Building Bridges

I vigil for peace, never knowing the impact I have on passersby or the effect they may have on me. I am a Persian Gulf Veteran of Operation Desert Fox, a divinity student at Andover-Newton Theological School as a Quaker, and I serve as President of the Wally Nelson Chapter (95) of Veterans for Peace I’m also the father of a two-year-old daughter. In the nearly five years I have been vigiling I have seen the ratio of one-finger waves go down dramatically, replaced by the two-finger peace sign. On Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s weekend, I didn’t know what would happen at our weekly Saturday vigil in Greenfield, Mass.

Because the banner I brought is too big to hold alone, I asked my friend "Ted" to help. We discussed Rev. King’s tactics. As pacifist, I see the world differently from those who believe peace can be achieved by force. As we talked, a Marine Private in uniform walked by our vigil. Stunned, I blurted out "Hello" to him. Ted aggressively yelled in his face, "Don’t recruit anyone today!" The Private replied defensively, "Thanks for supporting me."

Disturbed, I told Ted, "Listen, when you hold a VFP banner you represent VFP. It is not okay to yell at active duty members while holding our banner." It is difficult for civilians to understand that once one has worn the uniform you always remember how it feels; in a sense veterans never take it off. As a former G.I. it is not possible for me to be against the troops. Ted apologized and told me a story of being a hippie riding a bus in 1968. Four service members threatened to kill him on that ride. He was petrified the entire trip, and thankful when they got off the stop before he did.

Later, I was surprised to see the same Marine walking back past us, a brave young man. Before I could think, my feet chased after him. I said, "Hey Private, can I walk with you?" in the tone a Sergeant would use, and fell into step beside him. Pointing to the logo on my ball cap I said I was a Persian Gulf Veteran and a member of Veterans for Peace: "I don’t want you to be angry at the peace movement, that guy has other issues that have nothing to do with you." He eased his posture as he looked at my hat and said his name was "Chris" and he was just home from bootcamp and doing recruiting work to save leave time (I had done this, too).

A block up the street, at the Veterans Memorial, we stopped to talk. Chris said, "Those people don’t understand why I joined the military. I didn’t join to kill; I don’t want to kill. I joined to serve, get a career, do something with my life. I needed to get out of this town, my friends are either working at McDonald’s or in jail. There is nothing here for me. I want something different." I told him, "I thought the same things in 1991. That’s why I joined."

I pointed to the Gettysburg Address on the Civil War Memorial and we read it silently together. I said, "It’s the best stay the course speech ever written. It identifies with the victims of the war and says don’t let them be sacrificed in vain." I looked at Chris and said, "Do we owe our allegiance to those who have already died, like those named here, who we can’t do anything for? Or," I pointed at Chris, "Do we owe our allegiance to those who are still alive, like you?" I continued, "People die in war. I know what it is like to kill people, and it’s not something you ever get over. You can learn to live with it, but you can’t ever get over it. When you see war, after ten minutes you’ll realize it’s horrible. There’s nothing manly about war. Being a man is about being emotionally connected. Hopefully you will figure that out."

After a moment, Chris replied, "You know all this because you served. You did it, why shouldn’t I?" I responded, "I wish I could go back and change what I did. I can’t, but I can talk to folks like you." After a pause I said, "Look, as a Marine you will be going over in four-month rotations. Maybe on your second, third, fourth, or even your tenth time, if you reconsider, we will be here to support you. Veterans for Peace and this peace vigil will be here to support you." Chris nodded and said, "Thanks for talking with me, it’ll give me something to think about when I’m over there." On parting I said, "Remember your humanity."

Our conversation lasted 15 minutes but the impact on me was beyond measure. I wonder where Chris is, how he is doing. Also, I wonder what might have happened if a veteran had said something like that to me. Being a member of the current peace movement and a veteran, I feel that I am a bridge between war and peace. I believe as U.S. citizens we need to work together beyond our differences for the good of our nation and the world. I pray that we, as civilized people, find our way.