Updated 9 p.m. ET: CHICAGO -- Dozens of anti-war veterans tossed their medals onto a Chicago street Sunday near where NATO began its two-day summit, calling them “representations of hate,” “lies” and “cheap tokens,” and with some making emotional pleas for forgiveness from the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.
With many dressed in military fatigues, they had filed through the streets in formation, chanting "N-A-T-O, NATO has got to go," and “No NATO, no war, we don't work for you no more,” leading about 2,000 protesters on a 2.5-mile march.
After “retiring” an American flag they carried through the streets and giving it to a woman whose soldier son committed suicide, they began hurtling their war service medals into the air -- a rare form of protest that was last done on a large scale by 900 Vietnam veterans in 1971.
The protesters cheered the post 9/11-era veterans on, clapping and yelling, “give them back!”
"I choose human life over war," Jerry Bordeleau shouted through a microphone, before tossing the medals onto the street.
Members of Afghans for Peace stood alongside the veterans, holding the Afghan flag and making speeches, too.
“All we have is this flag, but not our sovereign land. I’d like to direct my message to the NATO representatives here in Chicago today. For what you’ve done to my home country, I’m enraged; for what you’ve done to my people, I’m disgusted; for what you’ve done to these veterans, I’m heartbroken,” said Suraia Sahar. “I sympathize with their disappointment and being failed by the system and having their lives, their morals and humanity, toiled with.”
Another man said he was representing deserters who can’t come back to the U.S. and threw many of their medals away.
Steven Acheson, an Army veteran who before the march said he had been waiting a long time for this moment, though he was also anxious about it, threw away his medals for the children of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“May they be able to forgive us for what we have done to them, may we begin to heal and may we live in peace from here till eternity,” he said.
Organizers had hoped 10,000 people would attend the 2.5-mile march that ended near McCormick Place, the convention center where NATO is meeting. But a Chicago city official put the crowd at around 2,000.
After the nearly three-hour march, skirmishes broke out between riot police and a small group of so-called "black bloc" protesters trying to push their way closer to the summit site. Members of the crowd, some wearing bandanas over their faces, threw large sticks, liquids and bottles at the police. Officers handcuffed several protesters and dragged them away.
Police arrested 45 people and four officers were injured, including one who was stabbed in the leg, said Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, according to NBC Chicago. Authorities were testing a liquid substance found in a backpack, and police used their batons because officers were assaulted, he said.
During the two-day summit, leaders of NATO's 28-member nations were to discuss the strategy for ensuring a peaceful Afghanistan after the United States removes its combat troops by 2014.
Michael Mizner, 25, of Wilmington, Del., watched as the veterans tossed their medals.
“As a former Marine, it was hard to watch and listen to,” he said, noting that the statement about the war being a lie hit home. “It’s too true. It’s heartbreaking to think about.”
Returning the medals – even those that are given just for showing up to the theater of conflict, as are some of the ones the veterans threw away – is not without controversy.
“They’re as much of a disgrace as the veterans back in the Vietnam days that did the same thing,” retired Army 1st Sgt. Troy Steward, who served 22 years and is now a military blogger, said ahead of the protest. “If these veterans aren’t proud of the service that they did … then they should never have accepted them (medals) in the first place.”
Among the crowd that marched with the veterans was Arianna Norris-Landry, of St. Louis, dressed as a turn-of-the-century suffragette. She said she and 60 other women were protesting military action and a sense that women's rights are being targeted by conservatives.
Calling themselves "Grannies at the G8" and "Nanas at NATO," some of the women were dressed as World War II feminist icon Rosie the Riveter, others as 1950s' housewives.
"We need to be feeding our children, not the war machines," said Kellie Stewart, a 47-year-old from Saint Croix Falls, Wis. "We need to keep the money, we don't have housing, we don't have jobs. It's just not right what's going on here at home."
Some protesters had provisions for the march, such as food and water, while others had gas masks and bandanas to ward off the effects of pepper spray and tear gas, should they be used. Some have earplugs to shield against the crowd-control noise devices authorities reportedly have.
Not everyone who turned out was supportive. One person could be heard yelling “losers” and “agitators" about halfway through the march.
On Sunday morning, ahead of the march, two activists appeared in court on terrorism-related charges. Cook County prosecutors charged Mark Neiweem, 28, with attempted possession of explosives or incendiary devices and Sebastian Senakiewicz, 24, with falsely making a terrorist threat.
Three others made court appearances on Saturday, accused of assembling Molotov cocktails – firebombs made by filling glass bottles with gasoline – to attack, among other places, President Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago.
Their lawyer, Michael Deutsch has denied the charges against them, calling it all a setup and “entrapment to the highest degree” by at least two police informants, while their friends have insisted they were simply operating a home brewery.
Thirty-seven people had been arrested by Sunday morning, said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for the National Lawyers Guild in Chicago. Chicago has assigned 3,100 officers to the NATO summit to protect the city against the sort of violence that broke out in the streets of Seattle at the World Trade Organization meeting in 1999. They are being assisted by hundreds of officers from Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., NBCChicago.com reported.
Protester Jason Brock, of San Diego, Calif, drove from New Mexico to Chicago to join the march. A trumpeter, he traded "answers and calls" with a veteran who had also brought his trumpet.
“It’s beyond words really what’s happening here right now. I think we’re maybe making steps toward healing this nation,” said Brock, 44. “I hope we can move forward in a way that’s more peaceful and more positive and we can take … the lesson that these men and women are trying to teach us and bring it home to our own lives.”
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