Veterans & Survivors March for Peace and Justice
Today starts regular posts from the Veterans and [Hurricane] Survivors March from Mobile to New Orleans. The AFSC Eyes Wide Open National Guard Memorial is present at the beginning.
Day 0: Mobile, AL
Already on day zero, before the march has even started, there is much to say about this effort to shift our country's priorities from a destructive war to helping reconstruct people's lives.
I could tell about the march base camp at the headquarters of SOS (Savin' Our Self, a hurricane survivors organization), a run-down warehouse on the outskirts of Mobile with pallets of canned goods stacked along its bare brick walls. Or about the t-shirts--“Until the philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior is totally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war” and “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”--worn by veterans who have first-hand experience of war. Or about the wheelchair symbolizing the thousands wounded in the war, added to the Eyes Wide Open exhibit by these same veterans, who know all too well the cost of war.
But just as Eyes Wide Open is not just about empty boots and shoes, but about real people who have died in the war, this march is about people. People like Vivian Felts of SOS, who takes me by the arm and welcomes me like a long-lost friend. People like Grumpy, the skinny cook who's taken on a new name because “there are too many Mikes around.” People like Jim Goodnow, who has a children's shoe--spattered with his own blood--hanging from the rearview mirror of his bus as a reminder of the cost of this war. The march is about the woman who introduces herself as an “angry citizen” from Mississippi, and about Iraq vet Geoff Millard who finds his friend's name among the boots of the fallen. It's about retired Col. Anne Wright, who anchors us all with her competent and classy presence. And it's about people like Stan Goff, who looks like he's just here for a good time at first, walking around shirtless with a bandana around his neck, but who turns out to be one of the spiritual geniuses of this movement.
Stan begins the orientation by encouraging some of the older vets to be mindful of the more recent vets just back from Iraq “with fresh blood on their hands.” We know how it is, he says--one minute you're here, and the next minute you're right back there and it's happening all over again. He reminds us that we're also going to meet people who have been through a lot right here in this country--as another speaker points out, post-traumatic stress syndrome has spilled over into civilian society along the Gulf Coast. This march is going to bring a lot of things up for people, and that's the whole point, he says, because this is a not just a march, it's a spiritual pilgrimage. And what we're doing is creating conditions where people--veterans and survivors alike--can tell their stories and be heard. Stan goes on to remind us that Americans haven't always fought in bad wars, and he invokes the spirit of those who have fought the good fight before us; the spirit of Crazy Horse, the spirit of John Brown, the spirit of Harriet Tubman. He recalls the spirit of rebellion in the history of this part of the country, while another speaker remarks how Katrina and Rita have politicized people in the Deep South in a whole new way. Suffering will do that to people, just as suffering--and not just their own--has politicized these warriors who now wage peace.
In this context, the gospel choir sounds booming over the speakers take on a whole new meaning. Veterans from several wars speak their truth in interview after interview, wearing t-shirts with Margaret Mead's quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world…” and the choir sings: “I can do the impossible, I can see the invisible, because I got faith!” The “Walkin' to New Orleans” march logo shows silhouettes of a GI and a hurricane survivor walking side by side… and the choir sings: “I need you, you need me…you are important to me, I need you to survive.” And as we hold candles together under a full moon, a mother, arms around her husband and her young son, joins in singing a song she's never sung before. And she sings it like she means it.
Day 1: Mobile, AL--Support
The march begins in the morning. We've already hit the front page of the local newspaper from our remote warehouse base camp, and now we're heading to the streets of Mobile. I go ahead to set up the Eyes Wide Open boots along the edges of Memorial Park facing traffic, and people stop me over and over again to ask what's going on. They nod in agreement when I tell them we want our troops rebuilding the Gulf Coast instead of dying in Iraq. As the march makes it way under the arching trees of Government Street, people honk their horns in support. A local veteran estimates antiwar opinion in this conservative town might be 20%, but it seems like more than that today.
