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Government

Fast times in Washington, D.C.

A Royal Oak stonemason makes his case with a hunger strike

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Published 12/16/2009

Striding across the gleaming marble floors of a congressional office building in Washington, D.C., Thomas Mahany does not look like a man who hasn't eaten for nearly a month. 

He's moving too fast. And he doesn't rest, hitting office after office.

The spacious hallways of the Cannon Building, a Beaux-Arts marvel completed in 1908, are busy. It is near noon on Monday, Dec. 7. Capitol Hill staffers carry lunch from a cafeteria as sunlight streams in through tall windows.

Mahany takes a deep whiff as the smell of warm food wafts from one office.

"Chicken soup," he says.

Is it torture to smell something like that at this point?

"No," he says. "I actually like it. At least it satisfies one of my senses."

The Royal Oak resident is 27 days into a fast that began on Veteran's Day. Since then he's been in the nation's capital, trying to draw attention to the military's stop loss program — which allows the president to order troops be retained even after their enlistment is up — and the problem of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Mahany, 62, points to an obvious a connection between the two issues, and has come to D.C. determined to gain the ear of lawmakers and get them to do something about it. He's not the only one to make the link. As a 2008 Rand Corp. study, for one, found the amount of time spent in a war zone is one of the factors contributing to the high rate of PTSD being suffered by members of the armed forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A stonemason and artist, Mahany began this mission by staking out a spot in Lafayette Square Park just north of the White House that has been the site of numerous protests over the years. "But when you are by yourself, standing there holding a sign, you're just another wacko. Nobody wants to talk to you. Even I don't want to talk to people like that."

So he abandoned that plan within a few days, deciding instead to transform himself into a lobbyist.

In a sense, Mahany is a living symbol of how much things have changed since the last time the United States was in a prolonged war.

Nearly 40 years ago, Mahany — who spent three years at West Point and a year in Vietnam — had come to Washington to help stop another war after four student protesters were killed and nine others wounded by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio. Twenty-three years old then, Mahany joined in a hunger strike being staged by a man named J. Brian McDonnell and fasted for 29 days. 

That protest ended when the pair, with the help of actress Shirley MacLaine and a Catholic bishop, obtained a meeting with Henry Kissinger, then-National Security Advisor to President Richard Nixon.

This time around, an Army psychiatrist who allegedly killed 13 people and injured 30 more at Fort Hood in Texas sparked Mahany's journey to the capital. It's still not clear why Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged shooter, may have committed the atrocity, but the tragedy focused attention, in part, on the issue of mental health problems plaguing the military. Although Hasan had not yet been shipped overseas (he was reportedly upset at his impending deployment to Iraq) it has been reported that, even though there were problems with his behavior beforehand, he was nonetheless promoted. And a severe shortage of military psychiatrists is reportedly one reason for that. 

As a story in the Los Angeles Times following the shooting noted about the U.S. military: "Psychological problems are rampant, leaders admit. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been long, and repeat deployments are highly stressful."

Not just for the men and women fighting those two wars, but also for the people charged with caring for them, and for the families who struggle in their absence and then have to contend with those who are wounded — both physically and psychologically — once they return home.

For Mahany, the mass murder "was an alarm going off."

And so he took to marching through the halls of the Rayburn and Cannon and Hart, where U.S. representatives and senators have their offices.

Day after day, week after week, he has been pounding the marble, trying to get meetings with the staff of Congress members who serve on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.

By the 27th day of his fast, he's doing well physically. He chews sugarless gum, jaws grinding away. And he drinks water, preferably something sparkling like Perrier (tap water causes gas pains, he says), with a few squeezes of limejuice and salt added in to keep his electrolyte count high.

Sleeping only about five hours a night, his energy level remains remarkably high — as long as he keeps moving. "It's only a problem when I stop," he says. "If I'm just standing in one place, it's like somebody pulls the bathtub plug out and all my energy seems to just drain out. So I try not stopping."

But the general lack of response to his efforts is starting to wear on him.

