She's on Activist Duty Now

Times Staff Writer

In a dingy meeting room with walls the color of day-old oatmeal, 40 people in plastic chairs formed a ragged circle. Sharing first names, they went around the room: teachers, students, nurses and at least three active-duty service members. They had come to hear about military buildups around the world, but what they really wanted to do was hash out their feelings about the Iraq war.

Fred wanted to know what to tell his 10th-grade grandson, who already worried that he would be sent to Iraq. Catherine questioned whether the high school students she counseled should believe the promises they heard from military recruiters. Army veteran Tom asked if conditions for the troops were as bad as he had heard.

Finally, the circle ended with Ann. With her smiling sincerity and sleek hairdo, she looked like she belonged on the suburban charity circuit. Not hardly: As an Army colonel and diplomat, Mary Ann Wright served her country for more than 30 years in some of the most isolated and dangerous parts of the world -- then quit because she felt she could not defend this war.

"I resigned when the Iraq war began in March 2003 because I felt the policies of this administration were making the world more dangerous," Wright said. "I felt it was an illegal war and I could not be a part of it."

For more than two years, this unlikely activist has carried her message to small audiences, arguing that the war has increased animosity toward the United States. Wright is part of a tiny network of individuals who crisscross the country to speak out against the Iraq war.

Ron Kovic, a disabled Vietnam veteran from Redondo Beach, pulls out his bullhorn at rallies in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington. Michael Berg, whose civilian contractor son Nicholas Berg was beheaded in Baghdad in 2004, said he was so "obsessed" with ending the war that he once gave the same speech 16 times in seven days.

These independent antiwar speakers often appear on platforms arranged by peace groups. Like Wright -- a member of Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change and Veterans for Peace -- some belong to organizations. But as they address rallies, student groups and whoever else invites them, they represent only themselves. They pay their own expenses and do not accept speakers' fees.

"That would be obscene," said former California state Sen. Tom Hayden, a freelance antiwar speaker.

Wright, 59, brings a distinctive perspective. "I come at this as a foreign service professional," she said. "This is not a political rant. This is a well-reasoned argument of why I thought it was necessary to resign."

Even those who dislike her views do not dispute her right to contest U.S. policy. Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, noted that Wright was now a private citizen. "The 1st Amendment, that's what we're fighting for," Krenke said. "She is basing her views on what she has experienced -- and she has obviously had a wide and expansive career."

James Jay Carafano, a national security analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said he didn't think Wright had special credibility because she spent time in uniform. But, he said, "This is how democracies wage war. In every war, you are going to find people who don't like it."

Operating out of the limelight, activists such as Wright are influencing public opinion about the war, said Bill Dobbs, communications director of United for Peace and Justice, an antiwar coalition in New York. "Their impact is subtle, but they must get serious credit," he said.

No one was more surprised than Wright to find herself among war opponents. She had been part of the system since she was 20, after she heard an Army recruiter's pep talk at the University of Arkansas. Wright was one of two daughters of a Bentonville, Ark., banker who gave Sam Walton a loan that helped launch his Wal-Mart empire.

Her career options in the 1960s were largely limited to being a teacher, nurse or homemaker, but Wright wanted something different. Mostly, she wanted out of Arkansas. "The recruiter made it sound glamorous: 'Join the Army, see the world,' " she said. "So that is what I did."

She saw the Army as an escape, not a career path. But the structure of the military suited her. Starting with her first posting at San Francisco's Presidio during the Vietnam War -- followed by a stint at a NATO station in the Netherlands -- Wright loved being in the Army.

She served 13 years on active duty, broken up over several tours, and 16 years in the Reserves. She never saw combat, though she was stationed in Grenada, Somalia, Nicaragua and Panama. She earned two master's degrees and a law degree while in the Army. In the early 1980s, she began trying to open up new military assignments for women.

Retired Brig. Gen. Pat Foote said she expected to see maybe a dozen women in uniform when she attended one of the "women in the military" meetings Wright organized at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Instead, she said, "I was amazed; there were over 200 women in the room."

Foote said she was neither surprised nor troubled by Wright's transformation. "If you want a point of departure on Ann, it is that she is one of the most ethical and principled human beings I have ever met," Foote said. "When she went into government service, she did it as a public servant. She did it because she felt it was the right thing to do to help her country. She is a patriot."

When she requested an embassy posting in 1987, Wright was told that the Army's defense attache program was not open to women. Her response was to leave the Army -- giving up a likely promotion to general -- to switch to the foreign service.

