The young students who rallied massive crowds in protest of gun violence across the country on Saturday found a seemingly unlikely ally in hundreds of military veterans who showed up to support them and their cause.
Several veterans told BuzzFeed News they were bothered by criticism of the high school shooting survivors as “un-American” or unpatriotic for their fervent activism for tighter gun regulations.
“We wanted them to know that we’ve got their back,” said Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, a US Army combat veteran who joined the march in Los Angeles. “We want them to know you’re not being disrespectful, and we’re with you. Honestly, I’m so inspired by these kids."
Through a group that initially began as a social media hashtag #VetsForGunReform, hundreds of military veterans joined the March for Our Lives rallies in dozens of cities. The contingent in Washington, DC, was made up of more than 300 people, according to organizers. Dozens of them, many wearing #VetsForGunReform T-shirts, gathered and held signs by the US Navy memorial on Saturday morning.
“We all volunteered to go into harm’s way and fight wars, understanding the dangers,” said Kyleanne Hunter, a 40-year-old Marine Corps veteran who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, gesturing to the veterans standing around her. “These kids just went to school.”
As the crowds around them grew, many veterans shook their heads at some of the signs that passed them by with messages like “Ban Guns Now.”
The Veterans for Gun Reform group is not advocating to strip Americans of the rights that they fought to protect, said Hunter, who is a former NRA member. But they all agree it's time for a common sense, honest conversation about gun regulations, she said.
“The way I see it, this is about limiting excessive lethality,” said Thomas Lynch, a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran who came to support the protest from Baltimore. “I own guns. I go to the range every week to shoot them. No one — no one — needs an AR-15. There have to be limitations.”
The massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month, which lasted less than seven minutes, was the ninth-deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. But its aftermath has organized and brought military veterans into the conversation in a way that hadn’t happened after previous mass shootings.
Asked why he thought that was, Matt Collins, a 42-year-old Marine Corps veteran who served combat tours in the Middle East and Africa, joked “we were a little busy.”
“We have more time on our hands now,” he said of his fellow Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. “But seriously — Facebook, Twitter, a lot of that wasn’t a thing when we left. I think a lot of us got back and started connecting with each other on these issues.”
The veterans joining the marches across the country spanned several generations. Among the thousands of marchers in Phoenix, Korean War veteran Donald Fouts stood out in a wheelchair decorated with American flags.
The 87-year-old Navy veteran said he was proud to be among the crowd and supported a new assault rifle ban.
“I want to help the young generation,” he told BuzzFeed News. “That’s the most important thing.”
While opinions on gun control varied in the veterans groups protesting on Saturday, most said they felt strongly that civilians have no need for the same weapons they used in war zones.
“When I was in Iraq I held my M4 assault rifle every single day,” said Hausmann-Stokes, who now works as a filmmaker. “These weapons were developed for the military, and now they’re being used repeatedly in school shootings. We know the power of these weapons firsthand. We used them; we trained on them. It’s heartbreaking to me.”
When Hausmann-Stokes put out a call for veterans to appear in a video calling for stricter gun laws, he was amazed when more than 2,000 people responded. In little more than a week they had organized 16 people to appear in the video, and received a $400,000 camera package and professional lighting package. One veteran even insisted on flying in from Chicago to participate, he said.
“I was definitely surprised by my fellow veteran community, I thought I’d be more of an outlier, but I was totally blown away by the response,” he said. “We all were saying the same thing. I know the power of these weapons from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. It was surreal.”
They shot the video at Blue Cloud Movie Ranch, a setting often used in war films, including American Sniper.
The video went viral when one of the Parkland students, Emma González, pinned it at the top of her Twitter page. It aired on stage Saturday at the March for Our Lives in Washington and in the national broadcast.
“In a weird way it makes me feel a lot better, or safer, to know they’re behind us,” said 16-year-old Kay Gomez, who came to the Washington march with her mother from Miami. “So many people have been saying that we don’t know anything, that we’re just kids; sometimes I start to think if we’re being crazy. But actual soldiers are saying they agree with us.”
Hausmann-Stokes said he hopes military veterans can use the deference they’re given by Americans to further the conversation.
“We have an informed and respected opinion on the issue of guns that has a different kind of weight," he said. "Everyone knows you've got to respect the veterans, or that's the quickest way to get out of office."
Claudia Koerner contributed additional reporting to this story.