"I'm getting hungry," he tells the receptionist in the office of one congressman. "It would be nice if I could get to talk with somebody."

Back in 1970, attempts to get public officials to pay attention didn't pay off until major media began covering the story. As soon as Mahany and McDonnell made it onto The CBS Evening News anchored by Walter Cronkite, a call came from the White House.

Mahany attempted to drum up the same level of publicity this time around, but with little success. The Detroit ABC affiliate — WXYZ/Channel 7 — provided some coverage, but he hasn't been able to break though on the national news even in this age of 24/7 cable network coverage.

So he keeps visiting congressional offices — "Here's the latest installment," he tells another receptionist. "I'm still waiting for someone to give me a call. It's been four weeks now."

He's wearing a blue blazer with a sweater vest and plaid shirt underneath, blue jeans and hiking shoes. The temperature outside is frosty, and there's a maroon scarf draped around his neck. His blond hair is going gray, and a neatly trimmed goatee frames his mouth. Wired-rimmed glasses perched on his nose give him a professorial look.

He's not a big man —"I'm five-eight on a good day," he jokes — but decades of working with stone had built up his shoulders and arms. That muscle, though, has been slipping away during the fast.

Watching him soldier on, an inevitable question forms: What kind of guy willingly puts himself through something like this?


Peasant roots

The descendant of Irish immigrants who came to North America in the 1830s, Thomas Mahany was born in Maine in 1947 and spent part of his childhood on the family's potato farm in upstate New York.

The second of five children, he knew from the age of 6 that the plan was for him to attend West Point one day. That was his father's dream, and he worked for more than a decade to fulfill it.

Asked why his father wanted that so deeply, Mahany explains that his dad contracted polio as a youngster, and ended up with one leg shorter than the other as a result. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered into World War II, his father attempted to enlist with a group of friends, but was turned away.

"I think that wounded him emotionally more than it should have," says Mahany. "But the result was that, to make up for it, he wanted one of his sons to become a general, and I was chosen."

After graduating from high school, he indeed won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in 1965, just as President Lyndon Johnson began to escalate the war in Vietnam.

A self-described "child of the '60s," Mahany says he spent 12 years working to get into West Point, and, having achieved that, was there for "about 12 days" before he began asking himself why. 

"As a cadet I found myself often at odds with the commonly accepted attitudes of many upperclassmen concerning the war," he writes in a bio posted on his company's website. "As a result I spent more than my share of time 'walking the area' [as punishment] where I had plenty of time to ponder the fine granite veneer work on the regimental barracks."

He lasted three years, the last 10 months of which were spent confined to his quarters when not attending class or other required activities. And then he was booted from the academy and shipped off to Vietnam as a private in the infantry, "where I now had the occasion to ponder the fine art of stacking sandbags."

By 1970 Mahany was back in the States, where protest of the war was in full flourish. Mahany enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York and began to study painting. Then the tragedy at Kent State erupted, and he headed to D.C. It was there that he met Brian McDonnell, a former seminary student from Pennsylvania who had begun a hunger strike a few days earlier to protest America's incursion into Cambodia. Mahany joined him. 

"He was a very spiritual guy," Mahany says of McDonnell. "And he taught me a lot about spirituality."

An article from the New York Times, dated May 24, 1970, begins this way:

"Two of the gentlest war protestors President Nixon will ever see — if he ever sees them — lay in the shade of a horse chestnut tree today across the street from the White House.

"J. Brian McDonnell, 27 years old, and Thomas Mahany, 23, who was with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam a year ago, have pledged to fast in Lafayette Park until the United States troops are withdrawn from Cambodia."

Mahany had been fasting for 14 days by that point. The article said both men were suffering from "drowsiness, muscle pain and dizziness, and 'an awful lot of hunger.'"

The two men never got an audience with Nixon, but, with the help of actress Shirley MacLaine and the Rev. John Turnbull, an official with the National Council of Churches, they did meet with Kissinger, according to another newspaper account.

There were actually two meetings with Kissinger, Mahany says. The first was at Turnbull's home, and the second was in the honeymoon suite of a hotel near Lafayette Park.

