After Iraq, soldier takes new path
Gaithersburg man walking across country to give to charity, share story
Josh Stieber joined the Army after high school, eager to do his part to help solve the world's problems. He became disillusioned with what he saw in Iraq and left the military after three years in search of a greater mission.
On May 27, Stieber embarked on an eight-month trek from his Gaithersburg home to California to share his story and learn how to make a positive change in the world and within himself. Equipped with a backpack filled with clothes, books, a camera and his computer, he will walk the first half of the journey, bike the rest of the way and spend his nights camping or at the homes of family and friends, both old and new. He has been averaging 15-20 miles a day, sometimes accompanied by people he meets on the road.
"I hope to encourage people to live closer to the things they say they believe and demonstrate that violence isn't the only way to solve problems," Stieber, 21, said last week from outside of Philadelphia. "After my experience in Iraq, I knew that was a path I couldn't take anymore."
Stieber named his project the "Contagious Love Experiment" and plans to donate the money he earned in the military to nonprofits and other organizations he will meet with along the way.
"We were extremely impressed with him. As a person, he cares deeply about the world and doing the right thing," said local peace advocacy group PeaceAction Montgomery coordinator Jean Athey, who helped see Stieber off on his trip. "He had the strength of character not only to change his own views but to take on such a big task."
The oldest of three children, Stieber grew up attending Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg and its school, where he heard stories about brave deeds by soldiers and the honor of war. He wanted to protect the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and believed he would be doing humanitarian work by liberating the Iraqis. He said he found himself in a vastly different world where the difference between good and evil is not always so clear cut.
At basic training, he was shocked to hear soldiers cheer during a video of people being shot, but it was capturing detainees during a 14-month deployment in Iraq that most affected him. He imagined soldiers breaking into his bedroom in the middle of the night, ransacking his home and taking him away from his family with no explanation and no return in sight.
"People weren't being respectful that a life was being lost, but it was during my deployment that I really started questioning things," Stieber said. "The things that we were doing, if they were done to me and my family I would have resisted. … Sometimes it seemed like our goal was to out-terrorize the terrorists."
He applied to become a conscientious objector and spent a year being interviewed by a psychologist, chaplain and investigator before being permitted to leave in April. During the wait, he started planning his trip and began reading the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy and Aldous Huxley.
Stieber said his family has been supportive of his project — his father walked the first few miles with him — and that he believes his current mission is truer to the Christian ideals he grew up with than what he experienced in the war.
"I think it's got a lot of people to look at what's important to them, and it's definitely inspiring," said his brother Zack Stieber, 19, of Gaithersburg. "Josh does stuff that other people think is outside the box."