At the end of the school year, in May of 1964, I packed up my belongings and left a college campus in Riverside, California. I returned to my mother and stepfather’s home. I shared with them my concerns about losing two of my high school classmates in Vietnam. It wasn’t until I heard that another high school friend had decided to join the Army that I began thinking I should consider enlisting also. At least it would give me time to figure out what I wanted to do with the remainder of my life, if I made it back alive.
I have never believed in killing anything and never wanted to learn how to shoot a combat rifle. Therefore, I enlisted in the Army as a “conscientious objector medic.” I was inducted in October of 1964 and sent to Fort Sam Houston, Texas for training as a medic. Because conscientious objectors were not given weapons’ training, we were given hand-to-hand combat training to protect our patients, and self, if necessary.
After a brief furlough at the end of our training, which fell during the Christmas holiday, we returned to Fort Sam Houston and prepared to be sent to Vietnam. Several non-combatants in my platoon elected to be sent to a fort in Maryland and participate in what was known at the time as the “White Coat Project.” They were to become guinea pigs for certain experimental drugs being developed by the military and drug administration. I considered joining them, but at the last minute decided I would take my chances in Vietnam instead of letting my body be used as what I called a “pin cushion.”
Those of us electing to go to Vietnam left for the theater of war at the end of January 1965. My duty station was with the 4th Army Medivac Helicopter Team. We were, for the most part, stationed at a location east of the Laos border near the Seventeenth Parallel and Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The war, we were told, was beginning to escalate and several Army medics and Navy Corpsmen had been killed because the Viet Cong were targeting them due to the crosses they wore on their helmets and uniforms. It was later decided that medics and Corpsmen would no longer wear the insignias. As a side note, there are 1,404 names of Army Medics and 692 names of Navy Corpsmen listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. Some died while trying to help or save their fellow man.
In March of 1966, the 272nd Regiment of the Vietcong 9th Division attacked a battalion of the American 3rd Brigade at Lo Ke. The U.S. air support succeeded in bombing the attackers into retreat. Two days later, the American 1st Brigade and a battalion of the 173rd Airborne are attacked by a Vietcong regiment and driven away by artillery fire. This was within a few miles of where our 4TH Army Medivac Team was stationed. Also during one of the battles near our camp our team was called in to assist after the firefight had ended. This was during the time my buddy Michael Montgomery (Monty) was killed.
I had difficulty accepting the death of Monty, and requested a transfer back to the States. I was sent to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC to complete my tour of duty. The annex of Walter Reed Hospital known as Forest Glen, just across the border in Maryland, became my home for the next several months. I no longer fulfilled the role of medic, but did become an orderly and worked part-time at the audiology clinic at Forest Glen where psychological counseling was also conducted.
One day I was called into the Staff Sergeant’s office at Walter Reed and told that ex-President Eisenhower had been hospitalized with heart trouble and needed four around-the-clock orderlies. I was one of the four he selected while in the hospital for the next few weeks. During that time I was able to meet Mrs. Eisenhower and their son David. I also was able to renew my acquaintance with the Nixon’s. I had briefly worked at the Nixon Family Restaurant in Whittier, California during my last year of junior high and first year of high school. The restaurant was across the street from the East Whittier Junior High School where I attended.
My tour of duty in the Army was up in October of 1966 and I decided to stay in the Maryland/Washington, DC area instead of returning to California. However, when veterans return home, in most cases, the war returns with them. Most often they feel like most people don’t understand them and what they’ve been through. Memories can be a mixed bag and the memories of those returning from combat experiences may range from tender to terrifying. For many there is a desire to take hold of those memories, to bring them out of the closet, and to turn them into an opportunity for expression in some creative or healing way.
One way I came to terms with what I had experienced was to become involved with what was considered an “underground movement” to try and convince leadership to bring a halt to the war in Vietnam. A group who had a background in journalism and communication came together in a basement of an office building on DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. There we formulated plans to distribute information regarding what we believed was happening in the war.
