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Maggot Days: Thank You For Your Service. . .
By Gerald R. Gioglio
Over the years the VVAW Veteran has included a number of articles that address the question of saying, "Thank you for your service" to former members of the military. The works of Bill Ehrhart, Gregory Ross, and Meg Miner come to mind. Challenging us, Miner asks what is it like, "...to be an anti-war veteran?" Hmm.
Well, a mailed promotion arrived one day from one of the tool-and-garden centers. They asked folks with a DD-214 to sign up online to receive a 10% military discount card. A nice perk in this time of faddish popular recognition of former members of the military; a job now done by volunteers and those caught up in the "poverty draft."
Everyone with a DD-214 was invited, regardless of what they were ordered to do, did, regretted, decided not to do or otherwise resisted. These resisters—past and present—find themselves caught up in "Catch-22," a difficult situation from which there seems to be no escape; some of them ended up with "bad paper," some incarcerated in stockades or prisons. Are these veterans or nonveterans? That is the question.
Let's be clear, all who return to civilian life after being in the military must feel welcomed at home and cared for by our government. We must insist that the government provide lifetime medical care and other services. Can you spell e-n-t-i-t-l-e-m-e-n-t-s?
Many former members of the military are proud of what they have learned and done; some expect to be thanked for their service. Hey, "For all you do, this card certainly is for you." Then there are guys and gals of all ages with far too many military adventures who chafe at civilian nods of approval—whether they are verbalized or swiped into a card machine. Those especially annoyed by theses kudos are veterans who have opposed and perhaps fought against their particular war.
So, if you were among the opposition or were unsure, what do you do about this perk? Sign up for a military discount? More, just what are you called?
Here's what I was thinking....
Back in a day when I first was honorably discharged as a conscientious objector, I took advantage of eighteen months of partial educational benefits that I had accrued. Later I made use of the VA mortgage system to buy a starter home. But that's it. As a trained infantry graduate but also a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam I had not availed myself, nor do I intend to use, any of the other services or perks that the VA offers. For example, I never used a VA hospital or medical services, and I do not intend...thankfully that's available for the other guys. I won't be going down those paths, except to help protect them.
I have always been a supporter of progressive GI and veteran's causes, indeed back when I was in fatigues I remember—hoping against hope—for a military branch of the ACLU at Ft. Lewis and maybe a union representing non-cadre. Of course, neither of these things ever happened, but hey, some boys can dream. And yeah, some guys actually signed petitions for a base branch of the ACLU. I did. Others worked for enlisted men's/draftee unions.
I've always supported the VA in the fight against privatization, and for quality improvement with proper funding. I would write letters and sign the online petitions. I'd send the occasional check to help maintain the grounds of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC and periodically support deserving organizations, like the Paralyzed Veterans Association.
Still, what do you do when you are one of the guys who understand that basic and advanced infantry training is not like being on a high school sports team? They make an impression, even when you are oppositional toward the training and the mind-games, unaware that if you "Get with the program" you still incorporate the messages and that some things set in and changes you in ways that take a lifetime to understand?
What are you called when you are one of the 10 million guys who trained for but was not among the approximate 3 million who found themselves in Vietnam? Then you read arguments in the various veterans' newspapers about who is a "true veteran"—only those who were in-country (except the Rear Echelon MFers), but not those in ships patrolling the waters, not those who provided grunts in the bush with essentials—or the clerks that kept the records and processed paperwork. Huh?
What do you call yourself if you were one of the few guys who was brought to the beginning of the line on discharge day, handed a DD-214, an honorable discharge certificate and accompanying paper and told, "As a conscientious objector you can never again join this man's army or any other branch of the armed services," and your only response was a Buddhist half-smile and a mumbled, "Great," while taking the paper and—unbelievably—walking away?
What do you call yourself when you first get out and the only place you feel comfortable is in one of the civilian anti-war groups like the ones that helped operate the GI coffee shops? The latter appeared outside military bases, providing a safe space for guys to come and feel like they were among kindred spirits, places frequented by other war-resisters, by guys who proclaimed, "Hell No, we won't go," by those who tried to explain that this undeclared war was wrong, that this was something we do not want to do. What of those filing for conscientious objector discharge, perhaps disobeying orders, being court-martialed and sent to Ft. Leavenworth Prison? All these unrecognized patriots were doing things that many people considered unpatriotic, even for things like writing Congresspeople, posting or distributing fliers, attending demonstrations, speaking out, making their opposition known to officers and cadre.
What are you called when you are one of those guys who attended a rally in DC with the name of a once morally-conflicted—and now dead—GI, delivered to the White House in a casket with other KIA names, to remind Richard Nixon of just exactly what he was doing to Americans and Vietnamese?
What are you called when you find yourself back in the lost world, trained as a killer but not completely sure if you fit in as a civilian, yet you still identify as an ex-GI? What do you do when an organization like VVAW calls people out for events like the "Dewey Canyon III" operation to protest the war and you say, "No, maybe I shouldn't participate because I'm not sure I qualify as a veteran?"
What are you called when you become an ex-military draft counselor and you find yourself in a storefront basement of your hometown convinced that one way to end the war while helping people is to keep them from getting drafted, knowing full well that no one inside the "Green Machine," no one anywhere, is going to listen or care or do anything about what they have to say?
