Building Bridges of Peace
The date was December 9, 1967. The occasion was the Veterans Day remembrance ceremony in Missoula, Montana. Attending the ceremony was Dan Gallagher, a demolitions specialist, who had just returned from a 13-month tour in Vietnam. But at the front gate of Fort McChord, where the ceremony was to take place, a group of anti-war demonstrators had gathered.
Dan saw her right away: a young woman with long blonde hair about his age, 20. Her name was Betsy Mulligan and she was waving a sign with big red letters that said: “Baby Killer.” He says, “I saw more hate in her eyes than I had seen in the eyes of the Viet Cong.” Little did Dan and Betsy know back then, that one day, many years later, they would lay aside their mutual hate and mistrust, and forge between them a bridge of mutual respect and understanding.
Fast forward to the year 2005. Minnesota film maker Jan Selby decides to make a documentary film about the giant peace sign that had once divided the city of Missoula in the 1960’s. He contacts both Dan and Betsy knowing they are both articulate spokespeople for the opposite sides of that war controversy. Dan is now a semiretired attorney who hosts a show called Veteran’s Viewpoint on the local public radio station. Betsy is the executive director of the local Jeannette Rankin Peace Center in Missoula.
Dan invites Betsy to be a guest on his radio show for a one hour discussion on peace. She accepts. Selby films their encounter. The two begin talking and soon realize they have much in common. Both were raised Catholic. Both had parents who encouraged lively but respectful discussions at the dinner table. As Dan sat across from Betsy in the studio that day, he saw not the angry young woman he remembered. But rather, “I saw an incredibly decent, intelligent, and articulate person.” He realized he had been labeling peace activists “wackos” or at least saying they were “niaïve.” But as he listened to her, she began to make a lot of sense.
Betsy too had to move “beyond stereotypes and a self-righteous mindset.” She had to learn
“to approach people with other ideas with more curiosity and a willingness to learn from them.” Selby’s award winning documentary, Beyond the Divide, tells the story of how the relationship between Dan and Betsy developed. Betsy eventually learned to make the distinction between a soldier as a person and the war she opposed. Dan learned to let go of his anger and to forgive those who had hurt him so badly through their opposition to the war.
In 2011 Dan invited Betsy to speak at the annual American Legion Post 101 for Veterans Day. Standing in front of the crowd, many of whom were veterans, Betsy expressed regret for the way some of the peace advocates had mistreated veterans. Such animosity “removed the opportunity we had to learn from each other, to listen to and appreciate each other.” After the ceremony, many veterans came up to shake Betsy’s hand. Commenting on her speech, Dan said, while choking up a little, “Some veterans have waited 40 years to hear such an apology.”
In 2012, the staff at the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, decided unanimously, to honor Dan Gallagher with their annual Peacemaker Award. In his acceptance speech, Dan talked about the courage he saw on the battlefield. But he also spoke of the courage he sees in anyone fighting for a just cause. He said, “I salute not only my fellow veterans and soldiers, but all of you who are willing to stand on principle, especially those who speak the language of peace.”
Dan and Betsy have become friends. They even get together for lunch about once a month. The kind of bridge they built between them “is not limited to discussions about wars,” says Betsy. “We all have divides in our lives.” It could be a divide with a family member, a neighbor, a colleague at work, a fellow parishioner, a member of another political party, an elected official. Betsy concludes, “We all have places where we can find opportunities to make peace.”
(This reflection is based on an article entitled “Bridges to Peace” by John Rosengren in the February 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic. Last December Dan Gallagher died of heart failure. He was eulogized for both his work for veterans and his work for peace.)
Does anything stand out for you in the story of Dan and Betsy?
Where are the divides in your personal life? What might you do to begin to forge a bridge of peace?
The song today is a version of St. Francis’ prayer for peace, sung here by Sarah McLachlan:
Would you care to respond to anything here today?
What a great topic for these tumultuous political times! Thank you Sr. Melannie.
I have been praying the loving kindness meditation for those I love and for those I feel in conflict with around me. It has helped me deal with my anger. Looking at other viewpoints even when painful can help.
I have been using the loving-kindness meditation too! It has helped so much to lessen the anxiety and anger. Peace
I feel I have spent a lifetime defining myself with how I am different, instead of letting unity motivate and encourage me. Pope Francis is doing so much to open a dialogue of peace, love and inclusiveness.
Being a child of the 60’s, I hope and pray we are ready to open our hearts and minds to God’s message of loving and to accept His peace in our lives. We are ALL His children.
Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story with us Sr. Melannie.
I deeply appreciate this blog. Only wish I could put into words how I truly feel about what is happening in our country. I fear if I did, I would appear to be unsupportive of many. I pray daily for the country I love, flaws and all.
“…….the distinction between a soldier as a person and the war she opposed”. What a great real story!! “Forgiveness of those he hated”.
Thank you to you for sharing Dan and Betsy’s story.
Thank you for this post. I have a brother that fought in the Viet Nam War and he remembers being yelled at and spit on when he came back. He says, ” I was just doing what my country wanted me to do.” He talks about how hard it was. I also loved the song….ahhh, peace! Peace to you, Sister Melanie. We love you!
A truly moving story of reconciliation and of mutual, what’s the word, un-defensiveness, renouncing the tendency to pigeonhole and label, of willingness to see the merit in a radically different perspective or set of experiences. And a profoundly affecting rendition of the Prayer of St Francis by Sarah McLachlan.
How sad that our deploring of an action gets turned into our despising of a person. This sad state of affairs can poison our hearts for a lifetime. What a beautiful story depicting the reversal of this sort of standoff between two wonderful persons of deep conviction.
Always love reading and reflecting on your writing, Sister. Where might someone find the loving kindness meditation? Peace be with you!
I found the Loving Kindness Meditation by googling those words. It is a meditation by Emma Seppala, science researcher at Standford University’s “Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.” It takes about 15 minutes to pray. You and other readers might like to check it out. Thanks for asking! Sr. Melannie
Thank you for this truth; looking through the eyes of Jesus always puts life in the right perspective. In coming from a family of veterans, I heard the stories of coming home, unwelcome, hated; even I became cynical towards anti-war sentiment. This is no different than the climate in America now, just spend 2 minutes on any social media site. Pray friends!
I ask for your prayers as bridges of peace seem very far away right now.
Thank you Sister, I am married to a Vietnam Vet and have been for over 50 years. They were all treated very badly but with each day I believe it is getting better. Thanks for sharing this beautiful story. Loved this song too.
Thank you again!
Thanks Sr Melanie for sharing. I was in the antiwar movement at my university. My fiancee was in ROTC. He served 12 years in the Air Force. Our university also hosted a boot strap program for military members. They were decisive times. We can solve problems by listening to each other ratber that shouting.
I struggle with the blurring of morality & politics, especially now in our country. Thank you for your thoughtful insight. God bless you!