Watching “The Vietnam War” documentary surfaces the old memories, despite whatever flaws the documentary may have as history or memory or even film making. Not that I have the horrid memories depicted in the film, thankfully, and God bless and help the veterans of that unjust and unnecessary war who do suffer still from those memories, as well as the families of millions of Vietnamese that we brutally slaughtered, but my memories are not theirs because I am fortunate enough to not have to carry that burden around for the rest of my life.
The film has men and women who came of age in those days telling their story. Below is my Vietnam story, in a nutshell, which every man (and woman) of my age must tell – in answer to the questions: “What did you do in the Vietnam War?” or “How did you handle the draft?” or “Where were you 1965-1974 in the Vietnam War era?”
For people of a certain age who read this, what is yours?
I was in seminary 1967-68, having passed on a chance to go to West Point with a conditional appointment from Senator John Sparkman of Alabama. As a son of the South, God and Country were pretty much equivalent for me, and service was service, whether as priest or soldier. Since the diocese of Mobile-Birmingham did not have its own seminary (Catholics were only 2% of the Alabama population), I was sent to the diocesan seminary in Catonsville, MD. Yes, that Catonsville, MD where, not far from the seminary, on May 16, 1968 Fathers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, with seven other people (“The Catonsville 9”), burned draft files with homemade napalm, after which some guys at the seminary who had their draft files at Catonsville went down and voluntarily reconstructed them. I had noticed what happened down the street from me at the draft board, of course, because it made a lot of news, Catholic news, but I was focused on Senators Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy and the 1968 election as a means to get out the war, and my idealism took a major blow on June 6, 1968 when I woke up to find that Bobby Kennedy had been struck down after winning the California primary.
After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and Bobby Kennedy’s deaths in early 1968, while I was finishing up freshman year at the seminary, and after witnessing the smoke from afar as Baltimore burned after King’s assassination, the life-goes-on-as-usual of the seminary and America, where a graduation ceremony was happening on the very day when Kennedy’s body went cold, when everything should have stopped with Bobby’s death, I felt, and we were all singing and endless “Na na na nah” from “Hey, Jude” as the top song of 1968, and the social turmoil of resisting authority that was present even in seminary life, such as boycotting classes over a dispute with the Rector’s heavy-handed discipline, which I did not understand at all, it was then that I became deeply disillusioned and quit the seminary, telling Dad, a career Army man, that I was going to join the Army.
I know, that does not make sense. Why would I support either McCarthy or Kennedy to end the war, and then sign up for it? I was 19. Does that explain it? I was brought up in a military family? Does that? Maybe it was that summer of 1968 when I saw another underbelly of the American experience while selling encyclopedias to poor families who could not afford them, and kind of falling for one of the young women who was on our sales team, only to find myself in a hotel in Mississippi while a couple of guys laughed as they listened through the wall to our boss having sex with “Peggy.” Then going back to the Catonsville seminary for a week to start sophomore year, but quickly realizing that my heart was not in that anymore and I did not really know what I wanted to do next.
That was the Fall of 1968, a year in which 16,592 American soldiers would die in Vietnam. Dad said “No, you’re going back to college” (his message, not necessarily his exact word), and so I did in January 1969, deferred from the draft while in college. I worked my way through the “D’s” of the college catalogue (University of Delaware, University of Dayton, and University of Dallas), looking for a humanities curriculum that might help me make sense of what it means to be a human being. Yes, I really thought like that.
It would not be until 1971, the day after I graduated from the University of Dallas, a bastion of right wing Catholics at the time (which educated some major leaders of the American Right, like classmate L. Brent Bozelle III, founder of the Media Research Center), which Playboy magazine listed as one of the safest conservative colleges to which parents could send their children in those days when 400 colleges nationally were holding “Vietnam Moratorium” boycotts and strikes and marches against the war (Mom probably hoped that Playboy was right), it was in May, 1971 that I entered the Army, by that time having been classified by the draft board as 1-AO Conscientious Objector with a middle-range draft number (151) who volunteered for the draft as a CO, moving to the head of the line, who would not have to carry a rifle, instead being slated to be trained as a medic, still attracted to being a hero, to being “a good American like my Dad” as the poem by a Vietnam Veteran says.
Why that? Why after protesting the war at University of Dallas? Why after throwing off my gown and tossing my mortarboard hat onto the stage, like a dangerous Frisbee, when the Baccalaureate professor/speaker, dressed in his foppish white suit and snakeskin cowboy boots, who had been chosen to be our speaker by the 1971 graduating class conservatives, almost as a joke and payback to the “liberals” like me, got up and gave a defense of America’s involvement in Vietnam? Why then?
Dad was still not happy with my choice to go to the Army, but I remember him as overall supportive of me. Mom was proud, I believe. Maybe Dad was still the answer to why I went to the Army. Maybe it was losing my college love and then another in a rebound relationship, and being somewhat adrift personally. But why did I refuse to go after a Danforth Scholarship for which Sister St. John, my favorite professor, wanted to recommend me? That might have gotten me to graduate school and avoided altogether any service in the military.
I really do not have the answers to my questions. I just know what I did. I volunteered for the draft under the 1-AO classification.
In the Army I came face to face with the dispirited and demoralized “lifers” who had committed to a military career, good men like my father. I saw my father in them in their faces, which appeared to me weary and demoralized, revealing the damaged integrity of being caught up in the Vietnam debacle – or was I reading that into them? Impossible to know. I did know this, however, that the Army was broken. I saw new recruits acting out to get kicked out of the Army; but by contrast, at first, I was so “gung ho” myself that I won the American Spirit and Honor Award for my basic training class of 80 men down at Fort Polk, LA, becoming the class sergeant and marching men (with guns) all over the base to the sound of my cadences (I have a big voice), some of which were, oddly, anti-war cadences. It did not matter as long as the men marched. And there I was, marching them. And there I was, a CO who had never lifted a fist in anger at anyone in my life, never been in a fight at all (still have not), facing down an angry soldier who wanted to hurt me, but refrained from doing so because I had those class sergeant insignia protecting me.
