Mutual awe: Veterans for Freedom, Marshall audience enjoy tour stop

Friday, March 28, 2008
David Bellavia, a nominee for Medal of Honor for acts of courage while serving in Iraq, addresses a crowd of more than 120 people Thursday, March 27, during the Vets for Freedom Heroes Tour stop in Marshall. (Eric Crump/Democrat-News)

Editor's note: To see more photos of the Vets for Freedom tour stop in Marshall, please visit our photo gallery of the event.

"This will be a day we'll remember forever," said Jean Gallagher of Sedalia.

Gallagher's comment seemed to sum up the sentiments of the crowd and the speakers Thursday, March 27, during the stop in Marshall of the Vets for Freedom National Heroes Tour.

Members of the audience cheer and wave flags as three decorated veterans are introduced Thursday at the Martin Community Center. (Eric Crump/Democrat-News)

Three decorated veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars spoke to a crowd of more than 120 people -- by Marshall Mayor Connie Latimer's estimate -- at the Martin Community Center Thursday, March 27.

Co-founder David Bellavia, Jim Hanson and Executive Director Pete Hegseth received a sheriff's department escort from Kansas City to Marshall, a standing ovation as they entered the room, applause frequently while they told their stories and hugs from grateful members of the audience afterward.

And the admiration was mutual.

Lester Baily of Marshall introduces the speakers from the Vets for Freedom Tour. (Eric Crump/Democrat-News)

"All I can say is, 'Wow,'" said Hegseth after the group was introduced by Lester Bailey of Marshall, who was responsible for initiating the invitation to the group. "We've been all around this country, but I have never been any place like Marshall, Missouri. I get chills standing up here."

He said the turnout was as big as they've received in larger cities. Bailey noted a news report from Austin, Texas, for example, that estimated the turnout there at about 100 people.

The third speaker, Bellavia, echoed his colleague's admiration for the welcome the group received in Marshall.

"This right here is what we fought for," he said. "This right here is why we bleed."

The veterans comments touched on some of their experiences fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the emphasis was mainly on urging the nation to take a new perspective on the conflict, looking past what they feel are incomplete, often misleading and biased reports in the mainstream media and listening to the message from the troops.

Hegseth put it succinctly: "Our mantra is 'Let them win.' Let's not play politics with this war like we have with other wars," a comment that drew applause from the crowd.

He told about a trip to Iraq just a few weeks ago. He visited a market in a neighborhood that had been rife with violence when he served there in 2005. Now, though, "the markets weren't just open, they were booming. The Iraqi people were taking control of their neighbhorhood."

Iraq, he said, has really been liberated twice, first in 2003 from Saddam Hussein's rule and again in 2007 from the grip of al Qaeda in Iraq. He said the people are fed up with terrorists exploiting them in order to fight the U.S.

Changing attitudes and reconstruction progress are things often missing from media reports, he said.

"Let's listen to the people who have been there and have seen it and have done it," he said.

When the tour ends in Washington, D.C., Hegseth said the message the veterans will deliver to Congress is to turn attention from questions about whether the war should have been started and concentrate on "where we are today" and how the war can be won.

Editor's note: More photos and additional coverage of the event will appear on our Web site over the weekend.

On the Net:

Blackfive blog (where video of the Marshall visit is available):

Vets for Freedom:

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  • thank you Lester for all of your hard work on this project, you are a proud American, and I am proud of you.

    -- Posted by saline on Sat, Mar 29, 2008, at 6:16 AM
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