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.

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