WIN Magazine, September 15, 1982
Their War Goes On
Story and photographs by Michael Letwin
Heidi, Heidi, Heidi, Ho,
We’re just hereto let you know,
Heidi, Heidi, Heidi, Hey,
Vietnam vets won’t go away,
Sound off: 1, 2
Sound off: 3, 4
Bring it on down: 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2-3, 4!
The tourists strolling down the malls of Washington, DC, in the week leading up to Armed Forces Day-May 15-did a quick double‑take when they looked toward the sound of marching feet and military cadences.
Instead of a color guard from the Pentagon, however, marched a military‑style column of around 300 veterans, their friends and their families, dressed in remnants of old uniforms. Their banners were emblazoned not with the names and numbers of Army divisions, but with calls for aid to those poisoned by Agent Orange, for better benefits and treatment from the Veterans Administration, for “No More Vietnams!”
The tourists had met Operation Dewey Canyon 4, a four‑day “limited incursion into Congress land” named after the secret US “incursions” into Laos in 1969 and 1970. This Dewey Canyon, however, like Dewey Canyon 3 in 1971, was organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), the group which, a decade or more ago, played a key role in bringing the reality of the Vietnam war back home.
“I did a year’s tour of duty in Vietnam,” said Barry Johnson, a wiry black man on the steps of the Capitol. “I was wounded twice. I’m a victim of Agent Orange. I’m 35 years old, but I feel 75 ‘cause the war has aged me. . . I’m sick and tired of hearing the same damn stories down at the VA (Veterans Administration). They give me medication, but all they’re doing is slowing me down.
Effects of the War
Post‑Traumatic Stress disorder. Agent Orange. The VA. Racism, unemployment, poverty. These are some of the reasons Vietnam veterans gave for coming to Dewey Canyon 4, many of them from across the country. They share these concerns with hundreds of thousands of other veterans who could not come.
Post‑Traumatic Stress (PTS) is a label given to the continual re‑living of war experiences that many Vietnam vets go through in a society that has shunned them since their return from the war. The result is that very large numbers of vets have been unable to return to the lives they led before. If s effects have been staggering:
• Eighty percent of those who were married before the war were divorced within a year of their return.
• Veterans, especially those who were in combat, have had a high alcohol and drug abuse rate.
• The Vietnam vet suicide rate is 33% higher than the average, some 100,000 having committed suicide since the war.
•Twenty‑five percent of the inmates in US prisons-100,000-are Vietnam vets.
• Not widely known is that many of the 7465 women Vietnam veterans also suffer from PTS as a consequence of their work in MAS Hun its.
• The VA admits that one million Vietnam veterans suffer from PTS, and experts expect their numbers to increase in the 80s. Vets say that the VA’s only answer to those who seek help for PTS is dangerous and ineffective drugs which cost much less than real treatment and which avoid the controversial issue of why the war had such a devastating effect on the GIs who fought it-and who is to blame.
Hardest hit are working class, poor and minority veterans who were most often on the front lines during the war, and who today remain on the front lines of unemployment, cutbacks in social spending and racial discrimination. About 40% of black Vietnam vets are currently under PTS as compared with 20% of white vets.
“It’s a class thing that the guys who went to fight the war were the sons of working class people,” noted Peter Mahoney, an Army lieutenant during 1970‑1 in Vietnam. “We were the ones with the least political power and ability to get out of the draft. And when we came back we were treated the same way.”
I do believe the C.O. lied,
When he made us use that herbicide,
He said it’d only kill the trees,
But now I got this strange disease,
Sound off. . .
Agent Orange was the military’s name for a lethal chemical used to defoliate the countryside of Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 in order to deny cover and food to guerrillas of the National Liberation Front and their many civilian supporters. In all, approximately 11.2 million gallons of the herbicide, largely produced by Dow Chemical, which also manufactured napalm, were sprayed over 3.6 million acres of land, taking a dramatic toll on vegetation and on the health of the Vietnamese exposed. But American GIs were told by their superiors that the chemical would not harm them.
Years later, tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans have reported the outbreak of an epidemic of diseases that have been linked to Agent Orange-chloracne, bladder and kidney infection, skin lesions, abscesses, shingles, liver disorders, nerve damage, personality change, chronic fatigue, sores and cancer.
