Fallen Comrades: Jack McCloskey
Veteran's Activist Dies at 53
(San Francisco Chronicle-Examiner, February 18, 1996)
By Larry D. Hatfield
Jack McCloskey, a wounded and much-decorated veteran of the Vietnam War who quietly spent the rest of his life trying to ease the pain from that war, has died. He was 53.
"Jack was one of the few people in the world that you run across that you know has made this world a better place," said Michael McCain, a former fellow activist in Vietnam Veterans Against the War and now a Chicago television producer. "His work saved thousands of lives here (in the United States) after the war ended."
"Jack was our beacon of what was needed to help disaffected and disadvantaged Vietnam veterans," said Ron Bitzer, a Southern California health care fund-raiser who helped McCloskey create Swords to Plowshares, one of the nation's premiere veterans' groups.
Mr. McCloskey died of heart failure at his San Francisco home Thursday night. He had been in poor health since the war, suffering from various side effects of two sets of wounds, Agent Orange exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The product of a Philadelphia orphanage, Mr. McCloskey served in the Navy from 1962 to 1966, then was recalled in 1967 and sent to Vietnam as a corpsman with the Marine division.
While there, he was wounded twice, once in the Tet offensive at Hue, and was awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Silver Star.
When he returned to the United States, Mr. McCloskey found a nation tired of war and unwilling to accept its veterans back as it had those of previous wars. Like many of his colleagues, he had picked up a drug habit during the war and found little help for himself or other veterans coming home.
"We were invisible to most people," he told an Examiner reporter in 1973. "Those who did acknowledge us hated us because they knew the war was wrong and they had to blame somebody for it, so they blamed us."
He became an activist, both against the war he considered unjust and for the rights of veterans of the war. He also kicked a morphine habit, although neither his health nor habits ever fully recovered from his war experience.
Mr. McCloskey became active in the anti-war movement, particularly VVAW, but he also was a catalyst in the infant, 1970s movement that dealt with such issues as the then-unrecognized post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, suicide, joblessness and other problems Vietnam veterans were facing.
He formed an organization called Twice Born Men, the forerunner of Swords, Flower of the Dragon.
Author Jerry Nicosia, who is writing a book on the Vietnam veterans' movement, said Mr. McCloskey and a few others were responsible for forcing the medical establishment and the Veterans Administration to recognize post-traumatic stress.
"Jack was highly respected for a lot of reasons, but most of all, people talked about his purity," Nicosia said. "The cause of veterans' rights was his purpose. He never gained fame or made money from it, as some did. He lived a totally poor, destitute life, essentially hand to mouth. His whole life was dedicated to correcting the wrongs against veterans.
"He was never famous in a national way, but he was famous among his friends. He was always there, always there for Vietnam vets."
Country Joe McDonald, an icon of the anti-war movement, said he became involved in veterans' rights issues because of Mr. McCloskey. "Jack was solely instrumental in making me realize I was personally a veteran," McDonald said. "It really blew my mind and destroyed my cover as a rock star. He was part of a small handful of Vietnam vets who were activists in treating the problems of veterans that had not been acknowledged. Jack shouldn't have died."
McDonald planned to dedicate his Saturday night concert to Mr. McCloskey. It was a dinner for homeless people at a veterans' center prepared by the chefs from USS Constellation.
Mr. McCloskey was a pioneer in the system of storefront veterans' counseling centers now operating throughout the nation, said Swords Executive Director Michael Blecker.
"He helped get the Veterans Administration out of its institutional walls and into the streets where the problems were," Blecker said, adding that Mr. McCloskey also pioneered self-help programs for minority and women veterans. "He was in the forefront of the whole idea of peer counseling, the idea of Vietnam veterans healing themselves."
Mr. McCloskey attended Antioch College and City College of San Francisco. He is survived by his former wife, Lydia, of Oakland, two daughters, Molly and Susan, and a brother, Vincent, of Philadelphia.
by Annie Hirschman
From the time in Miami when that bastard decreed that I was in charge of medical so he could Plan 47 till now Jack has been a legend in his own time.
In Miami we discussed the therapeutic use of tear gas: it will clear facial blemishes and, according to Jack, it is a sure cure for hangover.
Then it was Jack who maintained my sanity on the caravan back to California when my PTSD hit in Mississippi and Alabama. I think that was when I realized his major talent at mind healing.
Of course it was only other people's minds which is why we call him wacky.
Jack stayed at my place while recovering from one of his accidents and my family adopted him (Annie L. is his mother but we became siblings) My son still quotes his advice to me about taking things easy and how I should give the kid a break. He created a con artist.
