My visit to Ft. McCoy with Witness Against War

Back in April I found out about the Witness Against War walk being put on by Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Kathy Kelly was at a member meeting for the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, where I am a work study student, since my GI Bill was just used up it is a great opportunity to use government funds to support my anti-war work. Kathy asked me if I would be willing to do the walk from the middle of July until the end of August. I had to decline as I had a summer class taking up much of my summer but kept it in the back of my mind for when they came through Madison on their way to the Twin Cities.

The walk started on July 12th, which is Henry David Thoreau’€™s birthday. A fitting day to start such a walk by a group which has a long standing history of civil disobedience and non-payment of fines for actions like the one which I will describe later at Ft. McCoy on August 10. As you may know Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience while in jail for refusing to pay taxes to support the U.S. war efforts during the Mexican-American War.
Brief exerpt of Civil Disobedience here1.

The objectives of the walk are:
‘€¢ The complete and immediate withdrawal of all U.S. military forces from Iraq.
‘€¢ The complete end to all U.S. military action against Iraq, whether that action be from the air, ground or sea.
‘€¢ An end to any further funding for U.S. military action in or against Iraq.
‘€¢ Full funding for the highest quality health care, housing and education for U.S. veterans and their families; the end of stop-loss/stop-move orders in the military.
‘€¢ Provision of full funding by the U.S. for the reconstruction of Iraq following the damage caused by these past 18 years of economic and military warfare waged by the U.S. upon Iraq.
‘€¢ The unconditional cancellation of the remaining odious debt incurred by Saddam Hussein’€™s regime and of the reparations imposed by the U.N. against Iraq following the Hussein regime’€™s 1990-91 invasion and occupation of Kuwait.
‘€¢ Redirection of U.S. financial resources away from waging war and towards providing for the Common Good in the U.S.’€”universal health care; free public education at all levels; aordable housing; etc.

As the walk continued its way from Chicago into Wisconsin and towards Madison, I saw that they would be doing the walk to Madison on a Sunday. So naturally I forgot about having my normal day off from homework and work and decided to join the walk. I was interesting in their planning for an action at Ft. McCoy because it is a huge base that can be targeted for outreach for Iraq Veterans Against the War potential members and also with GI Rights information for troops contemplating their pending deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan or any other concerns they may have about the military and their rights while a member.

The walk from Cottage Grove to Madison was about 7 miles long on a beautiful day with barely a cloud in the sky. Joining the core walkers were about 30 others. So the crowd of about 40 set off about 9am and made our way towards Madison. The walk was a lot better than I had imagined since we were treated to a couple of miles of farmland on the edge of town instead of the strip malls of suburbia that I imagined it would be. After walking most of the stretch we stopped for a rest and a lunch break. It was nice to get out of the sun for a short period and take a break. The walk continued for a short period until we reached our final destination, Olbrich Park which is also the location where our Veterans For Peace chapter has had a tombstone memorial for those U.S. military members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

During the walk I talked with Dan, the Co-Coordinator for Voices about what was planned at Ft. McCoy. It seemed interesting that they were going to attempt to walk onto the base and let soldiers know about the GI Rights Hotline so they were aware of their rights as military members if they had concerns about their pending deployment. I had been wanting to scope the base out and see what was going on up there for some time but it is two hours from Madison and I don’€™t have enough free time to go for a four hour ride in addition to doing recon without a good reason. The walk would provide an excellent chance to do this recon at a pace which allowed a lot of observation instead of a quick drive by the edge of the base. Due to the location of the base it is split almost in the middle by Hwy. 21. This action also worked on their campaign at various locations to raise awareness about the Bring the Guard Home (It’€™s the law!) campaign which seeks to end federalizations of the National Guard because the missions of the 2002 AUMF in Iraq have been satisfied. Included in their visit to Madison was a delivery of a request the Gov. Doyle not allow his National Guard troops to be deployed to Iraq. The 32nd Infantry Brigade is facing a callup for Iraq in early 2009. Doyle responded the same way he has in our previous attempts at getting him to take action against federalizing the National Guard in saying that he had no power and that it would be a symbolic action which would only raise the hopes of families and then they would be upset when the troops were activated for service in Iraq.

So as I noticed that the action was scheduled for another Sunday and I would be just finished with class I thought about the prospects of joining the crossing of the line. However, they were having a civil disobedience and non-violence training day on Saturday which I could not attend due to work conflicts. Since I had already completed CD training prior to an action here in Madison, I asked if I could be a part of the action if I couldn’€™t attend the training. One of my friends was participating in the walk and she know the folks from Voices well enough that they allowed her to vouch for me without going through their training. In the week leading up to the walk, I had to finish my class and also had an organizing meeting for Madison Winter Soldier (more details will be forthcoming). So I was not in the best position to be able to prepare for the action. Factor in that I had to work until 11pm and then wake up at 530 am to get up to the meeting area for a pre-walk meeting and you have that I felt unready to partake in the proposed action. Even though they were open to participation, I felt that I was inadequately prepared mentally and that in discussions with them prior to the action they seemed to stuck on the consequences of the action instead of what the action was about and the goals and message we would be bringing during the action. So I decided Sunday morning that I would just participate in the walk and do the recon I wanted while observing the action.

As we drove through the base to meet up with the marchers I realized how large the base actually is. According to their website (pdf) it is 60,000 acres which is over 90 square miles. This number is mindboggling but to put it in better terms the base is about 9 miles wide so that would make it about 10 miles tall. Obviously this is an estimate as you can see if you search the map of Wisconsin that the border is not a straight square but all over the place.

