Charlie O’Dowd (unedited – not in CALLED TO SERVE)

Charlie lives in Hatfield, Massachusetts.  He is a widower whose wife died from cancer.  He lives with his daughter, Mona, who is 29 years old and has disabilities.  His son, Chip is 33 and married to Lisa.  They have a 1-year old daughter and live in Northampton. (Chip is an Iraq War veteran.)  Charlie is the Postmaster in Wendell Massachusetts, and has held the job for 21 years.   

In the fall of 1967 I had finished three years of college in the Boston area.  I dropped out of school with a broken heart when my girl friend married someone else.  Needing a change of locale and discipline, I enrolled in two evening   programs – one at the Museum School (School of the Museum of Fine Arts) and the other at Boston University.  I studied two vastly different perspectives: ceramics and art history and economics.  My primary focus was on gaining an education.  Going to two colleges part time didn’t exempt me from the draft though.

Instead, I was notified by my local draft board in Concord, Massachusetts, that I was being inducted into the service.  I made an appointment with the board and asked that they reconsider calling me up because of my social contributions: (1) doing community work at the Boardman School in Roxbury, and  (2) my Quaker religion.

I had been an attending member of the Quaker Meeting of Friends at Longfellow Park located near Harvard Square the whole time I was in the Boston area. I was very impressed by what Quakers had accomplished through demonstrations of peace, recognizing dissent, and doing selfless good deeds in the community while holding progressive ideals.  I knew also that ever since Quakers were first recognized as a religious sect, that Friends had worked tirelessly for peaceful ends both domestically and internationally.  Logically, this approach was one that was constructive, inclusive, and a tract to guide me.

It was already very clear to me that the Vietnam War was a terrible war; that we were simply taking the place of an exploitive French government.  It appeared to me that the United States was trying to get a foothold in yet another Third World country for it’s own purposes.  One purpose was to gain a foothold closer to Communist Russians and Chinese. I would later wonder why our country hated communism so much.  Moreover, it was clear to me that we could never ‘win’ there.

The draft board recognized that I was sincere in my beliefs and actions, but that I didn’t have a case to be considered a Conscientious Objector.  They noted that I didn’t have a family history of my parents being involved in pacifist activities. So they gave me a date that I was to report for induction.  I was told that if I was sincere, that I could re-apply for CO status at the induction center.

Selfishly, I kept my impending call-up from my parents. Therefore they were not aware of my preliminary dealings with the draft board.  I didn’t believe that their knowing would have been able to help me at any rate. Born in the nineteen forties, I came from a very traditional family that was grateful that it had survived the Great Depression and World War II.  They held blind trust in the country’s leadership and the security that new social reforms provided.  My dad worked, and my mom raised our family from home.  My dad had served in World War II and suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. To make a positive contribution to the world, and to rescue distressed and impoverished people from Europe, he set up a foreign auto repair shop in Concord and used it as a gateway to bring over (rescue) and train refugees in order to provide them with a fresh start in a safe America that he had so mush pride in.

The day of my induction, I asked my dad to get up a little early and drive me to the draft board office where all the draftees were to meet. I felt I had dad’s support when he left me off to join the army.

There was only a single representative of the draft board there, and he checked our names off, as if he was filling an order.  We new recruits boarded a very old school bus for the ride from Concord to Boston.  I recall thinking we were being treated like livestock. We didn’t know what would happen to us next.  It was very cold and still dark out.

When we arrived at the Boston Navy Yard, they wanted to get us sworn in.  We were led into a room, and an officer began to read a script that said that we were going to receive the oath. He also said anyone who could not take the oath should please leave the room.  So I did. That was my first separation from the group of inductees.

It was at least ten minutes before someone from the military came over to me, seemingly a bit nonplussed. I was surprised that apparently they had never had the experience of a person saying “No!” to searing, unquestioning allegiance to the president of the United States and it’s country’s policies.  Basically, the people in the induction center appeared to have never dealt with this kind of “situation” before.   They gave me a piece of paper to read.  I read it, and it said that, as a citizen, I recognize my responsibility to serve this government and this country as well as the alternatives to this service. I agreed with the obligation for alternative service and I signed that paper. They were relieved.

