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No one wanted a "good war" more than Carla Hitz. Her son, an Army helicopter pilot, was among the first soldiers in Iraq in 2003. And while he was gone, Hitz wanted to make sure he would be supported back home.

"My first instinct was maternal," said Hitz, founder of the Sandy-based nonprofit We Love Our Soldiers. "I wanted my son and every other soldier to know our country was behind them, caring for their well-being and morale."

That was four years ago. Today, on the brink of the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq - and with her son's third combat deployment looming - Hitz has concluded that supporting her son now means letting lawmakers know it's time to end so-called "backdoor draft" practices, give service members and veterans the medical care they deserve and, most of all, end the war.

" 'Support the troops' now has a much broader context than it did in 2003," she said. "I never imagined we would still be in this mess four years later."

Hitz is among a growing number of military mothers no longer content to stand on the sidelines and cheer. And politicians say voices like hers can be potent.

If "soccer moms" were the political power holders of the recent past, "war moms" may be their equivalent in the near future.

"I think it's an important constituency, a constituency people want to listen to," said Rep. Jim Matheson. "I think it's going to be a relevant group."

Just how relevant? Last fall, after calling for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, Matheson said he had soured on the defense secretary's competence after speaking about the matter with military families.

"There's no substitute to talking to people directly involved in this situation and, in that case, there were more and more people expressing real concern," Matheson said.

Yet just as maternal concern can drive a mother to protest, it also can keep her silent.

"I was somewhat paranoid that if I spoke out against the war, someone in the military would find out . . . and that my son would be treated punitively, either outright or in other subtle ways," said Kim Spangrude, whose soldier son served in Iraq.

But after her son returned home from the war - and especially after he was treated with what she perceived as disrespect as he attempted to access his veterans benefits - all bets were off.

Now a leader with the group Military Families Speak Out, Spangrude angrily recalls a phone conversation with a Veterans Affairs receptionist in which she said Spangrude's son might not be eligible for certain benefits because it had been two years since "he got out of that war thingy."

"I said, 'Now, do you mean that 'war thingy' where over 3,100 American men and women lost their lives during the past three years?' and she said, 'Yeah, one of those war thingies - Vietnam War, Iraq War, whatever,' '' Spangrude said.

VA spokeswoman Susan Huff said officials would look into the incident. "The leadership here is committed to providing veterans with the respect that they've earned," she said, noting that the VA was implementing a customer-service training program that would be mandatory for all of its employees.

Spangrude said many military mothers begin to speak out after becoming frustrated with perceived callousness on the part of military and civilian leaders - especially those that are supposed to be service members' advocates.

Indeed, that's how Hitz found her anti-war voice. After learning from her son that his unit did not have enough water in Iraq, she wrote Sen. Orrin Hatch for help.

Hatch's office sent this reply: "The military understands the importance of keeping our soldiers properly hydrated. . . . Each soldier is allocated three liters of bottled water per day. In addition to the bottled water, there is an abundance of purified water available."

"That wasn't true," Hitz said. "I knew from talking to my son that wasn't true. But there it was. It was like I was being called stupid, and my son was being called a liar."

Hitz said she preferred the manner in which Matheson's office responded - his staff responded personally and forwarded correspondence about the water issue between the congressman and the Army. But in the end, she got the same answer: "Each soldier is allotted three liters of bottled water a day."

Though the "bring them home" voices appear to be getting louder, it's not only war moms with an anti-war bent who are trying to be heard. In Salt Lake City, for instance, Amy Galvez decided to carry the pro-troops, pro-mission torch after her son, Adam, was killed in Iraq. Among her most frequent targets has been her town's adamant anti-war mayor, Rocky Anderson.

Anderson says the powerful voices of those who have sacrificed children in Iraq - no matter their political views - are difficult for politicians like himself to ignore.

"I just met the father and stepmother of a young Marine who was recently killed in Iraq," said Anderson, who visited Washington, D.C., last week for an environmental conference and, while there, participated in several anti-war events. "It brought me to tears to see him holding his son's boots and dog tags.

"When we hear from mothers and fathers who have lost sons, that . . . brings it home to a lot of people that may view it in abstract terms otherwise."

But even as "war moms" become more prominent as advocates, they're also increasingly targeted for criticism - and from both sides of the debate.

Prominent war protester Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq, has been a frequent target of conservative pundits, including talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who lambasted her protest as "nothing more than forged documents. . . . There's nothing about it that's real."

More recently, Tina Richards, the mother of a Marine who has gained notoriety for her bold confrontations with members of Congress, was called "a fraud" by liberal bloggers who said she should focus more of her attention on Republicans.

In an interview last week with National Public Radio, Richards parried criticism of her chosen tactics and targets. And she played down her power as a symbol of the anti-war movement.

"I'm just a Marine mom, wanting to talk and find out how we're going to get together and end this war," she said.