The first convention was planned by a handful of guys in a Denny’s in Auburn.

Jerry Genesio, a veteran from Falmouth who had been doing humanitarian aid work in Central America, was trying to assemble a veterans’ organization dedicated to peace advocacy, and he got a few people together to figure out what it would look like.

They scheduled a public meeting in a Portland church in August 1985 to which 30 people showed up. And Veterans for Peace was born.

“Our major purpose was to serve as watchdogs on the military and to speak out about what we saw going on in domestic and foreign policy,” said Doug Rawlings, a University of Maine at Farmington writing instructor who was at the first two meetings.

“We’re not joiners, most of us. But we are bound by our experience and a real disdain for war.”

Twenty-five years later, the organization has survived. Now with 5,000 men and women organized in 100 chapters spread out across the country, it has made it through the frictions and faction that plague most organizations, and starting today, it is holding its 25th convention where it held the first one, here in Portland.

As veterans’ organizations go, it’s far from the biggest. But in the world of groups that speak out against war and advocate for peaceful alternatives, it holds a special place.

Veterans speak with a special authority when the subject is war, and their criticism has a way of reaching people who won’t be reached by other peace activists.

That gives Veterans for Peace a chance to make its case in Veterans Day parades and venues where other peace groups aren’t welcome. And, members say, it also gives them an obligation to use that soapbox.

Rawlings, the son of Canadian immigrants said he was slow to come to politics.

He had just graduated from John Carroll University in Cleveland and was starting graduate school in 1968 when he got drafted. He ended up in Vietnam, in an artillery unit attached to the 173rd Airborne Division, by a landing zone in the Central Highlands.

He served 411 days in Vietnam, and he struggled to make sense of what he had seen.

“I witnessed firsthand the butchery and the stupidity which was being carried out with my tax dollars and in my name,” Rawlings said. “I came out guilt-ridden and angry and looking for something to lash out against.”

As time passed, Rawlings said he realized that as a veteran he knew more about how the military functions than most members of the public, and felt that he knew what really lay behind bland media reports and policy discussions.

That’s where Veterans for Peace came in.

The group has been a leading, and sometimes lonely, voice in opposition to American involvement in civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the first Persian Gulf War and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Its message is consistent, regardless of which party is in power. And so is the criticism it faces, usually led by the charge that its activism is harmful to the troops who are in harm’s way.

“That is absolutely absurd,” Rawlings said. “The troops are human beings, and we support human beings 100 percent. We support them while they are in the military and after they are out of the military.”

That has meant activism around services for returning soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, or illnesses caused by substances encountered while serving, like the chemical defoliant Agent Orange or depleted uranium.

And it also means speaking out, regardless of its popularity, against wars currently under way or planned.

VFP opposed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars before they were launched and while they were still popular with the public. Then the group became part of a louder antiwar chorus as the conflicts bogged down.

And as the domestic economy has become the dominant political issue in the nation, VFP is still calling for a rapid withdrawal from and an end to the conflicts.

“We have to leave, and we have to do it as immediately as possible,” Rawlings said on the eve of the VFP convention. “We are an occupying army, and we are the force that is fanning the flames. We have to pull out the military.”

The veterans’ voices won’t be so lonely this week, as an anticipated 300 members gather in the city where they first met, 25 years ago. The agenda includes workshops and speeches, including an address by Chris Hedges, the journalist and author of “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.”

But they will also celebrating the fact that they are still around.

“I’ve got a lot of pride in this organization,” Rawlings said. “Persevering. It’s not easy.”

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]