Waging Peace at Vandenberg Air Force Base

Bearing Witness or Bearing Fruit?

Dennis Apel on Vandenberg Air Force Base, where he is pictured being arrested in May 2007.
Mike Wisniewski

Dennis Apel was sitting in Santa Barbara’s federal courtroom last Thursday morning with two of his coconspirators in crime, quietly sweating some of the possible, if unlikely, outcomes confronting them. The matter before the federal magistrate was strictly procedural-a two-month delay in their arraignment, which by any reckoning would seem a slam dunk. Still, America’s legal system remains very much a crap-shoot, and Apel-a Guadalupe resident-and his two confederates were looking at a maximum sentence of six months and a $5,000 fine.

Their crime? On May 29, Apel-along with Jeff Dietrich, Mike Wisniewski, and two priests, Father Louis Vitale and Steve Kelly-was arrested at Vandenberg Air Force Base for trespassing during a peace vigil. They crossed the base’s Green Line in hopes of persuading the airmen there to abandon their posts. They didn’t get very far. Apel mostly recalled pleading with a member of the base’s Special Investigations Unit named Ben Ahrens to join with him. He also remembers Ahrens pleading with him, just as vehemently, to get back on the other side of the line. When Apel refused, he was arrested, handcuffed, and booked.

This marks Apel’s third brush with the law stemming from protests at and against Vandenberg. In his first-in 2003-he sprayed the entrance sign to the air force base with a syringe loaded with his own blood to protest the war then looming against Iraq. Apel’s action came just five days before the United States launched its invasion, and he wanted to call attention to the blood about to be spilled. For this, he was sentenced to serve two months behind bars.

Since moving to Guadalupe-a small, poor farming community located at the northern reaches of Santa Barbara County-11 years ago, Apel has taken a vow of self-imposed poverty while ministering to those consigned to the fringes of Santa Barbara’s much touted prosperity. He and his wife Hortencia Hernandez (known as Tensie) operate a free medical clinic out of their home, a two-story Victorian where the floors run up- and downhill. There, they manage to persuade good-hearted doctors and surgeons to offer their talents free of charge or at drastically reduced costs. They also ferret out hidden funding sources-like the almost secret St. Cecilia Society, Santa Barbara’s oldest charity-to help underwrite the cost of expensive surgeries that farmworkers and those without medical insurance could never hope to afford. They also deliver food from Santa Maria’s Foodbank to about 90 hungry families each week. And they also teach English to those who speak only Spanish.

“Buttons are pushed and people are killed,” he said, “because of information gathered at the base.”

It’s all part of the program articulated by Catholic Worker, an uncompromising faith-based political organization committed to serving the poor to which Apel and his wife belong. But it’s also part of the Catholic Worker tradition to campaign against the systems responsible for keeping the poor impoverished. To this end, Apel has been kicking Vandenberg Air Force Base in the ankles almost from the day he arrived. “The military budget is $479 billion. That’s more than all the defense budgets of the next seven biggest spenders combined, including Russia and China,” Apel exclaimed. “Think what we could do with that.” Nuclear missile delivery systems are tested out of Vandenberg, he said; spy satellites launched from the base provide the military with deadly information for air strikes and covert operations. “Buttons are pushed and people are killed,” he said, “because of information gathered at the base.”

In person, Apel has startling bright blue eyes, a trim white beard, and a triangular-shaped gap between his two front teeth. There is little about him to suggest a political firebrand willing to put so much on the line. There’s no evident anger, bitterness, or righteousness. Instead, Apel is warm, open, and direct. He makes jokes. Even in the stressful confines of the federal courtroom, Apel displays an enviable lightness of spirit.

But it is stressful. Having been to jail once, Apel definitely does not want to go again. But if necessary, he will. What Apel recalls most about his first stint behind bars was the incessant noise. “It was crazy-making,” he said. And it was scary. Two guys got knifed within 10 feet of him, he said, and the racial polarization was inescapable. When four Latinos sharing his holding cell started pushing other prisoners around, Apel was notified by some of the skinheads doing time that he’d better be ready to rumble with the whites. “I told them I wasn’t going to be with anyone,” he said. “I wasn’t going to participate in violence.”

