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Celebration of the Life of David Cline
By Susan Schnall
With a call for unity in the veteran movement for peace and justice, co-host of the Celebration of the Life of David Cline, Michael McPhearson welcomed the crowd of over 150 people gathered at Connolly's Pub and Restaurant in NYC to remember Dave and discuss those issues with which he was involved.
It has been five years since Dave's untimely death. About a year ago Michael McPhearson began meeting with groups about organizing an event to celebrate Dave's life. A committee including Ben Chitty, Brian Matarrese, George McAnanama, Pete Bronson, Bill Gilson, Bob Carpenter, Laurie Sandow, Tom Fasy, and myself met monthly to discuss the program, speakers, and outreach. The committee that brought this event together is now working on a conference on the veterans peace movement scheduled to be held on Armed Forces Day, May 18, 2013 in NYC.
Like many others who attended, my life was changed by the US conflict in Vietnam. Soldiers like Dave were never free of the horrors they had witnessed and participated in. I knew Dave many years ago when he was active in VVAW and the GI coffeehouse movement and I was working with Medical Aid to Indochina. And then over 30 years later we caught up with our joint work on the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign which he co-founded.
A panel on military dissent was moderated by Brian Matarrese who introduced Frank Toner, aVietnam veteran. Frank spoke about his time in Vietnam and refusal to carry a gun during his tour of duty. He was assigned to work as a medic while in southeast Asia. Despite threats of court martial and jail, Frank remained adamant in his refusal to participate in armed struggle against the Vietnamese. Another member of the panel, Camilo Mejia, was born in Nicaragua, lived in Costa Rico, and finished high school in New York City. Camilo went to the University of Miami on a military funded scholarship and in 2003 was sent to Iraq for five months active combat. When he returned to the US on furlough he realized that he could not go back. "We weren't preventing terrorism or making Americans safer. I realized that I was part of a war I believed was immoral and criminal." Camilo was charged with desertion and sentenced to one year in prison at the Fort Sill military prison in Lawton, Oklahoma.
In 1967 I was Navy nurse who cared for the soldiers retuning from Vietnam and a peace activist. I was tried by general court martial for anti-war activities I organized and participated in while wearing my Navy uniform. Similar to Camilo, I felt that as an active duty member of the armed forces, I had a responsibility to speak out against the immoral and criminal actions of the United States government.
Ngo Thanh Nhan was born and raised in Vietnam and came to the US in 1967 on a leadership scholarship. He received a Ph.D. in linguistics from NYU where he is a visiting scholar. Nhan performed a song by jazz violinist and Vietnam veteran Billy Bang named, KIA/MIA and played on the dan tranh - a Vietnamese traditional 16 string zither.
Ambassador Le Hoai Trung.
Le Hoai Trung, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to the United Nations spoke of having witnessed the B-52 bombings over north Vietnam when he was a child. He stated that he had been taught that the American people were not his enemy or the enemy of the Vietnamese people, that it was the US government that was waging the war. In a hushed room, he told us that he felt sympathy for the American soldiers who were the victims of the US government and he felt sorrow with the deaths of the American GI's. Trung has been a long time supporter of the work done in the US and Vietnam on behalf of the victims of Agent Orange/dioxin.
Heather Bowser, a founder of the Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance, spoke about her dad's service in Vietnam where he was sprayed with Agent Orange, leading to his heart problems and to five cardiac bypass surgeries and early death from a massive heart attack at age 50. As a result of her father's exposure, Heather was born two months premature and weighed three pounds, was missing her right leg below the knee, several fingers, a big toe on her left foot and webbed toes. She is a former high school teacher and mental health professional who uses her skills to educate people about Agent Orange and empower second and third generations of Agent Orange survivors to fight for justice for themselves.
Dr. Tom Fasy is a board certified pathologist with a long standing interest in the toxicology of heavy metal, including uranium. Tom spent 7 weeks last winter in Iraq, visiting medical, dental, nursing, and veterinary colleges and universities and looking into ongoing health and environmental issues caused by the US conflict in Iraq.
Michael McPhearson moderated the panel on Veterans Returning Home with Geoff Millard (Iraq Veterans Against the War) and Margaret Stevens (Service Women's Action Network). Geoff told the story of having participated in the New York demonstration against the US invasion of Iraq in 2002 when he was activated for National Guard duty after the attack on September 11, 2001. He walked with a sympathetic older guy for the better part of a couple of hours and, when they parted, the man gave Geoff his card and told him to call after he had served his tour of duty. That man was David Cline and he became a major influence in the beginning of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Margaret is a professor in the History Department of Essex Community College and was a member of the New Jersey National Guard. She spoke abut the difficulty of organizing students, as by their very nature, they are a transient population. Margaret spoke about working with one female African American veteran who she brought into a cohort of women veterans who got into Vassar.
Randy Credico, NYC advocate for civil rights, social justice, Occupy Wall Street, drug and prison reform is a professional comedian who is currently running for mayor of New York. He brought humor to the event with a number of impersonations of Richard Nixon and others. His platform includes ending the city drug war and reforming the criminal justice system.
Ben Chitty was moderator of the panel on the Role of Veterans in the Social Justice Movement and noted that we need to re-examine the relationship of veterans to the movement for peace and social justice, that we need to determine how best to use the intelligence and insight we have gained through our experiences. We have a responsibility to define who we are, what we want, and how best to organize and influence the world movement. Greg Payton, Jerry Lembcke, Mike Reid, and Jan Barry participated.
Personal reflections of David were given by Elena Schwolsky-Fitch, Sabrina Sergeant and Mona and Angela Fitch.
Stephen Said, son of an Iraqi father and Australian mother, who was raised in Appalachia, uses his music to spread his message of peace across the world and unite movements of peace, positive social change, and global unity. He sang Aheb Aisht Al Huria, I Love the Life of Freedom, and inspired the audience to continue its work for social justice.
We are left with Dave's observations about the war that kept giving, of its lasting emotional impact on those who had served, of the violence, suicide, substance addictions that destroyed families and lives. He told us that it was our responsibility to remember these costs of war until the silent majority was no longer silent, and that because we knew the terrible cost of war, we had to continue speaking out.
There are a number of memorials to those who died as a result of the American War in Vietnam. The author Jack Roth wrote: "Memorials are the way we make promises to the future from the past." As we celebrate Dave's life, let us promise our children and our children's children that there will be no more war.
Susan Schnall is a co-coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign and a member of VFP and APHA. She is a board member of VVAW.