It was at this time that I applied again for Conscientious Objector status.  By then, I had heard of Muhammad Ali and I saw how much he had to give up for his beliefs. He served as a model to inner city blacks by refusing induction, so I was strengthened by the example that he had set.  I knew what the right action was that I had to take. From my short seven or eight months of working in the inner city, I knew how important it was to provide a heroic male model for children, and to take a stand on an important issue of the time. Seeing the injustices that minorities experienced on a daily basis in the 1960’s was heart-rending.  I felt strongly that being a conscientious objector was the only right and moral thing that I could do. (I had known that well before I got on the bus that day.)  The fact that I had already stated and demonstrated my position when I spoke up earlier for CO status, only strengthened my resolve.  I felt for the first time that I could do something that would make a difference. I could set an example for the guys around me, if not for the induction center people, and maybe my courage would help someone else to act as a step toward change.

But it certainly wasn’t going to be easy.  By now they had us confined and guarded everywhere we went. They now had the number of guys they needed to meet their quota, and like captive slaves, they shepherded us down to South Carolina for “processing”.  However, so many people had been drafted at the same time, they didn’t have room for all of us.  We were sent into a field where there were ten-man tents awaiting us.  This was February, 1967. After issuing us military clothing and giving us some screening,  basically, for two weeks they had nothing for us to do. We just lived in these tents and exhausted all our coal and scrap paper fuel trying to stay warm.  Although we were in these tents, we weren’t in much contact with the military.  They just issued us underwear, blankets and coats to make us look like soldiers and had our civilian clothes sent back home.

To their credit, not a single person with whom I was quartered or who knew my anti-war position ever referred to me as a coward or was critical of my views or me in any way.  During this period there was a screening process, and I was again set apart.  I had had a vitamin deficiency as a child, which manifested itself as a sunken chest caused by rickets, so I was separated off into a small group of maybe eight men.  Several of these men had enlisted.  Some of them were desperate enlistees: convicts who would have their criminal records expunged if they would volunteer to serve. One or two were sole surviving sons who were the primary support of widowed mothers, some had no hearing and others had physical abnormalities such as missing a finger or an eye that had been purposely overlooked.

While I was with this general induction camp, five of the several hundred draftees we came with died of spinal meningitis!  But, instead of isolating us, the military’s response was to immediately disburse us by bus all over the country. I was in a group that was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky.  Once again, we got on buses and once again the timing was such that we arrived at night at one or two in the morning.  From the bus we were hustled into a florescent-lit surreal setting and lined up. When our names were read out, we’d run here, run there, and then stand and wait in some line.

At one point during that strange night at Fort Knox, we were issued our rifles. I refused to take mine.  Again I met confusion. These were people who’d never seen a CO before.  They were accustomed to dealing with people who either wanted to be in the service or who were resigned to being there.

I was sent to see “the First Sergeant” the next morning. He was a Korean War veteran and his experiences had hardened him.  He couldn’t imagine seeing someone standing in front of him, in his office, with a contrary point of view.  After a short time, he took me to the Company Commander who was just the opposite type of individual.  The company commander was an easterner who’d had been a civilian with some education and a wider view of the world.  While I was told to wait in an outer room, the sergeant went into the Commanding Officer’s office. I could hear the First Sergeant urging the Commanding Officer to be really tough on me, but he couldn’t convince his superior officer.  When the sergeant kept yelling – going on and on and on, I broke in, saying, “I had already applied for CO status back at the Induction Center.”   That quieted things down.  Then I was told, “Well, yes, that’s allowed, but you’ll have to do it again, because none of the records had been included with my paperwork.”

Although I was in Basic Training Company C-19-5, I was immediately separated from all the troops who were about to go through basic training.  I was told to remain in the barracks. I became a kind of  “houseboy” to all the guys in my platoon. While a lot of guys were in the field, I would make their beds and wax the floors, and my platoon loved that.  They especially appreciated my efforts when unannounced inspections came, and we were in exemplary condition. This made our Platoon Sergeant

look good, too.  In addition, I pulled KP over 20 times and was on fireguard every night – to rest the platoon.

