WASHINGTON - Before he was deployed to Iraq in 2005, as anti-war sentiment spread around the country, Minnesota National Guardsman Bryan McDonough asked his parents to promise that they would never "disrespect" his decision to serve.

Last week, 10 months after their 22-year-old son was killed near Fallujah, Thomas and Renee McDonough made good on that pledge, rallying on Capitol Hill with hundreds of other military families from around the nation.

"It's really about what our son told us," said Thomas McDonough of Hugo. "He believed in it."

With their clean-cut image and identical red polo shirts -- setting them apart from throngs of anti-war protesters -- the group included 85 family members from Minnesota, the biggest state contingent in the weeklong blitz of demonstrations and visits to Congress.

What the McDonoughs and the other Minnesota families also showed legislators is that a state long known for "progressive" politics and lacking active-duty military bases has emerged as a hotbed of activism in support of the war.

Minnesota, like much of the nation, polls almost 2-1 against the war. And Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican facing reelection next year, has been looking for a middle ground in the debate.

Yet the nation's leading "pro-victory" groups, Vets for Freedom and Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission, are led by Minnesotans. Peter Hegseth, who heads Vets for Freedom, has become the national TV face of pro-war veterans; Merrilee Carlson, who lost a son in Iraq, has become one of the nation's leading "Gold Star" mothers.

"It is the Silent Majority no longer," said Carlson, who lives in Hastings and serves as president of the 55,000-strong Families United group. "It's too important for us to stay quiet."

Anti-war groups in the state, which have been organized much longer, dispute the "majority" tag claimed by Carlson and her followers. "The majority here is not silent -- it's us," said Kevin Fahey, a Vietnam veteran and Minnesota chapter head of Americans Against the Escalation in Iraq.

Still, in the face of mounting public frustration with the ethno-sectarian violence in Iraq, the McDonoughs and their allies took some credit for shoring up congressional support for Gen. David Petraeus' war strategy.

"We certainly can't take credit for it all, but we helped," said Hegseth, an Iraq war veteran from Forest Lake. "The surge in Iraq is working, and we just tried to amplify on that success."

The White House has had little difficulty beating back repeated Democratic attempts in the Senate to demand deadlines for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, which Coleman has opposed along with most Republicans.

But Hegseth and other Minnesota backers of the war effort were disappointed to see Coleman join Democrats on another unsuccessful amendment that would have sought to give troops minimum periods of rest between deployments.

'It goes against the military'

Though Coleman supported the measure on the grounds of fairness to the troops, many of the military families didn't see it that way.

"It goes against the military, the troops and their mission," said Kelly Freudenberg, the mother of Elden Arcand, a 22-year-old Army private from White Bear Lake who was killed in northern Iraq in 2005, about four months before Bryan McDonough deployed.

Freudenberg, McDonough and other Minnesotans who traveled to Washington considered Coleman a legislative target in their campaign, just as he has been in competing advertising blitzes on the war this summer.

"We put a lot of effort into it," said Hegseth. His group, Vets for Freedom, has run TV ads in 10 states, but nowhere more than in Minnesota, where Coleman faces a likely anti-war Democratic challenger in the 2008 Senate race.

Fahey, who has squared off in debates with Vets for Freedom Minnesota Chapter leader Michael Baumann, said the large turnout of Minnesota military families in Washington reflects the pro-war group's organizational strength in the state.

That, he said, and the fact that the group has keyed much of its effort on Minnesota to target Coleman.

Vets for Freedom and Families United say they have a national focus. Most of the travel costs for the military families from Minnesota and elsewhere were paid by national groups that "support the mission," said Ryan Narramore, who works for the Gordon C. James Public Relations firm, which represents Families United.

James, who worked for former President George H.W. Bush, did strategic communications for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

But Hegseth said the Minnesota support is homegrown. "Maybe it's in our blood," he said. "Maybe it's in the lakes up there."

'Die for nothing?'

Carlson's son Michael, 22, was killed in Iraq in 2005. She said she, like others who have lost loved ones in the war, is not one who ordinarily would seek attention, speak out, or protest.

"Michael has given me the courage to say what I need to say," she said.

The differences over the war are not always as deep as they first appear. Baumann, for example, says he harbors "serious concerns" about how the war started -- the same concerns as Fahey and others who say it is time to get out.

But Baumann, now a St. Paul school administrator, said he believes that would be an abrogation of American commitments. "If we leave precipitously, it's an abandonment of the Iraqi people," he said.

For McDonough and his wife, Renee, it would represent an abandonment of their son's sacrifice.

When Bryan McDonough was deploying to Iraq, Cindy Sheehan was in the news. She had lost her son in the war and had turned against it. If the worst happened, McDonough told his parents, don't let that happen to you.

So they went to Washington to meet with Coleman and his Democratic counterpart, Amy Klobuchar, who both attended Bryan McDonough's funeral.

What would happen, Thomas McDonough wanted to know, if the United States pulled out now: "Did he die for nothing, then?"

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753

Kevin Diaz • kdiaz@startribune.com