A Minnesota PBS Initiative
MY VIETNAM WAR JOURNEY: FOLLOWING A FAMILY MILITARY TRADITION
Family military tradition was a big influence on my path during the Vietnam War. But the tradition I had to follow was not an ordinary one.
Grandfather was drafted in the Romanian army in 1899. Romania was at war with Bulgaria. He was assigned to the cavalry stables. It was his military duty to place horse manure into bags to be sold to the peasants. This was an assignment of great importance, but he was not happy with his military career. He fled Romania for America.
Years later, the family military tradition passed to my father: 1937, civil war in Spain! General Franco rebels against the government. Hitler and Mussolini help Franco. Britain and the US are “neutral”.
In New York, recruiting begins for the Lincoln Brigade, volunteers to fight for Spain.
Dad goes to the recruiting office but things are chaotic. He decides to come back another day. He never does.
Years later, I heard this story and thought: “Dad, why not? why didn't you join?” I never did asked him.
But now I understand: When I was in the US Army in 1971, there were 100 of us in a room. A sergeant said: "Look around the room. One of you will die in Vietnam!"
His estimate of the odds was right. Of the US soldiers sent to Vietnam, about 1% died. But for the US volunteers in Spain, 1 out of every 3 died. I don't fault my father for looking hard at those odds and finding another way to help.
In the 1960’s like many folks, I felt great frustration at a senseless war that went on and on, despite so much lobbying and demonstrating.
At an antiwar demonstration at Fort Dix I got tear gassed badly by MP soldiers. The blinding gas made a deep mark on my mind. Stumbling away, I thought we needed to get these soldiers on our side! Did it make sense I wondered, to enlist for the sole purpose of spreading the antiwar message from within?
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I got called to my draft physical in New York in early 1970. Although the idea of joining the army was on my mind, it was not the right time. I decided I did not want to be drafted.
If you remember Arlo Guthrie's song "Alice's Restaurant", you’ll remember that there was a rule that if you had an arrest record, you had to see a psychiatrist at the draft physical. I did have an arrest record at civil rights and antiwar demonstrations. So when they told me an induction order would be sent to me soon, I said I had an arrest record and I wanted to see the shrink! There were 2 clerks in the room at the time, an elderly man and a young woman. The man asked what I was arrested for. I said “protesting the damn war.”
He was indignant saying I could not use language like that in front of a young lady!
Eureka! I saw my path to victory! I began to lecture him on the true nature of obscenity. I reeled off a list of expletives and said that the obscenity of these words paled in comparison to the obscenity of Nixon dropping napalm on children!
He quickly called the cops! An armed MP ran into the room shouting. I calmly said hello and asked if he would direct me to the office of the psychiatrist. With a few choice words to the shrink, I was out in 5 minutes with a draft classification 4F, unfit for military service!
At the end of 1971, my overseas orders came. As fate would have it, I got orders for Germany. Many guys I trained with went to Vietnam. Was I lucky, or had they by then identified me as a troublemaker? I don't know.
I moved to Chicago to work for the Committee of Returned Volunteers (CRV), an organization of former Peace Corps Volunteers disgusted at the Vietnam War. I had served two years in the Peace Corps, teaching high school math in West Africa, a great experience. But CRV was moving left.
We said that the mission of the Peace Corps was corrupted by US war policy. So CRV had a friendly breakup as folks headed into other antiwar groups. But I was then out of a job! So I told myself “It's time!”
On December 2, 1970 I walked into the Army Recruiting Center in Chicago and enlisted. Recall that my draft records were in New York. This was a time prior to widespread computer networking.
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I raised my right arm and I swore to uphold the Constitution. Wow! I was a Private in the US Army!
I was sent Fort Lewis for basic training. I called the national organization of civilian supporters of GI resisters (United States Serviceman’s Fund - USSF) to tell them what I was doing. At Fort Lewis, I did basic. I was with a lot of tough street kids. I made friends, and I learned from them.
With a pass to leave the base, I visited the local antiwar coffeehouse, the Shelter Half, in nearby Tacoma. At that time near of all the major military bases in the US, there was an antiwar center of some kind, supporting antiwar GIs.
On a national level USSF helped coordinate these coffeehouses. Jane Fonda, bless her heart, was a major backer of USSF.
After basic, I got shipped to Fort Gordon for more training. There the local GI antiwar group was small. We had a newspaper, the LAST HARRASS, for which I wrote.
Training over, I was sent to Fort Bragg, where the movement was strong! Donald Sutherland, Jane Fonda and Holly Near had passed through, drawing hundreds of enthusiastic soldiers.
Our antiwar paper, BRAGG BRIEFS, was popular. Civilians ran the coffee shop with a core of a dozen GIs. We held a march through town against racism and the war.
At the end of 1971, my overseas orders came. As fate would have it, I got orders for Germany.
Many guys I trained with went to Vietnam. Was I lucky, or had they by then identified me as a troublemaker? I don't know. But to Germany I did go.
I spent all of 1972 there, finally getting nabbed in January 1973, just as the Paris Agreements were signed.
In Germany the US Army was filled with GIs who had spent a year in Vietnam but still had time in their enlistments. Many were fed-up, rebellious, un-intimidated by Army discipline.
There was a core of civilian antiwar supporters, American and others centered in Heidelberg. There was a group from the Lawyers Military Defense Committee, defending US soldiers in trouble with the military.
We leafleted GIs at a rock concert with Impeach Nixon petitions and started another GI newspaper, called FighT bAck, emphasizing the letters FTA. I began to receive boxes of antiwar literature from groups in the States for distribution to soldiers.
Many days after duty on the base, I went to the base post office and saw a box of papers that I had to get off the base quickly, before the next locker inspection.
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These were good times. They were painful because the US was still fighting in Southeast Asia, but many of us sensed, partially on faith, partially on the obvious evidence, that somehow the tide was turning, and we were part of a historical breakthrough.
In January 1973, I had 45 seconds of fame on CBSTV. The Army rounded up a group of dissidents and sent us back to remote bases in the US. The rumor was spread that we were going to jail, but in fact no charges were filed. I was sent to Fort Polk, a base with no local civilian support structure. There had once been an underground newspaper (Fort Polk Puke). But now, 1973, the Paris Accords had been signed. US casualties were far fewer. The draft was over. The antiwar movement was much smaller. I read a lot of books. I wrote a lot. I was a bit lonely.
In December 1973, I received my honorable discharge signed by Richard M. Nixon.
Story Themes: Dissent, Family, News Coverage, Pop Culture, Protest, Saint Louis Park, St Louis Park, Underground Publication, Veterans for Peace