After several weeks of these details that benefited only my platoon, the military changed their approach and sought to make a negative example of me.  They gave me a pick axe and put me to hard labor, breaking up cement.  When the handle of the pick axe broke, they left me with just the head of the pick to work with.  They had me out there sixteen hours a day breaking up cement into big pieces.  Then I had to break the big pieces down into big stones (that they put under the barracks) and little stones (that they used for the company street).  I kept breaking up cement until that job was accomplished. It took me a few months. Then they had me break up the clay beneath the cement and had me plant grass seed.  I was the Fort Knox Beautification program.

One night I was out gathering straw-like tall grass from beside the roadway, which I was to spread all over the grass seed.  While I was pushing a 2-wheeled cart loaded with straw back to the company area, a Protestant minister drove by.  He recognized me from seeing me at work all day, and asked me about my situation. I told him I had been assigned to do this work while I was awaiting a determination on my CO classification and assignment.  He said, “Well, they can’t be doing this to you.” I told him more about my background, and he said that he would personally look into my case.

Perhaps that helped move things forward.  In any event, when nothing could be found regarding my CO request, I was sent to the Brigade Commander, Colonel Cawthra, who was just back from Vietnam.  He was really gung ho.  From his rank and the honors in his office, I could see that he was very proud of his career and that he had been well trained at West Point.  It was his view that once I was in the service,  I could not be a Conscientious Objectors only a non-combatant combat support personnel.  He told me about different types of duties that he could see me performing, while being of service to the army.  He tried to talk me into being a medic, but I knew even then, the role of a medic was to patch people up and send them back into action.  I said that as a CO, I just couldn’t support that route as “alternative service.”  Basically, I didn’t want to contribute to supporting the war in any way.

By this point, I was artificially advanced beyond Basic Training to Advanced Individual Training.  I was sent to Quartermaster Supply School. It was a program where you advanced at your own speed.  You would read a topic and answer some questions.  It was a very basic and understandable program; I just went right through the course and graduated within days.

Then they had no place for me.  I told them I had gone to college and they asked me if I could type. I said yes and they told me they had another program called the Clerk Typist Program.  Like the quartermaster program, it was a self-study, advance at your own speed course, and once again I finished it within days.

It was at that time that I was promoted.  Ironically, my name was published in my hometown newspaper, The Beacon, because  I had been named “Soldier of the Month.”  I even appeared in the Army newspaper, and I was given a savings bond.  I certainly never imagined being in this situation.  To the credit of the Army, they looked only at performance.

First, they decided to use my supply skills, and I was assigned to issue blankets and other supplies from the supply room when a tragedy occurred, and I gained further insight into the Army’s view that everybody is replaceable.  The armorer, who issued the weapons, had been the target of ridicule after he had received a “Dear John” letter.  One night he couldn’t take it any longer, and he went into the arms cage, and committed suicide.  The Army simply treated it as another vacancy, an opportunity for someone else to get a permanent position, which everyone hoped would keep them from going overseas.

My CO status was not going forward.  It was on some back burner, and they weren’t doing anything about it. I learned from the minister that my application had been substituted for the routine security clearance check that was made of all clerk typists because clerks open mail that is classified as secret and addressed to field grade officers. I had now completed my Advance Individual Training for a specialty, and was eligible for assignment. Wouldn’t you know it, all my quartermaster supply school classmates got overseas assignments `for Germany, while I was assigned to “Hold Over Barracks” and put once again on housekeeping details.  More time was going by, and I was still waiting for my CO status.

Then suddenly, without anything more having been said to me about my CO status, a levy came down, and they needed a clothing fitter in Vietnam. My only recollection of my preparation for the Southeast Asian climate was going on long marches dressed in extra heavyweight clothing, sleeping in an insulated mummy bag, and learning about such dangers as frostbite and freezing. Occasionally we had a command information session in a Quonset hut where we watched films on “sizzle, simmer and scorch!” and learned all we really needed to know about the three-step viper. If that snake bit you, you had three steps and then you were dead.  Then I was sent off to Vietnam loaded down with the heaviest woolen clothing, long johns and gloves with glove liners all bundled onto a cargo plane.