Mahany recalls coming out of that meeting thinking that Kissinger "was a consummate liar." He also recalls Kissinger wanting to keep water running in the suite's bathroom because he was afraid the room might be bugged. 

Days later, the two men decided to end their fast. Mahany hadn't eaten for 29 days.

"We failed to get our message through to the president in any real sense and we failed to halt the destruction in Cambodia," reads the statement Mahany gave to a paper. "But we have found a new inner peace and we are now more firmly committed than ever to the struggle for peace."


Politics of stop loss 

That was a different time, and the two wars America is currently waging differ from Vietnam in at least one very significant way: Instead of being fought with a military composed primarily of draftees, the men and women deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq are all volunteers.

At least they enlisted voluntarily. But, as a result of the military's "stop loss program" — which critics, including Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), have called a back-door draft — thousands of servicemen and women deployed in the war zones are there because they've been forced to remain in the war zone after they were supposed to have been free to go home.

The draft ended in 1973. But, as an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) points out, stop loss was enacted in 1984 to enable the president to "suspend the laws relating to promotion, retirement and separation during periods of national emergency or a presidential call-up of reserve components."

Congress was concerned about the president's ability to maintain troop strength in the event of a war or national emergency.

President George H.W. Bush first employed it during the 1990-91 Gulf War. President Bill Clinton also used it "at the beginning of the Bosnia deployment and during the Kosovo Air Campaign," according to the CRS report. But those conflicts were nothing like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where stop loss has played a significant role as the military struggled to recruit new members.

Under a "worst case" scenario, the report notes, a soldier can experience an "involuntary" extension of up to 18 months past a previously set separation date.

Currently, the Army is the only service still using the program, and even that branch, under the Obama administration, is phasing out its use. According to one report, as of October, 9,600 soldiers "were serving involuntarily beyond their resignation or retirement date.  … That compares to 16,500 service members on stop loss in 2005."

Suzanne Miller — a Jacksonville, Fla., attorney, mother of a U.S. soldier and founder of the group End Stop Loss Now — is one of the program's harshest critics. 

"I know a lot of people like to call it a ‘back-door draft,'" she told one reporter. "I like even more to call it indentured servitude. It's the perfect analogy: You have no control over your own destiny and are being forced, under threat of prison, to work for an employer you no longer want to work for."

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates in March announced the phase out — with the stated hope of eliminating stop loss sometime in 2011 — he told reporters, "When somebody's end date of service comes, to hold them against their will … is just not the right thing to do."

A New York Times editorial following Gates' announcement noted that it "is hard to argue with critics who deride the program as a back-door draft. But then, the all-volunteer military was never designed to be abused as it was during the Bush administration: indefinitely deployed and in permanent crisis mode."

As the Times also noted, there has been at least one "silver lining" to the economic collapse: "It has helped the military draw in more new recruits and retain officers."

But putting a halt to current use of the controversial program and addressing the law that allows it are two different things. 

Which is why Mahany found himself walking the halls of Congress, his body consuming itself as days turned into weeks without food.

The way he sees it, if a war is worth fighting, then the sacrifice should be shared equally. The problem with an all-volunteer fighting force is that those volunteers, as the Times editorial alluded to, are most likely to come from young men and women who lack the resources to do anything else but put their lives on the line.

"But if you are fighting a war that's supposed to be for everybody's good," says Mahany, "then everybody should be taking part in it."

Trying to get the law amended so that the abuses that occurred under the Bush administration can't happen again, Mahany says, is a way to help prevent future conflicts.

"I'm not here to stop this war," he says. "I'm here to help keep soldiers from being dragged into some new war in the future. Stop loss is there for a very practical reason. The military doesn't want a draft, because if you have to start drafting people, they will rise up and resist the way then did during Vietnam."


Deaf ears

On the afternoon of his 27th day without food, Mahany has a meeting with staff members serving on the House Armed Services Committee. He asks if its OK if the reporter who has been following him round sits in.

The request is denied.