Fortunately for Apel, that incident never escalated beyond pushing and shoving. Apel worried at times that his fellow inmates might think he was a priest, and hence guilty of some form of pedophilia. But mostly, he said, the other inmates regarded him as an object of some curiosity. “But there was respect for someone who was willing to act on their convictions,” Apel said.

“The country’s going down the drain and nobody’s doing anything about it,” he said. “How can I tell my kids what’s right and what’s wrong if I’m not doing anything either?”

The jail psychologist, Apel said, wanted to know if he was mentally unstable because he voluntarily left behind his two kids and his wife to do his time. His older brother-who served two tours in Vietnam and then threatened to “beat the crap” out of Apel if he went in the service-called him “irresponsible.” The federal prosecutor had offered Apel the possibility of a fine and probation, but Apel, in classic Catholic Worker tradition, rejected both. Probation comes with unacceptable conditions, Apel explained; how could he agree not to participate in any civil disobedience, if even temporarily? As for paying a fine, how could Apel in good conscience give the feds more money to fuel their war machine? As for his political activism, Apel said he simply cannot not act. “The country’s going down the drain and nobody’s doing anything about it,” he said. “How can I tell my kids what’s right and what’s wrong if I’m not doing anything either?”

Fighting for Peace

Geologically speaking, Apel is still a relative newcomer to the peace protests at Vandenberg. Activists like Bud Booth, for example, have been doing it for more than 25 years. Booth can still remember how in 1983, 222 demonstrators were arrested in one day for protesting the MX Missile system, dubbed the “Peace Keeper.” Now, a good crowd is 50 or 60. And usually only five or six show up at the first Tuesday of the month protests held at the base entrance. And even federal prosecutor Sharon McCaslin has derided the peace protests in court, pointing out how little media attention the demonstrations garner and how few protestors actually show up. Apel acknowledges that his efforts have had little appreciable effect on Vandenberg, other than to allow base security to try out their latest surveillance gadgets. But that, he said, is not the point. “If efficacy was my goal,” he said, “I’d be nuts by now.”

Dennis Apel with his wife, Hortencia "Tensie" Hernandez.
Paul Wellman
‘A lot of people feel the way I do; they don’t agree with our military spending. But they don’t do anything. They just feel. Your values need to have an active component to it.’

What sustains Apel’s activism in the face of obviously limited results is his spiritual faith. “My goal here is peace. But if you don’t put your spirituality into action, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s hollow,” he said. “A lot of people feel the way I do; they don’t agree with our military spending. But they don’t do anything. They just feel,” he said. “Your values need to have an active component to it.”

Conversely, Apel suggested that the need for tangible results spawns burnout and disillusion. It’s the reason, he said, that so few people are politically engaged with the air force base. “If I knew how to be more effective, I certainly would try it. But I don’t know what else to do,” he said. “Being effective is not my primary goal. My primary goal is to bear witness. If my efforts could bear fruit along the way, I’d be grateful, but that’s not my primary goal.”

Still, he conceded, it’s nice when it happens. He recounted his role in responding last year when 18 families were kicked out on the street because their dwellings, deemed unsafe for human habitation, were ordered demolished. During that time, Apel accidentally stumbled onto a box of blank videocassettes at the Foodbank when picking up an order of food. Some of the evicted families sought legal counsel before their homes could be demolished. Apel had them videotape the conditions of their homes, and when they sued, that video footage provided shocking evidence to support their legal claims. This past September, the court-appointed mediator ordered the landlord to pay $300,000 to the displaced tenants, based in part on those videos. “It was a moment where somehow the poor and marginalized got justice,” he said. “The system cracked and the slumlord was held accountable for what he had done all those years. I can live on that juice for a long time. But as an activist, you can’t expect it. It’s very rare.”

The Good Shepherd

One of seven kids, Apel grew up in Downey, in southeast Los Angeles County. His father worked for Union Oil in Wilmington Beach and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. Theirs was an intensely devout and traditional Catholic household, where the progressive changes promulgated by Vatican II were deeply resented. Since first grade, Apel knew he wanted to be a priest. He was inspired by a family friend who became a priest, he said, and was especially moved by his commitment to the poor. For high school, Apel attended St. Anthony’s Seminary in Santa Barbara from 1964 to 1968. But after his first year of college, the celibate life was not for him. “I wanted a family,” he said.