After Fort Polk I was off to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for medic training, where I continued to do well enough that I was selected to go to the United States Army Airborne School at Fort Benning (the place of my birth) after medic training and learn to jump out of airplanes, which was considered to be an opportunity offered only to “elite” soldiers. I had done a loyalty and commitment interview to get that, a fact that left the officers who conducted it quite mad at me as things later turned out.
Only later would I come to such a crisis of conscience about the Vietnam War, which was still killing men in 1971 (almost 2,400 Americans that year), that I applied for full release as a 1-O status CO. Maybe it was after reading the motto of the medical corps – “”To Conserve Fighting Strength” – and learning that principles of triage would require me to let men die if they could not get up to fight, focusing instead on those who could still protect the fighting unit.
There is more. It has to do with a religious vision (nothing else to call it) that I had at the time, very much like the vision that Trappist monk Thomas Merton had at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky, which he describes in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, only mine took place on the street in San Antonio. I will write about that more at some point, but it was the moment when I saw for myself, realizing generally but not in specifics, that some sort of suffering lay ahead for me, and that it would be a privilege of my faith to undergo that suffering – it was then that I believe I saw the God within everyone on the street around me that day, all of them beaming and translucent with some sort of light coming from within them, right down to the baby in a carriage, and I knew for certain that humans have a Soul, that we are Good, that we are made of Light, or whatever we wish to call it, that we are Life, not Death. And I felt a peace about whatever was to come next, which I was still in the process of discovering.
So at some point I entered the process of lining up my dad and my own personal army of priests I knew from the University of Dallas (one of whom was an anti-communist Hungarian Cistercian priest who attested to my true belief, with which he vehemently disagreed, which could only help me), to plead my case of being a true conscientious objector who should be released to alternative service. I felt it was a sure thing that I would be released, but after much anguish I felt I had to speak out in some way more than that; especially, it seemed to me, because I knew how to speak out as a college graduate, while the other guys, every bit the CO I had become, some of them rural guys from Tennessee and elsewhere with only high school educations, were throwing furniture out of 4th floor windows or refusing to have their hair cut or coming up with other disobedient ways to say “Hell, no” to the Army and the war, bringing much trouble into their lives.
I recall – is it a true memory? – being moved by the words of Isaiah to do more than just get myself out of the Army. (“The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to answer the weary a word that will waken them.” Isaiah 50:4)
And so I protested in ranks, wearing a small cross on a chain outside my uniform, gift of a Catholic retreat weekend that I had attended and which I later conducted while at University of Dallas, which I had worn under my T-shirt next to my chest until then, and doing that to object to the Vietnam War, and in order, quite deliberately and with forethought, to say “No” to Sergeant Brown when he ordered me to put it inside, and then to the Captain who gave me the same order, and to take that “No” to its logical conclusion and thus get to know what the Army stockade at Fort Hood looked like from the inside out, but not before being quarantined in barracks as I awaited court martial, where I sat up a small devotional altar with candles and scriptures next to my bunk (that was a little bit weird) and read Daniel Berrigan’s book “No Bars to Manhood,” and from where I would hurl my American Spirit and Honor Award as far out on to the yard as I could, no longer wanting any part of it.
And I remember feeling as I went behind the chain link and concertina wire at the stockade, after riding with two MPs from San Antonio to Killeen, Texas with my hands and arms cuffed behind me (they were sympathetic to my pain, but following protocol), that I was the freest man in the world and that everyone outside the wire fencing were the ones who were in prison. It had rained and the wire fencing glistened with the raindrops and I was at peace. My story was being told on national radio (Elizabeth McAlister heard it in NYC), and on the front page of the San Antonio News with Father Art Moser of the Newman Center at the University of Texas standing beside a very skinny me, and on the hospital radio where my mom was recuperating from cyst surgery in Huntsville, Alabama (she was mortified and embarrassed by my action), while my dad was being interviewed by the Huntsville Times and standing behind my act of conscience, pointing out that the Army had over-reacted since they were about to release me anyway. No TV coverage. The Army information officers had made sure after the courts martial that national TV not get me on camera with my little cross dangling outside my uniform.
I was sentenced to four months but served only one as my 1A-O conscientious objector status was granted and the Army did not want to feed me anymore, so they cut me loose.
My life by that time had forever been changed by those days. From West Point candidate to Army prisoner in five years, with ample opportunities to avoid military service at all, but drawn by some ineluctable force to go there.
Postlude: Before I had protested in ranks in the Army, I had gone out to hear Sister Elizabeth McAlister (three times! so much that she took me for an Army spy in my uniform) as she talked about her impending trial with Father Phil Berrigan and six other defendants in Harrisburg, where they were facing serious charges for their resistance to the Vietnam War. She moved me deeply. During the course of the courts martial I met two Paulist priests (Art Moser and his classmate Ed Guinan) who would inspire me to go back to the seminary (the Paulists this time) after the Army and ultimately redirected my life (after leaving a seminary for the second time) to service of the inner-city poor and homeless of Washington, DC in the Community for Creative Nonviolence, CCNV, that Ed and some fellow Paulists had founded, and resistance to what was left of the war as I became part of the “Catholic Left,” entered into marriage with a CCNV member running a soup kitchen and with her three children, and otherwise setting me on that path of life (anti-war activism and homeless services at the core of it) for decades to come.