At the 25th reunion it was Jack who took care of my mother and he was so sweet about it that I almost forgot who'd used all of my booze the year before.
Wherever he is there are bound to be thunderstorms since that's why he came east at all. I will never be able to see lightning and not think of Jack.
In a song I love Fred Small has a line for Jack: "The only measure of your worth in the world is the love you leave behind when you're gone." In that spirit, Jack was a giant.
by Annie Luginbill, Chicago VVAW
It seems that everyone has a story to tell about "His Wackiness," the late Jack McCloskey. I have several contributions.
About six years ago, Jack and his friend Eric Schwartz (another ex-Marine Corps medic) came to visit in Chicago before the annual VVAW campout. When it was campout time, I was "duty driver" for the two, so I elected to take the scenic route. This went past Great Lakes Naval Training Center, where both guys had undergone their training. They both thought that they would like to see "the old place" so I drove them up to the Main Gate and asked if they wanted to go in. They immediately looked at each other and chorused "Hell no!" They seemed to think that the military actually WANTED a piece of them again. How ridiculous...who would want their raggedy asses NOW?
For the last six or seven years, Jack visited us in Chicago prior to the VVAW campout. He took our dog, Diablo, for twelve walks a day and spoiled him beyond belief; Jack said that he and the dog were brothers. I could always count on getting a phone call at work from him when he did his laundry at our house. He'd call and say "Mommy Annie - this is Jack. The dryer doesn't work." Every time he did this I would tell him "Jack, the dryer doesn't work because you didn't close the door." "Oh," he'd say. Four minutes later he would call back and say "Mommy Annie - this is Jack. The dryer works now."
Jim and Sukie Wachtendonk will tell you about his love for the children (their son, Zack, was President of the Wacky Jacky Club) and how he could create a wonderful environment for them with his silliness. He and the children would play together for hours, inventing new games and ways to be funny.
Since San Francisco rarely gets thunderstorms, Jack had a fondness for coming to the Midwest and calling rain down on everyone. Two years ago, Wacky Jacky did a raindance at the campfire before he retired to sleep in a motel. At 5 AM, the great-grandmother of all thunderstorms hit us, and all of us soggy campers cursed him vigorously. Jack appeared while we were drying out and said, "What? There was a storm, and I slept through it?" "Fuck you, Jack" was the reveille that morning!
Many remember the campout when "His Wackiness" celebrated his 20th year since discharge from the military by dropping acid, sitting up all night in a friend's VW bus, and watching a thunderstorm.
"McCluck" - We were always delighted to see him come yet so glad when it was time for him to go home, since he left a trail of effluvia behind him. Jack, if we could have you back for just a little while, we wouldn't harass you about the mess you made in the bedroom or the holes you burned in the chair cover. We miss you, dear friend and brother!
by Mary Sue Planck
Well, do you think Jack finally got someone to Fling Him to the Moon? He was always slinging that line, and when I'd ask him where it came from, he had no idea. It was one of those McCloskey-isms, like "Why Me Lord" or "Squiggy nose."
In the obituary in yesterday's paper, Country Joe said it best: Jack shouldn't have died. He was right, Jack shouldn't have. I'm still mad at him for it - damn it, McCluck, we still need you!
So many of us have needed him and so many times he's been there. He's not the first one to take care of everyone except for himself, but I think he perfected the art.
Durn your hide McCloskey, who's going to call me in the middle of the night from New York to get someone's phone number who lives in New York? Who's going to keep my floor covered with ashes and newspapers? Who's going to make us all laugh - and who's going to be there when another Vietnam vet can't make it alone through a long dark night?
I hope the answer is a lot of us will be there for each other. I hope we learned from Jack. He was sure one of my teachers, without ever really meaning to be.
Jack was imply one of the best people ever put on earth. You'll hear a lot about how many lives he saved - every word of it true - but he also put a lot of fun in people's lives. McCluck, Wacky Jacky, whatever silly name you called him, Jack didn't mind. He had no false sense of offended dignity or decorum - though he could summon up either quality if the need arose.
I don't know if I ever saw him happier than when he'd be in the middle of a spirited conversation while six year old Susan would be braiding flowers or ribbons in his hair. Molly would say, "Oh, Dad!" and then we would all laugh. Yeah, we sure could have used a few more years of Jack, but I guess we'll have to go without him. He leaves a tremendous hole in the world and in our hearts.
The best we can do to honor him is to carry on in the same tradition: Remember the promises Jack made to dead men and work for peace. Demonstrate, educate, raise hell - then go dance all night - and always remember to love. I love you Jack.