But there are no doors in the back office where they sit down to meet, so the conversation is easily heard in the outer reception area.

Things go badly from the start.

He's told the program is being phased out. He's also told that those who enlist — especially those who have signed up since the invasion of Afghanistan — know the risk. "Anyone signing up during the last seven years knows for sure they are going to war," one of the staff members says.

When he tries to argue that these are just kids who are signing up, and that they have no idea what war is really like, and that some of them simply can't handle the emotional trauma, his concerns are brushed aside.

The military is working harder to address the issue, he's told, and programs are in place to help make soldiers "more resilient." 

He's told too that the stop loss provision is part of the contract enlistees sign; it's part of the deal.

Although it doesn't come up in the conversation, it is important to note that attempts by soldiers to challenge stop loss in court have been unsuccessful. Which is why Mahany is convinced the only way to address the issue — and to keep the program from being abused in the future, is to have Congress make changes to the law.

On that point, Suzanne Miller, the attorney and mother who founded End Stop Loss Now, concurs.

"I certainly agree that the law needs to be changed or at least re-written to allow the DOD [Department of Defense] to only implement a very temporary stop loss in limited circumstances. The law should not allow the DOD to staff the military for six years," she writes in an e-mail to the Metro Times.

During the meeting, Mahany also raises the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder. He mentions, almost in passing, that he's seen the effects first hand.

His brother-in-law, a Vietnam vet, never recovered psychologically, and killed himself about 25 years ago. His sister and two nephews were devastated by the loss.

One of the problems of stop loss, say its critics, is that repeated deployments over a period of many years increase the likelihood soldiers will suffer from PTSD.

A 2008 Rand Corp. study titled "Stop Loss" concluded that more than 300,000 veterans who had returned from Afghanistan and Iraq suffered from either PTSD or major depression, or both.

"Stress has been a fact of combat since the beginning of warfare," the report notes. However, the current conflicts share three unique features pertaining to the stress levels placed on the force: extended deployments, the proliferation of improvised explosive devices, and higher survival rates among the wounded.

One of the consequences is an alarming increase in the suicide rate among active duty service members.

"The Army hit a grim milestone last year when the suicide rate exceeded that of the general population for the first time: 20.2 per 100,000 people in the military, compared with the civilian rate of 19.5 per 100,000," The Wall Street Journal recently reported. The Army's suicide rate was 12.7 per 100,000 in 2005, 15.3 in 2006 and 16.8 in 2007."

"Army officials say the strain of repeated deployments with minimal time back in the U.S. is one of the biggest factors fueling the rise in military suicides," the paper reported.

Along with the incalculable costs to the soldiers and their families as they deal with PTSD-associated problems such as alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, divorce, and homelessness, there is a direct economic consequence that this nation will be paying far into the future to care for these psychologically wounded veterans.

The Rand Corp. analysts estimated that PTSD and major depression have cost the nation at least nearly $4 billion "in just the first two years following deployments." 

Says Mahany: "If it's not healthy for the soldier, it's not healthy for the family. If it's not healthy for the family, it's not healthy for the community. If it's not healthy for the community, it's not healthy for the country. And if it's not healthy for the country, it's not healthy. Period."

Taking note of the promised phase out, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates' statement that stop loss is "just not the right thing to do," Mahany contends says, "This is the perfect time to try and get the law changed."

But the people he's meeting with on this day don't see any need for change.

Leaving the meeting with the House Armed Service Committee staff, Mahany looks worn out.

"I need some salt," he says. "I can feel my electrolytes are getting low.


Rockin' it

On the way out of the Rayburn Building, where the meeting was held, he pauses to take a close look at photos taken while the massive building was being constructed during the late 1950s and early '60s.

He points to one photo of a pillar being muscled into place and says, "That's what I do for a living." He keeps staring, then adds, "Look at all that material strewn all over the place. I could never work like that."

He's been in the business of laying stone for 35 years now. 

But it's not like he planned on becoming a mason. 

