By Ben Griffin
Monday 5 Aug, Mike Lyons and I began our trip to the Mid West with a flight from London to Chicago via Dublin. Whilst transiting through Dublin we had to pass through USA customs, it is a physical manifestation of the empire. The imperial crest sits on the wall with a picture of emperor Obama. TSA officers man the desks and walk people to a private area if further questioning is required. The only upside is that you don’t have to fly all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to be turned back.
On arriving in Chicago we were picked up by folks from Voices For Creative Non-Violence and headed back to Kathy Kelly’s place. We travelled with Kathy to the annual Hiroshima Day Rally at the Henry Moore atomic energy monument. The location commemorates the exact location where the Manhattan Project team devised the first nuclear reactor to produce the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear reaction under the former stands of Stagg Field. About 30 folk gathered there to sing songs and read accounts from survivors.On returning to Kathy’s we were treated to an excellent meal prepared by Joshua. By 2200 we had been awake for over 36 hours and had to crash. The following day we met up with fellow VFP UK member Les Gibbons and headed to De Paul University for our first talk.
Wednesday 7 Aug, we boarded a bus to Madison. On arrival we booked into our hostel along with several other VFP. Les was put up by a local VFP member and given a bicycle to get around. That evening we attended the opening reception and it was great to meet up with Barry, Rhonda, Gene, Victoria, Gerry and Helen all of whom have been very supportive of VFP in the UK. We spent the rest of the night with local activists from Madison and some IVAW members.
Thursday 8 Aug, The convention opened with songs from the Bad River Tribe. I got to speak to the convention about the development of international chapters over the past year. In the afternoon Les and I attended a workshop given by Brian Willson called An Outline for Non-Violent Bio-Regional Revolution Strategies. Just in case your thinking what Brian Wilson of the Beach Boy’s? No this is the Vietnam veteran who had both legs cut off whilst attempting to block a military train carrying ammunition to Central America. His presentation was thought provoking and I encourage you to read about his life and ideas on his website.
Les and I then attended the workshop Addressing Veteran Suicide given by Alice Franks-Gray, a former Paramedic now working for a charity trying to lower veteran suicide. I found this workshop disturbing not because of the subject but because of the ideas and language promoted by Alice. She pushed the idea that PTSD is a disease that can be treated whereas I and other veterans suffering ‘PTSD’ see it as a human reaction to the traumatic situations we experienced within the military. She also referred constantly to Warriors which implies that the actions we carried out whilst serving in the military were somehow noble! These attitudes help to push the myth that war is normal and that all who serve are heroes.
In the evening we attended a presentation by Nick Terse who has written a book called Kill Anything that Moves about the numerous unheard of atrocities that were comtted in Vietnam. The presentation was gruesome and sad. Thanks to some inspired planning Nick was followed by folk singer Ryan Harvey who’s songs about rebellion, protest and war were uplifting. After the evenings entertainment we got to show our new VFP UK promotional video which went down well. Doug Rawlings told me that when he helped write the VFP Statement of Purpose in 1985 he never expected to be watching British veterans saying it on film 28 years later.
Friday 9 Aug, Mike and I presented alongside Gerry Condon (Vietnam War resister), Michael (Courage To Resist), and Nicole Guiniling (Fronlines International) at a workshop entitled ‘Supporting Bradley Manning and All G.I. Resisters’. We heard from Michael about the work carried out by Courage To Resist in supporting Bradley Manning. Nicole spoke about the plight of veterans refusing to continue serving in Iraq and Afghanistan who are seeking asylum in Canada. I spoke about the practicalities of supporting resisters and Mike told his own story highlighting how support had made his time in prison easier to cope with.
At lunchtime Mike, Les and I joined with other VFP and local activists to take part in the daily Wisconsin Solidarity Singalong. The SSA began at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison on Friday, March 11, 2011, and there has been an SSA every weekday during the noon hour since then.
In the afternoon we listened to Kathy Kelly who has spent years going back and forth to the Middle East trying to build peaceful relationships with the people she meets. We heard from Brian Willson about his upcoming documentary about his new film Paying The Price For Peace. We also heard from Diane Wilson (no relation different spelling) who is a truly inspirational fisher-woman from Texas. Her direct approach to activism and straight talking advice was refreshing to hear.
Whilst browsing through the merchandise area Mike and I met with Vietnam Veteran Lem Genovese who kindly donated a copy of his book Tunesmith Chronicles: A Musical History Tour and his CD to our VFP Chapter. It will be available to members at our next meeting.
On Friday evening we attended the VFP Convention Banquet. it was great to see Barry Ladendorf pick up the Leadership in Peace Award, given to the person or organization that displays initiative, inclusiveness, tirelessness and persistence in moving the mission of Veterans For Peace forward either locally, nationally or internationally. Barry has been instrumental in helping VFP become an international organisation and continues to work in this area. After the meal we headed out to watch Ryan Harvey perform at a bookshop.
Saturday 10 Aug, the morning was taken up with the business meeting. The By-Law changes and Resolutions can be found here. Voting will take place in October. In the afternoon we all headed out for a rally on State Street. Will Williams was for me the stand out speaker. We then processed down state street led by the Wisconcin Solidarity Singalong band.
Our time in Madison exceeded both of our expectations. A really good crowd at the VFP Convention with some great speakers and lots of friendly faces from last year. A sizeable contingent of IVAW in and around the convention. Lots of engaged local activists involved in current street activism. Cheese with every meal and lots of good local beer.
