You might not know her name, but she’s fast become a fresh face of the antiwar left. Missouri mom Tina Richards became an overnight YouTube sensation last week, when an encounter she had with Rep. David Obey in a Capitol Hill corridor went viral—just as Congress was debating a bid to rein in spending for President Bush’s surge in Iraq. During the encounter, Richards approaches Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, to discuss her son, Marine Cpl. Cloy Richards—who suffers from undiagnosed traumatic brain injuries following two tours of duty in Iraq and a failure by the military health-care system to provide adequate treatment, his mother says. Obey responds patiently, at first, but the congressman grows agitated as the conversation continues, and he tells Richards that “liberal idiots” were pushing Congress to defund the war—which, Obey argues, would further hurt the cause of veterans whose health-care needs are already being shortchanged.
Richards, the CEO of Grassroots America, a nonprofit devoted to social-justice issues, has continued walking the halls of Congress since then, pushing members to end the war in Iraq. Cloy is due to be deployed to Iraq later this month despite his injuries, she says, and has threatened suicide if he is to be deployed again. She spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Eve Conant about her son, the politics of the war and her newfound place in the antiwar limelight.
NEWSWEEK: How did this run-in with Obey take place? Was that planned?
Tina Richards: People seem to think it was a setup—that it was specially planned with cameras. But Kathleen Gable and Tyler Westbrook are filmmakers who’ve been documenting all peace-movement activities on the Hill, and we had all heard there was going to be a sit-in at Obey’s office. I thought I’d better hurry, not to the sit-in, but to put in my request for an interview with him before it started. Mondays are usually the day I go asking for meetings with everyone on the Subcommittee for Defense Appropriations, Obey is the chair for all appropriations. I try to get to all of the offices of the representatives dealing with defense by Friday. Every Monday I start all over again. What you hear about the failures at the VA and at Walter Reed; these are all affecting my daily life.
How’s that? Why are you making the rounds in Congress?
I went to Obey’s office to drop off letters about my son and some of his poems. I know it sounds stupid, but if you read those poems you’d understand the pain of what this war has done to him and to our families. I never in my dreams thought I’d actually come across Obey in the hallway. I hadn’t actually studied his record before, but I was going to drop off my letter and I knew he had the power to vote against the supplemental. Call me naïve, but I’m just trying to save my son. I see very few people going up there to Congress to say that they are against the war. I talk to staff, to aides, congressmen and congresswomen, and they say the American people are not calling or writing them and don’t seem to care about what’s going on in Iraq. When Obey was yelling, I was trying to remain calm; I didn’t want to aggravate the situation. But I was hoping there’d be a chance for him to listen to my side.
You’ve been getting death threats now, is that right?
Yes. I never attacked or accosted anybody. But I’m getting all these e-mails, some saying I should use the gun my son wants to use on myself. Some on the left are saying I raised a murderer and I deserve this. I’ve read 30 or 40 of these e-mails, and my son has read the rest and is deleting them. I grew up in the military, I believe in a standing army to defend our country. [Richards’s father was in the Marines; her brother was in the Air Force. In addition to Cloy, she has a 13-year-old daughter and a foster son who is currently serving in the California National Guard.] I don’t believe that there’s never a time for war. But diplomacy should come first, and that didn’t happen. Not all the e-mails are bad. One person serving in the military actually sent me $50 to thank me for what I was doing and help me out.
If people came up to the Hill, would they be heard?
Only 1.4 percent of the American population is fighting this war. That means troops and their families. I’ve been criticized [by people saying] that I should know more before I go up there. But I’m just trying to save my son and stop this stupid war, so others don’t have to go through the pain and suffering we’ve had to.
You seem to be following in the footsteps of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore when it comes to corralling lawmakers. How did all this start for you?
I came to D.C. from Missouri on Jan. 27 for the peace march. I coordinated for the state of Missouri for the United for Peace and Justice Coalition, and they had scheduled appointments to discuss their concerns with Congress. I saw that common people were allowed into the halls of Congress—that these are our halls, too. Even if we’re not in all their districts, their votes affect our lives. While I was there, my son called on Jan. 29 to say that the Marine mobilization had called to check again whether he was ready to deploy. He said he had to decide whether to go or to kill himself. I promised him he wouldn’t have to make that choice. I said to him, your voice will be heard in the halls of Congress. I thought the best way would be through his poems.
Why does your son want to kill himself?
Back in September the Marine mobilization unit had contacted him to check where he was and whether he was qualified for redeployment, again. He does qualify because we don’t have forms from the VA for his disability, because they keep sending us letters saying, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” and “We’re too busy.’ Back in September I found him sitting in the driveway in the car. He doesn’t drive anymore because he thinks there are roadside bombs everywhere so he can’t actually drive. I thought—why is he in the car? I sat down with him in the car and asked him what was wrong. I saw he’d been crying. He said, “Mom, I can’t go back. I thought I was defending a country, but this war is illegal and immoral and I can’t just go back there and kill innocent Iraqis.” I told him I would take him to Canada. He said he couldn’t leave his duty, but that his choice was either to kill himself or kill innocent Iraqis. I promised him he’d never have to make that decision, and for six weeks now I’ve been going to Congress people to help him….So I’m here and I’ve been walking the halls and that’s where I ran into Kathleen and Tyler [the film crew]. We’ve gone to press conferences of military families who want the troops back home, and no press showed up but them. That’s where we met. These are just two citizens—Kathleen is on the fourth mortgage of her home to be here to film the peace movement, and Tyler left behind his wife and kid to come out here, sleeping on back porches at friends’ houses at first. The American people don’t care about what’s happening to our soldiers like we do. They can put a yellow ribbon on the back of their car, they can turn the TV or radio off, and the war is over for them for the day. We live with this 24 hours a day and can’t shut it out.
