May 10, 2008
War protesters march through Cortland
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Peace marcher Mike Blake, at left, a former Army specialist and veteran of the war in Iraq, walks north Friday on Route 13 toward Cortland with other peace marchers.
CORTLAND — Iraq War veteran Michael Blake of Binghamton has been on tougher marches, but the one he and about 25 others undertook Friday as part of New York State Marches for Peace was also an important one.
Blake and his companions marched between Dryden and Cortland, leaving at about 10 a.m. and not arriving at the day’s destination — the Unitarian Universalist Church on Church Street in Cortland — until the late afternoon.
Along the way, they were joined in Cortlandville by six members of Cortland Community for Peace, which protests the war Saturdays from noon to 1 p.m. outside the Cortland Post Office.
The marchers who passed through the city Friday were part of a broader Central New York effort to bring support and raise awareness for the active duty soldiers serving around the world today and the Iraq Veterans Against the War organization.
The Ithaca, or southern, route marched Thursday from Ithaca’s Dewitt Park to the intersection of route 13 and 38 in Dryden and then continued on to Cortland, while other marchers set off on the western Rochester route and the eastern Utica route.
Marchers will converge Friday at Ft. Drum in Watertown to show support for the Iraq Veterans Against the War, which is holding a three-day event to highlight the Iraq War’s impact on rural communities as well as the experiences of its members.
The local marchers were to head from Cortland to Tully this morning on the next leg of their journey to Watertown.
Blake, a SUNY Cortland junior, served in the Army for three years. Like tens of thousands of others, he joined the military to finance his education, what he and others call “the economic draft.” Blake was shipped off to basic training in July 2001, when he was 18 years old and had just graduated high school.
“I was one of the pre-Sept. 11 enlistees. It seems like a million years ago,” Blake said.
He left the Army as a conscientious objector in February 2005 after a yearlong tour of duty in Iraq, where he served as a supply specialist in a tank unit.
Walking along Route 13 once the marchers got started Friday morning, Blake reflected on his time in the service and the damage done to his peers and to himself, and why he joined Iraq Veterans Against the War.
His main motivation is the memory of a friend who was killed in Iraq on his second tour of duty. Just before Blake’s friend left the country, he joined the veteran anti-war organization.
“This was a soldier who didn’t believe in what he was doing and couldn’t get out of it. So he died doing something he didn’t believe in,” Blake said. “Most people figure, ‘Oh, a soldier’s there, they want to be there.’ But, no, he really didn’t.”
Like many others he served with, Blake has post-traumatic stress disorder and wants to remind other people that the costs of the war will extend far into the future as these soldiers have to learn to adapt to a civilian way of life.
He hopes the march will help soldiers realize that they are not isolated and that they have the support of many, many more people than they can imagine.
John Hamilton and Alexis Alexander, both of Ithaca, said they feel compelled to speak and act out against a war they feel is illegal and immoral.
As they waited for some lost marchers to find their way to the center of Dryden before the march began, they spoke of the tactics used by the Bush administration to pull the United States into the war and why it is so important to support the troops in a meaningful way. Around them, marchers stretched and talked politics and family life.
“The real purpose of this march is to build awareness of the growing GI resistance movement,” Alexander said, as well as to military families impacted by the war.
“It’s not really a rally or protest — we’re going in there as support for the IVAW members. There are probably a lot of soldiers out there who’ve come back and want to talk but are afraid to,” either for lack of audience or fear of lack of support, Alexander said. “The rural communities have been the hardest hit from a financial and emotional perspective … not just soldiers, but a lot of people may be reticent.”
Some people on the march from Ithaca to Cortland drove vehicles, called “sag wagons,” up ahead of the marchers with food and beverages, and to help out those who needed a rest. Elizabeth Salon of Ithaca, a nurse practitioner, occasionally walked and occasionally rode along the march route Thursday and Friday due to an injured foot, but said she wanted to be around in case anyone needed help.
Elizabeth Marland of Groton brought her two 10-year-old daughters along for the march out of support for her son, Pvt. 1st Class Will McKenney, who is serving in Afghanistan, as well as a nephew in Iraq.
“A lot of people don’t speak up for what their thoughts are. Our president and other authority figures are directing our lives, we’re not speaking up for what we believe,” Marland said.
She said the purpose of the march is also “to change the direction in which our senators and president feel about what they’re doing, so that the smaller voices become a larger voice.”
As the group marched, cars and trunks honked their horns and shouted out, and interested motorists asked questions at driveway crossings.
Blake said it’s good to have support, but superficial support does not do soldiers any good.
“Just putting a yellow ribbon that’s made in China on your car doesn’t give soldiers jobs, it doesn’t give them health care and it doesn’t give them a true sense that they are welcome home,” Blake said.
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