Army veteran Aubrey Rose cuts a striking figure at Denver’s ongoing protests — wearing his formal army jacket with all his ribbons and medals, he’s come day after day to march with an upside-down American flag dangling over his shoulder, a symbol of the nation in distress.
“The way that these police have been behaving, any military service member that would behave like this would be in Leavenworth right now,” said Rose, who served 18 years in the Army, including combat tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia. “The fact that we’re letting these guys get away with murder, and there really isn’t the stressors of a war zone here, is ridiculous.”
For Rose, the protests have given him a new sense of purpose he hasn’t felt since his medical discharge.
“For the first time, as an adult, I’m able to utilize my constitutional rights because I couldn’t do it before, when I was active duty," Rose said. "I feel nothing but pride right now,” he said, surveying the chanting crowd.
The Defense Department says service members can’t wear their uniforms when taking part in political activities, like protests. They also can’t do anything that seems to disrespect the chain of command, including the president. Those restrictions go away when you leave the service, but by the time they retire, many veterans are used to living with them.
“I’m sure it’s an internal conflict and an internal struggle (for some veterans)” said Leanne Wheeler, an organizer with the progressive veterans group Common Defense.
Wheeler described having former servicemembers take part in protests a “gamechanger.”
“It does make a difference, for those who have served the country to be engaged in this conversation,” she said. “You can’t ignore that service and we bring it full-throated: We’ve served, here’s what we understand about the constitution.”
More than 40 percent of the military’s active-duty personnel are people of color. And as the protests have spread, and become more chaotic, active-duty military is now in the spotlight.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced it had moved some units to the Capitol area to back up local police in Washington, D.C. On the same day, President Donald Trump threatened to take similar actions nationally.
“If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” the president announced in a Rose Garden address.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he would oppose using the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty military to cities.
While the idea of using active-duty personnel to contain protests is controversial, nearly half of states, including Colorado, have already deployed the national guard to try to maintain order. But some worry that will only lead to escalation.
“What we’re afraid of is history repeating itself with something like the Kent State massacre,” said Shawna Foster, a Denver member of the group About Face.
Foster and other About Face members are post-9/11 veterans who now organize against U.S. militarism at home and abroad. She deserted from her National Guard unit during the Iraq war after it was revealed the nation didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction.
About Face is encouraging members of the guard to refuse any orders that involve confronting protesters. The group says it has received dozens of calls in recent days from service members worried about being called up against protests.
“To be deployed against your own neighbors? To be using those weapons of war against people, civilians? The military’s not really trained for that. We are trained to engage enemy combatants,” Foster said.
For those who are deployed, they may spot familiar uniforms in the crowd, like Shenika Mosely. The Iraq War veteran said she chose to wear her army dress jacket to a recent protest in Colorado Springs so those around her would know what she’d done.
“I proudly fought for my country and I just came out here to wear it today to let everybody know I fought for my country and that they fight for our country too,” she said.
Mosley says these protests against police brutality are about making sure, everyone — with a uniform and without — has a voice.
Denverite's Kevin Beaty and CPR's Dan Boyce contributed to this report.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.