March on Harrisburg: Meet the Veterans

Chris Wood may have the stereotypical look of a protester. He’s young (32,) covered in punk tattoos, touts a neon colored mohawk and can often be found in Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein attire.

Jamal Johnson, not so much. A father of nine (now all grown up) children, he is clean shaven, wears simple black sunglasses and even at 60, has the build to look like he’d beat you in a fight.

Both Wood and Johnson are full time marchers with March on Harrisburg, an action to end Pennsylvania corruption through lobbying, a 10-day, 100 mile march and nonviolent civil disobedience. They are also both veterans of the United States Marine Corps.

Johnson and Wood represent the movement of activist veterans, like Veterans for Peace which has been active since 1985, the more recent Weed for Warriors Project, or the thousands of veterans who came to serve as water protectors at Standing Rock to block the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“We [Veterans] were already willing to die for our country. If we’re not over there, we’re willing to sacrifice our bodies here,” Johnson said.

Johnson was one of those veterans that followed the call for veteran support at Standing Rock. He traveled the nearly 2,000 miles between Philadelphia and North Dakota for the second time to serve as a water protector. Johnson can resonate with the issue of water purity; he was exposed to harmful chemicals in the tap water while serving at the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina that caused a skin rash so severe he was forced to leave the Marines. The United States government is currently providing disability benefits only for veterans who contracted cancer from the exposure.

Jamal, spent ten years in the Marines, from 1975 to 1985. A self described “rebel” Johnson raised his voice against racial and religious discrimination while serving in the Marines, the last division of the military to be desegregated. Through his organizing, they were able to push the Marines to respect and acknowledge Muslim servicemen, forcing changes like allowing for a Muslim chaplain. His organizing did not go unnoticed.

“I had commanders who wanted me to just keep my mouth shut but I wouldn’t do that,” Johnson said.

After retirement from the Post Office after his service in the Marines, Jamal continued to raise his voice against injustice. After the murder of Michael Brown, Jamal traveled to Ferguson to support the movement there.

“Since then, I try to go out to the places where I’m needed,” Jamal said.

Between the Marines, hiking in and around Philadelphia, and a number of political pilgrimages, Johnson is an expert marcher. He walked the 1,000 mile march with NAACP’s Journey for Justice, as well the the 140 miles from Philadelphia to D.C with the nonpartisan movement to get big money out politics, Democracy Spring.

“After retirement, I was in position not to just talk about corruption. I could actually get involved in it,” Jamal, who has a B.A in Political Science and a M.B.A in Business.

He decided to come on board for March on Harrisburg because: “I knew that the organizers were serious about what they were doing so I wanted to sign on. Every one of these corruptions issues you can see in Philadelphia, just like in the state.”

A former drill instructor, Johnson keeps the March on Harrisburg marchers on a tight pace each day, making sure they make their destinations on time.

After March on Harrisburg, Jamal has plans to head to Camp Promise in Kearsley Park in Flint, Michigan. The camp, made up of water protectors and veterans, is working raise water issues, as well as working with the community.

Wood just returned from a week stay at Camp Promise.

“The interesting thing about veterans is that we all gravitate towards each other. When I got down there, I naturally got along really well with some of the other veterans, including some of the organizers. So many of us have PTSD that we’re pretty introverted so it’s great in places like that or this [the camp and political marches] to sit and talk with other veterans,” Wood said.

Wood enlisted at 18, with a desire to protect and serve his country. After being injured in Iraq by an IED after two and a half years, Wood continued to serve for another year at a desk job before leaving the military.

While serving, he began to get politicized. He wasn’t a fan of George Bush and he saw the islamophobia of the United States. Also, he felt the media coverage of the war didn’t match up to his experience. Yet, he didn’t feel there was the space to discuss his misgivings about the war.

“Being in the military, you can’t talk about it. It’s not an environment that political discussion is promoted. You don’t have the luxury of bringing politics into it. You do what you’re told and ask questions later,” he said.

However, it wasn’t until the Bernie Sanders movement that he began to speak out politically. After the debacle of the Arizona primary election, Wood was so outraged that the state was called for Hillary Clinton before voting was finished that he immediately agreed to risk arrest on the steps of the Capitol building with Democracy Spring, his first political action.

While marching with Democracy Spring, Wood learned of Smedley Darlington Butler, a United States Marine Corps major general who wrote the expose War is A Racket, a major inspiration for him.

“He basically ousted that we are army of the oil companies. I want to expose corruption,” Wood explained.

After Democracy Spring, Wood remained active during actions around the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. He was one of ten arrested at the Comcast Building to raise awareness of media coverage of the Democratic primary. He committed to March on Harrisburg around that time.

“I think that you want to start in your local communities. I think that these bills are simple enough. I don’t think that there’s much of a counter-argument. I think that that exposes corruption in and of itself. Who can argue against automatic voter registration?”

Currently, Wood manages a podcast called Think Tank Renegades, in which he interviews activists to discuss movement building.

Along the way from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Wood carries a large American flag, which has received supportive beeps and waves from passing vehicles.

“We [Veterans] bring a patriotic air to these movements which brings in people that otherwise might not listen to the message, Johnson explained.

“We take an oath to protest all enemies foreign and domestic. Right now, I think that we’ve got some domestic enemies,” Wood said

March on Harrisburg is currently on day seven of its journey to Harrisburg. Wood and Johnson will be walking all of the way to Harrisburg and Wood will be risking arrest while in Harrisburg.