Report on April 5 NYC GI Organizing Conference

U.S. Army soldier wears peace sign as he patrols a village south of Baghdad, AP photo/Maya Alleruzzo

“Bridging the Gap, Making It Happen” Organizers’ Conference, New York City, April 5
By Elaine Brower, The Military Project

I. Introduction

Organized by The Military Project, with the assistance of GI Special (www.militaryproject.org) and Traveling Soldier (www.travelingsoldier.com), the Conference “Bridging the Gap, Making it Happen,” held on Saturday, April 5th in Middle Collegiate Church, New York City, was, to say the least, spectacular! At last there was an organizers’ conference to bring together people who are sick and fed up with endless war, and endless protests, to exchange ideas, learn techniques and speak to others who are actually doing face to face outreach with active duty military, National Guard and Reserves. Bringing together union members and veterans who oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to do direct, face-to-face outreach to troops will prove to be a combustible combination that can help troops turning against the wars build a movement that stops them.

Speakers included Selena D. Coppa, an active duty Army Sergeant stationed at Darmstadt, Germany and a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW); Jeff Englehart, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW); Mike Hastie, Vietnam Veteran and photographer; Garett Reppenhagen, IVAW; Dennis Serdel, Vietnam Veteran and poet; Richard Boyle, author and Vietnam war reporter; Sanford Kelson, Veterans for Peace (VFP); and Clarence Thomas, National Co-Chair of the Million Worker March and Executive Board member of Local 10, International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union based in San Francisco.

GI resistance was the instrument that ended the Vietnam War. Those who spoke on the panels, such as “First Hand Reports on Sentiment Against the Wars in the Armed Forces;” “Resistance Through Evocation: Photographs, Poems;” “Troops Resist War; Vietnam and Iraq, Eyewitnesses;” “Outreach to the Troops: Organizing Tactics in the Real World;” and, a presentation from Daniel Joseph Black, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Clarence Thomas, Local 10, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, totally roused the audience of veterans and civilians interested in talking face to face with active duty military, guard and reserves.

Richard Boyle, Vietnam War Reporter, and author of “Flower of the Dragon: The Breakdown of the US Army in Viet Nam“, spoke about how he personally risked his life to drop into Firebase Pace during a time when soldiers there numbered about 400 and the VC enemy forces were upwards of 4,000. He gave a chilling account of how the soldiers were told to perform a recon mission and scout the perimeter, while they all knew they were completely outnumbered and did not want to die in a useless bloodbath of a war.

They decided to refuse orders, and mutiny. Boyle documented the resistance with photographs and on his small cassette tape recorder. He was able to smuggle the documentation of this mutiny out of the country, where he then tried to get Congress to listen and learn about how, even though the Pentagon and military officials kept insisting there were no troops in that firebase, that they were there and had refused to fight. (for more about Richard Boyle see http://movies.nytimes.com/person/82692/Richard-Boyle)

II. IVAW: Spread and nurture resistance!

Selena Coppa, active duty military Army Sgt. and a member of IVAW, as well as a mother, is an example of organizing against the war while still “on the inside” of the military. She speaks to believing in the oath she swore to, and feels it is her duty to lead by example. She joined IVAW believing it is the only moral thing to do in the current situation. Sgt. Coppa is currently stationed in Darmstadt, Germany and spends time talking to other soldiers about the war. She organized active duty military while at Ft. Hood and also at Ft. Meade. She states, “I just start by asking someone ‘what do you think about this war?’ and get into a conversation.” “At first, the officers weren’t too happy about what I was doing, but now it is much easier.”

Daniel Joseph Black, United States Marine Corps, 2000 to 2005 (served in Fallujah, Iraq, as well as Kuwait) and a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, spoke brilliantly about how he discovered after his tours in Iraq, that the war was illegal and immoral. Black states, “We never swore to obey, we swore to defend and if defending requires our disobedience of an autocratic war criminal, then we are so bound by our oath to defend the Constitution.” (read more at www.ivaw.org/member/daniel-joseph-black).

Garett Reppenhagen (former Army Scout Sniper, 2-63 AR BN 1st Infantry Division 2002 to 2005) and Jeff Englehart (former Army Specialist, 19 Delta-Cavalry Scout from 2001 to 2005) served in Iraq at the same time, but were in different locations. While stationed in Iraq, they started a blog against the war “Fight to Survive“, which they did when each of them were stationed in different locations, not even spending time together. They worked along with fellow soldiers on the frontlines to keep the blog going. This blog, the first of its kind, attracted the attention of the officers, and caused problems for one soldier. However, the anti-war messages kept going out and received notoriety amongst the ranks. They were also inspired to continue their fight against the war while still stationed in Iraq by reading “Flower of the Dragon.”

Both Garett and Jeff spent time in Iraq talking to other soldiers about the futility of the war, the total lack of reasons to be there, and the horror of it all. They put up stickers around the base where they were stationed which said “Bush Lied, Who Died!” Now, members of IVAW, they continue their struggle to speak to active duty military at various military bases about organizing tactics against the war (visit the links to read more postings written by Garett (www.ivaw.org/member/garett-reppenhagen-0) and Jeff www.ivaw.org/membersspeak/supporting-gi-resistance).

Fabian Bouthillette, former US Naval Lieutenant, and a graduate of the Naval Academy; a member of IVAW and the Military Project, led the discussion about how important it was for members of the anti-war movement to do outreach to the troops. He said, “When I got out of the Navy, I knew the war was wrong, but didn’t know how to go about expressing that. I joined IVAW, and then met members of the Military Project. It dawned on me that this was the thing to do. Go and speak to the troops. And that’s what I have been doing ever since.”