At Memorial Park, recent vets from Iraq are out front telling their stories about deception and reality. One wears the best t-shirt I've seen most so far: "I went to Iraq to find WMD's and all I got was this lousy t-shirt." Another reframes the whole argument about supporting the troops: "Honor the warrior. Not the war." Then members of three different Gold Star families share their stories of losing their loved ones. Sgt. Mitchell's father says he used to talk about the number (currently 2314) of soldiers killed in the war, until he found his son's friend hanging by a garden hose, a death not counted among the war's official casualties. Casey Sheehan's aunt regrets that she didn't start speaking out against the war until it was too late for her beloved nephew.
As I leave to deliver the boots to Memphis, our march for sanity and NCAA "March Madness" are the top local stories on public radio news. AM radio has other concerns.
Day 2: Ocean Springs, MS--Seeking Redemption
Among the people I introduced on Day 0, I forgot to mention the hitchhiker I picked up on the way to Mobile. An unemployed construction worker from Pennsylvania, he's trying to turn his life around after years of messing up, and he's decided to start his life over by moving to the Gulf Coast to try to help with reconstruction. He has come, perhaps, seeking redemption.
I return to the march just as it leaves the Mississippi Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The vigil between the open-air walls of the memorial -- covered with photos of mostly young Mississippians killed in Vietnam -- has reaffirmed the veterans' conviction that they are doing the right thing in trying to stop the war in Iraq. The row of FEMA trailers in the lot behind the memorial are my first sign of things to come.
At the hurricane survivors‚ speakout in Ocean Springs, Victoria Cintra from the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance reads from the UN Declaration on Human Rights -- to which the US is a signatory, she points out -- proclaiming human rights for all, regardless of legal status. We then hear from Javier, whose 12-year old son has been denied medical assistance to treat a respiratory infection caused by mold from the hurricane, because of his legal status -- "as if the hurricane discriminated between people." I am reminded of Jesus‚ saying that we should be like the one who sends rain which falls on the just and the unjust alike. It turns out Javier is the one who provided the flowers left at the Vietnam memorial.
Inside Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, the sanctuary is full of well-dressed church members and this slightly ragtag group of veterans and survivors, clapping and singing together. Then Dave Cline, President of Veterans for Peace, gets up and speaks of how many veterans have, in the words of the psalm, "walked through the valley of the shadow of death." And some of them come home and find themselves stuck there, bitter and disillusioned. But others of them find redemption in standing up for peace and justice, and so for many this march is a march about redemption. Stan Goff goes on to tell how he and others like him missed the great social struggles for civil rights and equality because they were out making war on other people. They are grateful now to have a second chance, a chance to redeem themselves -- and, perhaps, their nation.
My hitchhiker is grateful to have a second chance, too. He wasn't into this activism stuff before, but now he's marching and chanting and carrying signs like a veteran. And it sounds like he's here to stay.
Day 3: Biloxi to Long Beach, MS--Waking Up
Day 3 begins with tension. We were issued a permit to march along Biloxi beach, but the police have no record of it and absolutely no humor about it. The march leaders get them to agree to allow the march to go forward, but they have to remind our folks that we're not here to engage in confrontation with these police. After all, they've been through a lot in the last six months.
We begin to get a sense of that as we march past ruin after ruin. Where once there were miles of fine beachfront homes, not a single one is intact, and most are not even standing -- nothing but bare foundations and piles of bricks, and sometimes not even that. Where once there were entire neighborhoods there is nothing but dirt-covered streets and dead trees, everything a monotone gray. Hotels, casinos, gas stations, fast food restaurants, even cemeteries lie in total ruin. Over and over the vets remark how much the area resembles a combat zone.
Our government didn't do this, and it probably won't be able to undo it. But as the vets know from Iraq, a country that can build an entire military base from scratch in a foreign country in 25 days could certainly do more than what's been done here in the last six months. They chant their call to shift resources from war to reconstruction in military cadence: "Hey, hey, Uncle Sam...we remember Vietnam...we don't want your Iraq war...bring our troops back to our shore..."
