Friday, October 28, 2011

The War at Home

Scott Olsen (photo/AP)

In Boston, Massachusetts and Oakland, California, Veterans For Peace members have been assaulted by police while peacefully demonstrating on behalf of Occupy Wall Street protest groups’ constitutional rights.

The most seriously injured is Scott Olsen, a Marine vet of two tours in Iraq, who was hospitalized with head injuries after police in Oakland fired tear-gas canisters and other projectiles into an Occupy Oakland crowd assembled in front of City Hall. Olsen was wearing a Veterans For Peace T-shirt and desert camouflage field jacket and hat when he was struck in the forehead. He is also a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

“It was like a war zone,” Joshua Shepherd, a fellow vet who was standing near Olsen while dressed in his Navy uniform and holding aloft a highly visible, white Veterans For Peace flag, told The Associated Press. “Shepherd said it’s a cruel irony that Olsen is fighting for his life in the country that he fought to protect. ‘He was over there protecting the rights and freedoms of America and he comes home, exercises his freedoms and it’s here where he’s nearly fatally wounded,’ Shepherd said.”

In Boston, police knocked down, clubbed and tore Veterans For Peace and an American flag from the hands of a group of peace activist vets standing between the police assault and an Occupy Boston encampment the authorities set out to destroy. Among those dragged off to a paddy wagon was Rachel McNeil, an Army vet who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and was holding an American flag. Her crime: “Rachel loudly and continuously led a chant of the Oath (I do solemly swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic); but she alternated it with ‘We have a permit.  It's called the Constitution’ and also ‘This is a peaceful demonstration,”" a fellow Vets For Peace member noted.

Rachel McNeil (right) and fellow VFP members
“VFP members are involved with dozens of these local ‘occupy movement’ encampments and we support them fully,” VFP national officers stated.  “In Boston, for example, our members, wearing VFP shirts and carrying VFP flags, stood between a line of police and the encampment, urging police to ‘join the 99%’ and not evict the protesters.  In that case, several of our members were banged and bruised when the police decided instead to carry out their eviction orders…
“As with virtually every example of the occupy movement across the country, those encamped were conducting themselves peacefully beforehand, protesting current economic, social and environmental conditions in the U.S. brought about by decades of corporate control, a criminal financial industry and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are driving the U.S. global empire into bankruptcy.  These ‘occupy movement’ participants are telling us something we need very desperately to hear.  They should be listened to, not arrested and brutalized.

“Police in the majority of cities are acting with restraint and humanity towards the encampments, but Veterans For Peace will not be deterred by police who choose to use brutal tactics.  In fact, as happens with repression everywhere, more people join the cause.”    

Indeed, as The New York Times reported today, “the wounding of an Iraq war veteran … has provided a powerful central rallying point.” Thousands of people streamed into downtown Oakland the next day for a peaceful gathering on behalf of the Occupy Oakland movement. The mayor of Oakland commended the movement’s goals. The police promised an investigation into what caused Olsen’s injuries. News reports and videos taken at the time show what happened.

“ Scott Olsen, a 24-year-old Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq, stood calmly in front of a police line as tear gas canisters that officers shot into the Occupy Oakland protest Tuesday night whizzed past his head,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported today.

"’He was standing perfectly still, provoking no one,’ said Raleigh Latham, an Oakland filmmaker shooting footage of the confrontation between police and hundreds of protesters at 14th Street and Broadway. ‘If something didn't hit him directly in the face, then it went off close to his head and knocked him down.’ The something was a projectile that apparently came from police lines, fractured Olsen's skull and put him in Highland General Hospital. Doctors upgraded his condition Thursday from critical to fair, and said they expect him to make a full recovery.”

Like many members of Vets For Peace, Scott Olsen felt it was important to demonstrate the peaceful presence of military veterans at the Occupy Wall Street encampments that have sprung up around the country. As The Associated Press noted in a report carried by Business Week and news publications nationwide, Olsen “makes a good living as a network engineer and has a nice hillside apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay. And yet, his friends say, he felt so strongly about economic inequality in the country that he fought for that he slept at a San Francisco protest camp after work.