After the summer of his first hunger strike, he transferred to the University of California at Berkeley — a hotbed of anti-war activity — and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1973. With the war essentially over for the United States by then, he found work as a carpenter. That led to him installing fieldstone walls around hot tubs in Northern California.

He went on to found his own company, Eldon Precision Stone, and specialized in working with a type of bluestone found mostly in the Catskill and Adirondack mountains of New York.

In the 1990s, he moved to Royal Oak, where he runs his business and continues to paint. In fact, he currently has a show up at the House on Main gallery in Royal Oak.

Last Friday he returned home, his hunger strike over.

Just as he didn't succeed in getting the United States out of Cambodia back in 1970, he didn't bring an end to stop loss this time out. But he didn't think he would.

"I had no delusions that I would come back with the law changed," he says during an interview at his home on Sunday.

A woeful Lions football game is being played on a flat-screen TV, the sound off. Christmas music is playing on a stereo. His girlfriend makes herself busy, out of sight. A fire blazes in a sprawling fireplace he built along with the addition he put on the house, the craftsmanship breathtaking.

There's a second-floor loft with plenty of light where he does his painting, and a bathroom he put in with a walk-in shower and a Jacuzzi tub.

He says he decided to come home after a meeting with a member of Sen. Carl Levin's staff and a staffer from the Senate Armed Services Committee, which the veteran Michigan Democrat now chairs.

In an e-mail to the Metro Times from Levin's office, the official word is that little of any consequence transpired. Mahany was told by staff that the "Senate Armed Services Committee would continue to exercise oversight of the Department, as they have done in the past, to ensure their judicious use of stop loss."

But Mahany contends that there was more to it than that.

The meeting was held on the 29th day of his fast. Although he agrees that there was no commitment to hold hearings, there was a promise to take a close look at the issue.

"I think I found a pocket of hope," he says. Compared to the previous meeting, it was "like finding a rose in a thorn bush. There was an understanding of the problem, and a willingness to try and address it." 

That, he says, was enough to get him to start eating again.

There were more questions, though some of them seem rather frivolous considering the seriousness of the issue he has taken on. 

Like, what was the first thing he ate?

"A bowl of crab chowder, with all the meat and vegetables strained out. A friend of mine who is an attorney happened to be in Washington that day, and he took me out."

A glass of chardonnay washed the chowder down.

And how much weight did he lose?

"Thirty pounds, which is what I think I lost the first time. But I've already gained seven pounds back."

How were things different this time compared to 1970?

"The first time, I was immersed in a subculture where everyone was active in the anti-war movement. People were cheery, and full of hope. Back then, everyone was involved. Now, it feels like no one is involved. Which is exactly the way the military wants it.

"The first time, we were just trying to make a statement, and we spent our days sitting on a blanket. This time, I was walking the halls of Congress, knocking on doors, searching for people with the right intellectual sensitivity and learning how to become a lobbyist for this cause."

Was it harder then, or now?

"I think it was easier this time, because I knew what to expect. And I was more focused this time. I've learned a lot of life's lessons at this point. Back then I was just a young guy, and still had a lot off wild oats to sow."

What does it feel like, going 29 days without eating?

"After a while, as long as there are no distractions, it becomes easy to draw on the energy that you have within you. Not taking in food, your body becomes cleaner and your mind clearer."

You were alone in your hotel at night. It would have been easy to have something to eat, and no one would have known about it. Were you ever tempted?

His eyes turn steely-cold.

"I'd know. And I couldn't live with myself if I did that."

But how can you keep from eating for so long?

"I come from some really hard stock. Irish potato farmers. When we make up our mind to do something, we do it. Hunger is nothing compared to resolve. When you give up your resolve, you give up your soul."

What happens next?

"It's like building a stone wall. You keep putting stones up, one at a time, until the wall stands on its own. But the thing is, I can't build this wall by myself. If change is going to happen, other people have to become involved. This has to become a movement."


Mahany is collecting personal stories from soldiers suffering from PTSD and their families. For more information about that project and his other stop-loss activities go to thomasmahany.com.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-804 or cguyette@metrotimes.com.

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