Coming Home to VVAW
By Joe Miller
Following my discharge from the Navy in February 1968, after seven years of service, my family and I moved back to the Chicago area. I found an overnight job that would help me to support my wife and daughter. I enrolled as a full-time student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Balancing classes with a full-time job and trying to keep my family together, I looked to join whatever anti-war work I could find time for.
Joe Miller, Memorial Day 2000, Chicago.
My wife and I participated in the April 27th march from Grant Park to Daley Plaza, the so-called "dry-run" for Chicago cops in preparation for the Democratic Convention later that summer. That first peace march introduced me to anti-war veterans from World War Two and Korean generations. I did not yet highlight my own veteran status. I had the Vietnam Service ribbon from participation in Tonkin Gulf actions during 1964 to 1966, but did not "feel" like a veteran at this time. [See: www.vvaw.org/commentary/?id=4]
No, it was still too soon. I was reveling in my civilian status, and few outside my family even realized I had been in the military. I could not say that I was "proud" of my service. That spring I was just another student who also happened to be working, attending classes, and joining in any campus anti-war activity that popped up.
When LBJ announced he was not running for reelection, I was happy. When Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered, I was saddened, but also found some grim satisfaction in the burning structures along Milwaukee Avenue on my way to work that night. Then, in early June, Bobby Kennedy was gunned down. I called my dad from work that night at about 2:00am to let him know, and all he could say was, "Oh, shit!" We were both hoping to vote for Kennedy that year. Then followed the fiasco of the Democratic Convention, which everyone knew would be rigged. Daily News and Sun-Times reporters and photographers were coming back to our office with cameras busted and bodies bloodied. Everything that was "known" was coming apart, first in the lies about Vietnam, then in the fear and repression at home. What a year!
By 1969, a group of Vietnam vets had pulled together a small Chicago chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), led by Bart Savage. It was time. I had to join and make my military service count for something in the struggle to end the war and bring everyone home. For the next three years, while still living in the Chicago area, I tried to do as much as possible with local VVAW comrades. Though we understood VVAW as a "national" organization, we were not looking for any national direction. We just did what we could to express our opposition to this continuing war. We participated in "Armed Farces Day" events around Great Lakes, as well as the usual spring and fall anti-war marches in Chicago.
After VVAW got a little more prominence from the Winter Soldier hearings and Dewey Canyon III, we leafleted at O'Hare Airport in late 1971 to try to bring attention to the demand that our troops should be coming home on those planes. Again, I could only be one of the participants in these local events, given my work, school and family responsibilities, but, I did what I could as a proud member of VVAW.
In summer 1972, not long after the birth of our son, my family and I moved downstate to Champaign-Urbana, where I enrolled in a Masters program in Asian studies. My wife and I were both working while I was also attending classes. Campus anti-war activity was still going on, but by then, it was rather mild compared to what had been happening in Chicago. I never really connected with any anti-war vets at the university, though I continued to proudly wear my VVAW button. It seemed that all the anti-war activity among vets was happening far away from where I had to be at that time. There was simply no way I could even consider joining the "Last Patrol," given my situation. So, I felt rather disconnected.
Maintaining a family on two limited incomes, while dealing with the pressures of graduate work, left little time for any other activities. I did attend local anti-war events as they occurred, but again, as an anonymous participant, until the war actually came to an end. So, from mid-1972 to late 1979, other than finishing the Asian studies program and then completing my doctorate in political science, anything else would have to wait. This was also the case with the few other Vietnam vets who were in the same program.
In 1979, my family and I traveled to Melbourne, Australia, where I had been hired on a temporary appointment as a visiting lecturer in political science at the University of Melbourne. I spent four years in Australia, mainly teaching, but also involved in political activism. This included forums with Australian Vietnam vets to talk about the war and radio interviews concerning US policies against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, as well as Central America solidarity work on Nicaragua, El Salvador and Grenada.
By the time I returned to the States in the 1980s, I was ready to reconnect in what was now Reagan's America. By 1986, I was trying to "come home" to VVAW again for the big "Welcome Home" parade in Chicago, but I could not get there in time to march with their contingent. Very quickly, however, I made the connection, and my son and I attended the festivities for the 20th Anniversary in 1987. That's where I first met Barry Romo and other folks who had been keeping VVAW together all these years. This anniversary celebration was my real "coming home."
Since that time I have continued work with VVAW on a whole range of issues, including the closing of US bases in the Philippines, Central America solidarity, Agent Orange and PTSD efforts, and counter-recruitment and anti-militarism. As a result of my organizing work in Champaign against the first Gulf War over 1990-1991, I was brought into the national office as a staff member. Four years later, given continued organizing in the community and the work I had done on staff, including work on The Veteran (then still put together on Barry's dining room table), I was selected to join the national coordinators.
To work with Barry, Bill Davis, Pete Zastrow, John Lindquist, Dave Cline, Bill Branson and many others over these past twenty-five years, to keep VVAW alive, especially in the down times, has been the greatest privilege. We kept going in the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 2000s, kept building — with no grants, little membership dues, with maxed-out credit cards — with almost superhuman individual efforts by members and supporters.
We must never forget the fact that VVAW would not have been here to organize against the Bush-Cheney wars in Afghanistan and Iraq if it were not for the skill, commitment and sacrifice of folks like Barry Romo and fallen comrades like Dave Cline and Bill Davis.
When VVAW is organizing for Agent Orange compensation for the Vietnamese or against the continuing wars, now under another administration, we are continuing the work begun by the first organizers back in 1967. Different wars, different issues, same struggles.
Joe Miller is a VVAW National Coordinator who lives in Urbana, Illinois.