What is your son Cloy’s disability?
He has undiagnosed traumatic brain injury: memory loss, severe depression … a rocket exploded near him and he has neck and back injuries. He’s had six or eight concussions while serving in Iraq, and he was never treated for any of them and never diagnosed because the VA system is too broken to do it. I can’t think of all of his symptoms right now, but there are a lot more. I’m sorry, I haven’t slept in a week. I haven’t slept much these past four years. I will sleep when this war is over.
What should the Democratic Party do? Do you have any heroes on the Hill?
Well, the Democratic Party needs to stand up and start being strong. They were given a mandate by the people in the last elections, and polls show people want the war over and they want our troops home. I’d want them to stop using Republican talking points, like to support troops you need to fund the war. In 2004, Bush said that anyone who voted against the supplemental was voting against body armor. The Democrats are so afraid of being viewed as not supporting the troops that they won’t stand up and reframe the debate. I didn’t believe it in ’04 and a lot more people don’t believe it now, so why are they using the same language as George Bush and Dick Cheney? [Rep.] Lynne Woolsey [of California] read my son’s poem and talked about him on the House floor; that gave me a lot of heart. Same goes for Rep. Barbara Lee, Rep. Maxine Waters and Rep. John Conyers. I just ran into Rep. [John] Murtha and told him I’d been trying to get an appointment with him for three weeks. He said that was horrible and rushed into a hearing. And then half an hour into that hearing I got a call from his office to set up an appointment.
Do you see yourself as perhaps the next Cindy Sheehan?
I disagree with Cindy Sheehan on a lot of issues, but I have a great amount of respect for her. Her son sacrificed his life for this war. I know that she stood up at a time when the country was not talking about Iraq. Back then I didn’t even know a peace movement existed. Where I live—in Salem, Mo., a small town in the Ozarks—there is nothing like that. But when I saw her on TV, I thought, wow, there are other people out there who want this war to end, not just me. But she’s also outspoken about her views on issues that are not related to the war, and I don’t agree with some of those views.
There’s been something of a backlash against you, even though Obey made an apology. What’s that feel like?
As for the apology: I left a business card and a letter and my son’s poems all in Obey’s office. I know they can reach me. The incident happened on a Monday, and I have never received a call, and still don’t have an appointment with him because I’m not a constituent. I hear on the news there’s an apology, but I don’t have a TV or radio where I am and I wouldn’t even have known it happened. Maybe it’s just the way I was raised, but when you make an apology you usually talk to the other person.
That said, doesn’t Obey have a point—that defunding might hurt the cause of veterans, like Kane, who are already being shorted by the military health-care system?
A lot of articles and organizations and people a lot smarter than me have debunked that idea. He told me that it took 31 resolutions and the will of the people to end Vietnam. Well, this war won’t be ended by the will of the people. George Bush has had nothing but political pressure on this, but he doesn’t care. After the election he’s sending in more troops. What does 31 resolutions mean, anyway? Think two, three, seven years down the line, how many troops will die by then? Problems with that idea are stated clearly by political analysts. I’m just a mom trying to save her son. You can’t pay for Walter Reed or the VA unless you pay for the continuation of the war? That doesn’t make any sense. I don’t understand why George Bush’s supplemental wasn’t DOA. Democrats now have the support and power to reclaim the debate. And instead of using it, they are using Republican language to justify continuing the war. They are setting themselves up by putting Walter Reed and VA funding on the supplemental.
Are you just going after the Democrats?
People ask me why I’m not going after the Republicans. I’ve been going after them for four years and they don’t listen. I hoped that if I went to Democrats who see this war as illegal and immoral, there would be some dialogue. I’ll keep going through the halls of Congress until I get it, but they keep shutting people out.
Will you go home at some point, perhaps to see your son?
He’s coming to join me in D.C. this week, starting on Monday as I go through the halls of Congress. He wanted to come up and try it for himself. This isn’t easy. I don’t even have rent money right now for my house in Missouri. I’ve been sleeping on a couch in Maryland. But I can’t just go home to my son and make him decide whether to kill himself or be deployed again. I refuse to live with that. [She starts to cry]. I get apologies or people refuse to meet with me, but meanwhile on March 24 he has to report to his Marine Mobilization Unit with documentation that he doesn’t have to prove he’s disabled, because the VA system is too broken to give it to him. I’m looking right now at the Capitol building, and these people have the power to end this and they are not listening. They are shutting us out, the people who are hurting from this war. Maybe I’m stupid or idealistic, but I believe these halls are for the people. This breaks my heart. This is the country and the government I believe in. Maybe this is politics as usual, but I want to finish what I’ve started. Maybe more doors will be slammed in my face, but this isn’t right.