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North Country Walk to Ft Drum Festival A Success

festival march
festival music
festival rapper

Established in the depths of the Cold War in 1950, Armed Forces Day has been used ever since by the professional officers corps and the weapons industry as an annual "celebration" of America's military. This year, peace groups from across northern New York joined with the Different Drummer internet cafe to organize a 100 plus mile walk from downstate towns that culminated in a Ft Drum Festival on May 17th in Watertown. Most of the walkers came from Buffalo, Rochester, Ithaca, Syracuse, Utica and their suburbs.

As the walkers passed through small towns and villages enroute to Ft Drum, they were mostly greeted warmly with expressions of support (See NY Times story, "March Through Towns Unused to One"). Only occasionally did they encounter hostility; a raised middle finger or a shouted insult. Even though this area sends many of its youth to the armed forces, residents seemed eager to embrace the marchers' dual message: bring our soldiers back and provide them with quality health care when they get home.

Each night, the walkers settled into a different small town, sleeping at a friendly church, yoga center or someone's home. They were entertained by visiting folk singers and also engaged in dialogue with Iraq war vets who'd joined the walk.

When they arrived in Watertown on Friday night before Armed Forces Day, they were treated to a lively party/reception at the Different Drummer cafe. The crowd spilled out of the cafe into the large arcade area that surrounds it. Local musicans performed a lively mix of folk and rock tunes, interspersed with heartfelt talks by some of the walkers, soldiers from Ft Drum and other Iraq war veterans. Some of the walkers then camped overnight at the Black River campsite--site of the Festival's main event.

Saturday morning broke with bright blue skies and puffy clouds; defying (for a time) predictions of a rainy day. Veterans from five different wars gathered at the Drummer to plan how to confront the "official" parade's honoree Ft Drum's Colonel Ken Riddle about his base's glaring deficiencies in mental health care for returning war vets. It was decided that fifteen Iraq vets would surround the reviewing stand and when Riddle stood to leave at parade's end, Mike Totten, an Iraq vet and spokesperson would demand an immediate meeting with the colonel. Riddle seemed surprised by Totten's request and responded lamely; "I've only been here two weeks." He refused to meet on the spot, suggesting that the vets call to make an appointment. The local media picked up on the issue, reporting that anti-war veterans were concerned about health care for their fellow veterans.

The Festival at the Black Water River Park, with five featured acts, began under threatening skies. A number of veteran organizations, peace groups, and PTSD counsellors set up tables with literature about their work. As the first musical act, "Endangered Species" was finishing its set, the heavens opened, forcing the relocation of the Festival to the Different Drummer downtown.

Again, the cafe and its attached arcade were overflowed with peace activists and veterans of all ages, talking, arguing, and generally enjoying the music. For the rest of Saturday until well into the night, musical performances were interspersed with short talks by Iraq vets and peace organizers. One high point was when a Ft Drum soldier recited an anti-war poem that he had written for his soon-to-be-deployed soldier wife, as she sat, holding their infant child, in the front row.

The Baltimore hip hop artist Son of a Nun closed the evening with a captivating performance of his original rhymes. After twelve hours, the Drummer was host to a small group of Iraq war vets who gathered in a circle, surrounded by civilian supporters and pledged renewed efforts to end this illegal and immoral war.