"’He felt you shouldn't wait until something is affecting you to get out and do something about it,’ said friend and roommate Keith Shannon, who served with Olsen in Iraq.”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

From Making War to Book Making

Tearing a leaf from Edgar Allan Poe’s literary leave from the US Army, a similarly brash band of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans called Warrior Writers is raising money from friends, family and fellow vets to publish a collection of their own poetry, prose and art drawn from military experience.  

Poe parted company with the US Military Academy at West Point in 1831 and published a collection of his poetry with funds provided by fellow cadets. A new crop of soldiers-turned-poets, writers and artists is currently seeking assistance to raise sufficient funds by Veterans Day to publish a new anthology compiled by the Warrior Writers Project. Their goal is to publish this eclectic collection of works by more than 60 veterans in December, just in time to celebrate the official winding down of US military operations in Iraq.

Having seen much of the work in this book-in-progress as an advisor to this project, it very much reminds me of the astounding and still memorable voices and images that emerged from Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans and Demilitarized Zones: Veterans after Vietnam, which were published in a similar do-it-ourselves fashion in 1972 and 1976, thanks to many friends who contributed funds and helped sell copies across the country. 

"Through our writing and art workshops, veterans are able to share their military experiences, receive support from other veterans and connect with their community,” notes the Warrior Writers group of this hands-on project by young men and women who aid each other in creatively forging new lives in the wake of military service in the current controversial wars, which they have much to say about.

Would you shed one drop of blood
   for the gallons that we've given,
would you last one day in the conditions
   we've spent years in?

Ray Camper, an Army National Guard veteran of Iraq from Minneapolis, MN, asks in a poem titled “Letter to the War Presidents.”

I wrote this in a hurry in a machine gun turret several nights later.
Try to burn it out of memory by putting it on paper…

Zachariah Dean, a Marine veteran of Afghanistan, writes in a poem titled “Happy Birthday,” about suddenly realizing he just turned 26 as death whizzes by in the middle of a firefight in which his rifle is jammed by a defective bullet.

Many of the contributors are active in Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans For Peace and other protest groups including Occupy Wall Street and offshoot demonstrations across America. Like Walt Whitman, the exuberant song-of-myself poet who was shaken by the carnage he saw in the American Civil War, they convey often blunt public messages tied to their personal stories of surviving the senselessness of modern war, seeking to stir or embrace movements for social change. Here’s how Maggie Martin, a former Army sergeant who served two tours in Iraq, put it in a poem entitled “Brio”:   

I have engaged the power of spring,
buzzing with life-force, ignorant of drought or death,
resilient as meadow grass and morning.
I sow community in re-acquisitioned places,
crowded city street, marching orders, protest song,
unsinkable strength, our hands and mouths.
I have heard the rumble of feet on ground,
drum-beat depth, commencement of the connected,
roll on, advancing steady, through cities hungry,
stirring a hum in open heads and hearts.
Old constructs crumble and blow away,
new consciousness takes root.

Warrior Writers produced two previous anthologies: Re-Making Sense (2008) and Move, Shoot and Communicate, a chapbook published in 2007. Much of the poetry and prose pieces in all three collections were developed in workshops and weekend retreats led by Lovella Calica, the group’s director, who organized book production crews to compile each anthology. Other work, including artwork, was solicited via a Facebook page, the Philadelphia-based group’s website and other outreach.

For further information about the forthcoming anthology, visit and click on the hot link for the Kickstarter contributions page. A copy of the new anthology can be pre-ordered with a $40 contribution.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Protest at Wall Street

Ken Dalton (center) holds VFP banner at Wall St. protest

A contingent of Veterans For Peace and Military Families Speak Out members from New Jersey joined the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York City on Saturday, October 8.

Many in the crowd of young people, older folks who dusted off memories of the protests of the '60s and '70s, and photo-snapping tourists seemed delighted to see the VFP banner unfurled near a corner of Liberty Plaza facing the new office towers being constructed at the site of the former World Trade Center. Among the Jersey contingent was VFP Chapter 21 President Ken Dalton, a Navy vet of the Vietnam war, who worked as a fire fighter in search and rescue operations at Ground Zero in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack.