We're picking up supporters now from this unlikely recruiting ground -- the Deep South hardly being a bastion of liberalism. But over and over people honk their horns and wave fervently, as if they've been waiting for something like this. Some of us plant flower seeds in the sand as we march, symbolic of what we're trying to do. We've also picked up some opposition and the occasional half-peace sign, but it's the same two counterprotesters who keep leapfrogging ahead to meet us. One of them shouts out a challenge: "You didn't come here before you knew Cindy Sheehan was coming to New Orleans." One of our guys answers back: "I would have been here sooner, but I was in Iraq." Another t-shirt says a lot: "Don't tell me to go to hell. I been there."
As we march, I hear more stories. Ann Wright had watched people resign over different issues during her 29 years with the military and in the diplomatic corps. But when we invaded an oil-rich Arab country for no legitimate reason, it was all too obvious what was going on and what was going to happen, so she resigned her post as deputy ambassador to Mongolia. Stan Goff was serving in Guatemala during the last coup in the 80's, in El Salvador when the four nuns were killed, and later became a military advisor in Columbia. He credits his experience in special operations for helping him learn that people from different cultures are more similar than they are different, and that poverty is pretty much the same the world over. Geoff Millard's National Guard unit was mobilized within hours after 9/11, but as he watched from Baghdad what was happening in New Orleans, he saw a lack of response which he can only attribute to racism. Tina Gardenez learned from her experience as a medic what war really does to people, and went on to see similarities between what our country in doing to Iraq and what it's done to her own Navajo people. Rich Balthes was a "closet activist" quietly opposing the war until Cindy Sheehan stood up, and then he knew he had to stand up and make his voice heard as well.
All around the country, people are waking up. And it isn't coffee they're smelling.
Day 4: Bay St. Louis, MS to Slidell, LA--Community
More devastation. More interviews. Another negotiation session with the police. It feels like today is going to be a lot like yesterday.
And then the mood shifts as we enter Louisiana. We get a police escort. We pick up a 5-piece Dixieland marching band dressed in green. And we give Slidell, LA its first-ever St. Patrick’s Day parade for peace and justice. The response from young mothers, elderly couples and rugged construction workers alike continues to run about 10 to 1 in our favor.
The mood when we get to camp is a bit different, too. We’ve been hosted by pretty straight-laced Baptist churches in Mississippi, complete with some serious hellfire preaching. Now we’re camped out on a bayou with real alligators, and there are signs of a party to come. We set up in the middle of some ruined houses turned into a relief camp, and hear some more stories.
It turns out the vet yesterday wasn’t just being rhetorical in his response to the counterprotestors (who disappeared some time ago). Veterans for Peace were camped outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas last August when Katrina hit, and they immediately came here in their buses to start helping out. They aren’t just about stopping war, they’re about building peace, which is why this march is so appropriate. They’re serious about wanting to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Sherwood Baker died in Iraq, but his father tells how his son’s favorite part of being in the National Guard was moving sandbags in a flooded area in New York. A vet with a “Homeland Security” t-shirt talks about being part of a community-building effort in Colorado Springs, complete with a community garden and a bike-recycling project. Another vet tells about No More Victims, an effort which raises money to bring wounded Iraqi children to the US for medical treatment. These guys know real Iraqi people far better than our government officials who make pronouncements about them. Michael McPhearson tells how Veterans for Peace has spent time listening to families in Iraq who have suffered the consequences of our country’s war, and they’re not talking about abandoning them. There’s plenty of money to take care of people both there and here, he says — but not if we’re trying to run the world.
They’re building community right here on this march, bringing together Bible-quoting Baptists and party-loving grunts, red-necked firefighters and bandana-wearing peaceniks, aging long-hairs and fresh-faced crewcuts. And as we kick back tonight over ‘gator gumbo and live Cajun blues, an unlikely combination of people is gathered under the stars. The nervous white woman from Mississippi is talking around the fire with her newly-found African American friend. Rich -- possibly the only Vietnam-era CO from Mobile -- is twisting and turning with an elderly black woman from Alabama. Cindy Sheehan is smiling for a photo with the raspy-voiced Cajun singer, while retired Col. Ann Wright is dancing with the lightness of a free conscience. And Jose the medic will lead Buddhist meditation in the morning.
