By Ira Harritt
Armed with only bikes and packs containing essentials and items to document their journey, Josh Stieber and John Connor Curran are on the move.
The Iraq War veterans are traveling across the country on foot and bicycles, spreading a message of peace on what they call the “Contagious Love Experiment.”
A soldier turned conscientious objector, Stieber, 21, decided that if he believed war created more problems than it solved, that he would journey to learn about, promote, and invest his "war-money" to peaceful alternatives. Stieber says one of his inspirations is "a guy who said 'give away your wealth to those in need and love everybody."
Stieber started the cross-country journey in Gaithersburg, Maryland on May 28, 2009, and stopped in Kansas City on September 2nd. On his journey, Stieber is speaking at gatherings and visiting charities whose objectives he admires and donating to them the money he was paid in Iraq. To date, Stieber has walked from his home in Maryland to Boston to Cincinnati, (where he began cycling), visited seven charities, spoken at dozens of venues and relied on the kindness of countless strangers for food, shelter, and wisdom.
While in Kansas City on Wednesday, September 2 the two vets gave a public talk following a 6:00 p.m. pot luck dinner at the American Friends Service Committee office, 4405 Gillham Rd., KCMO. Stieber and Connor Curran also spoke to 8:30 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. classes at Bishop Ward High School and a 2:00 p.m. class at Avila University.
Stieber’s view of what religion means is now very different than when he enlisted in the army as an infantryman based on his religious beliefs and with the backing of his conservative church.
“My view of strength and duty was that I was right, everyone else had it wrong and one way or another people needed to be forced into what I believed--religion, democracy, etc., and that would make the world a better place. Listening to other perspectives” says Stieber "was what I considered to be weak."
After a 14-month tour in Iraq, Stieber became a conscientious objector.
“When it got to the point to where our strategy seemed like we were trying to out-intimidate the supposed terrorists, I realized that forcing someone to agree with you at the point of a gun doesn't change much, when that force is gone, nothing has changed. What does matter is the internal condition, which can be guided by love just as easily as fear.” says Stieber.
“When it is culturally encouraged to be the most recognized, own the nicest stuff, and to beware of somebody possibly doing better than you, it has been extremely refreshing to meet so many people who consider others as important as themselves and have a strong faith in common humanity,” says Stieber.
But the journey has not been without contention.
"Some people say that this trip is just me working off my guilt or something and that I simply don't understand how the world works. Most people say it respectfully, but there has been some criticisms stated harsher.” says Stieber.
Traveling with Stieber is Connor Curran, a Perrysburg, Ohio, resident and former Marine. Also a veteran of the Iraq War, Curran, 25, served two tours in Iraq before his 2008 discharge. Now a peace activist, Curran felt compelled to join Stieber after learning about the project.
“In this new generation of warfare against an insurgency, time is our enemy’s primary weapon,” says Curran. “The only way to fight back against a weapon like time is with peace, understanding, and an active dialogue. If we continue to fight an insurgency with violence and the U.S. military machine of force, our resources will be devastatingly depleted, while having created a wake of enemies in the process.”
Curran joined Stieber in Toledo, Ohio, and is accompanying him on the remainder of the journey. The men plan to cover roughly 3,000 more miles, passing through eight more states to reach San Francisco by the beginning of November.