President Bush's veto of the military funding bill that would have brought troops home from Iraq provoked frustration among the members of a small-but-growing organization who possess uncommon expertise on the subject:

Iraq Veterans Against the War, with headquarters in Center City.

"Washington is playing this game of passing the blame, while people on the ground are dying," said Kelly Dougherty, a former National Guard MP and the group's executive director.

Dougherty, 28, is devoted to stopping the conflict in which she served - to putting herself and her group out of work. In addition to the immediate return of U.S. troops, the IVAW seeks expanded health benefits for veterans and - a goal that sets it apart from some antiwar groups - reparations to Iraq.

"I can't just come back to America and pretend like everything is OK. I feel obligated to speak out," said IVAW board member Steve Mortillo, 24, who fought with the Army First Infantry Division. "If we just sit around and watch, thousands of troops are going to die."

A basement office

The IVAW, founded in 2004 by eight veterans who attended a Boston peace conference, started with no space and little money. The national office is based here because its most active member happened to live nearby. Today, staffers work out of a borrowed basement room at the American Friends Service Committee while awaiting a move to permanent quarters.

The IVAW extends a long Philadelphia history of antiwar protest, most prominently by the Friends, whose work won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1947. Members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War occupied the Betsy Ross House in 1971. The Swarthmore-based Brandywine Peace Community, now 30 years old, continues to protest at the plants of defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin.

Membership in the IVAW numbers more than 400, a tiny fraction of the 630,000 soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But more join its 16 chapters everyday, organizers say. Anyone on active duty, in the Reserves or in the National Guard since the attacks of Sept. 11 is eligible. Others note that the Vietnam Veterans started with six members in 1967 and grew to 30,000.

Once limited to providing speakers for other peace groups, the IVAW now sponsors its own rallies and events. On May 27, members plan to storm the sidewalks of New York to stage a piece of street theater titled Operation First Casualty. Uniformed veterans will play the roles of soldiers while others portray Iraqi civilians. The shouting and commotion, says the IVAW, upsets the work-a-day routine - and forces Americans to confront the turmoil in Iraq.

Not everyone looks on in support. The group occasionally gets hate mail, and at rallies the activists have been accosted by families who have loved ones in uniform. Last week somebody left two long, nasty messages on the office voicemail. When board chair Garett Reppenhagen, a former Army sniper in Iraq, appeared on C-Span's Washington Journal, a caller told him it was traitorous for a soldier to oppose the war.

"These folks were over in Iraq. They have the right to say what they feel," said Thomas Minchin, 59, a Vietnam-era Marine and executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of AMVETS, a veterans advocacy group that takes no official stand on the war.

"I don't know if [their opposition] is the right choice," Minchin said. "For them, it's probably right. For me, it's probably not."

Doubted rationale

From the start, Dougherty questioned the rationale for war - the claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the use of Sept. 11 imagery.

The Colorado native joined the National Guard in 1996 to get money for college, and deployed to Kuwait in February 2003 with the 220th Military Police Company. By late March she was in Iraq.

"I opposed the war before it happened," she said.

Her unit was responsible for patrolling highways, escorting convoys, and protecting supply trucks that broke down on the road. She vividly recalls the day a vehicle overturned near Nasiriyah. As usual, MPs surrounded the truck, watching a growing number of Iraqis who, as usual, were waiting to scavenge gas, tires or metal.

It was getting dark; the troops were spread thin. Dougherty lost sight of her comrades. Rocks came sailing out of the crowd. An Iraqi man moved toward her. She shoved him back. Another came at her - she lashed out with her nightstick.

Dougherty struck him so hard it felt like hitting a table. She still recalls his cry.

The next day, she noticed, some fellow soldiers seemed to treat her with new respect.

"Sgt. Dougherty," one called, "I heard you were haji-beating last night."

She didn't feel proud. In a situation like that, all that matters is self-preservation. It's later, she said, that the guilt sets in.

"I wanted to do something to help the Iraqi people, and people in my unit did too," she said. "But to go out there and guard [wrecked] trucks, and then abandon them, everyday, was absurd."

Joined after 9/11

When Mortillo was growing up in North Jersey, he could see the World Trade Center from his house. He enlisted two months after the towers fell.

"I wanted to defend this country," he said.

In Iraq "I saw the motives didn't add up, the mission didn't add up." Companies like Halliburton earned huge profits, Mortillo said, while his platoon suffered three killed and seven wounded.

"Put yourself in Iraqi shoes," said Mortillo, who served in Samarra in 2004 and 2005. "A foreign invader comes and kills your brother. Are you just going to forget that? We have brought so much death and destruction down upon these people."

He's against the war "because I care about those who are still in the military. When they're called upon, it should be only in defense of the American people. That's not the motive for this war."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage

at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.