Walkin' to New Orleans
We marched for 130 miles through the Katrina devastation along the Gulf with "Iraq Veterans Against the War", "Veterans For Peace" and VVAW. Six days of brotherhood and sisterhood. The Iraq vets all thought that they were back in Iraq--they couldn't believe they were here in the USA, and this was 8 months after Katrina and NOTHING had been done...
MOBILE TO NEW ORLEANS: RESISTANCE DEFINED IN EPIC ACTION
The Veteran, a publication of VVAW
Spring 2006, Volume 36, Number 1
By Ward Reilly
Dave Cline of VVAW and Veterans For Peace called me and a few others back in December and asked what we thought about organizing a march along the Katrina-affected Gulf Coast to commemorate the third anniversary of the war in Iraq, in the mold (no pun intended) of the civil-rights marches of the sixties. We had been tossing around different ideas about what action to take for the third anniversary of the Iraq disaster ever since we had marched together in Washington in September 2005, and it was time to make a decision. The Veterans Gulf March was born. We were "Walkin' to New Orleans"!
Stan Goff took the bull by the horns and started putting together a team to organize this huge undertaking, and in January we got down to business. Goff, a retired Special Forces master sergeant and a member of VVAW, VFP, and Military Families Speak Out, put together a budget and supply list, and we got to work organizing. We set up a website, started a series of conference calls, and formed committees and a task force. The team involved is too large to list, but they know who they are and what we accomplished together.
Veterans for Peace of Mobile, Alabama (led by Paul Robinson) put out the official call to march. We knew we were already late in organizing an adventure of this scope, but we were determined. It was a great idea to tie the war in Iraq—and its staggering cost—to the virtual abandonment of the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans. If the Bush administration had trillions of dollars to destroy and "rebuild" Iraq, why wasn't that same administration doing everything possible to help the destroyed cities in our own country? As the event T-shirts read, "Every bomb dropped on Iraq explodes along the Gulf Coast." This was based on Dr. Martin Luther King's words during the Vietnam War, when he said, "The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America."
We decided to start the 130-mile march on Tuesday, March 14 and to end the march in New Orleans on March 19, the third anniversary of our nation's invasion of Iraq, a country that did absolutely nothing to the USA. And we marched, and we rode on buses, and we marched some more. Our message was simple enough: "Let's stop the war and rebuild our own nation now." Our logo was designed by Perry O'Brien of IVAW; it showed a combat soldier and a civilian woman walking side by side into the sunset.
Local press coverage was outstanding, with front-page photos and articles in every city we marched through. We were on local television and on many live radio shows around the country. If there was one disappointment, it was in our national press's failure to cover the march. But the good news is that we got killer international press; Aljazeera covered us for the last three days, and the BBC, CNN, and a Japanese press agent were with us. In other words, the people of Iraq and the rest of the world got to see US veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars speaking the truth about those wars, a major coup for us. There were also at least five documentary film crews with us.
We also decided that it was imperative for Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) to lead and speak as representatives for this action. They took the lead each and every day, proudly carrying banners. They led with grace, and they led with the truth. They also did a fabulous job of sharing their experiences with their own brand of intense poetry and music. That so many of their members came from around the country is a tribute to their commitment, and their beauty on stage and in being interviewed was the icing on the cake. At least twenty-five IVAW members made the trip.
The Iraq and Afghanistan veterans did a superb job of speaking, and an even better job of performing. One after another, they went on stage and shone during the veterans' art collective, which took place at the Vietnamese village in New Orleans East, where we camped the last night. The art collective was organized by IVAW's own Michael Cuzzort, a Louisiana native who lives near New Orleans. It would be a disservice to say that any act was better than any other, because they were all truly inspired. It is still hard for me to understand how they could rap out multi-paragraph lyrics, with deep emotion, without even a lyrics sheet, and how they could articulate so much meaning in their heartfelt words, straight from memory.
Josh Dawson emceed the veterans' art collective and performed. Joe Hatcher and Garrett Reppenhagen did several poems on the Iraq War. Dave Cline and I jammed. Josh Dawson and Ethan Crowell contributed performances. Billy Mitchell, a 'Nam-era vet and cofounder of Gold Star Families For Peace, read a poem about his son, who was killed in action the same day as Casey Sheehan, whose mother, Cindy, also joined us for a portion of the march. Charlie Anderson played a fine song. Fernando Braga did a poem about Katrina, and Stephen Potts did his (now-infamous) speech comparing holding in farts to not speaking out.
Each and every night, there were late-night drum sessions that went into the wee hours of the morning. It was incredibly gratifying to see all those young vets having fun and realizing that there was some semblance left of the nation they were supposed to be fighting for. They were "home" for the first time since they went away to impose Bush's war-crime policies on the Iraqi and Afghani people.
On Saturday, a team of ten vets from the march gathered in New Orleans at the house of a veteran who had lost everything to Katrina. We worked all day with the Arabi Wrecking Krewe of New Orleans, gutting the vet's house and cleaning his yard, truly helping another veteran, citizen, and Katrina survivor, which was also part of our mission.
The other good news about the march is that we made real contact with the black and Vietnamese communities that Bush and Cheney's class warfare have most affected. Truthfully, the issues down here along the Gulf Coast are issues of gentrification and the stealing of the land of the poorest of our citizens. We shared their music, their churches, and their food as they fed us, laughed with us, cried with us, and loaned us their land to rest our weary heads (and feet).
Day after day, we took care of each other and loved one another, and we started something that will spread like wildfire. The locals had the chance to mingle with people who loved and respected them as true equals, and the marchers and locals came together in the realization that we must stand together against a common enemy: an enemy not of color, but of class.
Yes, we did it, and the hardest part of the trip was saying goodbye to all of those who formed this incredible family, our tribe of peacemakers, on the fabulous journey from Mobile to New Orleans.
WARD REILLY is the Southeast national contact for VVAW. He was a volunteer infantryman serving in the famed 1st & 16th (Rangers) of the First Infantry Division from 1971 to 1974, spending a thousand straight days in Germany with the Big Red One. He joined VVAW originally in 1972, and re-upped in 2001. He writes from Louisiana.
There is a display of photos of the above events at
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