January 1, 1970"I like your shirt!” a driver at a truck stop outside Erie, Pa. called out in a voice that cracked like a bull whip. Dark eyes blazing under his trucker’s cap, the driver continued staring at the “Vietnam Veterans Against the War” T-shirt my friend was wearing. “I’m a vet too! Got two sons back from Iraq—they’re OK, thank God.”
In the midst of another bitter war, VVAW’s legacy, four decades after its founding, is still actively providing a variety of ways for war veterans to collectively vent their anger and anguish. Some vent by wearing buttons and T-shirts with antiwar messages, such as the VVAW shirt that Stewart Nusbaumer brashly wore into the truck stop. Some vent by applauding those who speak out.
While some vent by diving deeper into drugs and booze or yelling at the TV, others find it healthier to vent by writing blogs on the Internet, emails, letters to editors, poetry, essays, books—and by speaking and interacting at antiwar gatherings.
Catching a ride home with Stewart from VVAW’s 40th anniversary celebration in Chicago on August 3-5, my head was a-swirl from memorable encounters. As one of the founders of the organization, I was astounded by the vigorous energy level of gray-haired geezers like me pushing retirement age. This was not a group looking to rest on its laurels, but rather aiming to reinvigorate peace activism among students, soldiers and government officials to end the war in Iraq.
All sorts of venting took place, as could be expected when antiwar veterans get together: bear-hugging reunions, emotional speeches, thunderous applause, passionate panel presentations and poetry readings, throat-catching tributes to dead buddies, spontaneous sidewalk displays of antiwar banners and banter with passersby, heated attempts at setting aside bitter political feuds. The venting was interwoven with vigorous networking, nonstop comparing of notes and astonishing flashbacks to our past lives.
A West Point classmate, Bruce Parry, ran into me in a busy hallway and recalled a critical conversation we had in 1964 on the escalating war in Vietnam. We each later left the Army, rather than pursue military careers. Bob McLane, whose Vietnam demons whirled through VVAW rap groups in the early 1970s as we tried to tackle what later was called post-traumatic stress, showed up selling copies of his autobiography, “Stop War America: A Marine’s Story” (Corps Productions, 2005).
Carl Rogers, who helped launch VVAW in 1967, greeted the gathering with exuberant tales of the group’s founding. Al Hubbard—back in the day, VVAW’s equivalent of a sergeant major—paid tribute to many who helped revive the organization in 1970-71 in a series of creative peace actions that culminated in the Operation Dewey Canyon III encampment in Washington. Barry Romo, who may hold the record as the longest serving of VVAW’s current national coordinators, hosted a Sunday morning tour of the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, where war memories leapt off the walls.
A highlight of the gathering was a panel of Iraq veterans talking about their transformation from soldiers into peace activists. They thanked VVAW members and alumni for inspiration and assistance in the 2004 formation of the Iraq Veterans Against the War and its continued growth. One young veteran, a haunted-looking medic, said VVAW’s legacy of speaking out and working for peace amid the disasters of war had saved his life.
The 200-some reunion participants were also regaled by remembrances in two tribute books—the official one and, typical of VVAW’s spirit of dissent, an unofficial one.
“I personally feel that many, if not most of us, myself included, were dealing with undiagnosed PVS [Post Viet Nam Syndrome] and that VVAW served as a defacto self help group where we could talk it out to some degree. Something that the V.A. and the military had yet to embrace,” Jan Ruhman, a Marine vet from California, wrote in the unofficial tribute book compiled by vetspeak.org. “I’m proud of so many things we accomplished together given the overwhelming odds and the power of the opposition that we faced from the U.S. Government at the national, state, county and city level.”
Others noted that we were not always successful at helping one another. “One time a young vet visited our on-going irregular [VVAW] weekly meeting in St. Louis. He was discouraged, out of work and maybe strung out on drugs. We learned later that he killed himself shortly after that,” Alex Primm, an Army vet from Missouri, wrote. “It was a terrible feeling for all of us. But it only strengthened our resolve and drew us tighter together. We knew the effects of hate and extremism all too well. We ourselves were the only people we could fully trust. No one outside of our group understood our rage at the betrayal of American ideals and useless deaths we had witnessed [in Vietnam].”
Many arrived at the weekend event at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago still nursing rage at events during the Vietnam War, mixed with anguish over the war in Iraq. Carl Rogers vividly recalled Chicago police storming through these streets in August 1968 to beat bystanders with batons, as well as antiwar protesters, journalists and supporters of Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was seeking the Democratic Party convention’s nomination for president.
In the official VVAW 40th anniversary book, Carl, a former Army chaplain’s aide who hailed from Ohio, recalled the April 1971 morning when hundreds of Vietnam vets threw their war medals onto the front steps of the U.S. Capitol in protest of the war that never seemed to end. “The words and emotions that poured out were the most poignant and angry words I had ever heard in opposition to that dirty stinkin’ rotten little war… I walked away from that moment in tears, but never more proud to have been a part of the founding group of brothers who created VVAW.”
Frank Toner, a former Catholic alter boy in Middletown, NY, recalled his “complete disillusionment” in the Army in Vietnam before finding and joining VVAW. “We worked, we marched, we leafleted. We spoke the truth and it was heard. We influenced foreign policy, saved lives, and we did it creatively and without violence. All this we did while forming friendships that have lasted until today and will go on lasting. It was better than founding a church….
“We have seen the positive impact a small group of people can have when they work together to promote peace, brotherhood and sisterhood,” Frank added, his insights mirroring the theme of the reunion in Chicago. “Just a few thousand people can wake up the consciousness of a nation and help end a war. We know, we did it…”