Michael A. Messner
The midday sun lit up the blue sky of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and three Veterans for Peace (VFP) banners whipped in a cool mid-October breeze. Cars and pickup trucks filed by, stopping and going with the traffic lights, some drivers honking and flashing the peace sign. It was a Friday, so members of the local VFP chapter stood on the state capital’s busiest corner for their weekly peace vigil from noon to 1 p.m., a commitment they’ve kept— rain, shine, or snow—since 2002, following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Back then—and especially following the invasion of Iraq—the local chapter’s membership swelled, and they would often get 40, 50 or more protesters on the corner. On numerous occasions between 2016 and 2018 when I joined the vigil, there were sometimes 10 or 12, although normally five or six would show up. On this October day, I joined a thin group of three stalwarts: 80-yearold former marine Ken Mayers; Ray Masterson, a Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance veteran of the American War in Vietnam, accompanied as always by his service dog; and Army veteran of the Gulf War Daniel Craig, currently president of the chapter.
A pedestrian—a young guy with wiry red hair and a ruddy complexion, wearing an Oregon Ducks sweatshirt a size too large, paused to talk. He said that he’d seen the group there on previous Fridays, and appreciated their message of peace. And he added, “My grandfather served in Vietnam—at least that’s where I think he was.” And then, in a most earnest tone he said, “I want to thank you for your service,” adding, “I know you don’t hear that enough.” Ray Masterson stood rail-still, with no visible expression on his weathered face, the only movement his VFP flag flapping in the wind. Daniel Craig turned aside and spit out a load of sunflower seeds he’d been working on. Ken Mayers spoke without responding, at least not immediately, to the young man’s “thank you.” Instead, Mayers engaged in a brief discussion of the work of VFP, and answered the young man’s query about drone warfare.
I wondered if the three VFP demonstrators were simply going to ignore the young man’s “thank you.” I’d been following a lively discussion among VFP members, online and in their national newsletter, on the conundrum veterans face when someone says, “Thank you for your service.” For one who regrets his military actions and is critical of past and current U.S. wars, the mantra “thank you for your service” is loaded with ideological and emotional baggage.
I had asked each of my interviewees how they respond when someone thanks them for their service. World War II combat veteran Ernie Sanchez shrugged: “I tell them I am not proud of killing people, that war is wrong,” he said. It seemed to make Daniel Craig tired just to reply to my question about this: “It’s become obligatory to thank a veteran. The thing is, people have no idea what they’re talking about. They’ve been told a story about military service: duty, honor, serving your country, blah-blah-blah. When they say, ‘Thanks for your service,’ lots of times I don’t have the energy to have a dialogue.” Gregory Ross, veteran of the American War in Vietnam, said he started noticing people thanking him for his service in the 1980s, and at first he’d “get really pissy about it.” Then he shared a snarky fantasy response: “The people who would say ‘Thank you for your service,’ I would think, ‘Oh you’re welcome! Actually, I killed that one VC just for you!’ But I never did it. I reminded myself that they mean well. It’s a way for them to assuage their guilt, their survivor guilt. Usually they’re middle-aged women and they mean well.”
On that autumn day on the Santa Fe street corner, as the young redhead started to walk away, Ken Mayers added, casually, “Oh, you know, earlier you thanked us for our service. That was very nice of you. But you should know that the things we did when we were in the military, we did because we were told to. This work that we are doing right now—working for peace—this is our service.” The young guy nodded, perhaps taken aback by Mayers’s response, but he seemed to understand. He thanked them again, said “God bless you,” and commenced to move on. Mayers tossed a friendly rejoinder as the guy walked away, “Oh, and Go Ducks!”
Some months later, I interviewed Ken Mayers and put the big question to him—a version of the same question I asked every veteran who works for peace. You dedicate a big part of your life to public activism for peace and justice, I observed, but year after year, decade after decade, our nation continues to wage wars as it prepares for new ones. What keeps you going? What keeps you coming to this vigil, week after week, year after year? Mayers smiled, nodded, and referenced a lesson he learned years ago from lifelong pacifist and peace activist A. J. Muste, who famously said, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” Every night the last couple years of his life, Muste legendarily stood vigil outside the White House holding a lit candle, protesting the escalation of the American War in Vietnam. Mayers continued: “He was asked, did he really think this was going to change the world? He says, ‘You don’t understand. I’m not doing this so that the world will be changed. I’m doing this so that the world won’t change me.’ That’s what keeps me on the corner every Friday. If I stop doing it I have lost. As long as I’m in the fight, the fight goes on.”