Forty two years ago, I was a soldier in the U. S. Army. It was 1969. The Viet Nam war was raging. Over 500 unarmed old men, women, and children had been murdered at My Lai by U.S. soldiers, and a pattern of war atrocities and White House lies about the war was being exposed. The South Vietnamese government was shown to be hopelessly corrupt and ineffective, and the South Vietnamese Army was unable to hold their own against the enemy. U.S. troops, we were told, were there to prevent a complete disaster in Viet Nam. If we didn’t stop them in Viet Nam, we were told, the Communists would soon be at our shores.
American soldiers increasingly questioned and challenged the war with every passing year. Over 200 underground GI newspapers were passing hand to hand through entire barracks. 27 soldiers mutinied at the Army’s Presidio stockade. Soldiers in Viet Nam rioted at the Long Binh Jail. Thousands of active duty GIs and veterans would join the national organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (http://www.vvaw.org/), and march, speak out, and oppose the war in every way they could. They held hearings called Winter Soldier, in which one combat veteran after another testified about war atrocities they had seen or participated in. In April of 1971, Vietnam Veterans Against the War held a huge demonstration in which they threw their medals back on the White House lawn. Civilians were dodging the draft in ways legal and illegal, and soldiers were refusing orders, going to jail, and/or deserting to Canada. Entire units in Viet Nam were refusing to obey commands, rebelling against, and even killing their officers.
I received orders to Viet Nam in December of 1969, and after much agonized soul searching had decided I wasn’t going to go. I went AWOL for two weeks. I then reported to the Presidio stockade with my lawyer, turned myself in, refused orders, and submitted a limited conscientious objector application (objection to a particular war, not to military service in general or to legitimate military defense of the nation). The Army first pressed three charges against me, for a total of 15 years in prison if convicted. I was prepared to plead guilty to those charges and continue to refuse orders. But the Army dropped all the charges, released me from the stockade, and ordered me to report to Oakland Army terminal for shipment to Viet Nam.
Instead, I escaped to Canada.
By January of 1970, I was a deserter from the U.S. Army, on the run and wanted by the FBI. Agents interviewed the pastor of my church, and years later my mother and one of my uncles would tell me that during that time they thought their phones were tapped.
Being wanted by the FBI invoked an intense fear in me, a dark presence in my mind that never went away. Since early childhood, TV, movies, and stories attached the phrase “Wanted by the FBI!” to only the most horrible of criminals, implying that countless unseen agents armed with guns were somewhere out there hunting the fugitive – me.
But more powerful than my fear was the need to stop the horrible killing of the war. Daily I saw news photos from the war; dead bodies piled up, women and children killed, our soldiers wounded and suffering, or dead. Over time, the Pentagon Papers (http://www.ellsberg.net/bio/extended-biography) and reports from troops and reporters further exposed the lies of the war. The government in Saigon was set up by the CIA to be a puppet government for the United States. The president lied about the incident that got regular U.S. troops into the war, the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The body count of “enemy dead” – by which the U.S. measured success – had now become higher than the total pre-war population of both North and South Viet Nam combined, shattering government credibility.
Like other draft dodgers and deserters, I put aside my fears and marched in anti-war demonstrations in Canada. As was the custom among U.S. Army deserters, I wore my Army field jacket with my name and unit patches still on. It was deserter esprit de corps. There were rumors of rogue police officers picking up deserters, driving them to the border, and handing them back to the U.S. Army. One of my comrades actually was, and later escaped. We also could be deported if convicted of a crime (resisting arrest, even if we weren’t resisting?). But we could not remain silent while war crimes were being committed by our country. We had to protest as a U.S. deserters, to openly fly our colors. If people like me were not prepared to commit our lives to stop the war, how could the peace movement ever prevail over those who committed their lives to make the war? It was not about me, it was about doing what was right.
I was an outlaw hippie GI deserter, and I worked, lived, ate, slept, and dreamed counter-culture war resistance. I lived in a large hippie community, Rochdale College in Toronto, Canada, housed in a large 18 story apartment building. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rochdale_College, and http://homepages.nyu.edu/~spores01/rochdale.html)
We had our own government, our own stores, a free medical clinic, a library, dance studio, various communes, and all the features of a community. But the Canadian government did not want a hippie insurgent community in the heart of Toronto, and we were physically under siege from the police. We were often raided, and I worked on Rochdale Security against the police. In confrontation after confrontation between us and the police, I was in the very front of the struggle. It was a war within a war.
Then one day, the war ended.
In 1975, Viet Nam fell to the Communists. Rochdale fell to the police. The U.S. government allowed myself and other deserters to make a plea bargain to get off with an Undesirable Discharge. I came back to the United States. I turned myself in again to the Army – this time at Fort Dix, NJ – and after being held in detention for a week, got an Undesirable Discharge. Since I didn’t desire them, either, it seemed fair enough. Legally, I was free!