Sunday 11 August, Mike and I said our goodbye’s to Les who headed east. Bill Bassinger and Ed Bloomer of VFP Des Moines drove us south into iowa (after 3 laps of Capitol Square!). We arrived in Des Moines and were housed at Rachel Corrie House. We were both pretty tired so had to crash for the afternoon. We spent the evening relaxing in and around the Des Moines Catholic Worker.
Monday 12 August, after breakfast VFP Des Moines began to gather outside of Berrigan House. We jumped into 3 cars and headed to the Iowa State Fair. I have been to the Royal Welsh Show on a number of occasions but nothing quite like this. On show were the biggest bull, biggest pig and a life-size cow made entirely of butter on display in a huge fridge. However we were not there to view the agriculture.
VFP Chapters 161 (Iowa) 163 (Des Moines) and 169 (Linn County) were joined by Mike and I to march in the State Fair Veterans Parade. I have never seen anything like this. The local National Air Guard turned up with a model F16 (tractor). There was a mobile hill representing Iwo Jima with men renacting the famous flag raising picture. To top it off there was a guy dressed as Colonel Custer on a live horse. You could not make this shit up! It reminded me of a Minutemen song;
I believe when they found the body of General George A. Custer,
Quilled like a porcupine with Indian arrows in his back,
He didn’t die with any honor, dignity or valor,
I believe when they found the body of George A. Custer,
American General, patriot and Indian fighter,
He died with shit in his pants.
There were about 15 of us marching with VFP banners. The reception was good from quite a few people. As we approached the review platform we revealed our concealed Free Bradley Manning! placards to a stern reaction from the soldiers seated there. No applause for us from them!
That afternoon we headed off to Iowa City with Ed Flaherty and John Jadryev. It was great to hang out with these guys. We were dropped off at the home Of Louis De Grazia and then on to an interview with John Schumacher on Public Access TV in Iowa City. John brought the best out of us with his insightful questions and gentle style. That night we had an excellent meal with Ed and John prepared by Louis.
Tuesday 13 August, started with breakfast at John Jadryev’s place and then a trip down town with Ed. In the afternoon we attended a meeting of Peace Iowa and spoke of our experiences and about VFP in the UK. It was good to meet up with local activists. In the evening we attended a chapter meeting of VFP 161 (IOWA). There were some familiar faces there and it was interesting to see how another chapter organises. This was followed by a public meeting in the Coralville Public Library. We both spoke of our experiences in the military and showed our new promotional video. There was a good crowd of about 50 in attendance.
Wednesday 14 August, after breakfast with Louis we started out on our way to Cedar Rapids. We stopped for lunch with Everlee Mickey and then continued on the road. We got into Cedar Falls thanks to Clark Reike and spoke at the Mennonite Church there. Another good turnout with several veterans and a serving sailor who was seriously questioning why he was still in the military. I put him in touch with some local people who will be able to help him out.
Frank Cordaro and Tommy Schmidt had travelled up to Cedar Falls from Des Moines to hear us speak. We then jumped in their car and drove through the night to Columbia Missouri. We got to Steve Jacobs place (St Francis House) in the middle of the night and woke early to do speak on a local radio station, probably not our best performance! This was followed by breakfast in a classic American diner.
Whilst in Columbia Graeme Dunstan an Australian veteran and long term peace activist was in court for disabling a helicopter gunship along with the now deceased Brian Law during a joint USA / AUS exercise in 2011. We joined an international campaign to support Graeme during his trial. The slogan say’s FREE GRAEME DUNSTAN “Helicopter gunships are Indiscriminate killing Machines”. You can see a video of their action and other supporters Here
That night we spoke at the Missouri United Methodist Church in downtown Columbia. The event was co-sponsored by the St. Francis Catholic Worker Community, Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation, Veterans for Peace and Occupy CoMo. It was a great venue and we had a good interaction with the 30+ people who turned up. We went out for a few beers afterwards and met a handful of veterans that night. Some of them on reserve duty. I was encouraged by the positive attitude of these veterans to our campaigning.
Friday 16 August, we travelled back to Des Moines with Frank and Steve and spent the afternoon relaxing. In the evening we spoke at Chet Guinn’s fire station a truly unique venue. Abandoned by the Des Moines Fire Department in the sixties Chet bought the place in the early eighties and set about a restoration. The pictures do not do it justice. A good crowd turned up and it was nice to see familiar faces from the convention.
I final talk in the USA went down well with those gathered and some good questions were directed to us. After the formalities Chet gave us the guided tour of the Fire Station including the pole. Peace Iowa commissioned a Peace Statue carved by Ron Dinsdale. some years ago which has found a good home at the rear of the station overlooking the freeway.
Saturday 17 August, Mike and I gave an interview to Aran for the Via Pacis news letter and then to Michael Gillespie for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. I had the chance to converse with Michael severeal times over the week and found him to be insightful and engaging, I encourage you to check out some of his writing. Aran then took us to Funk War an afternoon concert organised by Students Beyond War. It was great to see so many young people turning out to an anti-war gig. We both enjoyed the music and conversations. Thanks for inviting us to speak.
Sunday 18 August, thanks to Julie for driving us all the way back to Chicago. Thanks to Joshua for putting us up for the night and making sure we got to the airport on time.
Our VFP UK trip to the Mid West exceeded all of our expectations. The people we met had a genuine friendly attitude towards us. Our trip was only made possible by the generous attitude of all who put us up, drove us around, fed us and organised our talks. Thank You All. Michael and I both returned to the UK with renewed energy and optimism.