History of the Idea of the Veterans Peace Action Teams (VPAT)

February 1, 1987

In 1969, I went to Vietnam with the U.S. Air Force. Before going I had believed in the war but intellectually suspected "something was rotten," though nothing prepared me for the graphic insanity I encountered there. This experience transformed me from a war-maker into a wager of peace.

With the approach of the 1980s, I became more aware of my country’s dangerous foreign policies, especially towards Central America. It was there I could "smell, taste and feel" another Vietnam developing. This evil, perpetrated by my own government, caused me physical and spiritual pain.

I sought out other veterans for the first time since the end of the Vietnam war and began pursuing what I know now to be an unspoken healing process as a result of my participation in that war. During this period I came across an astounding article that greatly influenced my thinking. Published in the Summer 1982 issue of The CoEvolution Quarterly, it was entitled, "Force Without Firepower: A Doctrine of Unarmed Military Service." The author, Gene Keyes, documented many examples in the 20th Century of the use of unarmed military, paramilitary, and civilian forces for peacemaking, and argued that people could, and should wage peace directly, without the use of violence.

One passage by Keyes is worth quoting here:

"Is it too much to expect that soldiers on active defense duty could give their lives, yet not kill? I argue that the military ethos of courage in facing death is not a function of killing people. To ask whether anyone could be expected to enlist in a front-line unarmed force is to ask why any soldiers anywhere go to war, volunteer for hazardous duty, or lay down their own lives that others may live."

In the 1930s, Gandhi talked about the creation of a people’s non-violent army and peace brigades. In 1961, an experimental peace brigade was established to create a nonviolent striking force which would use non-violent methods to "revolutionize the concept of revolution itself by infusing into the methods of resisting injustice the qualities which insure the preservation of human life and dignity" (Cooney & Michalowski, 1977). The Brigade’s most important project was a training center for nonviolent action in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. In 1981, Peace Brigades International (PBI), was created to "undertake nonpartisan missions which may include peacemaking initiatives, peacekeeping under a discipline of non-violence, and humanitarian service" (Keyes, 1982). In small projects for humanitarian service, PBI has already been working in a clear non-partisan manner in Central America.

In the fall of 1983, I considered running for a position on the national board of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) at their upcoming founding democratic convention. As an active advocate for Vietnam veterans, it had become clear to me that we veterans, who know firsthand the evil nature of war, and of our government’s military policies, needed to become directly involved in bringing about an end to the U.S.-sponsored wars in Central America. We had put our lives on the line for lies and special interests, killing because our government commanded us to. Now we needed to seriously consider risking our lives through non-violent resistance for the truths prompted by our own conscience. It was my belief that such actions would help veterans in their healing, by serving as atonement and reconciliation for the killing we participated in in our pasts.

I prepared a platform statement that called for VVA to send unarmed observer teams to positions along the Nicaraguan borders with Costa Rica and Honduras, and into the war zones of El Salvador. In addition, I proposed that we send work teams of veterans to Vietnam to help rebuild the damages that still remained from our ravages, as a "profound act of reconciliation."

I was still wavering in my decision to actually run for the VVA board until the twin foreign policy tragedies of October 23 and 25, 1983: the Beirut bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines, followed two days later by the invasion of Grenada. If anything convinced me that the lessons of Vietnam could never be left out of our foreign policy debate, it was these tragedies.

At the November VVA convention, when I handed out my platform statement, the ensuing controversy so threatened the electoral chances for other candidates whom I supported, that I withdrew my candidacy. This controversy revealed to me that most of the Vietnam veterans who were joining VVA were not yet prepared to share the burden and wisdom of that war. And the invasion of Grenada made it clear that my government had no desire to learn from the foreign policy blunders of its past either. But I badly needed to stop denying my own experiences and begin to honor the lessons of Vietnam–wherever those revelations should lead me.

After visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. on Veterans Day 1984, I became motivated to develop a more detailed concept of a Vietnam Veterans Central America Peace Brigade. At the end of 1985, as the U.S. war against Nicaragua dragged on, I resigned my directorship of the Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center in Greenfield, Massachusetts and traveled to Nicaragua for two months, hoping to see for myself the realities of that war. While there I further developed my proposal for a veterans’ brigade entitled, "Creation of a Veterans Service Corps in Solidarity with the People of Nicaragua–Including Observers and Peace Keeping Teams in War Zones."

Visiting Nicaragua confirmed my worst fears about my government’s role in fabricating and perpetuating the war there. When I returned home I threw myself into lobbying against a $100 million contra aid package in Congress. That summer both the House and Senate passed this bill. I had done everything in my power to stop the aggression. Now I was willing to risk my life, in a non-violent manner, to have peace.

I joined with three other veterans in the Veterans Fast For Life. This action proved a pivotal focus for veterans all over the country, initiating a national dialogue on the role they might play in stopping war. For myself, the fast brought about a deep clarity about the importance and effectiveness of non-violent resistance.

By the time the fast ended, the idea of the Veterans Peace Action Teams (VPAT) was ready to come into being. In January 1987 VPAT became a reality. Headquartered in Santa Cruz, California, the first team of nine veterans and two non-veterans left for a month-long stay in Nicaragua, working as an observation and work brigade in the war zones of Matagalpa and Jinotega. The experiment of U.S. veterans engaging in direct, non-violent peace-making had begun.


Cooney, Robert and Michalowski, Helen. The Power of the People, 1977.

Keyes, Gene. "Force Without Firepower: A Doctrine of Unarmed Military Service." The CoEvolution Quarterly,Summer 1982.

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