They Call it Memorial Day, The Chicago Veterans for Peace See it Differently

This piece is written by my father, Arnold Stieber. He was Army, Infantry, in the U.S. war against the people of Viet Nam. He is the current Coordinator for the Chicago chapter of Veterans for Peace.


When you look up Memorial Day, you’ll get something like this:  “Memorial Day, an American holiday observed on the last Monday of May, honors men and women who died while in the U.S. military.”

In actuality Memorial Day is more about summer, hot dogs, sales, and in Chicago, about indoctrinating youth into the military model.

In 2013 I attended the Chicago Memorial Day parade with several Veterans For Peace members.  We expected the parade, which is billed as the largest Memorial Day parade in the nation, to be a somber tribute to all those killed in war.  What we saw was over six thousand youth dressed in military uniforms, marching in formation.   They easily made up 80% of the parade.   We were shocked.

Upon investigation we learned that the Chicago Public School system has over 10,000 youth in some form of military training.   No other school system comes close.  We were told that this military training teaches “leadership”, and “discipline” and is a “way out” for many impoverished youth.

Sounds good, but there’s a flaw.  You don’t need to militarize youth to educate them.   Leadership and discipline can be taught in a variety of ways, including in the regular classroom.

By simply providing the public education system with the resources they need the youth will have a “way out”.

To address the myths of the need for militarization the Chicago Chapter of Veterans For Peace started an initiative called Education Not Militarization.  It presents youth with the other side of the story on the military and develops their critical thinking skills.   We have a dedicated web site, a Facebook and Twitter page.   We developed a speakers bureau that is focused on youth.

One of our main speakers is ex-Army Ranger Rory Fanning.  “I signed up to prevent another 9/11, but my two tours in Afghanistan made me realize that I was making the world less safe. We know now that a majority of the million or so people who have been killed since 9/11 have been innocent civilians, people with no stake in the game and no reason to fight until, often enough, the US military baited them into it by killing or injuring a family member who more often than not was an innocent bystander.”  His experiences in Afghanistan woke him up to the realities of the military.  “The Taliban had surrendered a few months before I arrived in Afghanistan in late 2002, but that wasn’t good enough for our politicians back home and the generals giving the orders. Our job was to draw people back into the fight.”

When he left Afghanistan he walked across the United States with 50 pounds on his back for the Pat Tillman Foundation in an obsessive attempt to rid himself of war.   He says, “I began speaking to high school students heavily propagandized by the US military on the charms, delights, and positives of war, American-style, about my own experiences and that, in turn, has been changing my life.“  Rory says, “JROTC’s school-to-military pipeline is a lifeline for Washington’s permanent war across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. Its unending conflicts are only possible because kids like those I’ve talked to in the classrooms continue to volunteer.“

Another speaker is ex-Navy aircraft carrier flight captain Sabrina Waller.  She joined the military after high school as a “way out” of the cycle of poverty and violence around her home.  She helped maintain Navy planes on the flight deck of aircraft carriers.  She witnessed the jets carrying 500-pound bombs in their bellies before taking flight. Without exception, they came back empty. “You can’t return to the ship with a bomb,” Waller explains. “It’s too dangerous to land.” The bombs had to be dispatched even without an enemy target to drop them on.” When she began to question these tactics and worried that innocent lives were unjustly being destroyed, her senior shipmates ignored her pleas. “I was told to shut up and not question things and just do my job,”   Sabrina Waller now dedicates her life to sharing her experience with students in the hope that she might prevent them from making the same mistake she did. “I feel like I’ve walked in the shoes that many in the JROTC program will walk in,” Waller says. “They think the military is the only way out of poverty, of not being educated, of not really having a purpose in life, and the only way out of living in depressing communities.”  That doesn’t have to be the case, she tells any young person who will listen.

The Chicago Chapter of Veterans For Peace recently met with the heads of Chicago JROTC.  We both agreed that youth need critical thinking skills.  We suggested that they invite us to speak at the eight military schools and at all of the JROTC and Cadet classes.  They’re thinking about it.   We also asked the Chicago Public School Board to join us in a roundtable discussion of the militarization of youth.  They haven’t responded.


Veterans For Peace will be at this year’s Memorial Day parade to encourage critical thinking.  We’ll pass out stickers to the six thousand militarized youth in the parade.  The stickers are miniatures of the billboards that we’ve placed around Chicago.  They read “No military in Chicago Public Schools.  Education Not Militarization.”.    Hopefully the youth will take the initiative, make good use of the Memorial Day holiday and seek out the other side of the military story.
Now as a Veteran, that’s what I call a real Memorial Day.

To learn more about our campaign to de-militarize Chicago Public Schools visit our website, Twitter, and Facebook accounts.




Performed at the 2012 LTAB Coaches Slam

(Dedicated to my Dad, Arnold Stieber)

You say it all came back in an evening
In front of the tv
Winter 2003
Iraq war about to start
Platoon was on
You had not let yourself go there since ‘70
You let yourself go there that night
You say it all came back
You could see it
Hear it
Smell it

9/11 might have triggered it
The invasion in Iraq rekindled it
But Hollywood
Brought it back

Knew growing up you were in Vietnam
Wasn’t really sure what that meant
Knew you were in war but never discussed
Couldn’t play guns, cops and robbers, GI Joe
Knew that was the rule
Told some friends you were in war
Another dad had been too
He didn’t talk about it
Heard he had changed when he got back
Didn’t know if you had

Other friends asked about the guns you used
People you killed
Like in the movies
Never did ask
Still don’t want to

So in 2003 you started talking about it
Little by little
I was 22 and felt like 5
Learning about you for the first time
Stories always pretty general
Nothing too specific
Keeping Vietnam at a distance
You had graduated college got drafted
Never thought you’d be infantry

Stories of basic training
You spoke with a clergy man in the army
You said killing didn’t seem christrian
Clergy said country first
You were trained to kill
Targets that looked like targets
Targets that moved
Targets like humans
Humans that looked like targets
Humans that move

Stories of Agent Orange
Fragging of “superiors”
R and R in Australia
Christmas in Nam so you could come home quicker
Slurs for the enemy
How soldiers used women
Coping mechanisms to keep sanity

Before you started researching/reading/questioning
A friend former soldier told you not to go down that path
Let it be
You had to go down that path
Now you speak/write/converse
You talk to soldiers home from Iraq/Afghanistan
Stories from them too similar to yours
You see their ghosts
Motivates you to talk to teens about the realities of war/military

Some people don’t want to hear your voice/words/writing
Say things like you’re dad is the only soldier I know who feels like that
Other soldiers they know dont talk or complain about war/death/killing
They don’t know other soldiers back from war
Are killing/over dosing/abusing themselves
War veterans have the highest suicide rate
You told me you thought about it

Soldiers are trained to kill/survive war
Not retrained on how to survive after war
So many don’t talk
You tell me

America teaches that war is necessary
Many soldiers have to believe what they did was necessary
Yet you speak out
Many soldiers fear saying the things they did/saw out loud
Fear of saying what happened may make loved ones distant
That no one can understand what was “normal” unless they were there
You teach me that for a soldier to speak out against war is difficult
You say war is slavery
In 1970 you had three choices
Leaving the country but knowing you couldn’t return
Or War
You said you weren’t brave enough for the first two

People need to know this
So you speak
I know it’s not easy to do what you do
But I thank you for the difficult path you choose
Soon I will be a dad
I have your path to follow
It ‘s easy to sit back
Believe what you are told
It is difficult to do what you believe
At 22 I started becoming a man
Because you started teaching me what that means