Kerri Peek woke up in her Aurora motel room at 7:30 a.m. Monday and had soon managed to spill Cocoa Puffs and milk down her bra, break her favorite coffee mug, spill chicken soup in her Crocs — and collect some “crazy hate” that accused her of being a fake veteran and a tool for anti-American propaganda.
From so ordinary to extraordinary, and all before noon.
Peek spends a lot of time on Facebook — where the 42-year-old disabled veteran describes herself as “a passionate, angry soul, crying out into the tortuous mediocrity” — and that’s where she first spotted a post by Texas-based Melissa Chance Yassini about her daughter, Sofia.
“Sad day in America when I have to comfort my eight year old child who heard that someone with yellow hair named Trump wanted to kick all Muslims out of America,” Yassini had written on December 9. “She had begun collecting all her favorite things in a bag in case the army came to remove us from our homes. She checked the locks on the door 3-4 times. This is terrorism. No child in America deserves to feel that way.”
Peek, a mother herself, agreed. “I was doing my Facebook thing — if there was a Facebook Anonymous, I would be a part of it,” she says — “and I was thinking immediately how I would feel if my kids, they’re now eighteen and twenty, were scared like that. I saw that little girl packing her bag, waiting for the Army to come hurt her family. It really bothered me all night long. What if it were my own kids who felt that way? No child should feel scared that way.
So she decided to send the Yassinis a picture of herself in uniform, along with these words: “Salamalakum Melissa. Please show this picture of me to your daughter. Tell her I am a Mama too and as a soldier I will protect her from the bad guys.” As Peek recalls, “I wanted to erase the picture from her mind of that crazy guy on TV all the time.”
But Peek quickly realized that she could do more, and last Wednesday she launched a full offensive. She started the hashtag #iwillprotectyou and asked other friends from the service and social media to use it when pledging to protect not just Muslim children, but their parents, as well, from discrimination. “Post a picture of you in uniform with the hashtag #iwillprotectyou to let these children know that we will not hurt them,” she posted on Facebook. “That they are safe here in America. That we will protect innocents as we always have and by added benefit keeping our oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution.”
Like the original Yassini post, Peek’s hashtag has gone viral. ABC ran a story on her campaign Sunday night; Montel Williams signed on Monday morning, shortly before Navy vet Rich Oriez posted this: “The oath I took more than 6 times was to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and that includes the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of Freedom of Religion. I add my pledge to the movement. #iwillprotectyou.”
Peek is trying to respond to everyone who sends comments on her Facebook page and Twitter — and there have been thousands. “I know that veterans, we stick together pretty well,” she says, “but the outpouring of responses from around the world, from people who are veterans or not, has been really wonderful, really surprising.” Some of the comments have included photos of the authors in uniform and reassurances for young Sofia; others salute Peek for her efforts. Peek says she was up for sixty hours straight this weekend, writing responses like this: “We are doing a great thing here. We are silencing hate with Love and Light. Proving that darkness will NEVER prevail over the human heart. We have more in common than we do differences.”
Peek, who says she’s of “motley descent,” knows all about differences: Her mom was Hispanic, from a family that had settled in the San Luis Valley in the nineteenth century; her father was German-Irish. She was born at St. Anthony’s and partly raised by a grandmother who told her about the horrible things that had happened to Jews during World War II. Her best friend since second grade was African-American, and Peek remembers growing up “multicultural in the ’70s in Denver,” she says. “It never struck me as radical or revolutionary — it’s like an instant open mind.” She went to school for a time in Parker, graduated from a Denver charter high school.
She was 27 and already a mother when she joined the service — “old for a recruit,” she recalls — but it was right after 9/11, and signing up was the right thing to do. She was in the Army for three and a half years, doing logistics for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom before being injured while based in Germany — “but not in combat,” Peek notes. She wound up on disability and has known some hard times since then.
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In fact, right now she’s living in an extended-stay motel with her daughter, dividing her time between hunting for an affordable apartment, finishing up college and sitting in her room, answering all those messages. “When I started it, this was the beginning of the holiday season,” she says. “Being in a motel at Christmas is crappy, but this is my Christmas present. This is the time when we think goodwill and miracles.”
And maybe one of those miraculous responses she sees on Facebook will translate into some help for her. “I would not look a gift horse in the mouth,” she admits. “I’m tougher. I’m going to keep trying. I’ve got this attitude that it’s going to happen. I’m confident that things are getting better.”
But in the meantime, she wants things to be better for Sofia and Melissa and all the other Muslim-Americans who are frightened right now, who wonder what has happened to this country, who wonder why a presidential candidate would want to ban them from the place they now call home. “I would not fight for a United States that would hurt people for their religion,” Peek concludes. “This is un-American. This isn’t how we do things.”