As I said earlier, even while I was still in the States, I felt the U.S. was only replacing occupying French troops and my country didn’t belong in Vietnam.  This view was more than confirmed once I was in country. There I learned that for thousands of years the Vietnamese had retained a separate identity, nation, and society quite different from that of surrounding countries.  In the rural countryside, their culture was much like a tribal society: living in small villages that were compatible with the environment of Southeast Asia and supporting one another, for the common welfare.

The only analogy I knew of was that of the American Indian.  It appeared to me that most rural Vietnamese had not reached an industrial or mechanical age.  There were so many things they did by hand.  It was an ingenious and adaptive lifestyle that we Americans were intruding upon by inposing our American military power and American commercial way of life. I felt that American leadership was negatively labeling this traditional agrarian society as “communist”.  It was a way of life that predated “socialism” and “communism”.  It was a successful way of life and a unique system that had been working well for many centuries before we arrived, and we ‘protectors’ were labeling it as somehow wrong.

By and large it was a good way of life where people looked after one another and their extended families.  American expectations and our way of living were breaking up those extended family bonds by forcing young men to be conscripted into the service and young women to go into urban areas and to work sometimes as prostitutes.  Americans were responsible for a black market and a drug market that weren’t familiar with or felt morally right to them.

While I was “in country” I really identified with a lot of the guys who were like the guys I had known on the streets in Roxbury and Dorchester.  They just happened to be the Black and Hispanic guys in my outfit. They were decent guys. They gave me the nickname “Howdy”.  I saw different approaches people were taking to coping with military life. Some of the guys were there because they had some misdemeanor and the court had said, “If you go to Vietnam, we’ll clean your record.” It was not a story I heard from white soldiers. I became very disillusioned by the unfair way our country treated its inner city Blacks and Hispanics.  It almost certainly appeared that these groups were targeted for arrest so that they would have a record that would preclude any advancement other than through the service.

My basic training bunkmate from Ft. Knox was a black man from New York.    He was married, but he had a police record.  After Basic, he was sent to “Tigerland” in Louisiana, a swamp similar to parts of Vietnam. He ended up in Vietnam as a door-gunner. I told him of my teaching in the inner city of Roxbury and we were good friends. He led a synchronized hand- jive drill team.  Before he left Ft. Knox for Ft. Polk, I gave him all the money I had, so he could go back to visit his family one last time.  He was a good man, I didn’t think I’d ever see him again.

My group was a colorful kind of outfit.  It was the First Air Cavalry, which had the biggest military patch, a big yellow shield.  The patch had a big black horse on it representing Comanche, the only survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn, since it was also Custer’s regiment. They were full of bravado and pretty much acted as if they were back at home in San Antonio, Texas. They all wore orange neckerchiefs and we got unofficial berets provided by the Falstaff Beer Company.  After the war, I watched the movie, “Apocalypse Now,” and my outfit was in it! The film really caught the essence of the First Cav.

I was assigned to a detachment of a Headquarters and Headquarters Company.   We were a personnel replacement and detail unit. I laugh now, because I never got to be a “clothing fitter.”  Everyone was interchangeable there, and I was assigned to bring some tanks to the Pleiko area.  At this point we weren’t taking the tanks on flatbed trucks.  Instead I would walk alongside my tank to “ground guide” the driver away from any livestock alongside of the road.  I went over as a Specialist E-4.  I passed a rare board and was promoted to Spec 5, and over there I was designated a Tank Commander, so I was ground guiding, driving and clearing livestock.

On one particular occasion, I was watching some Vietnamese civilians coming in my direction, and a girl caught my eye. I can’t explain it, but there was an instantaneous feeling of being able to read her mind, and  I imagined what her experiences might have been.  But I felt that she looked back at me like I was just another male, foreign invader, in a uniform, who was responsible for something bad that had happened to her.