A common question of vets by news reporters who stopped by for a comment was “What do war and Wall Street have in common?” Duh. Millions of unemployed veterans and other folks caught in the web of trillion-dollar wars and an economic collapse that the federal bailout of Wall Street banks was supposed to fix could have told them in a New York minute.

Many of the demonstrators in New York on Saturday eloquently stated the reasons for their dismay in an array of hand-made signs, some of which are shown here.

(Photos by Jan Barry)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Saving Grace

Lake at Arrow Park, NY

Saving a corner of the Earth in its natural state is increasingly hard work. It takes many hands and, often, many organizations. So it was that, the other day, an eclectic crowd of people gathered beside a forest-fringed lake about 38 miles northwest of New York City, to celebrate the latest conservation success story.

For reasons related to recent and legendary events in American history, survivors of the New York City Fire Department’s staggering losses at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, stood besides Native Americans who brought a 20-foot-tall healing totem pole that was carved in Washington State. Leaders of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference in nearby Mahwah, NJ, stood with current and former New York state conservation officials, local municipal officials and private landowners in this remote corner of the Hudson Highlands in Monroe, NY.    

To the beat of a Native American drum, the gathering of about 100 people celebrated the conservation buyout of nearly 260 acres purchased from the privately-owned Arrow Park, to be added to adjacent Sterling Forest State Park, which is part of the Palisades Interstate Park system. The conservation deal was brokered by the Orange County Land Trust with $5.3 million from the State of New York Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

“These projects would never happen without so many people,” said Paul Dolan, executive director of ABC News International and a conservation advocate for the NY-NJ Trail Conference, as a big swath of the audience was called forward to be lauded for their assistance. Dolan and his wife JoAnn, a former executive director of the hiking trails group, previously helped lead a bi-state campaign that preserved some 20,000 acres of open space that became Sterling Forest State Park. Developers had targeted the area with plans to build a sprawling city of housing and industry in the mountain forests that form the headwaters of northern New Jersey’s water supply.

Arrow Park was created in 1948 as a country retreat for a group of Russian, Ukrainian and Polish families living in New York City. Such large tracts of land in the region have increasingly been sold off or subdivided for housing developments.

The gathering at Arrow Park also celebrated the visit of a troupe of American Indians who’d previously  traveled across the country in 2002 to erect a healing totem pole besides the lake in the heart of the park to commemorate the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Now they were passing through with a new healing totem headed for the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.

“I was thinking back to nine years ago when we came to this very spot,” said Fred Lane, a filmmaker with the Lummi Indian Nation, which provided both healing totems. “We have to remember our ancestors, our elders. I remember something my father said, ‘What are you going to do to be remembered by?’”

Master carver Jewell James played a song on a wooden flute. “No matter who we are racially or religiously, we are all human beings,” he said. In 2002, James was profiled in a USA Today article on the making of the healing totem for 9/11 victims. He recalled how his tribe had helped him deal with grief when two of his children were killed in traffic accidents. So he decided to help others by carving healing totems. "You never know how much it might help," he said. "This is my gift."

The Orange County Land Trust’s website provides a poignant perspective on what happened in the wake of that gift that the Pacific Coast tribe brought east to Arrow Park. “Recently, the Fire Department of New York’s Counseling Service Unit presented the Orange County Land Trust with an award for leading this successful 10-year campaign to protect Arrow’s land which includes an 80 acre FDNY memorial planting tract. Since 2002, the families of firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty on 9/11 gather at Arrow Park for a tree planting ceremony and day of remembrance.”

In his remarks at last week’s ceremony, Paul Dolan said “Our goal is that this be a place for all different groups to heal.” 

The Orange County Land Trust website explains the genesis of that goal:  “A remaining parcel of 75 plus acres [which includes a rustic complex of buildings] is under active study as a center for programs for children and families by a consortium of non profit sponsors. Currently Calvary Hospital runs a summer camp on this land for children who have experienced the death of a family member. This bereavement program has served over 400 children since it was started 11 years ago.

“Arrow has been the site of recent professional training programs for Orange County organizations working with veterans and their families. Prior programs and events have focused on children of war from Sierra Leone and recreational programs for children with special needs.”

For more information: