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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

Dan accepting the Peacemaker award.

“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.”

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