Inspired by a U.S. airman who set himself on fire in front of an Israeli embassy in protest of the war in Gaza, an Air Force member has begun what he says will be a long-term hunger strike in front of the White House while taking leave from service.

On Easter Sunday, Senior Airman Larry Hebert, 26, began a hunger strike in front of the White House to highlight the chronic starvation in the Gaza strip brought on by the war between Hamas and Israel, according to a press release by Veterans For Peace.

Reached by Task & Purpose, Hebert said “I’m going to continue the strike until I physically cannot or until we obtain a permanent ceasefire and enough food to feed all of Gaza. I’ve been on leave for two weeks and have plenty more.” However, Hebert also said he’s already spoken to officials in his command and knows he “probably won’t be getting any sort of extension.”

Hebert is standing outside of the White House this week with a sign that reads “Active duty airman refuses to eat while Gaza starves,” though he is not wearing a military uniform. He plans to do the same in front of Congress next week, and to be outside from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day during his hunger strike. His strike will include zero food, water and small amounts of juice, he said.

According to Hebert, he is originally from New Hampshire and has been in the Air Force for six years. He said he currently works as an avionics technician assigned to Naval Station Rota, Spain. The NAVSTA base provides cargo, fuel and logistics support to military units in the region and supports U.S. and NATO ships with three active piers.

At Rota, Hebert said, “I’m seeing all the cargo that comes through from the States and is coming overseas and going to Israel and they’re just massive, massive missiles that are going to be used on mostly civilians. So there’s a direct role there. We don’t have to send these weapons.”

Hebert told Task & Purpose he may seek a reassignment from his role working with Israel-bound weapons, possibly as a conscientious objector. Air Force officials confirmed to Task & Purpose that Hebert joined in 2018 and is a senior airman assigned to Rota as an avionics specialist.

Hebert said he took authorized leave in mid-March.

Herbert said he was moved to protest by Aaron Bushnell, who died after setting himself on fire on Feb. 25 outside of the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. while in uniform. Bushnell was a cyber defense operations specialist at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas and served on active duty since May 2020.

Herbert said that Bushnell’s message and actions resonated with him, but it was the silence from leadership that really propelled his desire to speak out.

“The response afterwards by the military, specifically my command and then our government – basically just not uttering a word, like not even saying his name or anything and just trying to sweep the whole situation under the rug – that’s what really infuriated me and gave me the resolve to come to DC,” he said.

The reactions so far from onlookers have been overwhelmingly positive, he said. Hebert said he’s received at least 30 emails from veterans thanking him for his courage and bravery. 

“Then in person, I’ve had a couple of vets come up to me and thank me as well,” he said. “There was only one person who might have been military – I wasn’t entirely sure – but he walked by and he said, get a haircut and shave your face. I thought it was pretty funny.”

According to Department of Defense policies, American service members are prohibited from participating in off-post demonstrations if they are on-duty, in a foreign country, or if the activities constitute a breach of law and order or violence is likely to result. 

Troops are encouraged to vote but are limited in expressing their politics while in uniform. However, service members are allowed to join partisan groups or sign petitions as private citizens. 

“The fact that I am an active duty serviceman isn’t a representation of the military. It’s just a fact,” he said. “I think that I am 1,000% within the legal boundaries of the [Uniform Code of Military Justice].”

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The political rights afforded to American service members propped up in 2020 when a National Guardsmen was disciplined by the Colorado National Guard for joining Black Lives Matter protests over the killing of George Floyd. Kennedy then filed a lawsuit, alleging that the reprimand violated his constitutional rights. 

“I’m well aware that at the end of the day, the military’s will on this will supersede anything that I believe,” Hebert said, adding that he’s already come to terms with the “worst case scenario.”

The airmen said he’s willing to work with his leadership to find a resolution which he hopes is agreeable terms for discharge or a reassignment – noting that one of Aaron Bushnell’s friends in the Air Force was able to get reassigned as a conscientious objector. 

“I don’t have faith that I will be returning back to work to continue sending weapons to Israel,” he said. 

Famine in Gaza

“Active duty military is a difficult position because we don’t always agree with our foreign policies and how we handle things. I think a lot of people in the military are afraid to speak out and voice their opinions because they fear repercussions,” Hebert said. “But I think if more people like Aaron Bushnell, those two members from the State Department and then myself, I hope more people will be more forthcoming about speaking out against the starvation and genocide of civilians.”

Two State Department officials have resigned in the last few months over U.S. military and diplomatic support for Israel in its war with Gaza, citing human rights concerns. 

Herbert was outside the White House on Monday during the annual Easter Egg Roll hoping “to remind parents and their children that while they are playing with Easter eggs on the White House lawn, children all over Gaza need eggs to stave off starvation,” according to the press release from Veterans For Peace.

The group believes the U.S. is violating several laws by shipping and selling arms to Israel during its war in Gaza dealing with arms control and human rights.

International groups have alleged that Israel is blocking humanitarian aid, plunging more than a million people into worrisome levels of famine, including children. Reuters reported the slow down in aid due to aid worker visa issues because of Israeli red tape. Meanwhile Israel said it places no limits on aid entering Gaza and has pointed fingers towards “ineffective” organizations on the ground distributing the aid along with reports of Hamas regularly stealing and diverting aid intended for civilians. 

The lack of potable water and food prompted President Joe Biden to direct the U.S. military to build a makeshift pier off the coast of Gaza to help facilitate more deliveries. The effort will include U.S. troops from the Army and Navy with the help of contractors to avoid putting American ‘boots on the ground.’ The Pentagon said last week that Israel will provide security for aid delivery but officials are still working through the details of how the packages will get from U.S. military ships onto land.

Fasting has been used as a visual means of protest since Roman times, and aims to exert pressure to “‘shame’ the authority into giving in to whatever demands are being made by the protesters,” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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