Military Families Speak Out is deeply saddened by the death of co-founder Charley Richardson, who passed away Saturday, May 4th. Charley has been a beacon of hope and inspiration, a mentor and teacher, and a shoulder to cry on for so many of us in this movement and beyond.
The seeds of MFSO were sown in the summer of 2002 when Charley’s son, a U.S. Marine, was being deployed and it became clear he would most likely be ending up in Iraq. As life-long peace and labor activists, Charley, and his wife Nancy Lessin, knew they couldn’t sit by silently while their son was being sent into harm’s way, to a war that should not be happening, an illegal and immoral war of aggression. They brought a sign to anti-war protests with their son’s picture on it that said, “Our Son Is A Marine – Don’t Send Him to War for Oil!” Charley and Nancy were overwhelmed by the response they received to the power of their voice as a military family protesting the war.
At one of these rallies they met another a father whose son was facing deployment to Kuwait. Together, they formed Military Families Speak Out to organize and amplify the voices of military families in opposition to an invasion of Iraq. Just months later, Nancy and Charley spoke at a press conference, offering their home phone number for MFSO; within days, two hundred families from around the country joined the organization.
In February, 2003 Charley and Nancy were lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit against then-President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, calling for a temporary restraining order that would prevent the U.S. from invading Iraq until there was a congressionally mandated declaration of war. Three active-duty service members, other MFSO members and twelve Members of Congress were part of that lawsuit. The case went two rounds in the First Circuit Court of Appeals, and finally failed on March 18, 2003. The bombs dropped on Baghdad the next day.
For the next two years MFSO existed in Charley and Nancy’s living room. On top of their day jobs as prominent labor activists, Nancy and Charley wrote grant proposals, helped members start chapters, trained families on how to speak to the media and pushed tirelessly to create a home for families like them, who had loved ones in the military and were opposed to the war. Families came to them with the same story. “Thank God I found you. I thought I was the only one! What can I do to be a part of this?”
In 2005, MFSO was able to rent an office and hire a small staff. The chapter network grew from 6 to over 30 chapters. MFSO members spoke at local, national and international press conferences; rallied and held vigils at the offices and homes of Senators and members of Congress; formed chapters on military bases and base towns; collected and delivered tens of thousands of letters, postcards and messages to elected officials; spoke at forums in churches, union halls, community centers, high schools and universities; appeared on “The Lehrer News Hour,” “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” National Public Radio, and CNN; and were featured in articles in The New York Times, Military Times, War Times, Stars and Stripes, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and other local, national and international press. MFSO helped to change the definition of what it meant to “support the troops,” as MFSO’s mantra “Support Our Troops – Bring Them Home NOW!” caught on across the country.
In May, 2007, Charley and Nancy received devastating news—Charley was diagnosed with a very advanced, aggressive cancer. Originally given a prognosis of 18 months to live, he defied the odds and continued to live, fight, and love to his fullest. He learned to take vacations, welcomed three dearly beloved grandchildren, and laughed and played with his growing family. Charley continued his work as a labor educator and MFSO leader through the ups and downs of his struggles with his illness, treatment, and declining health. Charley brought his all to his life work, till he could no longer work.
Charley passed away peacefully on May 4th, 2013 at home after a six-year battle with cancer, surrounded by his beloved wife and co-agitator Nancy, and their loved ones. Our best testament to the life and work of Charley Richardson is to continue his legacy in word and action. May we all hold close what he has given us and carry him with us in all that we do. Rest in power Charley — the power of a life well-lived and well-loved.
Charley’s impact on us all is beautifully stated by several MFSO members on a Facebook tribute page (where details about sharing condolences and donating in his honor are held, and where information will be shared about a Memorial to be planned for the summer):
“Charley & Nancy – I don’t think either of you realize what an impact you had on my life. When we first met (at Mike and Betsy’s) I was struggling – I had voted for W in 2000, my brother was in Afghanistan and I was confused. Charley’s gentle soul and kind spirit helped guide me. I found my voice – it was shaky – but I learned that I could speak – and to my amazement – people listened. Charley you were my teacher. Thank you for helping uncover the wise, peaceful, liberal, brave being that I really am!”
Phil & Linda W:
How grateful we are for the email you sent to us back in 2005. “Thank you” just does not seem to say enough for all you and Charley have given to us and to so many others. We are holding all of you within our hearts and sending loving, comforting thoughts your way. Thank you Charley for giving so much of yourself to right the wrongs, you will always be with us. Linda & Phil
Charley and Nancy, I met you at such an awful time in my life. My daughter was physically compromised and at war. After all the rejection I was facing because I hated the Iraq war, you embraced me, as you did so many of us, and you pointed us in the right direction. My prayers, my love, and my hugs from Georgia are with you. As I told you Charley, this picture (below) makes me smile. It’s my favorite picture from the anti Iraq war movement. I faded it because I can see the graphics on my desktop much better that way. It looks like you are saying “we’ve won!”. Charley and Nancy you both HAVE won. you have won my heart and the hearts of so many. I love you both more than there are words. Thank you for coming into my life.