Left Justified: The veteran is the key to peace

Left Justified: The veteran is the key to peace

By Stanley Campbell

Veterans know the ugliness of war. They also know the expense and long-term costs. Many wounded veterans are given short shrift by their government; especially now with Bush’s cuts in Veterans Administration monies. But veterans are the key, I believe, to ending war. Let me tell you a few stories.

I volunteered for the U.S. Army to stop the Vietnamese Communist advance. I arrived in October of 1971, and served for a one-year tour. While there, I saw the horrors of war and was turned off by our government’s attempt at “democratization.” I believe that veterans, who returned from that war and protested, stopped that conflict. My most lasting image was former American soldiers throwing their medals back at Congress.

The U.S. embargoed that country immediately after they lost the war. But some of us Vietnam veterans returned in spite of and in opposition to those sanctions. I returned in 1988 with the second Vietnam Veterans Against the War Friendship Tour. There were five of us, ranging from a truck driver with stomach cancer (most likely due to Agent Orange), two infantrymen and two clerks. We were met by a Vietnamese general who didn’t like us as Americans. He’d been ordered to show us around Thay Ninh province. We’d been pretty well received up until then by our former enemies. But this one general kept us waiting and then, with a flurry of Jeeps and dust, showed up and asked us where we wanted to go. My friend, David Kline, formerly of the 4th Infantry Division, said, “Black Magic Mountain.”

That didn’t set at all well with the general. We roared off down the road and, after a number of miles, the vegetation became sparser. “Agent Orange” was the cause. We came upon a bleak landscape in front of a tall black hill. The general approached David and began accusing him of “killing some of my best friends.” David returned the epithets, and I thought they were going to refight the war.

We were dragged back to our Jeeps and driven around to the back of the mountain, the side that David “never saw before.” We dismounted in the middle of a North Vietnamese graveyard. I grabbed Dave and the other guys, and we stood in front of a monument to their dead, lit incense sticks and placed them on top of the markers. I led a short impromptu prayer, and when we turned around, I saw that the general was crying! Through an interpreter, he spoke. “The war is over with me.” And then, surprise!—he took us out to lunch. Such a party we never had before.

While in Sarajevo 10 years later, I met veterans from that war-torn city’s defense. I told them about veterans reconciling in Vietnam and vowing never to fight again. They heard me, and told stories of enlisting for the defense of their homeland, but one year later, hating the war. I encouraged them to seek out veterans on the other side and promise never to fight again. I was met with silence. “One of the soldiers shooting at me had been my best friend,” said a sullen-faced combat veteran. I realized that veterans, though having the power of making peace, sometimes hold onto that war.

With Memorial Day coming, I want to ask the veterans out there to serve one more time in the cause of this country. That cause is to bring peace into the world. I call on veterans to join with me on Memorial Day, May 26, at noon at Beattie Park, where we will pray for the strength and courage to end war, maybe in our lifetime. Just a short prayer, one taken by the wind, in that spot sacred to native Americans (there are Indian mounds surrounding the park).

Veterans are also welcome at an evening Memorial Day Benefit Concert starting this Monday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 4848 Turner St. A collection will be taken for war relief in Iraq. The veterans are welcome as my guests.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

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