After meeting about the action and getting some breakfast we made our way to Tunnel City which was the starting point for the days walk. On this day the walk was joined by a number of members of the Christian Peacemaker Team. Having them on the walk was invigorating and energizing through their desire to practice true religious belief and not what is normally seen from our modern churches. In all there were around 50 walkers including the 13 who were risking arrest at the base. Upon entering the base property and driving through the base, I noticed that the police presence of both the WI State Patrol and the Ft. McCoy police had increased greatly since the hour and a half ago. As we were stretching, applying sunscreen, picking out a sign to carry, and finalizing other details in Tunnel City the Monroe County Sheriff came by and ensured us that if we followed the law and walked outside of the solid white line in opposition to traffic we would be allowed free passage through the base. A back-up plan was that those risking arrest would cross the line at the base border if they denied us permission to walk through the base. Just as we were taking off a local news channel showed up. They took a lot of footage as we progessed along the walk. They were joined after about a mile of walking by another station which doesn’€™t seem to have any content on their website so they won’€™t get a link. By the time we reached the base border and stopped for a bathroom break and to make sure those risking arrest were in the front the media was out of sight.

I was mistaken to think they had gone home for the day and soon saw they had just moved to the main gate, which was now closed and had sawhorses blocking usage, as it came into view. As we neared the gate I went to make sure that I was holding one of the GI Rights signs with my Iraq Veterans Against the War shirt visible to any military members who drove by during the action part of the walk.

The other sign was carried by Jeff from Voices and Josh from Tennessee as they entered the base property.

As they entered the base they were warned that if they proceeded further they would be arrested. Upon passing the line one of the base security members, which are now no longer Military Police, said ‘€œMs. Kelly that is far enough.’€ Clearly Kathy was singled out early on and was apprehended to enforce the outstanding warrant that she had. The others continued walking and soon a swarm of other security forces approached them. Dan worked as the liason and found out that unlike we were planning for those who crossed the line would be processed and released at the edge of the base in about an hour. For more details on why Kathy was detained and not released see this article by Jeff from VCNV and John LaForge’€™s article here. From across the road we stood witness to their actions in support.

So we continued our walk towards the edge of the base property to meet back up with those who crossed the line shortly after finding out they would simply be released after being processed. Upon arrival some had already been released and others were on the way so we took a break. Slowly the vans arrived carrying them and we cheered their sacrifice as they had the zip ties removed from their wrists. Following the news that Kathy was being sent to the Monroe County jail a decision was made that the core walkers and anyone who wished could continue to walk to the jail and perform a brief vigil outside of the jail. So we got back on the road for the final six miles of the day. We arrived at the jail and by that time it was determined which cell she was in. We went there and yelled her name and sang the songs that we had practiced earlier in the day but didn’€™t hear back from her. Our guess is that she was at dinner or they had moved her because others had said she could climb up and be barely seen through the screen to the cell. So we re-grouped by the Wheels of Justice bus which is transporting the core walkers between their sleeping areas and the march route.

Finally we had completed the walk and we said our goodbyes and got a ride back to my vehicle for the trek back to Madison while the walkers went back to their tents for the night and awaited the day of rest coming up and got items which Kathy wanted to deliver them today. And the end came soon enough according to my feet which had developed a blister on each one. However, the temporary discomfort and irritation was well worth the trip. I got to scope out the base and the surrounding areas of Tomah and Sparta. On the way out of town while getting a drink to rehydrate I also placed the first two of what will be many GI Rights cards at a local gas station. Then the troops who saw us during the walk or didn’€™t see us could get the information we wanted to provide them with through accessing the base. Any time I travel past Tomah in the future I will be stopping at the local businesses and posting GI Rights cards.

So how were we received is probably what some are wondering. Overwhelmingly supportive is how I would judge the response by vehicles, military and civilian. Many of the troops waved back at us and less than a handful gave us the finger, we even got a few peace signs from those in uniform or those in PT gear! They know their situation and from discussions I have been having with local folks still in the Guard and Reserves they just don’€™t know what they can do to not be sent to Iraq if they don’€™t agree with the war. By carrying the GI Rights sign for the last 3 miles of the base and posting GI Rights cards in the surrounding communities we are reaching out to those most affected by the continued occupations of Iraq Afghanistan. Letting them know that they are not alone in their concerns and do have the right to speak out and let the rest of the state including their governor who won’€™t act in their best interests that they oppose the occupation.

Thus the first of many future visits to the largest base in my state comes to a close after an exhausting but at the same time energizing day of working to end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. I am energized from the responses we saw and from the fact that this was the closest I have come to a base since I was discharge. I believe it was one of my triggers and whenever I have confronted recruiters or sometimes even seen people in military uniform I have been extremely affected by uncontrolled shaking of my body and inability to speak due to the extreme hatred of how I was betrayed and lied to before and during my military service about the true intentions of U.S. foreign policy these triggers brought out. During this action I had none of these what had almost become normal responses and believe that partaking in this action has helped me cross those barriers that have affected my ability to do outreach to troops in the past. So I am excited to continue the efforts to inform troops at Ft. McCoy and locally in Madison of their rights. I am now also ready to stand witness when and if the time comes in an effort to end the war. At the time when they crossed the line I was physically ready to stand beside them but as mentioned before not fully mentally prepared.

 Originally posted on my blog.

1 It is not a man’€™s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’€™s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, ‘€œI should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico; ‘€” see if I would go’€; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war; is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards and sets at naught; as if the state were penitent to that degree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree that it left off sinning for a moment. Thus, under the name of Order and Civil Government, we are all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness. After the first blush of sin comes its indifference; and from immoral it becomes, as it were, unmoral, and not quite unnecessary to that life which we have made.   Found here.


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