It was during this time that a veteran by the name of Renney Davis and I went to a coffee house in Georgetown to listen to a young singer by the name of John Denver breaking into show business via singing in coffee shops. He was doing a show and we had heard he was very patriotic. We had gone to the show in our Army fatigues and were sitting at a small table near the stage. After John Denver had completed his first set of the evening, he came over and pulled up a chair to our table. The conversation centered mostly on Renney’s and my experiences in Vietnam and how we strongly believed America needed to do what was necessary to bring the war to a halt.
In the weeks that followed, a peaceful anti-war protest by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), dubbed Operation Dewey Canyon III, was organized. Our protest took its name from two short military invasions of Laos by US and South Vietnamese forces. Participants, both we veterans and civilians, referred to it as a “limited incursion into the country of Congress.” The level of media publicity and Vietnam veteran participation during the week of protest events, April 19-23, 1971, far exceeded previous protest events. It was later said that the march that took place was only second in size to that of Dr. Martin Luther King’s.
On Monday, April 19, led by Gold Star Mothers (mothers of soldiers killed in war), hundreds of us veterans marched across the Lincoln Memorial Bridge to the Arlington Cemetery gate, just a short distance from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A memorial service for our peers killed in Vietnam was conducted by Reverend Jackson Day, who had just a few days earlier resigned his position as military chaplain as part of the protest.
The Gold Star Mothers, and a few of us, approached the cemetery gate to enter and lay wreaths, but the gate had been closed and locked upon word of our pending arrival. The wreaths were placed along the gate instead, and we peacefully departed.
The march re-formed later and continued down Pennsylvania Avenue to the capitol, with Congressman Pete McCloskey joining the procession en route. As we walked closer to the capitol, we began singing, “All we are saying is, give peace a chance.” When we arrived at the capitol steps, fellow Representatives Bella Abzug, Donald Edwards, Shirley Chisholm, Edmund Muskie and Ogden Reid, joined McCloskey. They all took turns addressing the large crowd that had gathered in show of support.
Later that day many of us visited our Congressmen to lobby against the U.S. participation in the war. Congress was presented with a 16-point suggested resolution for ending the war in Vietnam.
On Tuesday, April 20, as many of us veterans as possible listened to hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on proposals to end the war. Other veterans, angry at the insult to the Gold Star Mothers when they were refused entry to Arlington National Cemetery the previous day, marched back to the front gate. After initial refusal of entry, they were finally allowed in.
On Wednesday, April 21, more than 50 veterans marched to the Pentagon and attempted to surrender and turn themselves in as war criminals. A Pentagon representative took their names and then turned them away. Many of us veterans continued to meet with and lobby our representatives in Congress.
On Thursday, April 22, a large group of us demonstrated on the steps of the Supreme Court, and demanded to know why the Supreme Court had not ruled on the constitutionality of the war in Vietnam. John Kerry, a much different guy back then, as VVAW spokesman, testified against the war for two hours in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before a packed room of media and veterans.
Veterans continued lobbying on Capitol Hill all day. That night we staged a candlelight march around the White House while a huge American flag was carried upside down in the historic international signal of distress.
On Friday, April 23, nearly a thousand veterans, one by one, tossed our medals, ribbons, discharge papers and other war mementos on the steps of the Capitol, while some threw them over the White House fence, rejecting the Vietnam War and the significance of those awards. Several hearings were held in Congress during the week regarding atrocities committed in Vietnam and the media’s inaccurate coverage of the war. There were also hearings on proposals to end the United States’ participation in the war.
As a last act that week, we, along with John Denver, planted a tree on the mall as part of a ceremony symbolizing their wish to preserve life and the environment. There had been hundreds of flyovers of forested areas in Vietnam in order to defoliate them.
The following month the VVAW and former Army Chaplin Reverend Day conducted a service for veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Injured and disabled veterans who were inpatients there were brought into the chapel in wheelchairs. The service included time for individual prayers or public confession, and many veterans took the floor to recount things they had done or seen for which they felt guilt or anger.