Saturday, March 20, 2010

Peace Action at Work

In cold rain and summer heat, snowdrifts and bitter winds, a Veterans For Peace Chapter 21 contingent anchors a weekly peace vigil on a busy street corner by the NJ National Guard Armory in Teaneck. Chapter members are also active in numerous vigils, public meetings and marches around the state, as well as in New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, DC.

"This is what the troops put up with, so we're out here in the same kind of weather conditions," one of the vets explained to a visitor to the Teaneck vigil one blustery day. The solidarity with today's soldiers extends from memories of guard duty and patrols in military units in Vietnam, Korea, even as far back as World War II. The solidarity also extends across American society: A retired cop stands next to a retired firefighter, a Jewish mother next to a Catholic priest, holding signs commemorating the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan of more than 5,000 US troops from across the nation, signs crafted by a house painter and carried by a plumber from his repair truck to every weekly vigil.

Drivers honk their horns, sometimes two and three in a row, and wave to the peace vigil regulars from family cars, delivery trucks, school busses. Some passerbys stop on cold days, roll down a window and with a big smile hold out a big container of coffee or hot chocolate. College students stop by between classes, parents drop by with young children, frazzled parents of soldiers and, sometimes, raw-edged young veterans come by for comfort for their unrelenting concerns.

Many in the chapter have protested the war in Iraq since the US invasion and violent occupation began seven years ago. Some joined to focus their protest on the war in Afghanistan, now expanding into it's ninth year. To address the deaths and destruction of soldiers and civilian societies by both wars, Chapter 21 cosponsors a wide range of public outreach activities, often in partnership with Military Families Speak Out, which has family members serving on active duty.

This month's actions range from a "Speak Out - Sing Out" at a church in Teaneck to a contingent from New Jersey joining a national peace march in the nation's capital; from conducting a writing workshop for veterans and family members in conjunction with vets in a neighboring area of New York state to planning workshops for the Veterans For Peace national convention in Portland, Maine in August.

"We're a movement," Chapter 21 President Ken Dalton said during discussions this week on plans to widen war protests to the doorsteps of national elected officials, incuding members of Congress and President Obama. "We can make changes. It may not be happening as fast as we'd like, but it's happening."

Adding to the pressures to wind down these costly wars is the disastrous financial squeeze on Americans, from state governments slashing staff and social programs to rising unemployment levels for young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Jobless rate at 21.1%" for veterans in their early 20s, The Washington Post reported last week. "It was significantly higher than the 2008 unemployment rate among veterans in that age group: 14.1 percent. Many of the unemployed are members of the National Guard and reserves who have deployed multiple times, said Joseph Sharpe, director of the economic division at the American Legion. Sharpe said some come home to find their jobs have been eliminated because the company has downsized. Other companies might not want to hire someone who could deploy again or will have medical appointments because of war-related health problems, he said."

These are issues that Veterans For Peace in New Jersey and across the nation have been repeatedly raising at public events with other groups and in talks with members of Congress and their staffs. Spending an estimated $1 million per year to keep a soldier in Afghanistan is unsustainable, especially as tens of thousands of Americans lose their jobs--and millions can't find jobs--at home. It's an urgent discussion that hopefully all Americans will join.

Monday, March 8, 2010

War Writing Retreat

Far from the televised spectacle of Olympic athletes whooping or weeping in joy or anguish in pursuit of split-second victories, some other highly dedicated young people quietly gathered to share strategies for coping with relentless physical and emotional turmoil—in this case, from participating in deliberately deadly international contests.

The gathering of edgy veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan featured some whoops and weeping, amid an exchange of poetry and art works that was the centerpiece of a recent Warrior Writers’ retreat in Philadelphia, PA.

“The hard part is finding alternative methods for dealing with this,” Jon Turner, a former Marine machine-gunner, said to a standing-room-only audience during a Saturday night poetry reading at Robin’s Books, an out-of-the-way, second-floor bookstore in a downtown district booming with bars and night club-hopping.

“BOOM SMASH! That’s the sound of your Kevlar hitting the bullet proof glass… THUMP CRASH! That’s the sound of the mortar impacting in the dirt… CRASH AHHH!” Turner abruptly screamed into the microphone. “That’s the sound of your friend that now has a hole in his back…”

Release of still-unsettling emotions in poetry, short stories and memoirs was the focus of the three-day retreat, which also included many quieter discussions on the craft of balancing living and writing. Several of the vets noted how vital to their lives has been their participation in Warrior Writers and Combat Paper workshops, which offer hands-on making of artworks from military artifacts and memories.

“Warrior Writers, Combat Paper and love have saved my life,” said Turner, who drove with his partner, Kathy, and their dog, Sadie-Mae, from Vermont to share a new, self-published collection of his war and peace poetry, titled “Eat the Apple.”

Others were still exploring the idea of sharing private thoughts jotted down in a notebook or on a scrap of paper.

“I’m kind of a writer in progress,” said Maggie Martin, a former Army sergeant who traveled from a small town in Georgia with a sister veteran to see if this approach to dealing with the emotional freight of war would fly in the military bastion of the Old South. Pulling out a poem she wrote in a workshop that afternoon, Martin noted it was for an Iraqi friend, one of many people she met whose lives were upended by the US military invasion and occupation of their country. The concluding lines of her three-line haiku said: “forgive me friend/I never knew.”

Many of the roughly two dozen vets who participated in the reading or in workshops are active in Iraq Veterans Against the War and other veterans’ organizations on various issues, but the main aim of their writing is to sort out their own experiences and improve their life skills.

“I did two deployments, including a stop-loss,” said David Mann, an Army vet from Colorado, referring to a relatively new military policy that orders a soldier back into a war zone beyond the end of their enlistment period. “I found writing is such a help to me.”

Summing up the aim of the weekend gathering, Warrior Writers founder and director Lovella Calica said “I can’t tell you how many veterans I’ve seen who made art and their whole life changed.”

In stark contrast to the billion-dollar Winter Olympics games in Vancouver, Canada, Calica and a group of friends put together what she called a writing and wellness retreat on a shoe-string budget. This meant putting vets up in supporters’ homes, soliciting food donations from neighborhood stores, and offering writing workshops and Reiki, Yoga and Pilates relaxation sessions at Studio 34, a funky community arts center in a student-centric neighborhood near the University of Pennsylvania.

A Sunday meeting on how to expand the three-year-old Warrior Writers program beyond its Philadelphia base was well attended by many of the vets and civilian supporters.

“I want to take this workshop [program] back to Chicago,” said Pete Sullivan, a former GI who during the bookstore reading the night before dedicated a poem to “my dad, who is a veteran.” Sullivan’s poem included this line: “I know about the battle you’re engaged in in your head.” Martin, who led the planning discussion, said she’d like to create a writing workshop in Savannah, Georgia. Others proposed helping to organize Warrior Writers workshops in a variety of locales, from Boston to San Francisco, in the coming year.

“We didn’t have enough time,” said Jon Turner, who has attended previous Warrior Writers workshops. “It was really good,” he added. “In June, come to Vermont, when it’s warm and we could go hiking in the woods.” During a 2007 retreat in Burlington, Vermont, participants celebrated publishing a collection of their early work and inspired creation of the Combat Paper project to add hand-made artworks to the array of healing offerings.

For further information about Warrior Writers programs: