Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Life of a Vietnam Veteran, By Ron, as told to Matt Muchowski

This piece was written for a class I had with Professor Norman Finkelstein. The class was about political autobiographies. We read Emma Goldman, Nelson Mandela, Trotsky and others. Our final paper was to write an "As told to" autobiography about someone who lived through the 1960's. I knew Ron as a custodian at DePaul who would always strike up a conversation when DePaul Students Against the War had a table at the student center. I asked him if he would mind being interviewed for the article and he agreed. I meant to submit the story for publication in a journal, and maybe make some money with it. I asked Ron about it and he said as long as I gave half the money to Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Maybe one of these days.


As a child, my mother would tell me about her parents. They had come to the United States from Italy, looking for a better life. What they found was that to some, the American Dream wasn’t intended for all. They immigrated to Southern Illinois, where the Ku Klux Klan terrorized them and intimidated them because they were Catholic immigrants who had trouble speaking english. They then moved to Chicago, where the mob started threatening to kidnap my mother if they didn’t pay the mob. My grandfather went with a shotgun to confront the mob one day, and my mother and grandmother never saw him again.

I grew up in Chicago, where I was often more accepting of my black and latino neighbors than other white Chicagoans. The neighborhood I grew up in had a building where almost all the residents were black. While several of my school mates would make derogatory jokes and tease the residents of the building, my mother was friends with a number of people in it, and thus I became friends with a number of African-American children.

I had several brothers. One day I was watching the TV with my older brother Jim, when news of the Gulf of Tonkin incident came on. At the time we didn’t know that it was a fake story, that US ships were never attacked by the north Vietnamese forces. We watched intently, and wondered if this were a new Pearl Harbor. When the news was over, I looked to my brother Jim and told him, “Your going to war. Your going to be drafted.” He looked at me like I was crazy, and dismissed it. A few months later, he was drafted and sent to Vietnam. I think he didn’t mind going because our father was a veteran of World War II, where he fought the Japanese empire in the Pacific.

Growing up, I had friends on both sides of the great debates of my time. My brother was in the army, but I had Hippy friends. In 1968, when the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago, a few of my friends came up to me and asked me if I wanted to go down to Grant Park to fight with the cops. I told them no. I had friends in the national guard and police department who I played football with, and I didn’t want to be put in a situation where I would have to get beat up by them or beat them up.

One day I was hanging out with my girlfriend, and heard news on the radio about race riots on the south side. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated the day before, and black America was taking out it’s frustrations. I was curious what it was all about, so my white girlfriend and I got on my motorcycle and rode it south. When we approached the riot, there was all sorts of debris in the streets, making it impossible for a car or truck to make it through, but a motorcycle, going slowly could navigate the streets. We came to a stop when we saw the first block of looters, breaking windows and taking whatever they wanted from stores, I brought my motorcycle to a stop. I turned to my girlfriend and told her, “Raise your fist in the air and start screaming ‘Black Power’ like you mean it.” As we slowly drove down the street, people would see the only two white kids in the riot, shouting “Black Power!” and they would cheer, and come up to us to give us high fives.

After high school I became a sheet metal apprentice, and so I had a four year deferment from the draft. Since sheet metal was considered an important industry to the war effort, I didn’t have to fight the war. But I kept hearing things about Vietnam. I would hear the government tell us that it’s a war for freedom and against communism. Then I would hear about the massacres like My Lai and all the arguments for peace. My brother came home and he had a hard time talking about it, which only made me more curious.

I decided to push up my draft number, so that I could get drafted and see the war for myself. I figured the only way to know whether this war was right or wrong was to go there and see it for myself.

I enlisted in January 1969, and was sent to Fort Bragg for Basic Training. As soon as I got there and the drill sergeant was shouting at us and using racial slurs, I realized what a mistake I had made. I should have known this wasn’t a good idea. I had read about the My Lai massacre, where US troops killed hundreds of unarmed villagers, where one of the true hero’s of Vietnam, Hugh Thompson, flew his medical evacuation helicopter into the massacre. Thompson had seen gun fire from above, and came down to see if there were any wounded people to take back to a hospital. When he attempted to take some of the Vietnamese villagers back, he was threatened by Lt. Calley. For years after, Thompson’s account was covered up, until photos of the massacre were leaked to the press.

While I was at basic training, I had found an issue of Life magazine, where the front cover was peace groups. I read the article, and it included a page of addresses, where I could mail them. I ripped out that page, and mail the different peace groups, asking them for bundles of anti-war newspapers. The different groups were happy to do so. I was being sent bundles of newspapers from anti-war soldiers, the Black Panther Party, Students for Democratic Society, among others. I would then pass these newspapers out to other troops. As long as I didn’t charge for the newspapers it was completely legal.

After basic training I went to Aberdeen Proving Grounds for advanced training in maintenance. It was while I was being trained here on how to repair turret artillery, that I got my papers for deployment to Vietnam. It was also here that I found a copy of Bernard Fall’s biography of Ho Chi Minh. I had been told so much propaganda from my government about what a terrorist and tyrant he was that reading this book came as a revelation to me. I never realized that Ho Chi Minh had fought against Japan for the independence of Vietnam. It made me realize that Ho Chi Minh and my father were fighting on the same side, and it didn’t make any sense to me why I should fight against someone who helped fight the Japanese, and gave my father a better chance of surviving the war.

After reading that book I found a photo of Ho Chi Minh, and carried it in my wallet for the whole time I was in Vietnam. I figured if I was captured I could show them the photo I carried and explain to them how I was on their side.

I was out in Northern New York state on leave with my girlfriend when I saw posters everywhere for a rock concert called Woodstock. It said Jimi Hendrix would play among others. I had been a big rock and roll fan and had been to many concerts back in Chicago. I had seen Jimi Hendrix play twice already, I saw the Rolling Stones perform, Janis Joplin blew my mind away, and The Doors rocked. These were pioneers in music, they were the baby of rock and roll that grew up to change the world. I wanted to go to this Woodstock show, but it was happening after my deployment. I thought about deserting, going to this rock show, going underground and living a life in the counter culture. Except that I had gone to far into the beast already. I was so close to seeing Vietnam, that I didn’t want to miss my shot at seeing the war for what it really was.

I was shipped out to Chou Lai beach. It was a rear guard zone, which meant we had buildings made out of brick and pretty decent living conditions. We weren’t on the front lines of combat, but it could still be dangerous. Put a bunch of young men in a country they know little about then give them guns and watch them act stupid. I remember one day I was stepping out of the shower house, when a bullet went whizzing past my ear. There was a fight going on between two of our soldiers, and one was shooting in the air to scare the other one, but misfired and almost shot me.

I did not want to shoot at or kill any Vietnamese person. In my eyes, they were fighting for their freedom, and I didn’t want to kill someone who I felt was doing the right thing. When I made it to Vietnam, I realized how I might be put in a situation where I would be forced to shoot at Vietnamese people. I spent long sleepless nights thinking about what it would take for me to pull that trigger. I came to the conclusion that if my life were directly in danger, I would open fire. So I resolved to not put my life in any sort of danger.

But even on the back end, far from fighting, your life was at risk. My life was saved with the flip of a coin. I had a friend named Hager whom I went to basic training with and got along with pretty well. One day we were both part of a crew that was sent to an old French air strip. We were tearing it up for scrap metal. We had the job of removing a big cannon. Hager and I decided to flip a coin to see who would be on the ground helping to direct it as the crane pulled it up. We flipped the coin and it landed so that Hager had to work on the cannon. I went to work on something else. Then I heard a the crash of metal and a sickening thud. I looked over and saw that Hager had been hit by the cannon, and was bloody all over. The next day I visited him in the bases medical center, he had tubes coming out from all over him. The next day they took him off base to a hospital. I never found out what happened to him.

Race relations were interesting on the camp. When I first arrived a number of the troops from Southern states flew what I called the “Ku Klux Klan Battle Flag”, the stars and bars of the confederacy. Despite this there weren’t any incidents between blacks and white on base for the first two months I was there. There was an African-American soldier from Louisiana named Smitty who was on his second tour of Vietnam and was about to be promoted to Sergeant. Then a young white kid from Alabama, Jeff, arrived. Within a short time, the powers that be decided that Jeff would be promoted instead of Smitty.

Smitty decided to confront Jeff about this at the bar on base. Instead of offering to help Smitty, Jeff made a joke about Smitty’s mother. Smitty told Jeff that if he anted to go down that route they should take it outside. Once they were both outside, Smitty beat the living hell out of Jeff, breaking his leg. Jeff was then kicked out of Chou Lai, and the commander of the base ordered all the confederate flags taken down.

I continued to hand out anti-war newspapers and fliers to troops in Vietnam. I never once met a soldier who was pro-war. Everyone I talked to was glad to sign a petition or take a paper. Even combat soldiers were enthusiastic to hear about anti-war demonstrations back home. I remember one day I was handing out fliers to troops when some of the combat soldiers became infuriated about the death of one of their comrades. They felt as though the commanders of the base didn’t care about their lives. Five combat soldiers started walking towards the command center with angry looks on their faces. I joined them, and as we marched towards our destination, more and more troops joined us. We had thirty pissed off GI’s scowling and I didn’t know what we would do once we made it tot he commanders. There had already been one fragging on our base while I was there, could this lead to an open revolt?

Before we made it to the command center, several Military Police came, detained the combat troops and ordered the rest of us to disperse. There was a tense moment when no one was sure what to do, but we ultimately dispersed.

