After the War

RICHMOND, Va. - The war is over. Or so people have told him, yelling out car windows - Don't you read the paper? - as they drive past his sign.

Of course, if the war were over, Larry Syverson wouldn't be out there in the first place. He could spend his lunch hours sitting in an air-conditioned restaurant instead of standing on the sidewalk in front of the federal courthouse in the midday heat. He could stop fearing the crunch of an unfamiliar car on his gravel driveway, followed by the knock of a stranger with news about his sons.

He has four of them altogether. Two are soldiers in Iraq.

The hecklers' remarks don't entirely surprise him. "Major combat operations" in Iraq were declared over on May 1, and the days when people were riveted by the troops' every step are long gone. For months, Syverson has felt as if the country were shifting its focus, more interested in tax cuts and Harry Potter and Laci Peterson, less interested in yellow ribbons and rallies to support the troops.

But for Syverson, every day is still clouded with worry. Every morning's paper brings a renewed sense of dread. The end of "major combat" didn't mean an end to soldiers dying: At least 77 U.S. troops have lost their lives since May 1. Every report of an Iraqi attack is another reminder of the dangers facing his sons - Bryce, 25, and Branden, 31.

In the state office where Larry Syverson works is a little black datebook. He uses it mostly to record work-related tasks - letters written, reports read - in his job as a senior environmental engineer in the waste division at Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality. But on April 2, there is a different sort of entry:

Branden left this morning at 3 a.m.

And, later, on April 28:

Bryce left a little after midnight.

Now Branden is in Tikrit, Bryce is in Baghdad, and their father begins his workday scouring the Internet for news. He reads about intensified Iraqi resistance. He reads about guerrilla-style attacks on American troops. Just the other day he read about an unnamed soldier with the 1st Armored Division - manning the gunner's hatch on a Bradley fighting vehicle - who was shot to death while guarding a museum in Baghdad.

Syverson's son Bryce is a gunner on a Bradley fighting vehicle with the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad. And even though Bryce's last letter mentioned a different assignment, the anxious father wondered.

"Could he be doing that? Could that be him? You just don't know," says Syverson. "There's thousands of families reading that and everyone's thinking, 'I hope that's not my son.' It's like Russian roulette - whose son is it?"

Syverson, 54, has vocally opposed the war in Iraq, which sets him apart from many military parents. (Even his wife, Judy, has declined to join his protests, saying politics, like religion, is a personal issue.) But the fear and uncertainty that consumes him is far from unique. Like other parents of soldiers, he goes to work every day - in his case, with two yellow ribbons pinned to his collar - never knowing exactly where his sons are, what they are doing or if they are safe.

Some days, the only thing he can be sure of is what will happen at noon. That's when he leaves his office and goes to the car to get his sign, the one with the two 8-by-10 photographs of Bryce and Branden in their Army uniforms. He walks three blocks to the Federal Building and stands outside it for an hour, displaying the photos to all who pass by.

He has done this for months now. He says he'll do it until the troops come home. These days he does it on most Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from noon to 1 p.m., no matter the weather. In the blazing summer sun he wipes sweat from his brow and resists the tempting shadow of a nearby tree.

As long as his sons are in the desert, he doesn't want to stand in the shade.

Might as well give up!" a man shouts from the window of a construction truck as it rumbles past the courthouse.

It's just moments past noon on a steamy summer Monday, and the cars and trucks and buses are moving down Main Street. Office workers stroll the sidewalks, security badges flapping around their necks, and lines form at the food stands in the financial district near the state Capitol.

By now, Syverson is used to the hecklers. In the last four months, he has taken his share of abuse. He has been called a communist, told he should be ashamed of himself, gotten what seems like a thousand dirty looks. A semi truck once barreled by so close to the curb that Syverson felt sure the gesture was intentional. But perhaps one of the hardest things to take is when people say he's unpatriotic.

It's true that Syverson opposes the war. He has written his position, in its most succinct form, on the sign next to Bryce and Branden's photographs.

"Iraqi Oil," it says, "Isn't Worth My Sons' Blood."

"I think you can be against the war and still be a good American," Syverson says. "We're a proud family, and we support our troops."

Many of the Syversons, in fact, are the troops. All four of his sons enlisted; three chose military careers. Syverson himself was never in the military, though he says he came close to being drafted to serve in Vietnam. His late father, Ralph, was an Air Force navigator who earned a Distinguished Flying Cross in World War II.

The idea of "opposing the war, but supporting the troops" can sound like empty rhetoric, especially coming from people whose sole form of "support" is opposing the war. But as he stands in front of the courthouse, looking down at his sons' photographs, Syverson's pride in their military careers and accomplishments is unmistakable. He counts the ribbons on Bryce's dress uniform, admires the master gunner trophy in Branden's hands.

Syverson cried, he says, when he learned of his sons' Iraq assignments, even though Branden, especially, was gung-ho to go. Both sons know that their photos are on his sign, he says, and neither objected, though Branden said the gesture wouldn't make a difference. Bryce complained only about his father's choice of picture. "He thought he looked like a little kid," says Syverson, who now displays a formal portrait of his nonetheless baby-faced son.

