PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Every Sunday for the last 14 years, a usually small group of people has gathered at the Aroostook River Bridge in Presque Isle to hold a peace vigil in opposition to America’s ongoing military involvement in overseas conflicts.
“People are a lot more open to this now than they were 14 years ago,” said Steve DeMaio of Easton, one of the original organizers of the weekly vigil.
The first gatherings in the spring of 2003 coincided with the start of the Iraq War and drew more than 50 people. Through the years there were a number of regulars, some of whom have since died, including Howard Hede of Stockholm, who received a Purple Heart for his World War II Army service and later founded the Maine chapter of Veterans for Peace.
The last 14 years have been a long time for the vigil gatherers to talk and think about the costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — the lives of more than 6,800 U.S. soldiers who lost their lives and the several trillion tax dollars — as well as to try to start conversations with people who disagreed with them.
Early on they wondered, DeMaio said: “Is this going to change anybody’s mind about anything? The consensus was that in the short term, that didn’t really make any difference. It was more about just bearing witness.”
DeMaio said that they also wanted their vigils to catch the attention of local youth, so that they might think about the issue and have conversations about the wars with their parents, teachers and peers.
While in the early years, the group occasionally received negative input from passers by, “the tide has shifted,” DeMaio said. “The reaction of people driving by has been much friendlier.”
Prior to the Iraq War, polls found that about half of Americans supported the military invasion, which was based on what is now known to be false information about the country possessing biological and chemical weapons. By 2007, more than half of Americans polled said they felt the war was a mistake.
DeMaio said that he’s seen changes in opinion among passersby of the weekly anti-war vigil.
One man who had been “very negative in the early days recently stopped to apologize. He said, ‘You know, I just wanted to come say that I finally respect what you people are doing out there.’”
While public opinion has changed, DeMaio said he thinks that the wars’ impacts are not fully palpable for most people, except for members of the military and their families.
But for DeMaio and others, the cost of the wars in terms of human life and national military spending remain heavy on the mind.
In 2014, the Congressional Research Service estimated that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars cost the U.S. $1.6 trillion from 2001 to 2014 in direct spending on war operations. Including the costs of current and future medical care for veterans, a vast homeland security budget and interest on debt used to finance the wars, other estimates place the total cost as high as $6 trillion.
That’s money that could have been invested in communities around the country, DeMaio and others at the vigil said — a point made by President Donald Trump at a rally last October in North Carolina.
“We’ve spent $6 trillion, lost thousands of lives. You could say hundreds of thousands of lives, because look at the other side,” Trump said. “We could have rebuilt our country twice … imagine if that money had been spent at home.”
The then-presidential candidate also made a point shared with many peace advocates: that the wars “have produced only more terrorism, more death, and more suffering.”
Those sentiments from Trump, though, have left DeMaio and other peace vigil regulars like Jim Fitzgerald scratching their heads in light of the president’s proposal to eliminate a raft of domestic programs, including Meals on Wheels, in order to add another $52 billion to the military’s nearly $600 billion annual budget.
Fitzgerald, who enlisted in the Vietnam War era and worked as a helicopter mechanic in Korea during the 1960s, said he’s worried the U.S. government will continue its unnecessary wars and military programs at the expense of infrastructure, health, education and other priorities.
“There are 3,103 18-year-olds on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Why? We were lied into Vietnam and we were lied into every other war since. We’re very good at starting wars. We’re not good at getting out of them. I’m sick of it.”