March message focuses on the cost of war
Veterans for Peace in Bath on Monday, heading to Freeport

By Seth Koenig, Times Record Staff

For the city of Bath, the total is $20.8 million.

Maine Veterans for Peace marchers in the midst of a 10-day trek from Farmington to Portland are carrying with them a list of dollar amounts. The numbers represent each town or city’s share of the country’s cost, so far, to fight the ongoing war in Afghanistan since 2001. The cost for the state of Maine over that time is $2.9 billion.

Bruce Gagnon, a longtime peace advocate who helped lead the walkers into his hometown of Bath on Monday afternoon, has been among those trying to draw attention to those figures through various events and activities for months. The number of marchers trekking from Farmington to Portland has fluctuated along the way, Gagnon said, but Monday’s contingent was around 40 people.

“We’re talking about the cost of war and going through 43 Maine communities,” he told a reporter from The Times Record as the group paused along the way in Woolwich. “We’re trying to get people to connect the dots between these wars and the economic problems this country is facing.

“We’re spending $8 billion a month in Afghanistan today,” he continued. “How can there be any economic recovery if we’re spending that much a month on a war? We’re trying to ask people how their communities might have been able to better spend that money locally.”

Monday’s portion of the trek brought the peace activists down Route 1 from Rockland to Bath, where they held a vigil outside Bath Iron Works as first shift workers poured out of the yard to go home.

The wet weather wasn’t as bad as it could have been in the aftermath of Sunday night’s storm. Neither was the response from BIW shipbuilders.

“I got as many good, positive waves in the last five minutes as I got fingers,” reported Gagnon from Washington Street as shipyard traffic rolled by.

There were some cat calls and disapproving gestures from some of the passing vehicles, but there were also some honks of approval and waves. The shipbuilders’ response was OK, Gagnon told a reporter on the scene, as was the weather Monday. The aftermath of Sunday night’s storm dampened the marchers to start the day, but by the afternoon, the sun was peaking out.

“We had some rain this morning,” Gagnon said. “We had some concerns because it was so windy overnight in Rockland, but the wind let up and it was just rain today. We’ve faced worse, actually. We’ve walked in gales before.”

Simple message

The message of the walk is simple: That the United States is spending money on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the expense of its own domestic economy.

Many marchers held signs calling for defense contractors like BIW to be converted to produce components of public transit or renewable energy systems.

“We need to convert to truly clean and green technology and stop warring around the world,” said marcher Betty Adams of Leverett, Mass., who called the Pentagon and its network of contractors the “largest polluter in the world.”

“We would like to see those dollars (currently being spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) spent back in our home communities,” she continued. “We need money for housing, health care, schools and public transportation, not killing people, which is against every religion.”

Along the route from Farmington to Portland, Veterans for Peace has events scheduled to discuss the costs of the war and domestic needs. Monday night, a pot luck dinner and talk was scheduled in Bath at the Grace Episcopal Church. A similar event is on the agenda for tonight at 6 p.m. at the First Parish Congregational Church in Freeport, as the marchers finish a Day 8 walk that will lead them down Route 1 through West Bath and Brunswick.

On Wednesday, the dinner program will make an evening stop at the Sacred Heart/St. Dominic Church hall in Portland, and on Thursday, the walkers plan to march in the city’s Veterans Day parade. After the parade, the Veterans for Peace group will gather at the Space Gallery in Portland for a lunch and draw-a-thon.

Gagnon said that, in addition to the financial information, the marchers are trying to create awareness of the emotional burden the ongoing wars are placing on young soldiers today. He said many are battling post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after tours abroad, and added that in 2009, more soldiers died of suicide than were killed in Afghanistan.

Gagnon said by sending military personnel back to the combat zones for several tours of duty, “people’s psyches are being stretched like a rubber band.”

“Families are being destroyed,” he said. “Communities are being destroyed.”