War Tally Protest a Sign of Divided Nation

A disagreement over a sign in a shop front in Duluth, Minn., is an example of divided national opinions on the war in Iraq. Farai Chideya talks with Scott Cameron, a Vietnam veteran who put up a sign tallying the number of dead and injured military personnel in Iraq, and Sgt. Gary Capan, an Army recruiter who works next door to Cameron and wants the sign removed.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

We all know the country's divided over the Iraq War. In Duluth, Minnesota, as New York Times reporter Monica Davey wrote this week, many of the nation's vast and complicated arguments about the war are playing out on a single block here around a simple piece of wood. On that wood, Vietnam War veteran Scott Cameron is keeping count of American military personnel killed and wounded in Iraq. He displays the sign in the window of the state senator's office where he works. An Army recruiting center occupies the office next door. Its station commander, Sergeant Gary Capan, wants the sign taken down. Talking with me from Duluth are Scott Cameron and Army recruiter Sergeant Gary Capan.

Welcome to you both.

Sergeant GARY CAPAN (US Army Recruiter): Hello. Thanks.

Mr. SCOTT CAMERON (Vietnam War Veteran): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So, Scott, let me start with you. Why did you put the sign up earlier this month?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, I put the sign up--actually, I thought it was going to be an honor to the veterans. It says on the sign `Remember our fallen heroes.' And I contend that, you know, the sign and the numbers are going to make debate, with debate comes consensus and with consensus, hopefully, a solution to the problem we have right now in our political situation.

CHIDEYA: And, Sergeant Capan, why do you want this sign taken down?

Sgt. CAPAN: It's not so much taken down as just moved out of our area. The reason I went over there and asked them to politely take the sign down or move it to the Capitol or on the interstate was just that some of our recruiters here in the office found it offensive just because it was a number and some of the guys that have been over to Iraq, you know, have lost comrades and they didn't want to see that every day they come into work. They know the cost of war and they know that soldiers have died over there 'cause they've been over there.

CHIDEYA: You both seem to maintain a strong sense of duty, Scott Cameron to making sure that veterans get the support they need, and Sergeant Capan to making sure the Army has the soldiers it needs to fulfill its mission. So how does duty affect your actions and your perceptions of right and wrong in your disagreement over the sign? Scott, I'm going to go to you first.

Mr. CAMERON: I guess my main message is, you know, we're building a democracy on the other side of the world, and actually two of them. And with a democracy, which we have here, gives me certain rights, and one of those being my First Amendment right to be able to put my sign in that window. I'm a totally disabled Vietnam vet. I'm a combat vet. And I contend that, you know, when I go to Washington, DC, and I see over 58,000 names, which at one time were more a number in the paper, the sooner we start looking at this and the numbers. And as they keep growing, hopefully, they won't get to 12 years 58,000-plus dead.

CHIDEYA: Sergeant Capan?

Sgt. CAPAN: The way I feel about it is I'm for the same thing, you know, Scott Cameron is, making sure that our veterans are taken care of, or the people that have served the country. The only thing I had was just show a little compassion for the guys next door. You know, we acknowledge that a lot of people have died in this war, but I don't believe it's another Vietnam. And I don't disrespect any veteran; it's just for the feelings for the guys that I'm in charge of here and taking care of their well-being.

CHIDEYA: Finally, I'm talking to you on the phone right now, each of you in your own workplace, but you're sitting next door to each other. Do you ever sit down face to face over a cup of coffee or a bowl of chili and just try to talk this through?

Sgt. CAPAN: We actually talked for about a hour the first evening we got together, and we just saw each other last night and were talking outside the office for just a little bit. But we just have our own differences, and I don't think either one of us is going to change our opinion. It's just going to be the way it is. We fight for the right for him to put up the sign, and he's going to take advantage of that right. That's about it. We agree on that.

CHIDEYA: So that's your opinion, Sergeant Capan. And what about you, Scott?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, I basically feel that we can agree to disagree. I feel really bad that they feel this way. In the same perspective, you know, the military I belonged to had a draft. And with the military today, which is a professional military, most of the people in it are career people. So I think there's more of a division between the two sides than happened 30, 35 years ago.

CHIDEYA: Just one last thing. If you could use one word or one sentence to describe what will happen as a result of your disagreement, what would it be, Scott and then Sergeant Capan?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, I hope that we can be friends and that we can coexist.

CHIDEYA: Sergeant Capan?

Sgt. CAPAN: Basically, the same thing. I think we'll get by this and no problem at all, and we're going to keep on plugging along and doing what soldiers and complete our mission.

CHIDEYA: If that's not Minnesota nice, I don't know what is.

Scott Cameron volunteers for Minnesota state Senator Steve Kelley's campaign for governor. Sergeant Gary Capan is an Army recruiter. They work next door to each other in Duluth, Minnesota.

Thank you both for talking with me.

Sgt. CAPAN: Thank you.

Mr. CAMERON: Thank you.

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