Son's voice drives war protester

Every night before going to bed, Sue Niederer asks her son for a little advice. Should I attend this war protest? Is this interview a good idea?

So far, Army 1st Lt. Seth Dvorin keeps telling his mom - at least in her mind - to go for it.

"I say to him all the time, `When you want me to stop, tell me or flatten my tires,' " Niederer said.

A year ago this past week, Niederer buried her only boy after Dvorin, 24, was killed by a bomb on the battlefield in Iraq. Like any grieving parent, she spent a good part of the year pounding the walls, crying before bedtime and daydreaming about the grandchildren she will never have.

But spurred by her son's spirit, Niederer also grieved by vehemently speaking out against the Iraq war and the Bush administration in hundreds of media interviews and at seemingly countless protests.

The Hopewell Township mom lost more than one friend who objected to her campaign, and she was even arrested during one protest, but she said she doesn't have any regrets or plans to stop.

"When Seth tells me to stop, I will," Niederer said. "I am who I am, and I will continue to be who I am. I don't wish anyone any harm, but I need to be heard."

Like her or not, Niederer wants people to know she is a true American. "I don't want people to get the impression that I'm not a patriot," Niederer said. "I just don't like this war."

-- -- --

Three days after Niederer finished sitting shiva for her son last year, she received a phone call from a woman who wanted her to attend a protest in Princeton Borough.

As someone who sat out the Vietnam War demonstrations, she wasn't exactly sure this was the way to go.

"Believe it or not, I'm an extremely conservative person," she said.

But fueled by a mix of shock and anger, Niederer felt this was what her son wanted her to do.

Niederer had never believed the Iraq war was justified in the first place. But if she could save one more son or daughter, it would be worth it, she told herself.

She headed off to Princeton where Secretary of State Colin Powell was accepting an award. "You deserve this award like my son deserves to be dead," she yelled at the time.

When Niederer got home that night, she felt a little better. "I felt like I got some messages out," she said.

Soon after, she visited Dover Air Force Base with a military families group and began attending protests up and down the East Coast.

She also started granting the first batch of what would eventually be hundreds of media interviews to outlets across the globe.

Whether it was CNN or Japanese television, the message was always the same: Bring home the troops - don't make other mothers go through this.

Niederer said she asked for her son's approval almost every time. Sometimes he answered, sometimes he didn't.

-- -- --

By last summer, Niederer was a seasoned protester.

In July, she got into a scuffle with a heckler at a protest outside Rep. Chris Smith's office in Hamilton.

A month later she made a T-shirt with the slogan "President Bush, You Killed My Son," and marched to protest the Republican National Convention in New York City.

Though Niederer said she got tickets to the convention, she decided not to go inside because her husband objected to it.

In September, Niederer got tickets to a campaign rally hosting first lady Laura Bush in Hamilton.

Niederer said she consulted her son. She said he warned it would be trouble, but he cleared the move anyway.

Wearing her signature T-shirt, Niederer began shouting during Laura Bush's speech and was arrested shortly thereafter.

"They had to do something to prove their point," Niederer said. "My point was made."

The county prosecutor dropped the charge but that didn't quash the attention. Democrats across the country lined up to support her.

After hearing that Niederer had struck a spectator, Assemblyman Bill Baroni, R-Hamilton, remarked: "She really ought to find something to do with her time."

Baroni later said he was misinformed and personally apologized to Niederer - a gesture she will not forget.

"We're the best of buddies," she said recently. "I'm going to help with his campaign when he runs for re-election."

-- -- --

Soon after the Laura Bush rally, the U.S. Secret Service acknowledged it was investigating comments Niederer made threatening the president's life - a federal crime.

One of the statements posted online came in response to a question about learning the war was launched on the basis of "misinformation."

"I wanted to rip the president's head off," Niederer reportedly said. "I think if I had him in front of me I would shoot him in the groin area. Let him suffer. . . . He doesn't deserve any better."

In a recent interview, Niederer said she never really meant the president any harm. She and her son only want to end the war. "I'm not stupid," she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union and many private attorneys stepped up and offered to defend Niederer, but she said the Secret Service never pursued prosecution.

Still, she appreciated the support.

Since her son's death, Niederer has been called everything from a "dirtbag" to a true American by people she doesn't know.

One woman called her house at 2 a.m. to share her distaste for the Laura Bush protest. Before hanging up, Niederer asked her to call back at a reasonable hour.

Most of the people who send cards or stop Niederer in the supermarket offer their support. Others tell her to shut up.

-- -- --

But "egged on" by her son, Niederer doesn't plan on quieting down. During the past several months, she's taken on the job of "counter recruiter."

In between selling real estate and substitute teaching, she visits high schools and colleges to give youngsters another take on the military recruitment speech.

After all, it isn't all college tuition money and patriotism - she has a dead son to attest to that.

So far, she's made 10 speeches.

"What I try to do is give them the other side of what the recruiter says so someone can make an informed decision when they enlist," she said.

Niederer now devotes about a day and a half out of her week to her activism.

"Financially, I would love to be able to do it full-time," she said, "but I'm not able to do it."

Niederer knows not everyone appreciates her style.

Meanwhile, her daughter-in-law is a bit annoyed by Niederer's activism, and most of her husband's family could do without it, too. Her daughter doesn't quite understand it either.

But it's her son's opinion that matter's most.

-- -- --

In a year packed with protests and headlines, she said the hole in her heart hasn't moved an inch.

Though she talks to her son, she knows he isn't going to walk through the front door. "I go in the shower at night and cry my eyes out," Niederer said.

Dvorin's boots and military gear sit on his bed, but the rest of the young man's room looks much like it did a year ago, and it probably won't change.

"It's his room," she said.

Niederer promised her husband she would try not to get arrested again, but she can't promise more than that.

At first, the military said Dvorin, who was trained in air defense artillery, was killed while he was defusing a bomb.

Now, Niederer said, she has received four different reports - some official, some anecdotal - about what her son was doing when a bomb exploded near his unit on Feb. 3 last year.

"I don't know what to believe anymore," she said. "The left hand doesn't know what the right hand says."

Until Niederer gets one story, she plans to continue to tell the public about the conflicting reports.

And unless Iraq eventually becomes a self-sufficient democracy, Niederer will feel her son's death was useless.

"If Seth was killed in Afghanistan, he (would have) died for a reason," Niederer said. "His death (would not have been) in vain. They attacked us."

Meanwhile, part of Niederer can't help feeling responsible. If she hadn't raised Dvorin to think of others before himself, maybe he would be alive.

"I'm as proud as proud could be of him, but you always have a guilty complex," she said. "A parent doesn't bury a child. It's that simple. This young man was the light of my life. I'm doing what he asked me to do."


Sunday, February 13, 2005
By KAREN AYRES Staff Writer


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