Dewey Canyon III
By Ed Damato
I was one of those people who actually went to the Woodstock music festival in August 1969. I mention this because the experience was an important influence on me at the time. The idea of a three-day rock concert in the rolling hills of sunny, upstate New York instead of the ugly confines of Fillmore East and Madison Square Garden was very appealing. That it turned out to be a watershed moment of the times was lost on us as we began the drive that Friday morning. After three days of great delays, torrential downpours, mud, scarcity of food, cut feet, and loss of socks, shoes, shirt and wallet, I returned home.
The music, however, was, to use a Sixties term, "mindblowing." The indescribable bonding of the tens of thousands of us bogged down in traffic, shoehorned on a sloping hillside, sharing food, and smiling, smiling, smiling at our discomfort took on a life equal to or surpassing that on the stage. Woodstock showed the possibilities of the new culture and politics, born out of the tumultuous Sixties with the civil rights struggles, assassinations, the Beatles and the interminable war in Vietnam from which I had returned in February 1968. I felt like a pioneer of a new age of politics and power. Did my life peak just turning age 23?
One year later, in August 1970, 1 saw Jane Fonda on a late night show talking about a march to Valley Forge by a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Is it possible, I thought, that there could be such a group?
(Let me digress. It's not often that I offer an article for publication in The Veteran so I am hoping that the kind editor will allow me a short paragraph. Jane Fonda is merely one of us who spoke out against the war, and she has suffered for it dearly at the hands of a conservative campaign to denigrate anti-Vietnam War activism in general.)
I tracked the group down and joined immediately. I marched to Valley Forge and began a life of fighting against the war that I thought was wrong. Up to this point my big anti-war statement was giving the finger to President Richard Nixon while he rounded 50th Street in his limousine on his way to an event held at the Americana Hotel on 7th Avenue in New York City.
Somehow I became VVAW's coordinator for New York and Vermont. At its first National Steering Committee Meeting held in New York in February 1971, the group voted to go to Washington DC for Operation Dewey Canyon III in April, not leaving much time to organize such a massive event.
I remember indexing names of upstate veterans who expressed an interest in joining the group. I toured from Burlington, near the Canadian border in the northwestern part of Vermont to western New York. I hooked up with the Vets Club at the University of Buffalo through Gail Graham in Jamestown close to the Ohio border. Soon after DCIII they officially joined VVAW as a chapter, one of the very nice things that resulted from Dewey Canyon III.
In the meantime the chapters in Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island were out asking veterans to enlist one more time. Come dawn of the day we set out for the bus trip down to DC; our eager veterans and friends boarded the two buses awaiting us. The enthusiasm was palpable. The possibilities were ripe.
The days in Washington flew by. As at the Woodstock concert the events blur in my head in a sort of haze with certain pictures frozen in my memory.
I remember the first day as I was helping myself to a cup of coffee, one hand full, bumping into a vet also with one hand full. He held the cups and I poured the sugar. As we looked up at each other I recognized my friend Tim Donahue, with whom I trained at Fort Ord and Fort Gordon!
I remember looking through a crowd filled with fatigue-clad veterans and spotting a soon-to-be great friend and political cohort, Barry Romo. We had met once before in February in New York where, among other things, we participated in the rolling of a cot on the sidewalks of the upper West Side. It was like meeting an old friend.
I remember getting ready to go on a march of some kind and having the distinct and humbling pleasure of meeting and escorting Anne Pine, a gold star mother. I remember being overwhelmed by her courage.
I remember seeing Jacob Javits, our US senator visiting the campsite. Javits visiting us? I remember the secret thrill of not going to meet or introduce him to our contingent and sensing the rising power of our presence as a major political force in the anti-war movement.
I remember dozens of New York veterans visiting the office of James Buckley (brother of William), our carpetbagger senator from Connecticut. (We have a long history of welcoming "foreigners" to our state.) It was believed that to avoid us he sneaked out a back door, leaving his staff to answer to the angry veterans waiting to lobby our elected representative.
But most of all, I remember the discussion at a steering committee meeting as we debated how to end the demonstration on its last day. Should we take all our medals we wanted to return to the federal government and put them in a body bag, or should we allow the vets to physically throw them at the foot of the statue of John Marshall that sits at the rear of the Capitol Building? It is to our everlasting credit and to the democracy of our organization that we chose the latter.
Returning our medals as we did allowed for two things. It gave each and every veteran the center stage to express his sadness and anger at having taken part in the Vietnam War. It helped cleanse our consciences, and most importantly, it made for a great, historic action of veterans standing tall and true and expressing our deepest sentiments at a war we believed to be unjust.
We aren't given a choice of wars to be called upon to fight. We can't choose to be at Gettysburg to fight for the union. We can't choose to be at Normandy to fight against fascism and annihilation. Our time came during the Vietnam War. At Dewey Canyon III we expressed ourselves in just as honest and heartfelt a way as they did when raising the flag at Iwo Jima. We were just as courageous and patriotic as all our fellow veterans from all the wars we are made to fight in.
I mention Woodstock and DCIII at the same time because, as a young man coming of age in the 1960s, I was most influenced by music and war. At each event I felt a part of something much larger, something so important that they created sea changes in the way America thinks and grows. That events are always so defining is something I continue to hope for.
Ed Damato is a 31 year member and leader of VVAW
who served as a National Coordinator, East Coast Coordinator.
He served with the Army in Vietnam.