It was a revelation.  I saw myself from her perspective.  I read on her face that I did not belong there.  I did not speak her language.  I was not needed there.  My people had caused great hardship and tragedy to her and her loved ones and were threatening bullies.  I imagined a lot of things that I projected on to this young and pretty woman.  I even had the unrealistic thought of marrying a Vietnamese woman and rescuing her and her family from the insane tragedy going on there, and trying to offer them safety, and a healthy peace back home.

But all these thoughts and projections were lost in a second.  Suddenly she was blown up right there across the street from me.  All I could see was her outline, like a woman’s shape with a light behind it.  I had also been blown up, and had a surreal imagining of flying slowly backwards and upwards into light.

I remained unconscious for four days and awoke in an infirmary.  I got a commercial flight back home over the South Pacific.  On the way I felt an unusual feeling, like I was entering into a protective bubble, and all that time in ‘Nam was outside this imaginary bubble. I went back to Ireland Army Hospital at Fort Knox.  I was a lucky one.  Guys were getting Purple Hearts, but being patched up and sent back into action.  I was going home… or so I thought, because I had shrapnel stuck in the roof of my mouth and jaw.  There were more and more wounded, that at first I wasn’t aware of.  The number of wounded guys just proved we shouldn’t have been fighting this war.

Coming back by commercial airlines (with a morphine needle) I came back from Vietnam a far different way than the way I had arrived.  We went over in cargo planes via Alaska and Japan.  I came home by commercial airplane via Hawaii.  Going there, we were treated like livestock.  Coming home, we were treated like airline passengers.  As I said, on the way home, I felt an unusual awareness.  I felt as though I had passed through a protective membrane into a wonderful safe world.  While I was in Vietnam everything felt dangerous and unsafe and unreliable.  In the States, no one comes into your house in the middle of the night.  No one wantonly destroys your property and possessions.  Here, we have clean water, clean air and clean food.  Here we have so many freedoms and opportunities and so many things to be thankful for.

My experience gave me a new perspective.  People in the States aren’t aware of the senseless cruelty and the bad things that are going on all over the world.  People here can grow and be strong, or smart without fear.  Some even leave this protective bubble and try to make things better back “there”, wherever “there” might be.

I was now back in the States.  I was back at B-7-2 at Fort Knox, and they had no place for me.  There was another fellow who’d come back from Vietnam. His name was Peacock, and he suffered from wounds that caused him to reflexively dive to the floor whenever he heard artillery blasts or reports from tanks engaged in night firefights.

No one wanted combat veterans around, especially wounded ones like us, and especially talking to new recruits and draftees.  They sent me to Fort Drum in upstate New York to set up the base for summer reservists.  There I was made a company mailman.  I met a colonel in the Office of the Inspector General.  I told him my story.  Hearing that I’d moved around so many times and filed so many different applications for my CO, he immediately sent a request for information up the chain of command, called a “Twixt”; it went to the Department of Defense specifically inquiring about my situation.

The information he got back revealed that no one further up the chain of command had ever seen my requests, and that all they had in my files were the applications for the secret clearance for clerk typist I had passed.  I had been in now for over a year, but no one had seen, let alone dealt with, any of my efforts to be designated as a CO. Meanwhile, I had seen so many crazy and terrible things!  As a sheltered kid with pets, things I saw in market places especially struck me.  The senseless cruelty to helpless animals – and helpless orphan children – still bring great sadness to my heart and I blame these on our perpetuation of a war climate.

The colonel who had tried to assist me with obtaining information about my CO status immediately sent out orders for me to return to Fort Knox.  He assured me that there were people at Knox who were going to answer his inquiries.

So I went back to Fort Knox. But low and behold, my whole company was gone, and so were the old barracks from 1918!  They had been razed.  All that was left were the four-by-four concrete blocks that marked the corners of the buildings.  When the main post taxi driver dropped me off at my company there was no orderly room to report to, no company to report to.  I said to myself I should just go home. They didn’t want me there in the first place and to this day, I don’t know what stopped me.

Eventually, though, I saw a company up the street.  That ended up being A-7-2 while my orders mistakenly read B-7-2, a place that no longer existed.  A-7-2 was to become my new home. Still, I was feeling more optimistic: the colonel had taken me under his wing, I thought, and he was going to finally make things right.

