Walking against the war: Teens finish cross-country trek from San Francisco to Washington.
WASHINGTON - Two teenagers who set out from San Francisco in May to walk 3,000 miles across the country to protest the war in Iraq, trudged into Washington on Monday, finishing the final leg of a four-month journey that started as one of the nati...
WASHINGTON - Two teenagers who set out from San Francisco in May to walk 3,000 miles across the country to protest the war in Iraq, trudged into Washington on Monday, finishing the final leg of a four-month journey that started as one of the nation's smallest anti-war demonstrations - a march of just two young people.
By the end, Ashley Casale, 19, and Michael Israel, 18 - looking cheerful despite their disintegrating shoes - ended their pilgrimage amid a group of 20 supporters who helped them silently hoist a "March for Peace" banner in front of the White House.
The teens acknowledged that their march might not have changed the course of the war, or gained much of the nation's attention, but they hoped they had at least galvanized the people they met along the way.
"A lot more people know about what we've done, that we've walked across the country, and they've been inspired by it," said Casale, her hair tied in a white handkerchief and, because she had lost weight, her jeans cinched up with a blue bandana. "I personally hope that we've made more people think and that they'll be inspired to take action and do what they can to help. If it's not walking across the country, maybe it's just being more aware."
Though they had once hoped to rouse the nation and inspire thousands to rise up in opposition to the war, Casale and Israel walked for weeks alone through the Nevada desert and over the Rocky Mountains. They eventually enlisted six other long-distance traveling companions, five who trudged through the grueling 25-mile daily hikes and a sixth person who drove a support car. But the teens met countless others who offered free meals, new pairs of shoes, shelter for the night or just an encouraging word. "The most important thing was the individuals we talked to," Casale said.
Though their peace march remained small, the teenagers' frustration with the war mirrored the growing public skepticism about the military strategy in Iraq. The fact that few people joined the young activists seems to reflect a state of nationwide paralysis; most Americans remain against the war but unsure what to do next. According to a recent Gallup poll, only about one-third of Americans say the surge of U.S. troops is improving the situation. Most continue to favor a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but at the same time say the U.S. has an obligation to establish stability and security before a complete withdrawal.
Casale, a sophmore at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., hit on the idea of a cross-country march last autumn, hoping to spur a groundswell of supporters and pressuring a withdrawal. She established a Web site, www.marchforpeace.info , and contacted peace organizations around the country. Though dozens showed initial interest, in the end only Israel, about to graduate high school in Jackson, Calif., agreed to walk and stayed committed to the end.
They set off from San Francisco on May 21, carrying 40-pound packs. Walking the edge of isolated highways, they were at times met with obscene gestures and expletives. "Get a job!" was one greeting hurled from passing cars. But the vast majority of other people, they found, offered support.
In Nebraska, a young veteran of Iraq shook each of their hands and said: "Thank you." At a rural diner, a woman offered a free meal and held back tears as she showed a photo of a local 19-year-old killed in Iraq.
MultiplyingBy the time they reached Washington, their group included six other long-distance marchers - including a bookstore worker, a recent college graduate, two activists, a freelance writer and a furniture maker - most who took leaves from their jobs and joined in the Midwest after hearing news reports of the teen's quest.
Michael Russell, 55, of Chicago, took a leave from his small business, where he makes handcrafted furniture, and joined the march near Crawfordsville, Ind., because, he said: "change in vision and leadership is never going to come from the top down."
On Monday, while the nation turned its attention to Army Gen. David Petraeus, who gave his first day of testimony on Capitol Hill about the situation in Iraq, few took notice of the rag-tag band of road-weary walkers who straggled into the capital amid the morning traffic.
When they reached the White House, they lifted their banner high. "We made it," one marcher said, in a near whisper. "I can't believe we're here," said Casale, looking dazed to have finished. The marchers huddled in a circle for a group hug, and put their hands together and yelled: "Peace!"
They had hoped to meet with President Bush, but White House officials did not respond to their letter requesting a visit. Casale said she wasn't discouraged. "This walk is just the beginning," she said, standing in the afternoon sun. "We need to keep working for peace until we obtain it."
"I think we had an impact, even if it was small," said Israel, who sprawled on the grass in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, taking a well-earned rest. "Even if we impacted one person, I think that's meaningful."