Alleged Westboro Church stalker gets support from veterans

The Wichita EagleDecember 6, 2010 

Veterans from across the country are reaching out to support a Marion man charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated battery and other crimes against members of a controversial Topeka church, saying they know what he has gone through since he lost his legs in Afghanistan.

Michael O'Connell, a Vietnam veteran from New Jersey, said he will fly out to Kansas to help Ryan Newell, 26, if necessary.

O'Connell said he was 19 when he went to Vietnam and didn't get help for emotional problems until 40 years later.

"We were shut down for many, many years," O'Connell said Friday.

He emphasized that he understood why Newell would want to act out against Westboro Baptist Church, whose members regularly protest at military funerals, saying soldiers die because of the country's tolerance of homosexuality.

"He's probably struggling, and I understand his anger," O'Connell said. "He's a patriot. He probably needs help. You can't go through that change in your life... without help."

Many veterans called The Wichita Eagle late last week wanting to know how to help pay to get Newell out of the Sedgwick County Jail and pay for his lawyers.

Some said they did not condone his actions: Sheriff's officers say they stopped Newell on Tuesday when they noticed him following members of the church on their way back from Mulvane. Investigators say he initially told officers that he was protecting church members; later he said he was a reserve law enforcement officer.

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