WASHINGTON — “We’re in the middle of the tunnel and we don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” said Maly Rivera, a veteran of the U.S. Army 16th Brigade just back from Iraq and expecting to return for a second tour in January.

He and his buddy Efren Oliveras, also an active duty Iraq war veteran, were dressed in their desert fatigues, Sept. 24, standing amid a big crowd on the Capitol Mall at “Camp Casey.” It is named for Casey Sheehan, who died in Iraq. His mother Cindy Sheehan cofounded Gold Star Families for Peace, which staged the vigil at the gates of George W. Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch last month to protest the war.

As they did in Crawford, Camp Casey organizers planted crosses and pairs of boots on the mall, symbolizing each of the nearly 2,000 soldiers killed.

“We get shot at every day,” Rivera said. “We’re not safe no matter where we are. On any particular day, there are 20 or 30 mortar rounds coming into our base.”

Asked his view on the way out of the quagmire, Rivera replied, “Right here! Joining protests like this. It is the only way we are going to get out of there. The Iraqi people view us as enemies.”

The day of protests was unique for the significant numbers of active duty military personnel marching in their uniforms. It was startling to see a U.S. Marine resplendent in full dress blues and white gloves, carrying a sign that read, “End the War! Bring the Troops Home Safe and Alive.”

Nancy Lessin, cofounder of Military Families Speak Out, told the World, “This is the largest contingent of military families ever assembled to speak out against a war. We have 250 families from 42 states and the District of Columbia. We’re joining together with Gold Star parents and Veterans for Peace to say: ‘Bring them home now, take care of them when they get home and never ever send our loved ones off to a war based on lies.’”

Among the family members was Fernando Suarez del Solar, whose son Jesus died in Iraq. “Isn’t this fantastic!” he exclaimed, spreading his arms to encompass the huge numbers of protesters on the mall. “This is the biggest turnout I have ever seen.”

Bill McNutt, a Marine combat veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam was in a wheelchair pushed by his wife Lela. They had flown in from Centralia, Wash. Lela spent three weeks with the Crawford vigil. “This war in Iraq is ill-advised, illegal and immoral,” McNutt said. “We’re losing more and more people for a cause that can’t be won. I have an ‘exit strategy.’ Get Halliburton out. Give the Iraqis jobs instead of giving those billions to Halliburton. If they have jobs it will give them a stake in peace.”

Billy Kelly, a Vietnam veteran from New York City, was wearing a tunic decorated with a Silver Star, Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. He had accompanied Sheehan on the Veterans for Peace bus to Crawford. After Hurricane Katrina, he was aboard when the bus rushed assistance to the New Orleans area. “Before Katrina hit, I was calling the vigil at Crawford ‘the perfect storm.’ You can’t argue with combat veterans or mothers who have lost a child. I believe Katrina is just enhancing our opportunity to expose the total incompetence of this administration.”

Charlie Anderson was dressed in his U.S. Navy camouflage fatigues. A Navy medic assigned to the Second Tank Battalion during the invasion of Iraq, he is now discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I can’t end the war by myself or impeach Bush,” he said. “Congress has to do that. What we can do is pack the mall with people, to tell Congress that we don’t want this war and it is their duty to end it. Being here, seeing all these people who really do support the troops, it helps a lot. I finally feel like I’m coming home.”