And he got just that. Apel got married, had two kids, and worked for a number of trucking firms in Downey as a salesman in marketing. It turns out he was good at it and made big bucks. “It was very competitive and to be successful, you had to compromise your moral integrity,” he said. “I was very successful.”

For about 20 years, Apel estimated, he paid little heed to the spiritual itch that drew him to the priesthood in the first place. “I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he said. Along the way, he met a priest who was working with the poor at the county hospital, and found himself sucked back in. Soon, Apel was volunteering at the local hospital, and in 1987, he went to work for the hospital full time. Apel said he tried to straddle both worlds for a time, but the strain proved too much for his marriage. While at the hospital, he encountered activists with Catholic Worker for the first time. They ran a house where the poor and homeless could go after surgery and recover. He was impressed. “Not only did they actively live a life of voluntary poverty, but they had a radical political viewpoint as well. You helped the poor and you attacked the conditions that made them poor. It was a very balanced view,” Apel said.

In court last Thursday, Apel, Wisniewski, and Dietrich-the three criminal trespassers-watched in suspended agitation as federal magistrate Rita Coyne-Federman quickly dispatched a stream of minor traffic offenders to traffic school. (The other two trespassers-the two priests-are currently serving time in federal lockups for trespassing on Fort Huachuca in Arizona where the not-so-gentle art of military interrogation is taught.) In one case, she sentenced a man charged with trespassing on Vandenberg property to 15 hours of community service. And he could serve those on behalf of the union for which he was a shop steward. But his was not a political act. His real offense was walking his dog on base property where the federally endangered snowy plover were nesting.

“One feels compelled to break the silence,” he said, “and even if it’s not loudly heard, it’s still a statement of conscience.”

Apel and his fellow defendants worried that prosecutor Sharon McCaslin had it in for them and Catholic Worker. She’d prosecuted all of them before and almost always-they claimed-sought the toughest penalty possible. And she reportedly branded Dietrich -a mustachioed man with mirthful eyes who has been active with Catholic Worker since 1970-“incorrigible.” It’s easy to see McCaslin’s point. Dietrich had been arrested close to 50 times for various acts of civil disobedience and sentenced to jail time nearly 25 times. In 2001, for example, he served six months for hiking onto Vandenberg’s backcountry, seriously penetrating the base’s perimeter. “One feels compelled to break the silence,” he said, “and even if it’s not loudly heard, it’s still a statement of conscience.”

The three men figured they’d get a continuance simply by arguing that two of the five defendants were detained elsewhere. But they worried what kinds of conditions McCaslin might impose. Would she demand bail? Would she insist they pledge not to violate the base’s property? If so, they would have to refuse. Not only would that interfere with any Christmas plans they had, but it could seriously undermine long-range efforts to hold a major demonstration at the base in March, on the 25th anniversary of the 1983 protest, during which hundreds were arrested.

McCaslin surprised them. Dressed in an olive green jacket and a brown skirt, McCaslin sought a delay twice as long as the one they hoped for. She asked for a continuance until February 21, at which point the defendants would be asked how they intended to plead. But the trial itself, she warned the magistrate, would have to be delayed after that. That’s because Ben Ahrens, the prosecution’s key witness and the Special Investigations Officer Apel had exhorted to “to cross the line” and leave the Air Force, had since left the military. He had enrolled in training to become a police officer for a Santa Barbara law enforcement agency and would not be available as a witness for at least four months. As for bail or special conditions, McCaslin asked for none. “I know these people,” she said. “We’ve been around the block together.”

Afterward, outside the courthouse, Apel and his coconspirators in crime were all smiles. They could finally exhale. For the time being, life would return to normal. They could go home to their families and continue raising hell in the name of peace.

As for Apel, he took note of the fact that Ahrens had left the Air Force. Apel clearly holds Ahrens in high regard; on some level, he felt the two had engaged in a sincere dialogue. “Usually it’s, ‘Hey, where’s your burqa?'”Apel said. “But with him it was different.” Probably it was a coincidence that Ahrens left, Apel said. Certainly he claimed no credit for influencing the young airman’s decision. “But still,” Apel said, “you can hope.”


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