I had a month on leave that I spent in Hawaii. There I met my first wife Michelle. Near the end of my leave, I talked to her about deserting. We could have both left and gone to Sweden, where we could live in peace. Now that I had seen Vietnam, I had no real desire to return as a member of the US army. She talked me out of it though.

While I was stationed in Vietnam, the actress Jane Fonda did her famous anti-war tour of the country. While she was in the north, the US launched a bombing raid against the city she was in. She spoke on Vietnamese radio, encouraging US troops to refuse to fight. I felt as though she were there speaking for the majority of grunts there. She was there for us, unlike President Nixon who also visited Vietnam while I was there.

A lot of people talk about US troops using drugs in Vietnam. I never used drugs, but I saw them all over the base. When I first got there, Marijuana was the big drug. But after a few months, you couldn’t find Marijuana no matter how hard to looked. What you could find was Heroin and Opium. Thai drug dealers would come on base and sell these hard drugs, making some good money. What I would learn years later in a book I read, was that the CIA played a role in this. The CIA would take profits from these drugs and use them to fund secret operations in Laos and Cambodia.

When I had my orders to come home, I was excited and worried. I was excited to get away from the war, and get more involved with the peace movement back home. I was also worried because I had heard of troops being spit on as they came home, of anti-war radicals treating troops as though they were the enemy. Would I be spit on? I thought about that the whole time I rode the plane back to the States. I devised a plan. I would wear my uniform at the airport, and make sure I really stood out in front of people who looked like they were against the war- long haired men, hippies, and other counterculture agents. I must have walked around the airport for an hour, hoping someone would spit on me and call me a baby killer so I could punch them in the face and tell them, “You moron! I’m against the war to!” But it never happened. I would often wear my uniform at airports since I could get free flights that way, and I was never mistreated by anyone in the anti-war movement. Today I believe that those reports were all part of a right-wing media campaign, to gather support for the war.

I was only home a few weeks when I heard news of a massive rally on Chou Lai beach, where I was stationed. Thousands of US troops and Vietnamese people were marching for an end to the war. I wished I could have been there, but I felt proud because it felt like I played a role in building for that rally. All those fliers and newspapers I handed out must have played a role in changing the atmosphere on base. I knew that I had to continue to fight the war here in the US.

I moved back to Chicago, where I got involved with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I met all the famous leaders in the group, John Kerry, Ron Kovic, and a number of defendants from our court case in Miami for our protests against the Republican National Convention.

I had my first child with Michelle while I was still in the military, and we had another when I was discharged. Both were boys, and neither joined the army. I like to think that it was because of my anti-war activism and that they met all sorts of veterans who were wounded from the war. My friend Tom Gilum was in the 101st airborne and paralyzed from the waist down because of the war. I think meeting him had an impression on my boys.

I divorced Michelle, and my apartment in Chicago became the VVAW national Headquarters. We would organize our members to go to anti-war rallies, and distributed our newspaper, “The Veteran”.

One day while I was working in the office alone, the phone rang. I picked it up, and the person on the other line introduced himself as an FBI agent. He asked me if I would be interested in being a paid informant for the FBI, reporting on the activities of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I told him to go to hell. At the time we knew the feds were spying on and disrupting anti-war and civil rights groups, but we didn’t know how much. It wasn’t until years later when information about the Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, came out that we found out the full extent of the FBI’s activities. While COINTELPRO is no longer around, I still read about things they do that sound strikingly familiar, their attempts to bomb environmentalist Judi Bari, and spying on anti-war activists today.

Ten years after I divorced Michelle, the war in Vietnam was over and I married again to Eve. We had one child together and are still happily married today. She jokingly refers to my anti-war activity and calls me a traitor. I always respond, “Yea, but my side won.” Eve and I helped babysit for Jane Fonda and Joan Baez’s children when the two were on tour in Chicago.

A friend of mine told me that DePaul University was hiring maintenance workers, and that the pay and benefits were good. I took the job and was able to take a few classes. Over twenty years later I’m still at DePaul. I’ve met some interesting people here, and am constantly supporting the work of student activists.

Thirty years since the US left Vietnam, all I can do is think of the cost of the war. Millions of Vietnamese people dead, thousands of US troops dead. The effects of chemical weapons used like Agent Orange are still being felt today among Vietnamese and US soldiers. There is a generation of soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The war continues today in Iraq. While in the 1960’s we were told we needed to fight in Vietnam because of the lie of the Gulf of Tonkin, today we are told we need to fight in Iraq because of the lie of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

I haven’t been to the Vietnam wall yet. I hope to see it later this year. I’m wondering if some of my friends names made it there. I hope not. I hope we won’t have to build more war memorials, I hope we won’t have to fight any more wars.

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