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Local activist protests war weekly

BY MACKENZIE ELMER - SPECIAL TO THE DAILY IOWAN | DECEMBER 18, 2009 7:30 AM

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When David Smithers isn’t taking parking tickets at ramp four of the UI Hospitals and Clinics, he is crusading for human rights at the intersection of Clinton and Washington Streets.

He’s becoming somewhat of a mainstay downtown, taking part in a weekly antiwar peace vigil. It attracts many types — a retired banker, a former UI graduate student, a truck driver — but mostly baby boomers, like Smithers. The vigil’s mission is to keep at least one demonstrator on that corner every Friday for at least an hour, winter or no winter.

At the Dec. 11 vigil, his large, homemade sign read: Come home, America. Hope not war.

The 56-year-old is a big guy with a big agenda, the quintessential 1960s throwback.

“It’s a faith thing I guess, that people from the streets make change happen,” Smithers said.
He says public figures had an influence on him. He participated in his first antiwar protest in 1971 while he was earning a liberal-arts degree at the UI.

The native of Wellman, Iowa, runs a blog with a progressive ideology. Challenge Smithers with a question about any issue of the day and expect a lengthy but researched response.

But beneath the active political schedule lies an unhealed wound.

Smithers is father to three sons and husband of 36 years to his wife, Joyce. Hard-hitting changes struck the family in 2005 when their middle son Jonathan enlisted in the war.

Smithers said he did not try to dissuade his son from joining the military.

“Looking back, I wish I would have discouraged it, but I didn’t. He has free will,” he said.

His son went to war in Kuwait and Iraq, returning home safely in 2008. But aside from brief phone and e-mail contact, his family hasn’t seen him in nearly four years.

While in Baghdad in 2007 near Sadr City, Jonathan described in an e-mail to his father how insurgent roadside bombs had killed five of his friends on June 28, 2007. Because an illness, Jonathan stayed behind that day.

“David wouldn’t tell me what was in the e-mails, because he was scared for my health and state of mind,” said Joyce Smithers in a heavy, cracking voice. “I’ve read a few, but he talks about things that just don’t make sense. He basically said that David and I weren’t very good parents … and it really hurt.”

In another e-mail, Jonathan Smithers told his parents that he had “killed people and didn’t want to be thought of as a monster.”

The family tries to stay in contact with Jonathan through MySpace, Facebook, and the occasional e-mail.

In a brief phone conversation, Jonathan Smithers praised his father’s political activism, adding his personal political views changed after 9/11.

“I felt I needed to serve my country,” said Jonathon Smithers, who now lives in Maryland.

The separation remains a situation Jonathan would not discuss in a recent interview.

Regardless of the strain Smithers feels over his son’s unexplained absence, he persists in his antiwar efforts. He would certainly discourage anyone from joining the infantry.

Smithers said he would be happy to get off the corner some day.

“I’d be glad if the Democrats called for peace, because then I wouldn’t have anything to [complain] about,” he said. “I think there needs to be more yelling.”


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