April 16, 2009 at 1:00 am

Charlie LeDuff: Travels with Charlie

Anger boils among Michigan militia members

"They take your work away. You've now put a man in a corner. The government worries about him being idle and so they begin to crowd his liberty. Here is where you have a problem." -- Mike Slomkowski, 50, a former factory worker who now teaches firearm training (Frank J. Parker / Special to The Detroit News)

Bancroft -- The coordinator of the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia is a postman. The corpsman of the Lenawee Volunteer Militia works in the paint and hardware department at Wal-Mart. He earns $11.25 an hour. His son, the major, works in a group home for the developmentally disabled. He earns $9.50 an hour. Their comrade, the commander, was laid-off from his job at a vitamin store. He earns nothing.

"Am I angry?" asked the unemployed commander, with a semi-automatic rifle strapped across his pectorals. "Yeah, it sets you off a little bit."

Come to a Michigan Militia picnic and you realize the commander is not alone. The farm where they rallied was chockfull of people like him, people boiling on the back burner, struggling to make ends meet, carrying around a knapsack of resentment for a government that they claim has taken almost everything from them and given nothing in return.

"Liberty," says the commander, 33, whose Christian name is Matthew Savino, of Adrian. "You cannot take my liberty. Eventually a man draws a line in the sand."

And so, more than 100 people like Savino converged on the farm of Frank Stasa, who militia literature says "kicked Hitler's a--."

The militia held its annual field day on Stasa's farm, about a 20-minute car-drive west of Flint, and threw in a tea party and tax revolt for good measure. The militia's party included hamburgers, sausages, soda pop and a .50 caliber carbine rifle and a firing range. Kids were admitted free.

With the economic meltdown, the complaints of the militiamen are beginning to sound less like paranoia and more like the topic of Manhattan cocktail parties: a socialized economy, a ballooning debt and wars on two fronts.

"What are we leaving the children?" asked Rob Soldenski, a 49-year-old unemployed delivery driver from Warren. "A legacy of debt and an infringement on their civil liberties. We got to push back when the time to push comes."

"I've seen a 35 percent reduction in pay," said his ex-wife Cyn Soldenski, who brought along their 7-year-old daughter Tessa. "I bought a house 18 months ago. The interest rate is going to reset and I'm so far underwater I'm going to drown. We've got to take the stupid government and throw it out."

If you listen to this group you begin to realize that they cannot take over the world; they probably couldn't take over their brother's trailer payments. They are a restless and frustrated group: a hodgepodge of ex-farmers, ex-military, ex-truck drivers, ex-factory workers, wipers of other people's bottoms. Many are firmly among the state's 20 percent unemployed or underemployed.

They turn to the Bill of Rights, though most people here could not recite those 10 amendments. They prepare for a war to defend them. No one can say -- not even the militia members themselves -- how many people sympathize with their movement.

"OK, you work all day long and you sell your liberty to survive," said Mike Slomkowski, 50, a former factory worker who now teaches firearm training. "They take your work away. You've now put a man in a corner. The government worries about him being idle and so they begin to crowd his liberty. Here is where you have a problem."

The militia is not alone in placing their faith in the gun and bullet. Consider that there is a national shortage of ammunition, blamed in part on the election of Barack Obama. The NRA has warned its millions of members that the Obama Administration wants to restrict gun ownership and tax ammunition. FBI firearm background checks have increased more than 30 percent since he was elected president.

Still, the picnic goers railed about George W. Bush, too. In fact they believe there is little difference between a Democrat and a Republican. Bush, Clinton, Obama. Stick them in a bag. Shake it up. And the same rapacious thing crawls out: a creature from a smoke-filled backroom.

"They're all the same thing," Cyn Soldenski said. "Corporate tools."

Ever since the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, the Michigan Militia has been branded a hate group of fringe crazies. But the militiamen at Stasa's farm were quick to point out that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the perpetrators of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168 people, were not Michigan Militia members but rather curiosity seekers. Naturally, the militia blames the media for this misconception.

"The press has given the militia a bad name," said Jim Gulliksen, 59, the Wal-Mart worker from Adrian.

"Untrue," said this reporter. "Timothy McVeigh gave the militia a bad name."

"OK, he kind of gave the militia a bad name," retorted Gulliksen. "But the people in the militia hated him. They didn't want him. He came to one or two meetings before we told him to get out of here."

McVeigh notwithstanding, the militia provides a release valve for a frustrated class, said Lee Miracle, a postal worker from Sterling Heights, and coordinator of the picnic's shooting range.

"In the end, I hope we're mitigating anger by teaching people to shoot," Miracle said. "Hey, I work at the post office. The boss asks why I go out to the range every month. I tell him: 'You want me to go to the range every month.' It blows off steam."

Travels with Charlie charlie@detnews.com">charlie@detnews.com (313) 222-2071