I reported in and they used me temporarily to march troops to the mess hall and to do the mail.  Part of this involved bringing the mail out to prisoners in the stockade. These were men who refused to serve, or who had come back from the war and had problems adjusting that led to them having committed some crime.  They were always getting drunk and couldn’t care less if they got busted in rank. They had seen everything, and no one held any power over them any more.

It was at this point that I got orders again.  I had been selected as a typist in a most unusual spot. I was tasked to be Emergency Operations Logman, a glorified clerk typist with a top secret clearance on the third shift from eleven in the evening to seven in the morning at the Main Post, 1st Army Emergency Operations Center (USATCA), the most highly secure operations center in the Army.  This was the center for the most secret Army operations going on during the Cold War. I was told that we were in direct contact with an Apollo satellite, the Department of Defense, etc… Messages would come in from satellites and go to Washington to the special red phone and places with the plots on the wall map. We had loads of time zone maps.

There were only four of us in this missile-proof, windowless, blockhouse vault.    There was an Officer of the Day, an NCO of the Day, a cryptographer and me, the, historian if you will, “Emergency Center Logman.”   As the typist, my duties included logging in decoded messages and turning them over to the senior officer and enlisted man in the office.  At the end of my shift I would destroy the typewriter ribbons and everything else!

During the course of my time there, the four of us got to know each other.  People wondered how I got such a plum job, being just back from Vietnam and sporting a Purple Heart.  I told them about my application for CO status and I said, “They’ve really got the wrong person here.  I could be viewed as the biggest security risk they could ever have!”  I didn’t misuse my position; I only worked and I never took leave, but I should never have been put in such a position

Even after my sharing this information, I was kept in the position until the last days of my service.  Then they gave me a two-day early out.  Prior to that my company commander called me to his office and said, “I have a few things for you.”  I had been awarded the Good Conduct and Army Commendation medals.  All in all, I ended up with five or six ribbons on my chest, NCO grade E-5, and a Combat Patch.  Quite a collection of awards and adventures for a Conscientious Objector who never wanted to be there and could have done so many more meaningful things while in civilian life.

I came back home.  I couldn’t fit in.  I changed my name from Bill to Charlie.  I grew a beard.  I did not talk with anybody from my school days.  I swore off going into Boston.  I moved to the western part of the state where I tried to put everything behind me and start afresh.  I met and married a Hispanic girl and we began a new life together.

But the Army wasn’t through with me. In the summer of 1969, when people were beginning to feel the war was a losing proposition and there was a lot of visible opposition, the Army wanted to re-activate me, because I had a critical MOS – a military occupation specialty.  I had already gone from high school “Renaissance Man,” with promise in anything I would take up, to unsuccessful war resister, to a damaged and wounded war hero.  I had done my part and risen through the ranks to become a decorated NCO, but my country had let me down.  I had trusted in the system, but it had disappointed me. I had risen through the ranks to become a decorated NCO, but I could have been a better teacher or successful community builder.  Instead I got an unnecessary insider’s experience into the war machine.  I vowed never to go back.  I had given a lot and been discharged.  I had seen so much and talked with so many people about my experience that I could never go back.

So I went to a group called MassPax in Cambridge where lawyers assisted people in becoming educated about their rights regarding the military, thereby making it more difficult for the government to kill people. I talked with them for two days. They were very helpful to me, and told me I would never have to go back.  I would never have to serve in the reserve unit ever again.  I have no idea what they did, or who they wrote to, but it worked.

As I’ve mentioned, I grew a beard when I finally got out. I wanted to change my identity, start anew. After all my experiences, including being in a place so different from Boston as Vietnam is, I looked at things differently and wanted to dissociate from my former identity.

