By Nate Terani
I took an oath, for the first of two times, in July 1996, as I was sworn in to the United States Navy. It was an oath that appealed to the better angels of our founding as a nation, protecting the freedoms of religion and speech, among others, engrained within our Constitution. In fact, when any young person joins the U.S. military we all take the very same, solemn oath. But, that oath may not always lead down the path one might assume.
Jake Maier is a former U.S. Marine Corps officer and current regional organizer for Veterans Challenge Islamophobia. Regarding his own oath, Maier says, “You swear to protect the Constitution, but in my mind what I really swore to do was protect human rights.” Maier goes on to say, “I swore I would hold myself to the highest standard… I believed I owed that to the Marines I would lead… This belief, this drive, was the crux of my eventual disillusionment with the Marine Corps and the military in general.” Maier eventually filed to be discharged from the military under conscientious objector status. When asked about his road to activism, Maier explains, “Because I went through an 11-month-long process to become a conscientious objector I was already primed to the injustices of the world.” Maier represents a growing number of military veterans who simply do not accept the prevailing narrative of the powers-that-be and challenge the need for a state of perpetual warfare.
As for me, during my time in the military and immediately afterward I never imagined myself becoming an activist, in any form. In my mind, I pictured activists as somehow being un-American and un-patriotic by not supporting the status quo and march towards conflict. Until one day in 2007, when I was attending college in New York, the president of Iran at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was invited to speak on the campus of Columbia University and the campus erupted in protest. Almost all of my fellow student military veterans, and most of New York City, vehemently denounced Ahmadinejad’s invitation, on behalf of the university president, Lee Bollinger. As I am the son of Iranian immigrants my fellow student veterans expected me to denounce the Ahmadinejad visit, viewing him as a tyrant and enemy of the United States – someone with whom we should be at war, in Iran. It was my wakeup call. After 9/11, it seemed no one was interested in diplomacy any longer; in fact, the Bush Administration refused to engage in talks with Iran and only spoke of potential missile strikes and military action. I was filled with a righteous indignation at the thought of sending another generation of young Americans to their fate in the Middle East simply to perpetuate warfare. So, I spoke out; when the president of the student veterans’ association asked me to do press interviews, counter to my very private nature, I said yes. I went on CNN and Fox News Radio and challenged the status quo, I asked when it became acceptable to exchange missiles instead of words; even if those words are heated and disagreeable, it’s called diplomacy. Then, as I spoke out, I began to hear the voices of fellow veterans echoing mine in speaking out and I knew I had done the right thing, even if it was unpopular.
In 2016, as our war footing in the Middle East reaches its fifteenth consecutive year and Islamophobia and hate speech against the Muslim community reach a fever pitch, military veteran peace activists are more vocal than at almost any other time in our nation’s history. Groups such as Veterans Challenge Islamophobia (for which I am an organizer), VetsVsHate and Common Defense PAC have organized more effectively than ever. The leading proponent of hate speech in 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, has been personally confronted on a continuous basis during his rallies, his speeches, and at his own building, Trump Tower, by a massive movement of military veteran activists seeking to uphold their sacred oaths to support and defend the Constitution and the values therein by denouncing Trump’s hate speech and incitement towards violence against Muslims. According to Jake Maier, “Veterans are stepping up in larger numbers to push back against hate because we’ve realized that the current method of using violence to solve problems does not work… war is not the answer.”