Maine Walk for Peace stopping in Saco
But one Biddeford man said one side doesn’t have to compromise the other.
Tom Kircher, of Biddeford, is a materials engineer who has worked for the defense industry but, at the same time, supports the Walk for Peace coming to Saco by the Tom Sturtevant chapter of the Veterans for Peace.
This year the fourth Maine Walk for Peace and a Sustainable Future began in Rangeley Oct. 11 and will end in North Berwick Oct. 20. The goal is to connect communities that have become reliant on military production, and participants will stop for their last overnight in Saco, home to General Dynamics and Ordnance.
According to its website, “General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems empowers the U.S. military and its allies with an extensive range of overarching product segments applied across all levels of strategic and tactical operations.”
Walkers will also draw attention to General Dynamics’ multi-million dollar contract to build gun barrels for the Army. Bath Iron Works was chosen as a stop due to its ongoing billion-dollar contracts to build destroyers.
When he first moved to Maine in 1999, Kircher became employed at a similar manufacturer as a materials engineer. “I wasn’t politically active or socially aware,” he said.
He came to realize, however, that people – including him – have to make a living however they can. “They are not bad people (who work in defense) … it’s about the way society has chosen to structure itself.”
Kircher said meeting Bruce Gagnon of Veterans for Peace opened his eyes.
“What struck me about Bruce is, he’s a full-time peace activist,” Kircher said, and is entirely focused on finding solutions to military conflict as a social norm. “I got to know him and started to realize … maybe they are asking questions that don’t get asked.”
Kircher said living in Maine made him “look around” and become more politically and socially aware.
He and his wife, Jane, previously hosted participants in a Fukushima Peace Walk, and he was also involved in an event focusing on veterans of the second Iraq War and the Iraqi casualties.
Jane Kircher is a dedicated volunteer at their church, First Parish Congregational UCC in Saco, and has also served on the local school board and worked for the Bon Appetit Meals Kitchen.
After getting to know Gagnon and Richard Rhames, a former Biddeford councilor, Kircher “felt I needed to leave what I was doing … I began wondering about my life legacy.” It led Kircher to take a job at a place that manufactures oceanographic buoys. “I felt better not making weapons,” he said.
The key question Gagnon and Kircher are asking is, “Why is it we seem to (constantly) be in a military conflict?”
Gagnon said many people would no doubt be shocked to learn that 59 cents of every discretionary dollar spent in Washington goes to the Pentagon.
He and other activists point out in turn, more money for war means less for other things such as education, repairing roads and bridges and developing sustainable sources of energy.
According to Gagnon, who lives in Bath, Maine was the site of the first chapter of Veterans for Peace, a group that now has hundreds of chapters in all 50 states in addition to England, Vietnam and South Korea.
Although he is a veteran of the Vietnam War who served in the Air Force from 1971- 74, Gagnon did not become a pacifist after experiencing the horrors of combat.
Rather, he had an epiphany of sorts. The California base where he was stationed deployed troops overseas and also received many wounded and dead. “There was a lot of anti-war activity on and off the base,“ recalled Gagnon, who bunked with an activist who was a member of the GI resistance movement.
“They changed my life,” said Gagnon, a man with family roots firmly planted in the military. “I hadn’t been exposed” to a culture outside the military.
Each of the four walks Gagnon has organized focuses on a different issue. Last year’s walk started in Limestone and focused on military drones. Others focused on achieving peace.
“This year we are concentrating on our state and our nation’s heavy reliance on military production,” said Gagnon. “I think it says something about the state of our soul as a nation when we have to have endless war to provide jobs to people.”
“We think instead of producing endless war we should instead build railroads, solar, properly placed wind power and deal with climate change,” said Gagnon about the theme of sustainability that is also included in the group’s message.
The peace walk is being led by Buddhist monks and nuns of the Nipponzan Myohoji, a Japanese order that conducts peace walks around the world.
The veterans group began the 122-mile walk in Rangeley because it is one of four sites being considered for a “missile defense” interceptor base. “These systems will be targeted on Russia and China and are key elements in U.S. first-strike attack planning,” according to a promotional flier about the walk.
The route is mapped out with each stop, meal and overnight accommodations. The walk usually starts at 8:30 a.m. each day, and ends around 6 p.m.
Every community is different: in Portland the group enjoyed a potluck dinner at the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church, followed by a program. The Saco church will serve a potluck between 6-6:30 p.m., followed by a talk by Gagnon. The public is welcome to attend any and all events.
Anyone can join the walk, and Gagnon expects “well over 100 to participate.”
Members pass out fliers, engage people and give talks, but they do not conduct protests.
“My understanding of the walk is, it’s oversimplified to point a finger at any one facility,” said Kircher.
People instead hear how they can take action against war mongering and for building a sustainable society.
Residents will be directed to contact their legislators and pressure them to create a commission to begin planning Maine’s move away from military production.
Similar legislation was introduced last year in Connecticut, which is one of the top four states to rely on military production.
“We can’t keep spending that level of money on war,” said Gagnon. “It’s kind of like a lawyer with one client.”
Kircher no longer works for the company that makes buoys, and is now employed at FMI in Biddeford, described on its website as “a key supplier of critical military technology and components to government agencies, prime contractors, and industry.”
But Kircher said the projects he works on are not related to the military; his focus is on commercial products.
“For me it’s an interesting balance,” Kircher said. “I’m alright with what I’m doing.”
Those who want to participate in any part of the peace walk are asked to contact organizers so they can more effectively make logistical plans. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org with the date(s) planned to join, name, and contact information for each person. For more information, including a map of the walk and how to join, see www.vfpmaine.org or call 443-9502.