December 3, 2003
Priest Faces Off With Troops
By Joseph Ditzler
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
among those in its ranks. One is a single mother.