The government denies that Agent Orange is responsible for veterans’ problems and refuses to make disability payments to veterans who have put in claims which they believe result from Agent Orange poisoning. Until recently, the VA was also forbidden from conducting tests related to Agent Orange.
But Vietnam vets think otherwise. The following letter to Ronald Reagan, from an unnamed vet exposed to Agent Orange, was read on the steps of the Capitol:
My wife and I were married in 1969 and lost our first child due to a miscarriage . . . .Our daughter had some problems at birth. . .a slightly deformed finger on one hand and a congenital hip disorder. . . . With the third child we took every possible precaution to have a normal pregnancy. . . . Our third child, a boy, was born with an upper extremity amputation. . . he has no arms or hands. . . at three years of age [he developed] a severe kidney disease. . . At that time my wife and I decided never to have any more children. … The reason I question the effect of Agent Orange is because I come from a family of four boys who have had a total of 17 children, three of which were deformed or died. . . Those three were all mine.
“We need testing, treatment and compensation for Agent Orange,” confirmed John Lindquist, a Wisconsin vet who served in the Third Marines in 1968‑9 and who is one of four national officers of the VVAW “We don’t want to be 30 years down the road like the atomic veterans,” he said, a reference to the soldiers exposed to atomic testing in the early 1950s who have suffered an extremely high rate of cancer.
The Next Vietnam
General Haig he wants a war,
Ship him to El Salvador,
Drop him on the jungle floor,
He won’t bother us no more,
Sound off. . .
Why, many people ask, don’t Vietnam veterans put Vietnam behind them? Veterans respond that the scars of the war are too deep and ongoing to forget. “We were just killing innocent people, children,” explained Cowboy, a New Yorker who spent 1967‑8 in Vietnam with the Second Marines. “You were in somebody else’s homeland and the people who lived there defended it against you. You saw your partners being killed. And after a while, people started talking to you, you learned the land. You began to ask, ‘What am I here for?’ “He is now a member of Black Veterans for Social Justice in Brooklyn, New York.
The bitterness that many of America’s 8.5 million Vietnam veterans feel about their experience was graphically reflected at an open microphone set up at the steps of the Capitol where vets lined up to speak their minds and contemptuously fling their medals from the war in long arcs over the marble steps.
A vet from St. Paul, “and probably from Da Nang, Vietnam” threw his crossed‑rifles infantry insignia onto the steps “because the only thing our brothers got was crosses in your damn cemetery,” a reference to the 57,865 US soldiers who died in ‘Nam and the 43,000 others who died later from their wounds.
During a solemn memorial ceremony for the dead earlier in the day at Arlington National Cemetery, Pete Zastrow, who as a captain commanded an infantry company in the First Air Cavalry Division in 1968‑9, noticed a nearby gravestone. It was that of Medgar Evers, a black veteran of World War II who had survived D‑Day on the beaches of Normandy only to be assassinated by white racists in 1963 for his role as a leader of the civil rights movement. “That’s what you get for fighting for this country,” said Zastrow as he walked away from Arlington.
Dewey Canyon vets spoke of Vietnam also because they believe they are witnessing the same kind of war today in El Salvador. “The governments down there are terror governments,” said one vet in reference to Central America. “They believe in torture, killing people, and I just can’t believe in supporting them.”
“When I went to pick up my wife who works at the VA hospital recently,” recalled Bob Anderson of western Pennsylvania, “she pointed out to me that a whole wing of that hospital is shutdown. They say they don’t have the money to run the thing, yet Reagan’s spending $20 million to bring these death squad troops from El Salvador to Fort Bragg to train them to go back and kill people who are fighting for their rights over there. They tell us there’s no money, but there is.”
Perhaps the greatest pressure to discuss the parallels many vets see between Vietnam and El Salvador is a feeling that they have a special responsibility to use their experience to prevent today’s young people from being sent to El Salvador as today’s vets were sent off to Vietnam almost a generation ago.
“Being a minority person,” explained Jerry Simmons, a black vet from Milwaukee, “I see El Salvador as the rich helping the rich to oppress the poor. And I don’t feel that 18‑year‑olds from this country should go help somebody fight against a people fighting for their freedom when we ain’t got none here.