I felt like I had let everybody – my parents, my professors, my friends – down by being swept into the war and not staying in school and weathering the psychological problems I had felt in college.  Now I had a chance for a new beginning.  My top priority was to take some sort of course of action to deal with the bad memories I’d brought home from the war and to live again.  I enrolled in a student International Meditation Society to learn Transcendental Meditation.  I applied to go back to a different school than the one I’d left and was accepted to Columbia University in the Anthropology Department.  Margaret Mead was there and Mark Rudd was an undergraduate there, organizing SDS (Students for a Democratic Society).  I went to N.Y.C., did the orientation, paid my two hundred dollars to hold my seat and didn’t end up going.  At that point, the anti-war activists, the expansion of the university, looked on negatively as gentrification, but resulting in new mixed income housing with free daycare and local clinics, and my financial supporter’s anti-Semitism kept me from having that promising opportunity.

Using my Veteran’s Bonus of five hundred dollars from the State of Massachusetts, I moved to the Amherst area and attended the University of Massachusetts where I got 2 bachelors degrees with honors, a Supervisor’s Teaching Certification, 2 Masters with honors with membership in Beta Gamma Sigma, and worked on my Doctorate until I went on to public service.

Unfortunately my first marriage didn’t last.  I subsequently met a wonderful woman.  Her family had experienced discrimination and difficult times, because her father, a microbiologist, was Hispanic from Costa Rica.  Due to her parents’” interracial” marriage, they suffered social discrimination, which I understood all too well.  I fit right in.

Now I have a son, Chip.  He has always loved the “ideal hero,” and has always identified with knights. Somewhere he got the impression that military leaders are noble and has always believed he can do what he sets his sights on.  After all, nothing is impossible to the hero. Of course I have shared my experiences with him many times to dissuade him of this notion. Fortunately he has found a different way of fulfilling his need to be a hero: instead of being a military commander, my son works with children with special needs, teaching and coaching them, as well as being an on-call volunteer fire fighter. This makes me very proud.  When he joined the Air Force National Guard and conducted boat rescues of little old ladies and their pets trapped in their homes in Rhode Island, I was very proud of him.  When he went off to Iraq to serve his country, I could only hope that he would return and not face mind-scaring memories.

One thing the war and my experiences did provide was a real life student counselor for my undergraduate classmates. I provided leadership in the Student Senate, and added an experience beyond my years when I was a student teacher in the Amherst Common School.

The years have gone by.  I remember that I once looked back on my war resistance experience like I am doing today. That occasion was my twentieth reunion of my graduation from the University of Massachusetts.  I went back to the old dorm and met with a small group of guys twenty years younger than myself.  I told them what it was like to go back to school after Vietnam, being much older than my classmates and having gone through the war.  I told them what things were like on campus during the final days of the Vietnam occupation when men had lottery numbers and were still being drafted.  I described to them how extremely stressful those times were, that   schools were going on strike.  I think I talked to them the whole evening.  They asked lots of leading questions and identified with much that I said. I thought to myself, “Gee, I’m amazed at myself for having the strength to do those things I did.”  I realized my ability to be as strong as I was throughout my war travails was all about the moment, and being cornered, and choosing one way over another even if the other way would have been easier. The fact that I also had had some education probably helped me hold to my beliefs.

There was something else I want to remember experiencing when I finally had gotten out of the Army for good.  I went back to the Boardman School in Dudley Square.  Like my old Army company that I had been told to report back to, the school where I had worked before being drafted had been torn down.  Years later after finishing college I went back to the Amherst Common School site to visit and that building, too, was torn down.  I guess what this points out is that time passes, and things that were important once can easily be forgotten.  Soldiers like myself, who went through horrendous experiences during the Vietnam War, need to remind others of how ill-informed government decisions can bring on all the horrors of war. I trust that our presence and experienced voices can prevent the same mistakes from being repeated over and over again.  Those of us who survived that terrible war need to speak up and underscore the overall need for peace and education.

I have experienced a feeling of real loneliness of late. In part this is because I’ve kept so much inside – experiences and feelings that a veteran can only share with another veteran. The Iraq War has also triggered this feeling of isolation. Revisiting my own experiences, and seeing the National Guard soldiers in Iraq experiencing even worse things than I did, has taken me back to 1967-8, and 1969 when I began growing my beard to reflect my new identity- of maybe an older an wiser man.  Until now, neither of my children has ever seen me without it.