sign that said, “Honk for peace.”
As a military family member opposed to the war, Syverson attracted attention. Wolf Blitzer interviewed him on CNN in August of 2003 — one of about 250 domestic and foreign media appearances that he has recorded in a logbook.
Since 2008, Syverson, 67, has been fairly quiet. “It has been at least six or seven years since I have given an interview,” he tells me.
Now he’s talking again. This time, it’s not as a father worried about whether his sons will come home from battle, but rather as a parent assessing the damage that war has inflicted on their lives.
On Sept. 17, he will be among the speakers at a daylong forum called “Reclaiming Our Democracy: 15 Years After 9/11,” organized by the Richmond Peace Education Center (RPEC) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, to be held at the University of Richmond.
Many of us remember where we were when we heard the news of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. I woke up that day, after having worked the evening shift at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, to see then-President George W. Bush acknowledging messages of sorrow and support from other world leaders. What had just happened? It took me a few minutes to piece it together. I was pregnant, and it was a little more than a month before my due date. "What kind of world am I bringing this child into?" I thought.
As much as we may have felt the effects of that day personally — and some families in the Richmond area suffered terrible losses from the deaths of loved ones at the World Trade Center — the attacks also left a mark on the nation.
“It propelled our country down a policy path with tremendous consequences for human lives, for American democracy and for the world’s stability,” says Adria Scharf, RPEC’s executive director, citing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an erosion of civil liberties, militarization of police, the rise of government surveillance and a veil of suspicion cast on Muslim, South Asian and Arab communities.
On this anniversary, she says, “We feel it’s important to step back and reflect critically about the paths that our country chose to pursue after 9/11 and to imagine the alternatives and process, together, a course correction.”
Syverson will talk during a session called “Sharing Lived Experiences.” For him, U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has always been personal, and his view of the decision to go to war hasn't changed. "Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, but all of a sudden, we were attacking." The invasion, he says, "didn't make America any safer."
His four sons all joined the military between 1989 and 1997, after graduating from Chesterfield County’s Manchester High School. Syverson says that he and his wife, Judy, supported their decision to serve. "We thought it was a good career," he says.
One son, Brian, received a medical discharge and left the Navy in 1998, but between the other three, there were eight deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait from 2003 to 2014. Those sons — Branden, Brent and Bryce — have all struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), their father says.
Syverson with son Bryce at his drill sergeant graduation in Fort Jackson, S.C., October 2008 (Photo courtesy Larry Syverson)
He recalls Bryce, his youngest son, telling him after spending the holidays in Germany in 2004 that New Year’s Eve fireworks sounded exactly like the nightly mortar fire Iraqis directed at the Baghdad airport, where he and other soldiers camped. He would roll off his cot onto the floor and hope that the bombs wouldn’t land in their tent. A couple of months later, Bryce started seeing a counselor, and in August of 2005, he made a suicide attempt while still in Germany. The Army flew him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C., for treatment.
“They had taken his gun away from him and said he couldn’t be deployed,” Syverson says. Bryce returned to Germany, where he was deemed fit for deployment and sent back to Iraq in August 2006.
“So August ’05 he’s in Walter Reed on suicide watch. August ’06 he has a gun and he’s in the middle of Fallujah,” Syverson says. “It’s like, you know, this is criminal.”
Bryce made another attempt on his life after a breakdown in 2010, and that episode ended his marriage.
Brent, who had served with the Navy in Iraq, separated from his wife, a veteran who also struggled with PTSD, and he wound up homeless in Phoenix before receiving treatment at a mental unit.
Syverson almost canceled his 100th protest at the federal courthouse on Dec. 12, 2003, because his wife, Judy, was hospitalized with severe stomach pain that her doctor thought was related to the stress of having two sons deployed in Iraq. She missed seven weeks of work during their first deployments, and she decided to retire in 2006 before Bryce was redeployed to Iraq. "She knew it would be a difficult time and didn't think she could work through it."
He says his protests helped him to keep from bottling up his own emotions, but he still developed high blood pressure, for which he continues to take medicine.
“I would say we are a poster family for what multiple deployments can do to a military family,” Syverson says. “Suicide [attempts], divorce, hospitalization, homelessness … That’s a lot for one family to go through, I think.”
He adds, “We’re not alone. There are thousands of other families that have been impacted like we have, and we’re lucky. We’re lucky we’re not a Gold Star family and we didn’t lose a loved one in these wars.”
If there’s one thing he hopes people will take away from his story, it’s this: “We need armed forces to protect us. It’s important that we have them, but we need to be careful how we use them. I feel bad about what’s happened to our family, and I don’t know if it’s good that people know all this, but I think it’s important that they do. You need to look at what happens on the home front afterwards.”
Among other speakers at the Sept. 17 event are Talat Hamdani, a Pakistani-American whose 23-year-old son, an emergency medical technician, died trying to rescue people from the World Trade Center; Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell; and Lecia Brooks, an expert on hate groups who works with the Southern Poverty Law Center. For more information, visit rpec.org.