guest viewpoint

Vets seeking peace on Memorial Day

by Mike Ferner

When General John Logan issued an order in May 1868 to place flowers on the graves of Civil War soldiers buried in Arlington National Cemetery — the first official step toward the holiday we know as Memorial Day — he was following a practice that had originated with women of the Confederacy.

By 1890 every northern state recognized the date of May 30 as a holiday. Following World War I, southern states finally joined them as the holiday began honoring not just Civil War dead, but Americans killed in any war.

As a Navy Corpsman, I tended the physical and mental wounds of hundreds of soldiers returning from Vietnam. It eventually became clear to me that war is not the answer. Coming to that realization is as much a spiritual journey as a political one. That is why I joined Veterans For Peace, because as a veteran, I know the true cost of war, both human and financial. Of the many veterans’ organizations which mark Memorial Day in the U.S., Veterans For Peace explicitly works to stop producing any more war dead, any more tombstones in Arlington Cemetery, any more garlands for their graves.

Our president, Elliott Adams, a former Army paratrooper and Vietnam combat vet, is heartfelt when he says, “Our statement of purpose is clear and direct. It says we intend to ‘abolish war as an instrument of national policy.’ We want this generation of veterans to be the last.”

VFP members choose different ways to walk the road of peace. In 2004, VFP Chapter 31 in Philadelphia started talking with a handful of young Iraq war veterans who came back questioning what the government had sent them to do. Eventually, Iraq Veterans Against the War became a VFP-sponsored project, grew to over 1,000 members, and today is off on its own.

The “Arlington West” project in California, originated by the Santa Barbara chapter, has inspired several similar memorials around the nation, each emotionally powerful with their precise rows of crosses or headstones for each soldier killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Truth in Recruiting campaigns that give high school students the facts military recruiters leave out, are conducted by several units including chapters in Santa Fe and Philadelphia.

A chapter in upstate New York marked Veterans Day last year by taking out a full page ad in the Watertown Daily Times to run an “Open Letter to the Soldiers of Fort Drum,” who are among the most frequently deployed to Iraq. The letter ended with a question certain to stir soldiers’ thinking. “How much longer must we support a mistake (and) send more and more members of our military to their early graves … to justify the mistakes of the politicians in Washington?”

“It is certainly fitting to place flowers on the graves of young men and women killed in our nation’s wars,” Adams said, “but better still to place our hand over our heart and pledge there will be no more.”

Indeed, many VFP members will acknowledge that making peace in one’s own heart can seem as daunting as making peace in the world, but that is where it must begin.

• Mike Ferner is a former Navy Hospital Corpsman and a member of Veterans for Peace. He spent three months in Iraq, before and after the U.S. invasion and is the author of “Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq.”

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