III. Support from Labor Against the War, Veterans For Peace & Civilian activists

Sandy Kelson, VFP, who organized two weeks of outreach at Ft. Stewart Army base, which is home to roughly 19,000 soldiers, of which approximately 15,000 are currently deployed, talked about direct outreach at the base. In February, 2008, he and others, stood at a traffic light right before the entrance and distributed 500 copies of “Sir, No Sir!”, the Dave Zieger film about GI resistance during Vietnam, and 385 copies of “The Ground Truth”, a film documenting resistance by the military against the war in Iraq, as well as 1300 packets of leaflets, including VFP and IVAW applications, Appeal for Redress, GI Rights pocket cards, and other materials. Sometime after they did this outreach they discovered that the PX and other locations on the base were discussing the materials that they had delivered.

Mike Hastie, Vietnam Veteran and photographer, presented his evocation against the war by displaying his vividly moving pictures from Vietnam. His photos were hung around the room surrounding the audience and reminding them about the quagmire that this Country led us into almost 40 years ago, and how eerily similar it was to what is happening today. He particularly moved the crowd by removing 5 of his hanging photos and read stories related in the captions. Faces of Vietnamese children, men & women, soldiers who were all adversely affected by the devastation they had witnessed and lived through.

Dennis Serdel, Vietnam Veteran and member of VFP, read his extremely moving and heart wrenching poems which can be found regularly in the publication GI Special at www.militaryproject.org. The audience was completely silent and greatly touched during the reading.

Other veterans who spoke about the importance of doing face to face outreach to the troops were Alberto Jaccoma, and Alan Stolzer, both members of VFP and the Military Project. Jaccoma said, “I went to a meeting where a group was planning to do something… hold hands….and we did that, and I thought ‘what does this mean’. Then I go to the armory and feel like I have accomplished something.” “It’s hard to be there at 5:30 in the morning, in the snow and rain, and you think ‘what am I crazy?’ but when you leave you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”

Of course there are the civilians who believe that outreach to the troops is the way to end this war. Presentations by Katherine Gorell, Johanna Petit and Elaine Brower, all of the Military Project, talked about how they got involved in this kind of work. Katherine Gorell, whose father was a Vietnam Veteran, and died from agent orange poisoning, is a zealot when it comes to trips to the local Harlem armory. “There’s nothing more productive, or useful. Protests just don’t work.” Johanna Petit, who lives by the naval base in Connecticut, started by handing out GI Rights materials to the sailors either in the mall or at the Groton Naval Base.

I spoke about roaming the Country in search of military installations to hand out flyers to the troops. Starting outreach at 29 Palms Marine Corps Base in California when my son was stationed there to leave for Iraq in 2005, I told the audience, “Before I left for California, I called some friends who are part of a local chapter of “World Can’t Wait, Drive Out the Bush Regime. They met me and we went to the corner, about a block outside the main gate and we held a banner that said “Drive Out the Bush Regime!” “We handed out flyers to cars at the intersection that talked about how bad the war was, as well as the problems with this government, and marines in uniform took them. They gave us the peace sign, thumbs up and fists up all the way and that was in 2005! When I got back on the base to see my son, he said ‘mom, some of the guys said they saw you on the corner with signs and stuff?’, “no not me,” I said.

Michael Letwin of New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW), who spoke and introduced a fellow union member from California, Clarence Thomas. The conference wrapped up with a presentation by Thomas, National Co-Chair of the “Million Worker March“, and Executive Board member of Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union who spoke on “Iraq Veterans + Union Workers = History In Motion.” The history of this particular Local 10 and its members is one of courageous acts. Before the war started, Thomas addressed a crowd of over 2 million anti-war activists in London that February 2003.

In a statement made to labor leaders gathered last year in San Francisco he called on workers to stand up and take organized action against the war in Iraq, saying that politicians can’t be counted on to halt the bloodshed. “Until people get off their asses and do something, there won’t be change.” On May 1st the ILWU, dockworkers plan to stop work for eight hours in U.S. West Coast ports. “No peace, no work” holiday was declared for May Day, International Workers’ Day.

His fiery speech at the conference brought cheers as he spoke to the importance of union solidarity with Iraq Veterans Against the War and his commitment to supporting outreach to the troops. “It’s a working man’s military, and we are all part of the same union of brotherhood.” (to watch video go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jxhrDNzugo and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ms9-NBYltL4)

IV. The new generation of resisters

This conference helped provide materials, motivation and acted as a catalyst to those who understand that outreach to the troops is the way to end not only end the occupation in Iraq, but could exert an influence on how and when our government decides to deploy the armed forces. Some of us remember the days of the GI resistance during the Vietnam war, and how it grew exponentially while the peace movement remained stagnant and ineffective. Once the force of those military members turned against the governmental structure and all that it was doing, they were unstoppable.

We are seeing the growth of a new GI rebellion. On the heels of “Winter Soldier 2008: Eyewitness accounts of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan” (see http://www.ivaw.org/wintersoldier/testimony), this conference stressed the need to nurture that resistance by forming an alliance, or bridging the gap, between the civilians who are determined to put an end to the imperialistic occupation, and the members of the armed forces who are refusing to protect and defend a lie, continue the bloodbath that politicians refuse to stop, kill and die in the process.

If you are paying attention, you will see that not only the power of this resistance is mighty, it is increasing daily. Members of the military completely understand what is happening in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, and have the ultimate power to stop it.

Those civilians who get it must organize to do outreach wherever we live, whatever military installation you can frequent, and talk to those soldiers, sailors and marines. They want to hear you, see you, and hunger for the information you can share with them, as we have done.

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