Veterans march to New Orleans: Make levees, not war

NEW ORLEANS — Sunburned and footsore but in high spirits, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace (VFP) and their allies marched through this city March 19 chanting “Make levees, not war,” and “Hey, hey Uncle Sam, we remember Vietnam.”

We had marched for four days along Coastal Highway 90 from Mobile, Ala., to protest the Bush administration’s waste of $250 billion in Iraq while Hurricane Katrina victims are ignored. We carried a banner that read, “Walkin’ to New Orleans — Every bomb dropped in Iraq explodes along the Gulf Coast.” The march was one of more than 500 protests across the U.S. and around the world on the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. (See related stories, page 4.)

Iraq Veterans Against the War led the march, including Camilo Mejia, who spent a year in prison for refusing to obey an order to return to Iraq. Several Gold Star parents of soldiers killed in Iraq, including Cindy Sheehan, participated.

In every town along the way, Black churches provided soul food and space to sleep at night. VFP President David Cline, a Vietnam veteran, told us that the walk “has ended as a spiritual pilgrimage” because of the generosity of the people who fed and sheltered us along the way. The people here have so little, but give so much.

We could see the heroic efforts to rebuild hamstrung by the failure of FEMA and other federal agencies to help even as Congress approved yet another $72 billion for the occupation of Iraq.

The streets of New Orleans’ 9th Ward were virtually empty as we marched through on a sunny, breezy Sunday, except for a few people on each block working to clean up the wreckage of their homes and rebuild.

Army veteran Tina Garnanez, a member of the Navajo tribe from Farmington, N.M., said the devastation reminded her of the worst Iraq war zones where she spent seven months. “Our communities have been neglected just as Iraqi communities are being neglected,” she told me. “The U.S. government wrote our laws and made treaties with us that were broken. Now the U.S. writes Iraq’s laws. I will take the spirit from this experience back to my people. The reservations are like the Gulf Coast. We are devastated too.”

Construction workers in hardhats stopped working and came out to greet us. Some even marched with us. We marched past the badly damaged home of Fats Domino, the legendary jazz singer who composed the hit song, “Walkin’ to New Orleans.”

We arrived at the Martin Luther King Elementary School of Science and Technology where parents, students and faculty were holding a rally to demand funds to keep the school open. In solidarity, we joined the rally.

In Louis Armstrong Park we were greeted by Malik Rahim of Common Ground, a grassroots organization leading the struggle to rebuild the city.

Veterans for Peace was the first organization here after the hurricane while FEMA was dithering, Rahim said. “The veterans wound up bringing a whole truckload of supplies and in the months that followed they kept on bringing truckloads of supplies,” he said. “Veterans for Peace set up the first health clinic after the hurricane.”

The federal government, he added, “has a history of ‘loving the soldiers’ but hating the veterans. Look at how many Vietnam vets are homeless. Look at how many Iraq war vets are coming back suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The war in Iraq “is going to cost trillions,” Rahim said. “It is up to us to turn this around. We are taking the first step. We can stop this injustice in America. We have to mobilize everywhere in this country.”

The Rev. Paul Robinson, president of the Mobile chapter of VFP, said Katrina exposed “the racialized disadvantage and the expanding poverty festering within our democracy.” The Bush administration and Congress seek to build “huge walls across the southern border of the U.S.” to keep immigrants out, snoop on “our most intimate phone conversations,” squander “trillions of dollars in an experiment in Iraq while the needs, lives, and hopes of many individuals, families, and communities here at home are ignored.” He called for bringing the troops home from Iraq.

We arrived Saturday evening at Mary Queen of Vietnam Roman Catholic Church on the outskirts of New Orleans, a community hard-hit by Katrina. The Vietnamese American congregation has worked tirelessly to relieve the suffering of the Katrina survivors. They invited us to set up tents and our field kitchen beside the church.

New Orleans residents came to greet us. Mary Beth Black, a grassroots community activist, approached me. “I hear you are an electrician,” she said. “We need electricians. We could put you to work tomorrow. The problem is, we don’t have much money but everyone here would open their homes to you. You would never go hungry.”

Morgan Wheeler is a U.S. Army veteran, a member of the Baltimore chapter of Veterans for Peace and a member of Electricians Local 24, IBEW.