Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 1970. I am sitting on the edge of a stone fountain in a plaza in downtown Vancouver, watching the peace demonstration all around me. Having deserted from the United States Army just a few months ago, I finally have Landed Immigrant status, a job, and a rented room of my own. As was the tradition of American army deserters in Canada, I am wearing my army field jacket with my name and unit patches on. While this made us vulnerable to targeting by the police – we were, after all, wanted by the F.B.I. – it also showed our solidarity and deserter esprit de corps. Next to me sat a Chinese Canadian civilian friend of my age, ironically wearing an American army jacket he’d bought at a surplus store. All around us the crowd swirled and chanted anti-war slogans.
As I look through the crowd, I notice a man unlike any other man there. Like me, he wears a U.S. Army field jacket. But this man walks like a tiger. He stands straight and tall, and his eyes look hard ahead with a thousand yard stare. Although he is Caucasian, his skin is dark and weathered from the sun. His aura reeks of death. He walks the determined walk of a soldier on a mission.
The man spots me watching him at a distance. I have looked at him a little too long, and he sensed it. He turns his head and meets my eyes.
The man immediately turns and walks straight toward me. As he gets closer, I see the black 1st Lieutenant’s bars, the Airborne (paratrooper) jump badge, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and his unit patches on his jacket.
“What the hell is an elite Airborne officer doing here in Canada?” I think. “Is he here to arrest me and drag me back to the States?” I have no idea what is going on.
He stops directly in front of me. Completely ignoring my Chinese Canadian friend who is also wearing an army jacket, he barks, “You an army deserter?”
“Yes sir!” I answer by reflex before I can stop myself.
“What was your MOS?” he commands.
“91A10,” I reply, again by reflex before I can stop myself. “Oh, shit,” I think, “I’m really in for it now.”
“I’m a deserter too,” he says. “I got back from ‘Nam and I deserted the next day. I’ve been here a couple of days.” I look at him in total disbelief. “An elite Airborne officer, deserting?” I think. “And why would he desert after fighting in Viet Nam? Everyone else deserts to avoid going to Viet Nam.” I have no way to make sense of what he is saying. It would be years before the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) would even be invented, and I did not understand where he might be coming from. I had heard fragmentary stories of atrocities and horrors of Viet Nam and been influenced by returning soldiers saying the war was wrong and not to go, but I had never heard any officer criticize the war.
“I went to the Vancouver Committee to Aid American War Objectors,” he says, “but they won’t help me. They think I’m a spy.”
At the word “spy” my blood froze. The counselors at the Committee were the experts. They organized the support systems for American war resisters in Canada, they set up the networks, they figured out how we could evade capture, and they screened all newcomers to weed out spies and troublemakers. If they thought he was a spy, who was I to question their judgment? There had been a recent article in the paper reporting that the F.B.I. was recruiting from among officers returning from Viet Nam.
“I don’t know anyone here,” he says, “will you help me?”
A rush of thoughts go through my mind. I know the system. I know what he needs to do to find a job offer, to sneak back and forth across the border, to apply for Landed Immigrant status. But this is vital information as to how the underground railroad works. If I give him information and he is a spy, it would place all the other deserters and draft resisters at risk. The F.B.I. would know our system, and this would help them target us.
Yet, his plea seemed urgent and real. I didn’t know what to do. Should I believe him? I decided that I could not jeopardize everyone in order to help one man whom I didn’t even know.
“No,” I said. He immediately turned and walked away.
In the struggle to survive and make it in a new country, I forgot about this one small incident in the many bigger events in my life. Only years later did I even remember and think about it again. While the decision I made may have been the rational one at the time, in hindsight I began to doubt myself.
Knowing what I do now about PTSD and how the horrors of the war affected the soldiers, I realize that it’s possible that he was telling the truth. In Veterans for Peace today, I know combat veterans who returned from Viet Nam and immediately joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and organized against the war. One Special Forces sergeant in Viet Nam returned and rode with Jane Fonda in the U.S. leg of her FTA (F–k The Army) tour. Two former lieutenants, both Viet Nam veterans, share this very blog with me. One former Marine sergeant returned from the war and developed an anti-war GI newspaper on base with other Viet Nam veterans, part of a much larger movement of GI resistance including underground newspapers. So this unknown lieutenant might have been telling the truth. Lieutenant, if you are out there somewhere and you told the truth, I apologize to you. I hope that you made it somehow, and are OK. I hope that the demons I saw in your body language and your aura have been released, and that your life now is good.
Yet in talking about this incident with friends today, others think it’s still possible he was a spy. They ask, “Why didn’t he say more about himself? Why didn’t he explain why he deserted? What didn’t he want to tell you?” Spy, or not? I will probably never know.
But if he was a spy he didn’t do much damage, because our system continued to work. Draft resisters and deserters continued to flow into Canada, the underground railroad continued to help them, and they continued to survive and succeed in their new country. Now, forty-two years later, I have served a lifetime in a peace movement constantly spied on by our government. From COINTELPRO in the ‘60’s, being spied on by the San Francisco Police during Gulf War 1 as a member of United “Bay Area Veterans against War in the Middle East,” to continued federal electronic spying now, being spied upon has been a simple fact of life. One just marches on.
In the old days, I feared and hated spies. But in 36 years as a social worker, I have since gone with the police into people’s homes to stop them from committing suicide, and to rescue disabled elders from life threatening abuse and neglect. I have also talked with active duty and retired police officers, former CIA agents, and military intelligence veterans. I have heard their personal struggles and concerns, debated politics with them. At some point, one must see beyond one’s own fear and stop hating. They, like us vets, were used by the one percent. They are human, and while I may not always agree with them, I see their humanity clearly and compassionately.
Lieutenant, if you were a spy, I hope that you eventually reflected on the meaning of it all, that you somehow found your own peace, and that you lived to reach a comfortable and happy retirement.