By Nikki Wentling, Stars and Stripes
Navy veteran Richard Roberson stood beside the Lone Sailor statute at the United States Navy Memorial on Saturday morning — directly in the center of the massive anti-gun violence rally, March for Our Lives.
He watched as thousands of people streamed by, many of them kids — all of them urging Congress for stricter gun-control measures. The 71-year-old broke down as he explained why he felt compelled to make the trip into Washington from his home four hours away in rural Virginia.
“If you’re 20 years old, and you’re on a Navy hospital ship in Vietnam, it stays with you forever when you see what assault rifles do,” Roberson said. “Quite frankly, my generation has made a mess of the country. These kids are the future.”
A few dozen veterans gathered at the memorial to stand together in support of March for Our Lives and the students who helped to lead it. Many more veterans were likely dispersed through the large crowd, said Air Force veteran Pam Campos, who organized the veteran contingent at the Washington march.
By noon, a mass of people stretched from the U.S. Capitol down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. Organizers were hoping to match attendance at last year’s women’s march, which was one of the biggest protests in the capitol and far surpassed predictions of 300,000 demonstrators.
The official mission statement for March for Our Lives claims the purpose of the rally –and hundreds of sister marches worldwide — is to demand that Congress act on a “comprehensive and effective bill” to address gun reform in the wake of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14.
It was the first protest Marine Corps veteran Steven Kiernan, 30, had ever attended.
“I was always cynical about these kinds of things. You come home from Iraq and everyone seems so disengaged and not interested,” Kiernan said. “Seeing this, it’s given me hope for the future for the first time in a while. These kids aren’t willing to accept the world as it is — they want to change it.”
In addition to fighting for gun reform, Air Force veteran Ksenia Voropaeva, 32, wanted to be in Washington on Saturday to represent immigrants and show the diversity in backgrounds — and in opinions — among the country’s veterans. She emigrated from Eastern Europe to Oklahoma at age 11.
Marine Corps veteran and Georgetown University student Cristine Pedersen, 26, also said she was hoping to push back against what she said were widely held assumptions that all veterans are against gun-control measures.
On Saturday, Pedersen carried a sign with three photos of fellow Marines. One of them, she said, had died by suicide using a gun.
“This issue of access to guns is really personal to veterans,” Pedersen said. “The veteran suicide rate is really high … a lot of it is about access to weapons.”
According to the latest Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day in 2014. Approximately two-thirds of those deaths were the result of injuries from firearms.
Pedersen was deployed overseas in 2012 during the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. She said that at the time, she feared for the safety of her family back home.
“You go to war so it doesn’t have to be unsafe in the United States,” Pedersen said.
Other demonstrators took photos of the veterans Saturday as they stood behind a large banner with the message, “Vets v. Hate.” Some of the protesters engaged them in conversation about their viewpoints and ended by thanking them for their service.
In addition to the main rally in Washington, veterans participated in some of the sister marches nationwide. Groups of them gathered at rallies from Montana to Florida, New York and Texas. The Associated Press estimated that hundreds of thousands of people participated in the demonstrations across the U.S.
Roberson, who watched the masses on Pennsylvania Avenue from his perch at the Navy Memorial, described the event as a “fantastic start” in the push for changes to gun laws.
“I agree with these kids. We’ve got to do something,” he said. “The question is, will Capitol Hill listen to them?”