Day 5: Slidell to New Orleans--Healing
At morning meditation, a thoughtful vet from New York offers a special prayer for Vietnam. Elsewhere, another vet is talking about the wounds every veteran carries deep inside, and about the connection between those wounds and the wounds of people in Iraq and along the Gulf Coast. I'm seeing a connection between the healing of those wounds as well. At morning briefing they announce that marchers have contributed almost half of the $2000 needed to keep SOS's hurricane relief warehouse open. Then a crew goes off to gut a house that needs to be rebuilt.
Today's march brings us into the outskirts of New Orleans, to a Vietnamese neighborhood where the trash has clearly not been picked up for months. The stench is overwhelming. As we arrive at our camp outside Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, some kids are playing basketball. They can't believe we're here to support them--“you're here for us?” We hear from a Vietnamese businessman who has lost everything and has yet to receive any help from FEMA. It turns out Veterans for Peace was on the ground in New Orleans before both FEMA and the Red Cross. My hitchhiker gets up to announce that he's found his life's work helping rebuild the Gulf Coast, and sets about recruiting volunteers and supplies to rebuild the roof of a woman's house along the march route.
The evening's poetry session lays bare some of the wounds I'd heard about earlier. One poem tells of a vet who came home whole in body but empty in soul, who sat in his daddy's lap like a child for 45 minutes, perhaps trying to recover what he had lost. He ended up killing himself anyways. The poem speaks the dead man's anguish and shame before his parents: “Maybe they would have been more proud of me if I'd come home in a flag-covered box…” The poetry is raw, but also healing.
There is more healing around the campfire tonight, our last night together, as the bayou band from Slidell jams on.
Day 6: New Orleans--Victory
We gather in a giant circle for our final morning briefing. Stan remarks that we haven’t just made it to New Orleans; we’ve created community. And when you create community, you’ve already won. We may not have stopped the war, but we have created peace.
As we march from Chalmette National Cemetery through the Lower 9th Ward, there are parallels with what’s happening in Iraq. Electricity is out over there; traffic lights are out in many places here. Water service has yet to be restored in Iraq; there are port-a-johns everywhere along the Gulf Coast. Garbage collection is stalled in Baghdad; there are mounds of trash everywhere in New Orleans.
Yet there are also signs of hope. Common Ground is a community-based relief organization gutting and cleaning out people’s homes so they aren’t just bulldozed and replaced. I wonder if there are community-based organizations in Iraq we could be supporting. After all, building peace is about so much more than “fighting the enemy.”
On the radio I hear that Americans are turning against the war not just because of its cost, but because of its futility. Perhaps that is why people are not turning out for demonstrations on this, the 3rd anniversary of the war, because they sense that it’s futile to try to stop the war, too. That our country has gotten itself into a bad situation with no good way out. And of course it is hopeless--unless we remember that building peace is about making sure people are fed and housed and able to find what they need. It’s also pretty hopeless unless you get involved in creating that peace.
War is often attractive because it gives us a sense of being part of something bigger, a sense of national purpose; as the book title suggests, “war is a force that gives us meaning.” The sense of being part of something ultimately bigger and more meaningful is here among this group of committed warriors for peace. This is no wimpy liberalism here; these are the kind of guys I have been afraid of earlier in my life, now with a hard-core radical compassion that goes way beyond “compassionate conservativism.”
The full-throated chants for peace and justice echo in the streets as we march into downtown New Orleans, joined by volunteers from Common Ground and others along the way. The turnout isn’t huge, but as Stan says, the community we’ve created--and the compassion some of us are turning into action in helping rebuild people’s lives here--are victories in their own right. As I leave to begin my 14-hour drive back to Chicago, the song expressing our outrage at both the cost and the futility of war reverberates from the rally: “War I despise, 'cause it means destruction of innocent lives..War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” But it is the quieter theme song that began the march which expresses why we came together in this broken part of our world: “I need you, you need me, we’re all a part of God’s body…you are important to me…I love you, I need you to survive.”