“Anyone who says that black people should fight is a fool. The majority of black people who have come out of the service haven’t been any better off [than] when they went in.”
The “war is going on right at home right now,” concludes Wayne Smith, a black veteran who was a combat medic attached to the Ninth Infantry Division in 1969‑70 and who today counsels other Vietnam vets in Providence, Rhode Island. “These are our battles.”
And if the young people present at Dewey Canyon 4 were any indication, the message is being heard. “I was too young to fight in Vietnam, but I’m prime meat for the wars coming up,” declared Michael Gooding of Columbia, South Carolina. “I’ll, fight, but it’ll be right here in the streets of America because I know who the enemy is.”
“I’m presently in the US Navy,” added an unidentified young man dressed in a borrowed olive green fatigue jacket to disguise his identity, “and if they think I’m going to El Salvador, they can go to hell.”
Conflicting Feelings, Growing Unity
Speaking out on the wars on Vietnam and El Salvador has had its price, explained Zastrow. “Because we are coming here for both decent benefits and for ‘No More Vietnams,’ we have lost the support of vet groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion,” he said. “But we don’t think we can possibly divorce the issues. El Salvador sounds so much like what we remember about Vietnam-and it’s Vietnam that made the Vietnam vet. Vietnam brought us Agent Orange. Vietnam caused Post‑Traumatic Stress.”
But Pat MccAnn, who spent Vietnam in the Air Force on duty in the US and who is now an electrician and unionist in the DC area, doesn’t think Dewey Canyon’s focus on the controversial issues of Vietnam and El Salvador was a major obstacle to winning support from ordinary Vietnam vets.
“Seventy‑five to ninety percent of the guys here were ground troops in ‘Nam,” said MccAnn, whose brother and father were both stationed in Vietnam. “This is the first time in my entire association with the WAW that’s been true. In fact, there are people here who were kind of unclear about the war. They have a sense they fought for the rich and got screwed. But they don’t understand that the Vietnamese liberation movement was just. There’s a lot of conflicting emotional problems because the Vietnamese blew their buddies away.
“But even those who don’t understand El Salvador say ‘We ain’t going through this again.’ What happened here this week proves that you can link the issues if you do it the right way.”
The feeling of most vets at Dewey Canyon 4 was that their “incursion” had successfully brought together, reactivated, and perhaps broadened a network of Vietnam vets based on very powerful common bonds, which non-veterans could not easily share.
Unlike many other actions by Vietnam veterans, Dewey Canyon 4 was attended by both black and white veterans-which some vets felt was a reflection of the fact that, despite the racism they saw in the military, GIs had been forced to rely on each other under fire.
“I think the group here has the same type of unity we had in the service,” agreed Cowboy. “We can relate to each other better than we can talk to somebody else. This is a family of us who are still here, who made it back. It’s a tribute to our comrades who didn’t.”
While the vet’s movement, and what many vets at Dewey Canyon 4 saw as a broader movement against
Reagan and militarism was not viewed with rose‑colored glasses, many vets expressed an overall feeling of optimism about the future. John Lindquist looked back over the decade to put some perspective on Dewey Canyon 4.
“After the war ended a lot of people dropped out of the movement,” he said. “But when the Agent Orange issue broke in 78 it lit a fire, then the registration for the draft lit a fire under other, anti‑war veterans. Then the hostages came home. The vet movement has been growing bigger ever since. Now, with the possibility of another Vietnam in El Salvador and the economic situation, this was the prime time to be here. Operation Dewey Canyon 4 is a high point, pulling out of the closet after the war.”
“We shed our blood in Vietnam, and I shed my last tear today at Arlington Cemetery,” said Bill Davis as he wound up the last moments of Dewey Canyon 4. “And I hope the rest of you did too, because from here on in it’s straight ahead, brothers and sisters, and kickin’ ass. Thank you for coming to Washington DC for Dewey Canyon 4.We’ll see you the next time.”
Vietnam Veterans Against the War, PO Box 25592, Chicago, IL 60625; (312) 463‑2127.
Black Veterans for Social Justice, 1119 Fulton St., Brooklyn, NY11238; (212) 789‑4680.