Iraq vet walks through with message of peace

SANDUSKY Josh Stieber is on a long march -- much longer than any he took in basic training.
May 24, 2010



Josh Stieber is on a long march -- much longer than any he took in basic training.

An Iraq War veteran discharged from the Army as a conscientious objector, Stieber is walking and bicycling across the country espousing the values of peace, love and understanding.

The 21-year-old passed through north-central Ohio last week, making stops in Mitiwanga, Sandusky and Fremont. On Thursday evening, he shared dinner and his story with about a dozen people at the Wayne Street home of A.J. Oliver and Mary Jane Hahler.

He calls his journey the Contagious Love Experiment, and it's 180 degrees from his mind-set of three years ago.

Growing up in Maryland, Stieber listened to Rush Limbaugh and attended a Christian school. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he vowed to join the Army if the war was ongoing when he graduated high school. In early 2007, he shipped out to Baghdad, a part of the "surge."

Once on the ground, Stieber said he realized war didn't line up with American or Christian values, and the tactics weren't working.

"All of these assumptions that I had, that strength is force -- those all started falling apart," he said. "The only time we made progress was when we were negotiating and we were trying to find common ground and bring everyone together."

When his 14-month deployment ended, Stieber decided he would rather go to jail than back to war. Then his parents, who remain supporters of the war, found out about conscientious objector status.

Stieber applied after deciding he truly opposed all wars, even the "good" ones, based on his faith. He was discharged in April.

"I guess I ran out of excuses to say, 'Those ideas sound nice, but I'm not going to live up to them,' because I had no more excuses," he said.

On Thursday, Stieber discussed the ways he says military training glorifies violence and dehumanizes the enemy through racism.

It's a tactic with a long history, as Vietnam veteran Oliver recalled.

"They were zips, they were slants, they were slopes, they were gooks," Oliver said, reciting derogatory terms used for Vietnamese people. "They were anything but human beings."

Sherry Wertz, an activist who attended the discussion, said society can discourage violence in future generations by teaching children to respect people from different cultures -- but she's afraid some schools wouldn't allow that.

Stieber is about 70 days into his trek. Along the way, he's visiting 12 charities whose goals and methods he admires.

Oxfam America, he said, is one group with the right idea. Rather than imposing their ideas on a community, they provide resources to support the community's own solutions.

Stieber acknowledges he isn't going to end the war by himself.

"Fear spread through people and led to all of these horrible things," he said. "I'm thinking that love can have just as strong a power."