She rose swiftly, landing assignments in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Micronesia, and earning a heroism award for evacuating U.S. citizens during a coup in Sierra Leone. In 2001, she was part of the first team of diplomats to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

"As a diplomat, Ann had an absolutely phenomenal career," said F. Allen "Tex" Harris, a retired senior foreign service officer who worked with Wright. "She had abilities, background and luck. The luck is that she served in several posts where things went crazy, and she was given an opportunity to show her capability."

Wright was second in command at the U.S. Embassy in Mongolia when she heard that large numbers of U.S. troops were being sent to the Middle East. Before long, she and other diplomats began receiving cables from Washington, threatening to cut off development funds for the countries where they were posted "if our country was not part of the coalition of the willing," Wright said.

In 2003, Wright awoke at 3 each morning in Mongolia to watch BBC news on her satellite TV. "In the pit of my stomach, I became convinced that there was no way in the world that going to war in an oil-rich country in the Middle East was going to make the world safer," she said.

Writing her three-page resignation letter to then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made her so stressed that medics thought she was having a heart attack.

"This is the only time in my many years serving America that I have felt I cannot represent the policies of an administration of the United States," she wrote.

She was one of three top diplomats to quit on grounds that the war was a foreign policy debacle, halting what Harris called "an odds-on" candidacy to head an embassy.

While serving in such places as Honduras, Panama and Grenada, Wright said, she justified her sometimes questionable work -- in support of Nicaragua's Contra rebels, for example -- on grounds that it provided humanitarian aid.

"But when you really look at the long arm of it, I should have resigned earlier," she said.

Wright left with no plan for the future. She owned an apartment in Hawaii, and thought she might retreat there to watch the whales. When a Washington think tank asked her to be on a panel about "risky diplomacy" weeks after her resignation, Wright surprised herself by coming out with a fully formed thesis about the strategic shortcomings of the Iraq war. Soon she was fielding invitations to talk about U.S. foreign policy.

She traveled all over the U.S. -- even to Europe -- enjoying the fact that her government pension was financing her antiwar activities. She became a perpetual houseguest, sleeping on pull-out couches in remote outposts such as this western New Hampshire college town.

She began to have fun. In Dover, Del., the young Republican club at Wesley College denounced her as a "Bush basher" who had no place at the small Methodist school. (She spoke there anyway, and about 100 people turned out in a room where 50 chairs had been set out.)

In August, Wright spent 26 days outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, protesting alongside Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in the war and who vowed not to leave Crawford until Bush met with her. There, Wright became known as the commandant of "Camp Casey," the protest encampment named after Army Spc. Casey Sheehan.

At Keene State College here, Wright began by describing her Army career, but quickly turned her focus to the Iraq war. She talked about U.S. soldiers whom she said lacked adequate equipment, who operated out of "four huge military bases that have been constructed like little Americas, in a country that does not have enough sewage or electricity for its own people." She discussed what she called excessive involvement by civilian contractors, along with the prospect that U.S. soldiers will return from Iraq with mental and emotional problems.

Offering advice on protest techniques, she said: "I am a brand-new person to this. But it sure seems to me that the physical acts get a lot of attention."

Wright spoke with pride about being ejected from a Senate hearing last fall after excoriating the witness, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: "You, the Senate, were bamboozled by the administration on Iraq and you cannot be bamboozled again! Stop this woman from killing!"

Within seconds a guard was escorting her out of the room. Wright slipped her arm through his elbow and walked out as if he were her date.

She has heard nothing from Washington officials: "They just ignore me."

But Tom Stockton, 35, paid careful attention as Wright addressed the gathering here that was part of a larger conference on globalization. Stockton, an education student, spent nine years in the Army.

"The protesting part kind of bothers me," he said. "But the message she is portraying is a good message. She is talking about the impossible situation our military is in trying to fight this war. Usually, the issues of the soldiers are not being addressed, so it is good to hear from an insider -- who is now an outsider."

Keene State education professor Susan Theberge said the audience left inspired because of Wright's ability to connect with her listeners.

"She was on the inside, and so she really understands what's going on. And yet she gave up all that power and privilege," Theberge said. "To me, that is the definition of what an active conscience is. And that is her real draw."

After decades of government service, Wright, in turn, has found a new community. The Army officer and diplomat is at home among Americans who are anguishing about this war. "We are on the same sheet of music," she said, adding that she would continue to make her voice heard, as long as the war goes on.

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