What do you call yourself when you listen to those desperate civilians that come for help, explaining what they are entitled to as students or folks with hardship or medical difficulties, or helping some apply for conscientious objector status? In they come as the war drags on and the war years increase while you keep advising and talking, psychically carrying their stories. You, a "shake-and-bake" social worker. A very young adult inadequately trained for dealing with the emotion and stress of helping troubled people who professionals then referred to as "clients."
What are you called when you are one of those guys that took home his fatigue shirts, field jacket, boots and "Dress Greens," stuck peace signs on some of them and for years wore bits and pieces of them in public—and because now you're really pissed are just daring some supporter of the war to engage, or for some idiot to call you—and by extension call all 10 million of us who were caught up into that war—"baby killers?"
What are you called when, over time, you wear the shirts first without sleeves and then until they become faded and torn and need to be thrown away? And you find yourself looking around in thrift stores, just to see if an old fatigue shirt is available? Then, years later you see John Turturro at the end of the Holocaust movie, The Trace, cradling his striped concentration camp prison shirt unable to throw it out, and you immediately understand how he could hold on to such an artifact and to ponder an experience he did not want to remember.
What do you do when you continue to spit-shine those black boots and wear them to your job because they provide great support even though the boss insists that you get rid of them? But for some reason, you now reject most authority and are always alert to possible danger, knowing that someday they will prove to be invaluable, especially on that day when one of the workers set half of the restaurant on fire. So, not thinking but doing, you walk among the flames, locked and loaded with a fire extinguisher, putting out the fire, knowing that those boots are going to prevent the flames from catching your pants and turning you into smoke.
What do you do when that call to "Move toward the danger" comes and you immediately snap into, "Do, don't think!?" Like the time when the place where you work is being robbed and you almost get yourself killed, or when people fall or need help. So you, "Go, go, go" running to do something, anything—only because you were taught to do it...and it doesn't go away?
What do you do when you first get out and the woman in your life tells you, "You have changed." You don't believe it, because you had no combat experience; but you know that it's true. "Changed," as you become distant and introspective and your radicalism and activism increase and you become angry at everything, especially your government and the church of your youth for not doing enough to stop the war and ban nuclear weapons.
Or, the first time going to a Memorial Day event at a local church you hear preaching that was not about the integrity of the war, nor about those guys that had serious doubts about the morality of that conflict and their role in it.
What are you called when one Memorial Day some ignorant yahoo wishes you a "Happy Memorial Day," and the feelings of anger and outrage pop up? Knowing how completely easy it is to snap back into your "Military Mind" and lose connection to the commitment of nonviolence that you have made...and struggle daily to live.
What does it make you when some fifteen years after the war you decide you really should be a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War because you feel you belong and you need the newspaper and community? What about joining the more traditional Vietnam Veterans of America because this group seemed to be deeply involved in getting funds for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, and were also politically involved in several other veterans issues? I don't know...maybe you are one of those guys who joined them both.
What do you do if you were one of those called to participate in peace demonstrations, but early on could not decide whether or not to march in the veterans' contingent. Still, nonviolently, you march with the people constantly petitioning your government to change. And you carry the American flag in part because you don't want to surrender it to the militarists. The flag quietly screaming that we are all Americans, but we are those who stand up against militarism and nuclearization. Deal with it.
So, "Maggot," what are you called now? What do you do about that card if you opposed that war trying to stand for peace and justice, what does that make you? What does it say?
These and other questions from the war years came crashing into my consciousness as I looked at an offering that beckoned me to sign up as a veteran. Well, of course, the questions never end.
You know what? I finally concluded that I was not going to let them take this away from me. For the answer is this: we are in-service resisters, some are members of the VVAW. We are anti-war veterans. It is what it is. I filled out the form, sent the DD-214 information and soon got the discount card in the mail.
One day I used it. I was still lost for words when the clerk, who had been trained to do so said, "Thank you for your service." I tried to muster that half-smile, I nodded, shut my mouth and walked on. I mean, what do you do? Proselytize? Do you preach against war or militarism to clerks who would be penalized if they didn't parrot that statement?
Then I remembered a union brother who proclaimed that teachers and public employees perform a civic duty, that they too are veterans—veterans of difficult classroom situations, veterans wiping the tears of families and children, veterans providing other services like social work, police, and fire—every day, in every local community.
I also remembered the words of a fellow in-service resister named Jeff, whose story appears in "Days of Decision." He tells us:
"I am a veteran of the Army's bootcamps, its infantry schools, stockades and Leavenworth penitentiary...I spent a little over three years of my young life in their institutions."
Thank you for your service? Hell yeah.
So, after some thought, I decided that from now on when I go to that store, and I hear the clerk say, "Thank you for your service," I say something like, "You know what, thank you for what you do. In doing this job you take care of me and others, you help to pump our economy. It's greatly appreciated..." And I mean it...and we both smile. From time to time I ask if the place has a union and extol the virtues of organizing and participation. They listen.
I leave the store with a full, happy grin, knowing that I planted good seeds; secure in the knowledge that I am one of those guys who is a veteran of many things, military and civilian—and no matter what they call me—that's what I always will be.
Gerald R. Gioglio is a VVAW member, Secular Franciscan, and author of Days of Decision: an Oral History of Conscientious Objectors in the Military during the Vietnam War. He was discharged from the army in 1969 as a Catholic Conscientious Objector.