Besides the sign with the pictures, Syverson holds a smaller sign that says "No Iran War." (It isn't hard to guess, from the pasted-on final "N," what it used to say.) A third sign, propped on the sidewalk, urges motorists to "Honk for Peace."

The periodic honking from passing cars and trucks buoys Syverson's spirits. So does the woman in the Toyota Camry who flashes a peace sign through her sun roof , the guy in khakis who pats him on the back, the couple across the street pumping their fists in the air in encouragement.

Still, that first negative reaction won't be the day's last. A middle-aged guy in a green SUV shakes his head behind his car window. A white-haired man in a seersucker suit and bow tie glares from across the street and walks away muttering. A regular, Syverson explains matter-of-factly. "He hates us."

"Us" are the protesters who've been gathering in this spot for months, although the crowds from the early days of the war are long gone. These days, five people is a good turnout. A few times, Syverson has stood on the sidewalk alone.

Today he's joined by two familiar faces: a woman wearing slacks and lipstick who works at a state agency and a man in a tie-dye T-shirt holding an anti-Bush sign that involves a rather obvious, unprintable play on Dick Cheney's name.

"Real mature," a man in a business suit sneers as he walks by.

Syverson doesn't like the sign either, but he keeps his opinion to himself, focusing his energy on trying to catch people's eyes as they drive by. It isn't easy for him to come out here - he says he gets a knot in his stomach beforehand each time - and it's always harder during the inevitable stretches when no one reacts to him or the signs.

"In the last 20 minutes, we've had only one honk," he says.

It's hard to tell what people are thinking when they stare through car windows with blank expressions, or when they look at the pictures of his sons and look away. Syverson, dressed for the office in khakis and a polo shirt, smiles and occasionally waves. But most people seem indifferent, walking by with no response. Maybe they're offended by the tie-dye guy's off-color sign. Maybe Syverson and his sons have become part of the landscape, as easily tuned out as the daily casualty reports from Iraq.

Even when they do react, it's not always clear what they're saying. Like now, when a passing motorist breaks the silence with an undecipherable shout.

"We'll take it as being positive," Syverson says.

And then, finally, a honk.

"Honk for peace!" the three protesters shout back. "Bring the troops home!"

On June 24, somewhere in Baghdad, Bryce Syverson turned 25.

Because it was neither a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, his father sent out an e-mail to local peace activists, inviting them to turn out on a Tuesday at noon.

That day, 11 people stood outside the courthouse. Syverson passed around a birthday card, hoping the protesters would sign their names.

He didn't expect they'd write anything more.

"Please take care of yourself and everybody else," one person wrote.

"Your dad is a bright light in Richmond, as you are there," wrote another.

"Look forward to you coming home," wrote a third.

And so on, until the card was full. Full of notes to his son from strangers who opposed the war.

Being the parent of a soldier is mostly a private experience. For the Syversons it's going to the Wal-Mart to buy Kool-Aid and beef jerky, but not chocolate brownies, because Branden wrote that the "sun dries them out and makes them taste funny." It's living in a house where two candles glow in the dining room window, two yellow ribbons are wrapped around the pine tree in the yard and a map of Iraq sits atop the TV.

It's reading a letter from Branden that says he's patrolling a roadblock, and writing back to warn him about reports of deadly roadblock attacks. "I want him to know what the danger is," Larry Syverson says. "I don't want him to ever put his guard down." It's noticing that fewer people ask how you're doing, as if the war or your role in it has slipped out of their minds. It's realizing that most people can't relate to what your family is going through.

"The world's going on," says Judy Syverson, "but I'm not sure my sons are safe."

To be honest, she doesn't think much will come of her husband's protests. "I don't like the idea of him standing on a street corner and some nut could come up and do whatever," she says. But, she adds: "He seems to feel better about doing it. ... like he's actually doing something."

It's true. To him it's worth the heckling, the heat and the indifference, because at the end of the hour, he knows he did something concrete, something more than just sitting at his desk and worrying. He has put a face on the troops. He has reminded people that his sons are at risk. He has made public, if only for an hour, the private burden he carries all day.

This afternoon outside the courthouse, no one will shout "the war is over." Maybe, Syverson thinks, people are starting to notice. Maybe the mounting casualties are getting harder to ignore.

Half-past noon, a red pickup truck in the lane closest to Syverson stops at the traffic light. The woman in the passenger seat looks out her window at the sign. When she smiles, it's hard to tell if she's conveying kindness or is merely amused.

Then the window rolls down, and the man in the driver's seat leans over.

"Are those your sons?" he asks, looking Syverson in the eye.

"Yes," says the father.

The man nods.

"I'm a retired Army guy, too," he says. "Good luck."

It's not going to get Syverson's sons out of Iraq. But at 12:30 on a sweltering afternoon, as the light turns to green and the traffic moves on, for a father who doesn't want his sons to be forgotten, it makes a difference.

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