By Kevan Moore
When I ask Vietnam War veteran Dan Gillman whether or not “veterans for peace” is an oxymoron, he barely misses a beat.
“You mean like military intelligence?” he asks.
Gillman, who was drafted in 1967 and served in Vietnam as a combat medic attached to an engineering company, is the vice president of the Seattle chapter of the Veterans for Peace organization.
“I grew up in a very religious home,” he says. “The assumption was you didn’t question the government and what they were doing.”
While he wasn’t involved in heavy fighting in the jungle, Gillman saw plenty of death and suffering, including a number of suicides in his unit and an engineer killed by what was supposed to be a controlled explosion. As a result of hearing about and seeing the death toll on both sides of the war he began to question if it was really worth it. Gillman didn’t re-enlist. He did the two years in the Army and headed straight back to college, where he began reading up on U.S. foreign policy, as soon as he got home.
It would be 35 years before he joined Veterans for Peace.
“I had been involved with some other peace groups over the years, but this one, being a veteran, was a perfect match for what I was feeling,” Gillman said. “Being a veteran, I could really relate to what others experienced and their stories were much the same as mine. Many of us, even right after the war, started to oppose it and became interested in finding ways to reign in our military and promote peace.”
Michelle J. Kinnucan, who served in the Coast Guard from 1983 to 1987 and joined the California National Guard shortly after that before getting out in 1992, is the president of the Seattle chapter of Veterans for Peace. While in the Coast Guard she did search and rescue, law enforcement and security operations in Honolulu, Hawaii, and said she didn’t do much “worth mentioning, really” in the National Guard because she wasn’t active duty.
Kinnucan joined Veterans for Peace in 2002 over concerns about the United States’ head-long rush into war in Afghanistan. Pacifists and anti-war protesters love folks like Gillman and Kinnucan. That’s because vets have instant street cred. They’ve been there, done that. They know the score. As such, they’re usually the ones organizers place at the front of marches opposing U.S. military interventions.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened in Chicago back in May. A few dozen veterans grabbed headlines at the NATO Summit when they hurled their medals toward the conference site after failing to get an audience with various generals to hand them over in person. Nearly 50 veterans, many of them from the group Iraq Veterans Against the War, which has a Washington state chapter with more than 100 members, led thousands of marchers protesting the largest NATO gathering in the organization’s six-decade history.
The medal hurling culmination of the march was similar to a Vietnam War veterans’ protest near the Capitol in 1971. By the end of the Chicago summit, though, most national news editors decided that bloody clashes between citizens and police, anarchists, property damage and alleged “terrorists” caught with molotov cocktails made for a better story.
But, just what were those medal-tossing veterans up to and why?
“My name is Iris Feliciano,” said one of the vets who threw her medals in Chicago. “I served in the Marine Corps. And in January of 2002, I deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. And I want to tell the folks behind us, in these enclosed walls, where they build more policies based on lies and fear, that we no longer stand for them. We no longer stand for their lies, their failed policies and these unjust wars. Bring our troops home and end the war now. They can have these back.”
Greg Miller, an Army infantry vet who served in Iraq in 2009, threw his medals, too.
“The military hands out cheap tokens like this to soldiers, service members, in an attempt to fill the void where their conscience used to be once they indoctrinate it out of you,” Miller said. “But that didn’t work on me, so I’m here to return my Global War on Terrorism Medal and my National Defense Medal, because they’re both lies.”
“It was in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks that I found out about Veterans for Peace and decided to join,” she said. “Because of what happened on 9-11, it was pretty clear in short order that the United States wasn’t going to respond to those attacks in a helpful way, but rather a destructive way.”
Kinnucan says that no other real alternatives apart from an all-out war in Afghanistan were ever really even considered, let alone pursued. “The invasion of Iraq,” she says, “was even more horrific.”
The war in Afghanistan has now lasted more than 3,900 days and in the second week of June the 2,000th American died in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
In Veterans for Peace, Kinnucan has found a community of support from people with similar ideas and feelings.
“I guess I would say if you’re a veteran and interested in working for peace this is a good place for you because in this country a lot of people, at least on peace issues, grant vets a different audience than they do for those who haven’t served. So, the voice of veterans can be really powerful.”
Veterans for Peace groups regularly appear at events and parades across the state throughout the year.
“We don’t do a whole lot of protests, we mostly do educational leafleting,” Kinnucan said. “A lot of our actions are about trying to get people to think about things they maybe didn’t know about or think about things they do know about in different ways.”
Kinnucan said that the group’s approach usually goes well.
“I have to tell you, the folks in Bremerton are really nice, most of the them,” she said. “Sometimes in Seattle people are just not as interested or open it seems like. It depends, we generally have good experiences in Seattle, but people in Bremerton don’t seem as rushed or hurried as folks in downtown Seattle.”
Gillman noted that some people have turned their backs on the group while they pass along parade routes.
“We sometimes get a hostile person, but overall we’re seen as a legitimate group with veterans that spend a lot of time thinking about this because it’s not something you do without a lot of soul searching,” Gillman said.
Steve Acheson, of Campbellsport, Wisconsin, got a little choked up as he spoke to the crowd in Chicago before throwing his medals during the May NATO conference.
“I was a forward observer in the United States Army for just under five years,” Acheson said. “I deployed to Sadr City, Iraq, in 2005. And I’m giving back my medals for the children of Iraq and Afghanistan. May they be able to forgive us for what we’ve done to them. May we begin to heal, and may we live in peace from here until eternity.”