Veterans for Peace walk from Rangeley to N. Berwick

VFW members and supporters carry flags and signs along Route 9. Courtesy of Peter Woodruff.

VFW members and supporters carry flags and signs along Route 9. Courtesy of Peter Woodruff.

122 miles from Rangeley to North Berwick, Maine; this was the distance that a number of members and supporters of the Maine Chapter of Veterans for Peace (VFP) walked between Oct. 11 and Oct. 20.

VFP member Bruce Gagnon organized the Maine Walk for Peace & A Sustainable Future. The purpose of the walk was to connect communities that are reliant on military production for jobs, and followed a route west of Waterville, parallel to the Maine-New Hampshire border.

Veterans for Peace is an organization of veterans and allies working to inform the public about the causes and costs of war. According to Gagnon, this international peace-building organization got its start in Maine when five people got talking around a table at an Auburn Denny’s in 1985.

The Maine Chapter of VFP has held a similar walk annually for the past four years, though every year the event has a different theme and route. Past walks have focused on issues like military drones and achieving peace. This year’s theme of peace and sustainability focused on locations with high concentrations of military-related jobs. The flier for the event, which can be found online, asks, “How can we ever end war unless we begin to deal with our domestic addiction to Pentagon spending?”

According to VFP, almost 10 percent of Maine’s GDP comes from military spending. The organization wants to end war by first dealing with “our domestic addiction to Pentagon spending,” the flier for the walk said.

This year’s walk started on Oct. 11 in Rangeley, Maine, one of four sites being considered for a missile defense interceptor base.

VFP and supporters continued their walk south through eight more towns, including Farmington, Lewiston and Portland. Two-thirds of the participants were from Maine, Gagnon said; the other third were from other places, with some people coming as far as the state of Washington. On an average day, the group of walkers consisted of about 15 people, but not necessarily the same faces.

“Every day is different,” Gagnon said. “Some people come literally for an hour, some people come for five miles, some people come for a whole day…some people went the whole way….That’s the beauty of it…each time a new person comes they bring energy because you’re tired, your feet are sore…New energy and excitement really enlivens everybody and keeps you moving over that long journey.”

Another stop along the route was General Dynamics Ordnance & Tactical Systems in Saco. General Dynamics develops and produces ammunition to “meet the needs of the armed forces of the United States, its friends and allies with the highest quality, ‘best value’ combat solutions,” according to the company’s website. VFP said General Dynamics has a multimillion dollar contract to build gun barrel kits for the Army.

The walk concluded on Oct. 20 with a vigil at the Pratt & Whitney plant in North Berwick. Pratt & Whitney designs, manufactures and services aircraft engines and auxiliary power units.

On Oct. 14, the Pentagon signed a new $592 million contract with the company to build 36 engines for the F-35 Lightning II, a tactical fighter plane.

When they arrived at Pratt & Whitney around 3:00 p.m., Gagnon said their group “spread out amongst the three gates,” and beat their drums. There were about forty people there, according to Gagnon. Workers at the plant who were leaving at 3:30 ran to their cars to try to avoid the traffic.

Each day of the nine-day walk was meticulously mapped and planned, with an itinerary that detailed every turn, stop and landmark along the 122-mile route. It also provided the names and contact information for the local hosts that provided the walkers with dinner each night.

By day, the peace walkers were led by Japanese monks and nuns of the Nipponzan Myohoji order. “This particular order was founded by a devotee of Ghandi, although he was Buddhist,” Gagnon said. They incorporated Ghandi’s message into their Buddhist work, Gagnon said, and their primary goal is to conduct peace walks around the world. One of the monks came all the way from the Seattle, Washington area, where Gagnon said he lives near a nuclear submarine base.

Gagnon described a number of “incredible moment[s]” along the route. In Portland, for example, a female tourist from Montana spontaneously joined the group for two miles and ended up walking with them for another nine miles the following day. “Comes to turn out she was a massage therapist and [she gave] the Japanese Buddhist nun who’s getting older—a bit frail—a massage,” Gagnon said.

Walking through Biddeford, the group was greeted by the former town mayor, who came running to join the group when she heard their drums, yelling “I’m with you.” “Those are incredible moments because it just shows the power of these walks,” Gagnon said.

Especially important to Gagnon, though, was the visibility of the group as they walked. “Imagine all the cars we saw on that journey; tens of thousands of people went by us, often times slowing down…reading all the signs.”

“I tried to make eye contact with literally every person that drove by—well that’s an impossibility, but that was my goal,” Gagnon said. Over the course of the entire walk, he said the group probably encountered 12 or less curses or thumbs-down from passersby. “We saw lots and lots and lots of encouraging, loving peace signs, honks, waves, etc. And then we saw a lot of people staring straight ahead. People that have taken the pill and know they are locked into the system.…You see people that are struggling, afraid to make contact with you. For some of those people, that walk helps them break through a little bit. Opens them up a tiny bit…and that’s [what we’re looking to do]. We’re looking to touch hearts and minds.”