Dialogue between U.S.-based Veterans for Peace (VFP) and Vietnamese veterans at War Remnants Museum, March 20, 2018


 
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Thank for you inviting me to share my experiences in the GI coffeehouse movement. 

  The coffeehouses started when two of my friends, Fred Gardner and Donna Mickelson, came up with the idea to a open San Francisco style cabaret in an army town so that antiwar GIs could find each other and know that they were not alone.

         

We wanted the coffee houses to be an alternative to the bars and whorehouses and jewelry stores trying to separate GIs from their paychecks.

 

We provided a safe haven where they could come on their days off, listen to rock and roll and talk amongst themselves.  

 

I was 18 years old, starting my sophomore year at the University of South Carolina in the fall of 1967 when the UFO coffeehouse opened there to serve soldiers at Ft. Jackson.  

 

Donna painted a sign that looked like a Fillmore dance poster declaring us to be the “UFO” Unidentified Foreign Objects like an alien spaceship that dropped out of the sky from another planet.

 

We covered the walls with posters —Muhammad Ali, the championship boxer who refused to serve in the U.S. Army,  a surfing movie, the actress Marilyn Monroe, an atomic bomb mushroom cloud, Stokely Carmichael the civil rights leader, a  Toulouse Lautrec art poster, a cannabis plant, John Lennon in “How I Won the War,” Lyndon Johnson holding up a hound dog by the ears...

 

This sort of restaurant was so culturally different from any other place in the conservative town of Columbia, South Carolina we might as well have been dropped there from outer space.

 

I immediately embraced the concept and became a regular.  I was deeply affected by the Tet Offensive in late January 1968.  Days later, the South Carolina state police gunned down a group of black students trying to integrate a bowling alley next to their campus.

 

One of the very important accomplishments of the UFO — and subsequently other coffeehouses — was that it integrated Columbia, SC, in two ways —soldiers and students and blacks and whites. This was virtually unheard of in those days.

In March I quit school and joined Fred in opening the 2nd coffeehouse at Ft. Leonard Wood in Waynesville, Missouri.

 

The small town of Waynesville was a hostile environment. The only women in town who would talk to me were prostitutes. I was shot at once when I was driving to pick up pastries to bring back to our coffee house that we called Mad Anthony’s. We were under constant threat. By then I was 19 years old and had never lived outside of South Carolina.

 

Anti-war movement people visited us from Chicago and other cities. Many would then open up coffee house outside of other military bases. And we were featured in several national publications bringing increased attention to the GI antiwar movement. 

 

After Missouri, I went on to work in San Francisco, then at the Shelter Half coffee house in Tacoma, Washington, near Ft. Lewis & McChord Air Base. Eventually I moved back to San Francisco to support sailors organizing to stop their aircraft carriers from returning to Vietnam. 

 

In late 1969 I decided to put my money where my mouth was and enlisted in the Army to organize from the inside. I felt that that was an important point to make. When I walked into the recruiting office I was stunned to discover that women under 21 years old needed their parents` permission to enlist. I overcame that hurdle, but right before I was to report for duty they told me that 6th Army Command had found me unsuitable for enlistment. 

 

I am very proud of my work in the GI coffeehouse movement, and it pains me greatly that the US government was somewhat successful in its propaganda campaign against us, telling lies such as anti-war protesters spit on GI`s returning from Vietnam. 

 

Our slogan was “Support our Soldiers, Bring them Home”. 


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No Sir. Those words uttered more than a half-century ago prevented my complicity in a war of aggression that my comrades Dennis Mora, David Samas and I branded as immoral, illegal and unjust. And more, those words set me on a path that has led me to this observance.

 

History records that the Fort Hood Three’ refusal to deploy to Vietnam was significant because it was one of the first and because we three represented to a certain degree a cross-
section of the nation – one white, one Latino and one African American. And because we announced our intentions to disobey and allied ourselves squarely with the anti-war movement, our actions represented a significant political protest.

 

But each soldier must grapple with his conscience individually. Indeed, before we were driven to the Fort Dix airport, each of us was told that the others had already boarded the plane and were on their way to Vietnam. So, let me briefly explain how I came to my decision.

 

On draft day, Dec. 6, 1965, my opinion about U.S. involvement in Vietnam was not yet formed. I later befriended Dennis Mora, who initially refused to step forward for the oath at the Induction Center. We did not take basic training together, but we fortunately were in the same unit for advanced training. Dennis’s movement connections were invaluable, as was David Samas’s perpetual sense of humor.

 

From the first day of reception at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, I understood that the treatment, or more correctly, abuse, of the GIs was designed not simply to train us to promptly obey orders as essential preparation for combat. Instead, I was convinced that our mistreatment was more about crippling us intellectually, shutting down our reasoning so that we would be better prepared to follow along blindly.

 

I began to view the recent rebellions in our nation’s ghettoes in a different light and the emergence of a counter culture in the nation also took on new meaning. Civil liberties and civil rights were in the air and I was being ordered to march lock step in the opposite direction.My decision not to take part in our nation’s aggressionwas aided enormously by a powerful support system. My mother, who had a sixth-grade education, did not hesitate to raise her voice on my behalf, my brother threw himself into the anti-war movement, my sisters stood by me. And my father, an active trade unionist and a self-avowed liberation theologian,also joined the fight.

 

The anti-war movement, of course, lifted us up and amplified our voices. Rather than moderate our stance to gain more favorable treatment after our court martial, we grew stronger and more resolute. Muhammad Ali’s induction refusal and Dr. King’s decision to oppose the war, further validated our stance. Ali drew the connection between Vietnam’s national liberation struggle and Black equality when he famously said, “Why should a Black man go kill innocent yellow people. No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.”

 

What we learned in our study group was being whispered and soon shouted throughout the armed forces.  What were once embers of military resistance burst into flames. This exhibit effectively documents the depth and breadth of the resistance. At Leavenworth, weekend movie screenings were accompanied by newsreels. But when news reports of U.S. military setbacks in Vietnam were reported, Leavenworth prisoners would jump up and cheer. The newsreels were discontinued. Another indicator of the rampaging opposition to the war was the rise of the prison population from about 500 when we entered in 1966 to more than 1500 when we left about two years later.

 

Another powerful factor in my refusal and ability to remain steadfast was the Vietnamese people. There courage and leadership inspired those of us inside and outside the military. If a relatively small nation without the technology, firepower and resources of the most powerful nation on the globe, can overcome,perhaps we can, too.

 

Of all the material that circulated in our study group, I was most impressed by the writings of Ho Chi Minh. I learned that his name means “He Who Enlightens.” And that he did.

 

I traveled to North Vietnam in 1969 as part of a peace delegation that accompanied U.S. POW’s home. I found my Vietnamese brothers and sisters to be among the gentlest people as well as the fiercest fighters. I was moved by their warm embrace and undying solidarity.

 

Today, I’m proud to stand on the soil of those from whom I’ve learned much from and owe much to. I continue to draw strength from their example. I do not pretend to have the answers to how to achieve a world of peace, justice, equality and environmental sustainability. But through it all, I remain optimistic and continue to struggle for a world in which the earth’s bounty will be shared by all its citizens. To paraphrase Indian author Arundhati Roy: “Remember, we are many and they are few. Another world is possible.  On a quiet day, if you listen carefully, you can hear her breathing.”

 

 
   
  Date 13/04/2018  

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