The year is 1965; the place is the Southeast Asian nation of Vietnam. The United States military is becoming mired in the Vietnam War, and the addition of more U.S. forces here this year marks an escalation of America’s intent to prevent Vietnam from “going communist.”
The U.S. military presence in Vietnam would last another eight years before its withdrawal, resulting in a hard-fought victory by the Vietnamese.
Fast-forward to 1985: The war of two decades earlier comes home to roost in America’s heartland. Thousands of Vietnam veterans are diagnosed as having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as painful memories and flashbacks of their experiences in Vietnam linger in their minds.
Many U.S. veterans from Vietnam withdrew from mainstream society upon returning home, unable to function socially. Hundreds of thousands of others lost hope and became homeless, living on the streets of cities all across the U.S.
An alarming number of American Vietnam War veterans resorted to suicide; in fact; the number of Vietnam veterans who would later take their own lives after returning home would exceed the 58,000 U.S. soldiers who had actually died in Vietnam.
Out of this backdrop stepped four veterans of America’s wars abroad, from World War II (1941-45), the Korean War (1950-53) and the Vietnam War (1964-73). The four ex-soldiers decided to start a small group in Maine to “wage peace, not war.” From this seed the group Veterans For Peace (VFP) was born.
“I honestly feel that we now hold more real power in our empty hands than we did when toting a weapon,” then-VFP executive director Wilson “Woody” Powell said in 2004.
The activities of these 4,000-plus ex-soldiers vary among the nearly 100 local VFP chapters nationwide. Some VFP members recently traveled to Iraq to help rebuild that country’s water system after it was virtually destroyed by the U.S. invasion of March 2003.
Other members go to high schools and talk with American students about the truth of war. Still others organize local anti-war demonstrations and teach-ins. But whatever they do, “waging peace” is always the common focus.
Twenty years after its inception, Veterans For Peace has become an official NGO with representatives at the United Nations — and a positive force in its own right in American society. But if the unilateralist foreign policies of the United States government are any indication, America’s “peace soldiers” may have their biggest battles yet ahead of them.