Charley Richardson, 1953-2013: Co-founder of Military Families Speak Out

Charley Richardson holds a soldier’s son, Fort Bragg, NC 2005

His name was Charley Richardson. On May 4, 2013, after a six-year battle with cancer, at 60 years old, Charley left behind his wife and co-worker Nancy Lessin, and all of us who loved him, to soldier on in our fights for peace and justice. His long fight for life was the perfect badge of honor for all his previous fights for the well-being of workers abused by bosses and the lives of soldiers abused by political leaders.

Courage and persistence in defense of life, whether displayed on a public or private stage, are qualities that Charley possessed which blessed his friends, family and many people who do not even know who he was.

Charley was a lifelong activist for the rights of workers and finding a peaceable path to resolving conflicts. He and Nancy fought many a battle for the United Steelworkers International Union and other unions. He was a man who stepped up to challenge his beloved America’s resort to violence in foreign wars that served the interest not of America’s security but of securing new markets for American business interests. He was a man of deep compassion, taking into his arms parent after parent who had lost a child to an unnecessary and preemptive war.

Charley might consider his finest achievement what he and Nancy came to call, simply, MFSO, run for many years out of their Bostonliving room. In November 2002 they along with Jeffrey McKenzie – all of them parents of soldiers destined for deployment to Iraq andKuwait – founded an organization called Military Families Speak Out (MFSO). That was shortly after the cowardly October 2002 pre-election resolution in which Congress delegated the responsibility for making war on Iraq to the one man in the world who most cravenly wanted that war – President George W. Bush.

As a corollary to founding MFSO, Charley and Nancy acted with other parents of soldiers to prevent the war before it started via an effort in federal court that came to be called Doe v Bush. The “Doe” of the case title was one of four active duty soldiers who challenged whether the (George W.) Bush of the title had the authority to send him and three other anonymous soldiers to war in Iraq. The four John Does were joined by members of Congress and a dozen parents of active-duty soldiers.

The issue of that legal challenge could not have been more important. The basic question had to do with “a radically expansive version of executive war powers – that the President can unilaterally launch a premeditated, preemptive all-out war, whenever, in his sole judgment, he deems it necessary to defend the country’s national security interests.”

From the Bush Administration’s point of view the case came uncomfortably close to forcing Congress to perform its constitutional duty under Article 1, §8 of actually taking a vote to declare all-out war on Iraq. Just one day before the bombs began to fall over Iraq on March 19, 2003, the court decided that it was not its job to curb the war powers of the Executive as our framers had intended, even when the Executive claimed the right to make preemptive war. John Bonifaz, winner of a “MacArthur Genius” award, represented the soldiers and has told the whole story of Doe v Bush in his book Warrior King.

Starting with just two families in 2002, MFSO rapidly grew to become the most visible anti-war voice of American military families opposed to the war in Iraq. At the height of the war there were more than 4,000 members. MFSO became the “go to” organization for media outlets that wanted an anti-war perspective from people who had – as MFSO used to say – “skin in the game” with their loved ones deployed to Iraq. Even to this day, years after the last American soldier left Iraq, a Google search of “Military Families Speak Out” yields 66,100 pages of results. That alone indicates a big difference made whether corporate news acknowledges it or not.

Of course Charley’s passing was not noted on any mainstream evening news program. Brian Williams will not be including Charley in NBC Nightly News’ Making a Difference segment. Nightly News and all the other corporate gatekeepers of America’s news are too busy with jingoistic profiles of American “warriors” to give air time to a true man of peace, even if that man’s son served his nation in the military, even if the difference that man made is of the very essence of Americans’ freedom to dissent.

In true MFSO spirit, it must be said that the soldiers profiled in corporate news segments for their suffering and bravery in battle are not the problem. It is how their stories are used by those who profit from war – the megacorp advertisers supporting the major media outlets – to promote a warrior culture and justify more and perpetual war for America.

Charley is gone, but the history of what MFSO and Doe v Bush accomplished cannot be eradicated. The tragedy of all those American soldiers’ and Iraqi civilians’ lives lost in Iraq, for no discernable good reason if current outcomes be any evidence, only burnishes the rightness of Charley’s and the MFSO cause to prevent that war. When that effort failed, MFSO was on the front lines of bringing the war to a quicker end and insisting that America take proper care of all those soldiers who were so wrongly deployed. In time the MFSO motto came to inform American opinion with these words: “Support our troops, bring them home now, and take care of them when they get here.”

So if Brian Williams wants to profile a real American hero who made a difference in this nation, he should go see Nancy Lessin and let her tell him about Charley Richardson. Maybe he could learn that hating an unnecessary war and loving the boys and girls sent to that war is possible. Charley may not have prevented the war, but he certainly helped end it sooner and by doing so he gave uncounted boys and girls a chance to lead a full life.