It was a day that had seemed beyond imagining. I was 28 years old. The war had started when I was a child and lasted longer than a third of my entire life. As a adult, I had known nothing else. I had been a fugitive, wanted by the FBI, for five years. I had lived a life constantly on the edge, as part of a hippie community at war with society. Now I would begin a new life, as….what?
People welcomed me back to the United States openly. I got jobs easily and did them well, and everyone accepted me. Nobody spat on me. Nobody called me a coward or a traitor. Everyone talked about Nixon, about how the government had lied to the country, betrayed the whole country. And about how we war resistors had been right all along.
It was wonderful to be accepted, yet somehow I felt disoriented. When I came back, I had geared up all my courage to tell the truth about who I was, no matter how much abuse I might have to face. But the abuse wasn’t there. There was…a void.
Then I began to hear stories about the Viet Nam veterans. How they had felt unaccepted, rejected by the country. How they felt they could not fit in. About how they came back with what eventually came to be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, how some of them had violent rages, drug problems, how some of them had become homeless. I could not believe it. The Army, the government, society, had said deserters would be the rejects of society, that we would be scorned and shamed and cast aside. But now everything they said would happen to me was happening to the guys who had obeyed what the country told them to do. Now they were getting the life that was supposed to be reserved for me. How could this happen? How could the country let this happen?
Most shocking to me was the news that the VA for years refused to recognize Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, had refused to recognize the illnesses caused by Agent Orange, and that conservatives in Congress and the White House, the very people who most supported the war, took the side of the VA against the veterans. They had voted for large sums to support the war, but they wouldn’t vote to spend money on helping the veterans they sent to that war, and instead denied the existence of the veterans’ suffering. It seemed the height of betrayal, a betrayal so deep that I could not fathom it.
My feelings of disorientation increased. What nation had I returned to? It wasn’t the same nation I left. While I was gone, America experienced five intense years of political and social turmoil. People lived through events I only read about in Canadian papers. Even San Francisco Chinatown was changed; old stores gone, new stores open, White panhandlers in Chinatown’s streets. The future I had looked forward to was now the Chinese community’s past. Ditto the hippie community, for whom the Summer of Love and the battle of People’s Park was now ancient history. I felt like Rip Van Winkle.
For over a decade I wandered from place to place, back and forth between Canada and the United States, between east coast and west. My hometown was San Francisco, but somehow I never went and stayed there. Somehow, I couldn’t come home. It appeared that the world was “normal.” But I was a different person. How do you go from being a wanted fugitive for five years to being…”normal?” How do you come home when home seems a different place?
I worked hard, became a social worker. Eventually I went back to university and got a master’s degree in social work, and despite my wandering became fairly successful in my career.
After a decade, I did come back to San Francisco. I didn’t know if I would stay or not. But for a moment in time, I was here. It made my mother and my uncle very happy, they who had always supported me, even in the worse of times.
Then a turning point came. In the run-up to the 1st Gulf War, I attended a large peace demonstration. I wandered aimlessly through the hundreds of demonstrators, being a stranger in my own hometown who no longer knew many people here. Then, in one surrealistic moment, the crowd parted in front of me like the Red Sea. I looked up, and found myself staring at a table with four guys behind it. The sign on the table read, “Vietnam Veterans Against the War.” I looked at the four guys. They wore old Army jackets, shirts, pieces of uniforms. They had long hair, beards, old blue jeans. They wore peace signs. As I looked at them, I suddenly realized, “They’re still crazy, after all these years…” Then the next thought, “….just like me.” Almost in a trance, I walked up to them. I didn’t know what I was going to say, I only knew that I had to talk to them. I went up to the biggest guy, who seemed to be the leader. Without even thinking about it, I said, “You guys are Vietnam veterans?” The big guy looked at me. “Yes,” he said. I replied, “I was an Army deserter during Vietnam.” At that moment, I had no idea what would happen next. But I didn’t care. Just like during the war, at key moments I simply rolled the dice on the basis of truth, ready to face whatever happened.
The guy threw his arms open and yelled, “Brother!” and enfolded me in a massive bear hug. The four vets welcomed me home warmly. That was my introduction to the veterans peace community. I joined what eventually became the local chapter of the national organization, Veterans for Peace (http://www.veteransforpeace.org/). The group includes Vietnam combat vets, veterans of other wars and even of other armies, vets who were in during peacetime, military war resisters of different types such as myself, and associate members.
We marched vigorously against the war. We got arrested together protesting the war in front of the Federal Building in San Francisco. It was like 1969 all over again. All of a sudden, I was back. I belonged somewhere. The vets welcomed me home, in a way that no one else could have. I have been a member of Veterans for Peace ever since.
After the war, I remained a part of these anti-war vets. I also joined the Veterans Writing Group, facilitated by Maxine Hong Kingston. As the years and the wars rolled on, I became part of the struggle to end the current wars. I am home.