I GREW UP IN HARKER HEIGHTS and went to Killeen High School. My dad was in the Army and was a professional shooter, so I grew up hunting. I enlisted in the Army in 1974. I was sent to Saigon but was there for only a few days before the war was over. Later I was transferred to a special operations unit, and after that I went to sniper school. I was a pretty good shot. I’ve been accused of knocking a gnat off a fly’s butt. I said, “No, but I got the fly.” I got out of the Army but stayed in the Texas National Guard and worked at the VA hospital here in Temple as a surgical OR tech. I volunteered for sniper duty in Bosnia in 1999 and came home a year later. Two months after I retired, we were attacked at the World Trade Center—Pearl Harbor number two. September 11 was an eye-opener. It reminded us to always keep watching.
My son Louis was born in 1984. His mother and I divorced, and I raised him and his younger brother, David, by myself. Three kids lived in this household, and I was the oldest. That’s how we lived. All three of us would scuba dive together, go fishing, hunting, riding Harleys. Louis was born into the military—I always had him decked out in cammies—and he always wanted to go into the service and be like his daddy.
He joined the Marine Corps Reserve on his eighteenth birthday and volunteered to go to Iraq four times before he was finally taken. He had just started at Temple College, and as a reservist, you can say, “I want to stay in school.” He had every excuse not to go, but he said, “Dad, I can’t let my friends go without watching their backs.” But Louis didn’t do it just for his friends. He did it for the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and our country, as well as the people of the world. In Louis’s last letter, he said that I was his hero. Well, now he’s mine.
I’ll never forget the day we got the news. I was in the kitchen and heard a knock at the door. David answered it and said, “Dad, there are three Marines standing on the front porch. They want to talk to you.” All I could think was “No, no, don’t tell me that.” You don’t have three Marines standing on your front porch for nothing. I was already crying. I looked at them and noticed one was a chaplain. I said, “No, no, not my baby. Not my baby.” I pushed the door open, took two steps, and my knees buckled. They told me Louis had been killed in action in Fallujah.
The day I buried my son I got a call from the gunny sergeant. His whole platoon knew they owed their lives to Louis. They had been under fire, and he had run across the street, drawing the attention of an insurgent who was loading a rocket-propelled grenade. Instead of firing at the unit, he fired at my son. Louis did a great deed. He fulfilled his obligation.
Louis was the first soldier from Temple lost since Vietnam, and when he was killed, I became a member of a club nobody wants to be a member of: “gold star” families. The Army gives flags with a gold star on them to families who have lost someone in combat. After World War I, a group of mothers of fallen heroes formed American Gold Star Mothers. It’s a peaceful organization that is about honor and respect. So when I saw that Cindy Sheehan was coming to Crawford to protest against President Bush on August 6 and that she had helped start a group called Gold Star Families for Peace, I was curious. Her phone number was on her Web site, so I just called her up. I introduced myself and said, “I too am a gold star family member.” I asked if she could explain her motives for protesting at President Bush’s ranch. She got real hateful, then started saying, “Hello? Hello? We’re having a communication problem.” Then she hung up.
So I came to Crawford on the twelfth. There were all these lesbians and gays; there was a rainbow flag flying with “We the people” on it, but I didn’t see an American flag. The Bible says don’t associate with people like that. There were also all of these unruly people, shoddy-looking, the kind of people I don’t associate with. Along a ditch, they had all these crosses up with the names of our fallen heroes on them. That ditch was unmowed, and I thought, “How disrespectful and dishonorable.”
I walked among the crosses, looking for Louis’s. I asked some of the protesters, “You don’t have my son’s cross out here, do you?” They asked who my son was. I said, “Lance Corporal Louis Wayne Qualls.” They said, “How do you spell the first name?” I told them, and two of them disappeared. A few minutes later, they came back, pulled a cross out of the ground that didn’t have a name, and stuck a cross in the ground with Louis’s name. Right then I thought to myself, “How disrespectful. You never asked me to do that.” Military tactics went off in my head; I was surrounded by Cindy Sheehan’s people, and I knew if I yanked it out, I’d have a hell of a fight. I said to myself, “I’m going to repossess it. Time is on my side, and I’ll do it when they least expect it.”
The next day I brought a big picture of my son with the words “Fallen Hero” on the top. Representatives of Cindy Sheehan saw that and asked if I wanted to have a meeting with her. I said sure. So we met and talked for about 45 minutes, mostly about what our sons had done. It was pretty civil. Then a photographer came over to take a picture. Cindy loomed over me, giving me a sad look, and then put her arms around my neck. He took the picture. I was not hugging her, but afterward I gave her a hug. Then I pulled out my camera and said, “Can we have a picture with my camera?” In that she’s smiling real big. I figured out that everything about her is cameras and the media. She gave the sad face for the news photographer, but right after, she was smiling. She’s a fake. The very last thing I said to her was “Please leave our fallen heroes out of this.” All of a sudden the hate came out of her heart. She said, “I can use my son and anybody else I want to anytime.” I looked at her with disgust.
Two days later, the media was all over the place, and I knew it was the best opportunity to get Louis’s cross without getting assaulted. I said, “I’m going to repossess my son’s cross,” and some cameramen asked, “Can we film it?” and I said yes. I waited for them to get their gear, then walked across the street. I said, “I’m taking my cross from these unholy people.” I found the cross and pulled it out of the ground, and I was almost attacked. One man said, “That’s our property.” I said, “That’s got my son’s name on it. It’s mine.”
I drove into downtown Crawford and told some people I had repossessed my son’s cross from Cindy Sheehan’s unholy people. They set microphones up, and I bore my testimony. I said I’ll never stand for this again. Bill Johnson, who owns the Yellow Rose, in downtown Crawford, heard my testimony and said, “We’ve decided to build a place to make a stand against these people, and we’ve all agreed to call it Fort Qualls—a fort, to make a permanent stand. A camp is temporary. A fort is permanent.” I was honored. People began calling from all over the country, asking us to repossess their sons’ crosses. “Can my son’s cross stand with yours?” they asked. We repossessed about 75 over the next couple of weeks.
I have no idea why God put me in a position like this. He’s always chosen me for special missions. I kept asking God for the strength to make the right decisions, and slowly but surely I saw the rest of the U.S. stand up too. I said, “All you’ve done is wake a sleeping giant”: the silent majority of Middle America. Now I’m a spokesperson for all the gold star families. I just got back from Fort Benning. I also spoke in New York, Atlanta, and in D.C., where I met with members of Congress.
The other side has tried to label me a “war supporter.” Nobody wants to go to war, least of all the leader of our country. But a decision has to be made. President Bush made the right decision. Sometimes it hurts to make the right decision. You never want to discipline your son, but you do it. It’s the same principle. The immoral thing would have been sitting around and doing nothing. And if you do nothing, you support what’s wrong. Yet most of those protesting don’t have the conviction to fight if they don’t have to. If we answer to Cindy Sheehan’s whim and pull our troops out, who will be held responsible for the atrocities?
The death of my son brought me to a more defined, deeper appreciation—to be able to understand what others can’t. All I can do is what I’ve told my sons: Keep going, no matter what. If someone’s down, help him up. When you get too tired, ask Jesus Christ for help. Sometimes we don’t want to do things, but we have to do them. You have to learn to know the difference between your wants and your needs. That’s responsibility.