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For Memorial Day In Detroit, Steve Saelzler Reflects On Involvement With Veterans For Peace

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MEMORIAL DAY DETROIT
A soldier pants a flag at a grave in Section 60, an area largely used for those who died while serving in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, at Arlington National Cemetery May 24, 2012 in Washington, DC. The group Veterans For Peace will hold a memorial Monday for Michigan military men and women who have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages) | BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages

Members of a local veterans group will place more than 200 cross-shaped markers on the grounds of Livonia's Nehasil Park Monday to mark the lives of Michigan soldiers who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Two local chapters of Veterans For Peace, a national veterans organization with an anti-war message, are putting together the memorial, which they call "Arlington Michigan" -- a reference to Arlington National Cemetery.

The memorial has been held in various locations around the state for about a decade. This is the second year that Livonia's city council has allowed the memorial to set up in the park.

Steve Saelzler, 62, of Brownstown, is the coordinator for Chapter 74 of Veterans For Peace. He said the group doesn't bring anti-war signs to the memorial and avoids getting into ideology at the event, unless someone wants to have a discussion.

"We try to keep the politics out of it," Saelzler said. "It's just a reminder of the true costs of war and to commemorate or memorialize, in a way, those who have paid the ultimate price."

Besides organizing the annual memorial, members of the group also participate in parades and rallies throughout the year, like protesting against the military training at the School of the Americas.

Sometimes they hitch onto other organization's events, like so-called "healthcare not warfare" demonstrations or local anti-foreclosure actions. They also do political advocacy and outreach at local art fairs, which occasionally brings them in contact with both military recruiters and veterans' organizations that hold differing philosophies.

"We have a different mindset," Saelzler explained. "We're not against the military, [although] I personally do not see anything we should have been involved in since World War II. The price we keep paying in blood and treasure -- it's just crazy."

Veterans for Peace is a national organization that was founded in 1985 to oppose the Reagan administration's military intervention in Central America.

Chapter 74, which covers the southeast Michigan counties of Wayne, Monroe, Macomb and Oakland, formed in 1993 shortly after the first Iraq war. About 40 people are registered with the chapter and seven are active members. The membership at one time included a sizable number of World War II veterans, as well as individuals who fought in Korea and the Spanish Civil War, but now it's primarily composed of Vietnam Vets.

Saelzler spent a year in Vietnam's central highlands from '69 to '70 as a member of the Army's 4th Division. He saw combat, something he regrets.

"I was drafted ... and I didn't really have the courage to go to prison or stay away from my family in another country," he said. "So I did something I didn't really want to do."

Angry about the war, Saelzler shared his feelings with military brass by flouting rules and ended up spending the last month of his service in correctional custody back at Fort Knox. He managed to leave with an honorable discharge, but the Army made him sign a statement that he would never re-enlist.

He joined a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) that engaged in a number of disruptive actions, including a brief occupation of a local office of the military contractor Honeywell in 1972.

Eventually -- caught up in the responsibilities of working a fulltime job at Chrysler and raising several adopted and foster children with his wife -- Saelzler drifted out of activism.

It wasn't until the United States got involved in the first Iraq War that he "woke up," he says, and started attending anti-war rallies again. At a 1992 rally against U.S. policy toward Iraq at Detroit's Central United Methodist Church, he ran into a man named Bruce Sanderson who was wearing a Veterans For Peace sweatshirt. Saelzler and a handful of other vets, some of whom had been active in VVAW, launched a Detroit chapter the following year.

"I was just hoping to feel better," Saelzler said of his anti-war activism. "It wasn't entirely a selfless act -- I wanted to help stop wars."

Saelzler said he still encounters a lot of disillusionment from the newer vets he meets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, though it hasn't translated into very much anti-war activism in southeast Michigan.

But he says the wave of conflicts following Sept. 11 have only strengthened his own conviction of the influential role militarism plays in U.S. society.

"I believe there is an endless war philosophy going on -- a military-industrial complex powerhouse that's invested in keeping these conflicts going, he said, "and it's disproportionately the poor and disadvantaged they are calling to make these sacrifices."

Veterans For Peace will hold its memorial on Monday, May 28 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Livonia's Larry Nehasil Park. Chapter 74 meets once a month at the Swords Into Plowshares Gallery and Peace Center at 33 East Adams in Detroit. For more information visit the organization's website.

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