I traveled with my friend Doug Rawlings who is president of the Maine Veterans for Peace, Chapter 001. Doug lives in Chesterville and works for the University of Maine in Farmington. We began our trip early in the morning (getting up at 3:45 am) and Mary Beth drove us to Portland where we caught a bus to the Boston airport. From there we flew to Las Vegas (what an ugly airport, full of slot machines and not much else) and then landed in Seattle by about 5:30 pm. We were picked up at the airport by fellow veteran Bob Beveridge who lives in Seattle. Bob used to fly B-52 nuclear bombers for the Air Force during the Cold War and decided he didn't feel good about that line of work. He later became an Episcopal minister and retired in Seattle where he abd his wife Berta live upstairs from his son's winery.
Bob took Doug and me directly to the Veterans for Peace (VfP) convention that was being held at the University of Washington. We attended the opening reception and after a short visit there I was ready to get to bed. Bob took me to his house but Doug stayed for the poetry reading that was to happen that evening. He ended up getting to read his anti-war poetry by about 11:30 pm - by then I was in dreamland.
The VfP convention officially began on August 10 with a powerful speech by Iraq war resister Camilo Mejia. Camilo did one tour in Iraq which broke his heart and when ordered to return he refused to go. VfP national president David Cline, when introducing Mejia, told the story about being with him the day he turned himself in as a war resister at his Army base. Cline said a group of supporters stood outside the base with Mejia and watched him make the "lonely walk" toward the front gate. Cline recalled thinking that Mejia showed much courage as he walked toward an unknown future. Mejia was ultimately sentenced to one year in prison, reduction in rank, forfeiture of 2/3 pay for one year, and a bad conduct discharge. During his talk at the convention Mejia spoke out for the need for the peace movement to speak out strongly in support of the Lebanese people who at that moment were being pummeled by Israeli bombs.
Outside the student union, where the VfP convention took place, there were almost 2,600 crosses set up in the lawn in a temporary version of Arlington West to remember the American soldiers who had been killed in Iraq. One morning while entering the student union I ran into Cindy Sheehan and she gave me a big hug as she does with nearly every person she meets. She had just returned from her trip to Jordan to meet with Iraqi parliamentarians who wanted to share with her, and other women who had been fasting against the war, their plans for a peaceful end to the madness. Cindy was supposed to address the convention that evening but by that time she had taken ill from the strain of the fast and intense travel schedule. We heard the next day that she had been taken to the hospital in Texas and ordered by doctors to eat.
Global Network and WILPF member Carol Urner joined Jackie Cabasso of Western States Legal Foundation (a GN affiliate) and led a workshop called "Eliminating Weapons of Terror from U.S. Foreign Policy" during the convention. Jackie talked about the hypocritical attitude of the U.S. as it lectures the rest of the world about WMD's while it builds new generations of nuclear weapons. Carol did a presentation about plans for weapons in space and put up the Global Network's website on the huge screen above the speakers platform. On the GN's homepage at this moment is a photo of George W. Bush with a huge cannon protruding from his groin. It got quite a laugh from those attending the workshop. Carol ended her presentation with an appeal for groups to help promote Keep Space for Peace Week on October 1-8. The week of local actions is being co-sponsored by the GN and WILPF and Carol is a key organizer.
The convention ended with an exciting banquet on August 12 that was attended by over 500 people. I was deeply honored to have been invited to be one of the speakers at the dinner. I am told that VfP members from the Seattle area, who heard me speak the year before while on a tour of their region, made the invitation happen. When I began speaking I asked Maine VfP president Doug Rawlings to stand and told the story how he had been at the founding meeting of national VfP in 1986 when five veterans got together in a Denny's restaurant in Lewiston, Maine. The rest of my talk I devoted to calling for a cut-off in funding for the war if we ever hoped to end the insane occupation of Iraq. I also appealed for a nationwide effort to begin talking about the need to convert the military industrial complex in order to end our addiction to war and violence. Jobs, I told the audience, are diminishing in my state and around the country, and increasingly, many people are finding that weapons production is the best paying opportunity for work. How can we ever end war when growing numbers of our citizens depend on endless war in order to feed their families?
After I spoke, I was thrilled to hear Army Lt. Ehren Watada speak to the assembled. He is the first officer to refuse to go to Iraq. About 50 Iraq war veterans lined up behind him on the stage as he made his dignified and heartrending speech. "I refuse to be silent any longer. I refuse to watch families torn apart, while the President tells us to 'stay the course.' . . . I refuse to be party to an illegal and immoral war against people who did nothing to deserve our aggression. I wanted to be there for my fellow troops. But the best way was not to help drop artillery and cause more death and destruction. It is to help oppose this war and end it so that all soldiers can come home," Watada said.
Watada's speech for me was the highlight of the convention. This remarkable young man, with his quiet certitude, represented the turning away from war that is now sweeping the U.S. military. As he finished the audience stood and cheered for this young officer and all the other courageous young veterans who have now experienced more death and destruction than anyone should at any age.
It was an honor to be part of another VfP convention, but this one was the best one yet.