By Dan McDonald/Daily News staff
MetroWest Daily News
Posted Jul 03, 2009
FRAMINGHAM Josh Stieber doesn't think he shot anyone.
Sometimes, during his year-plus tour of Iraq, the infantryman would
unleash a barrage of fire during the confusing aftermath of a
roadside explosion or sniper fire. But he does not remember hitting
anybody. Usually the insurgent wreaking the havoc was long gone.
It was not that long ago that Stieber was sitting atop a Humvee,
manning a machine gun turret near Baghdad, fruitlessly rattling off
rounds into an empty countryside.
Now, Stieber is a long way from Iraq, his former Army base in Kansas
and his Maryland home.
The 21-year-old spends the majority of his days literally one step at a time.
Stieber has been walking across America since the end of May,
attending political rallies, visiting philanthropic organizations and
trying to spread a message of peace.
Yesterday, he was walking through a light drizzle along Rte. 9 in
Wellesley, his 6-foot-4 frame loaded down with a 45-pound pack, on
his way to Framingham to crash on a local peace activist's couch for
a couple days.
He plans to press westward. He hopes to walk to the Midwest
Cincinnati or Louisville - then bike to Washington state by this fall.
After that? The soft-spoken veteran merely shrugs. He'll have plenty
of time to figure that out during his crosscountry trek, he figures.
A team of documentarians show up at his various stops.
Lately, he's been making the rounds of left-wing war critics.
Last Monday he was in Cambridge to meet with Noam Chomsky, the war
critic and Harvard linguist. That night he attended a lecture in
Arlington featuring Cindy Sheehan, who gained national notoriety for
camping outside President George W. Bush's Texas ranch in protest of
the Iraq War.
He's been mostly couch-surfing his way up the East Coast since he
left his home several weeks ago; he's only had to camp out three times.
On a good day, he can cover 20 miles on foot.
He has traveled to various philanthropic organizations, visiting a
prison reintegration program in Maryland and a cancer research
program in Philadelphia. He's splitting up his Iraq combat pay, which
is just shy of $30,000, among the different causes and charities.
He wants his journey to inspire and promote peace. His blog is dubbed
the Contagious Love Experiment.
While U.S. troops began withdrawing from Iraq cities and towns at the
end of June, Stieber says his message transcends any particular
Middle East development.
"It's a lot more than just that. I want people to be more aware and
evaluate the mindset that drove them to support the war in the first
place," he said.
Of the war in Afghanistan, he said, "Throwing more firepower at a
problem isn't going to solve it."
He did not always run in such liberal circles, nor have a transient existence.
Growing up the oldest of three children to a family "that listened to
Rush Limbaugh," in Gaithersburg, Md., a half-hour north of Washington
D.C., Stieber attended an evangelical megachurch. His schooling fell
under the auspices of his church.
He remembers Bible class justifying the war in Iraq as a battle of
good vs. evil. He spent Friday nights during his teen years
approaching strangers and asking them if they thought they were going
to heaven or hell.
He loved politics. He worked as a volunteer for George W. Bush's 2004
re-election campaign and looked at military service as a good
launching point for a possible career in the GOP.
At his high school, he got the impression the military was all about
"saving lives and passing out soccer balls."
Upon graduation he joined the Army, and was stationed out of Fort Riley, Kan.
He did one 14-month tour of Iraq, from February 2007 to April 2008.
An infantryman, Stieber, grew increasingly uncomfortable with his
role in the military as his stint in Iraq lengthened.
He had a hard time juxtaposing the religious morality of his
childhood and adolescence with harsh reality of warfare. He started
to see the political rhetoric and moral justification of the war as
"talking without action behind it."
"The gap kept getting bigger and bigger," he said.
He read Gandhi and Tolstoy and started to change his mind about the
American presence in the Middle East.
He recalls raiding homes in search of weapons caches and the Army's
capture and subsequent turning of a local politician who had
previously worked for the insurgency.
The defunct ice cream factory where he stayed for more than a year in
Baghdad was blown up the day after his contingent left.
He left the military, filing a request for consideration as a
conscientious objector. It was granted, a relative rarity the
military has granted about 30 such discharges per year since the Iraq
He was vetted by an investigative officer, chaplain, and psychiatrist
per military procedure before he departed.
Sipping on black tea yesterday in a Natick coffee shop, he says he
was disenchanted with the Army trying to "out-terrorize the terrorists."
"Forcing a country into liberation? That doesn't add up for me," he said.
Tomorrow morning, he will be at Annie's Book Shop in Nobscot speaking
to whoever shows up. His next stop after that will be Northampton.
He's still into Jesus, but has ditched institutional religion.
He hopes to figure out what he wants to do with the rest of his life,
but mainly wants to communicate a singular message.
"I'm trying to turn a negative into positive. Fear and paranoia
aren't the only way to live," he said.
(Dan McDonald can be reached at 508-626-4416 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)