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Celebrating the peacemakers

Mark Howard says he grew up in “a culture of war.”

His grandfather served during World War I, and his father fought in World War II. Both he and his brother followed in their footsteps. He went into the Air Force, and his brother into the Navy — both went to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

As an aircraft maintenance specialist stationed in Okinawa and the Philippines, Howard never saw combat. And, yet, like many vets he has battle fatigue — wounds from serving in a very unpopular war.

“There was no end game,” he says of the war. And of every war since, he says, “there is no moral compass” steering the military strategy.

Dan Davis also served during the Vietnam War. He was in country commanding a small U.S. Army infantry advisory team when the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong armies launched a full-on assault throughout South Vietnam. U.S. and South Vietnamese troops sustained heavy losses in the surprise attack, and the horrific aftermath left Davis questioning the point of it all.

“I’m not a pacifist,” he says. “But there’s got to be a better choice than sending young people to war.”

Both Howard and Davis are members of the Rogue Valley chapter of Veterans of Peace. Their personal mission as well as that of the national organization is to “heal the wounds of war while building a culture of peace.”

Their vision: “A world without war.”

On Sunday, Nov. 11, the local chapter will join forces with the Ashland Culture of Peace Commission to honor members of the Southern Oregon Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.

The celebration begins at 2 p.m. at the site of the World Peace Flame Monument at Thalden Pavilion, 155 Walker Ave., between ScienceWorks and Ashland Middle School. Peace Corps veterans will be awarded commemorative candles.

The theme of peace will carry throughout the ceremony, with the Ashland Peace Choir performing an arrangement of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and “When You Come Back,” an original composition by the choir.

Ashland’s World Peace Flame Monument will provide the backdrop. The event is the first since the flame was lit Sept. 21, during the International Day of Peace.

Davis calls Peace Corps volunteers “unsung heroes” in the fight for peace throughout the world since the organization’s creation by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Leslie Van Gelder will be among more than two dozen Southern Oregon Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who plan to attend Sunday’s event.

Van Gelder served in Guatemala from 1995 to 1997. After raising her children and a career as the finance director of La Clinica, she headed to Central America at age 50. She says she wanted to “get away from a desk and serve people more directly.” She was an English tutor and helped aspiring entrepreneurs set up small businesses.

“I am excited to be honored for serving my country in a different fashion (than combat),” she says. “War makes more money, but peace makes more friends.”

The treasurer of the local chapter of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, she says some members served during the tumultuous Vietnam era. One member was in the first wave deployed overseas. And some are both military veterans and Peace Corps veterans.

In 1971, President Richard M. Nixon declared it a “haven for draft-dodgers.”

“We’ve marched in Ashland’s Fourth of July parade for 20 years,” says Van Gelder. “It’s the only time we’re given any recognition for our service.”

The convergence of organizations promoting “a culture of peace” is fitting for Veterans Day — a holiday Howard and his fellow Veterans for Peace believe should once again be called “Armistice Day.”

This Veterans Day marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day — a celebration of peace marking the end of World War I. Tagged by Woodrow Wilson as “the war to end all wars,” World War I was followed by World War II just two decades later. After the Allies’ overwhelming victories in the Pacific and on the European front, Congress renamed the November holiday “Veterans Day.”

“The aim was to honor our veterans, but it gradually became a day to showcase militarism and glorify our wartime achievements,” says Howard. “It has become more a celebration of military victory and warfare (than peace).”

When the original armistice was signed at the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month in 1918, there was hope for a world without war, says Howard. That’s a hope he’d like rekindled.

Veterans for Peace was founded in 1985 by 10 U.S. veterans in response to the global nuclear arms race and U.S. military interventions in Central America. The organization rapidly grew after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

As military veterans, “we feel a great responsibility to serve the cause of world peace,” says Howard.

Chief among their goals: “Abolish war as an instrument of national policy.”

Howard, who now serves as the president of the Rogue Valley chapter, joined two years ago. The election of Donald Trump as president scared him, he said.

“I was afraid that he would start a war somewhere just to play soldier.”

Rob Griswell-Lowry will direct the Ashland Peace Choir Sunday. Peace choirs, he says, are part of a burgeoning movement in “the work to prevent the need for future wars.”

Choir members, says Griswell-Lowry, “march to the beat of a different drum” expressing their love of country.

“Patriotism is a word that gets bandied about,” he says. “Patriotism is really just a love of democracy ... a love of freedom.”

Irene Kai, co-founder of the Ashland Culture of Peace Commission, brought the World Peace Flame to Ashland. Standing in the shadow of the 24-foot, hand-carved cedar obelisk that houses the flame, Kai says, “in today’s political climate, we need to proclaim who we are ... we need the light for such a time as this.”

David Wick, the other co-founder of the Peace Commission, reflected on his own military service during the Vietnam War.

In the Navy from 1968-1970, Wick says he came within 10 seconds of dying, narrowly escaping the firestorm of rockets and bombs that ignited the flight deck of the USS Enterprise in January 1969. Twenty-eight sailors were killed, 314 injured, 15 aircraft were destroyed, and the cost of aircraft replacement and shipboard repair was more than $126 million.

The traumatic incident and the “awful waste” of lives, he says, was a turning point.

“That’s why I chose to devote my life entirely to cultivating peace.”

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

Irene Kai and David Wick, left right front, of the Ashland Culture of Peace Commission, Mark Howard of the Rogue Valley Veterans for Peace and Leslie Van Gelder of the Southern Oregon Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, middle, and Rob Griswell-Lowry of the Ashland Peace Choir & Dan Davis of the Rogue Valley Veterans for Peace, are participating in event that will honor members of the Southern Oregon Returned Peace Corps Volunteers at The World Peace Flame in Ashland on Sunday. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune