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"Lady, we are the troops": Vietnam Veterans and the Anti-war Movement at Kent State University
By Thomas Grace
Originally prepared for the Peace-PHS Joint Conference, Kent State University, October 25, 2019, Kent, Ohio.
By 1971, Americans wearied of the Vietnam War while many were tired of those protesting the conflict. Since the massive introduction of US forces in 1965, Washington, DC had been witness to large scale anti-war protests. More were planned that same year for April and May. Dewey Canyon III, begun on April 18, 1971, with Kent State's Tim Butz being one of the principal organizers, would be like no other. This protest would not involve the often reviled college age activists; rather it would mobilize veterans of the Vietnam War.
As with other conflicts in which America has fought, concern had been voiced over troop morale being adversely affected by dissent. On the first day of the veteran's protests in April 1971, a group attending a convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution looked on disapprovingly as an anti-war formation neared the capitol. Knowing not to whom she spoke, a matronly woman reproached one of the fatigue-clad marchers: "I don't think what you're doing is good for the troops." The former soldier replied: "Lady, we are the troops."
No protester could have answered a DAR member with more earned authority. Tom Hayden was to write of the vets, "They carried with them a credibility that could perhaps be ignored—as indeed it was—but never refuted."
Whether the public ignored VVAW in the early 1970s is debatable. What is less arguable is how poorly understood is the role of veterans in campus protests against the war at Kent State and elsewhere in the long sixties. In my 2016 book, Kent State: Death and Dissent, space demands necessitated that their story be abridged. This article represents an effort to more fully chronicle their part in the anti-war struggle in Kent and elsewhere.
oday, specialists of the Vietnam era better recognize the working-class character of the student body at Kent State in the 1960s. What's more, historians of the Vietnam War are acquainted with Christian Appy's book, Working Class War, which established that 80 percent of the soldiers that fought in Southeast Asia were drawn from a blue-collar stratum. Putting the evidence together, it becomes easier to appreciate that by the 1969-70 school year at Kent State, 10 percent of the male students had served in the military.
Veterans were among the pioneering activists at Kent State in the early 1960s, but most had not served during wartime. Not until the late sixties were veterans returning home to oppose a war in which they had just fought. Some became active in the Students for a Democratic Society. Undergraduates like Mark Lencl, Ken Johnson, Ray Hudson and Mike Gorup added an edge to an organization known for its escalating radicalism. Gorup developed specific skills that later saw him work for the radical press in Chicago. Hudson and Johnson functioned as strategists for the campus movement, while Lencl gained visibility as one of the local group's foremost militants.
A Cleveland native, Lencl lost his draft deferment by inadvertently failing to carry enough semester hours at a community college. Drafted, his time in Vietnam had shaken him. He witnessed atrocities perpetrated against children. Lencl transferred elsewhere in the airborne unit, becoming a Pathfinder, the dangerous duty of scouting helicopter landing zones.
After leaving the service and becoming an activist at Kent State, Lencl took risks that established for him a martial reputation. In April 1969, he fought off rightwing students who attacked SDS members at a rally. Later that day he could have easily been shot when police pointed their weapons at Lencl after he menaced them with a metal pole. Such volatility had already led to the banning of the group from campus and to injunctions against students such as Lencl and Gorup.
Restricting SDS from the university didn't end campus radicalism. However, no organization filled the void created by the prohibition against SDS. While various bodies organized anti-war marches in 1969 and 1970—some involving thousands of students—no established group seemed prepared to respond when President Richard Nixon announced the Cambodian invasion on April 30, 1970.
When veterans at Kent State next stepped forward to provide direction to the anti-war movement they did so without the aggressive pose that had characterized SDS. Nixon's presidential broadcast of April 30 generated consternation on and off the campus. Jim Geary, a graduate student and veteran of the 101st Airborne, hurriedly decided on a different approach. He put together an improvised group and called a rally at noontime on May 1 to condemn the invasion. Geary and his fellow students declared that the constitution had been "murdered" by the White House failure to obtain congressional war making authority for the move into neutral Cambodia.
Awarded for his bravery for Vietnam duty in 1965, Geary addressed a crowd of 300 students. Butz, who survived the Tet Offensive, stepped forward to assist in the burying of the constitution, the text of which had been torn from a history textbook.
The noontime rally on May 1, 1970 proved to be one of the last peaceful gatherings of a weekend filled with fury. That evening young people rampaged through downtown Kent breaking windows. The following evening, militants fired the campus ROTC building, destroying the WWII barracks that housed the program. National Guardsmen, policing a Teamsters strike raging throughout northeast Ohio, were redirected to the Kent State campus. A third night of confrontation ensued, on May 3, this one involving the bayoneting of a half dozen students by guardsmen and the liberal use of tear gas.
Veterans are known to have been involved in the mayhem, though there is little evidence that significant numbers partook in the disorders. Monday, May 4, the first day of classes since Friday's rally, proved different with respect to veteran participation. Guy Pernetti set foot on the university grounds for the first time on May 4, having come to campus with another veteran to inquire about enrollment. Soon students were running by him screaming that the National Guard was killing people. Thinking back to Dallas, he thought "Fuck, it has happened all over again." Butz also avoided the rifle fire, although his closer proximity to the killing area caused him to understand more readily what had occurred. Within a day Butz learned that he knew several of the dead.
Ken Johnson, a sergeant in the First Infantry Division, numbered among dozens of veterans who survived the thirteen-second salvo. He likened the shootings to a Vietnam "firefight," and ran zigzag for his life. Later he noted that "You know that only a very short time passed… [yet] it went on forever." He saw fatalities in a parking lot he had fled, remembering how one student's "arms and legs were starting to twitch. The guy trying to help her asked me what he should do. I…shook my head…Maybe somebody saw a survivor of a wound like that in 'Nam. I never did."
John Conklin came home from Vietnam physically unscathed, only to find himself standing feet from soon-to-be casualty Jeff Miller when the blast of gunfire began. Taking cover, he grabbed a young woman and threw her and himself to the pavement taking shelter in an access road. He survived as did the female student he had helped protect. As we know from John Filo's iconic photo, Jeff Miller did not.
No former soldiers were hit. But army veteran Frank Zadell, who had been in the same parking lot with Ken Johnson where all four students died, almost certainly spoke for some other ex-servicemen that day in saying that he came closer to dying at Kent State than he did in Vietnam.
Dozens of former soldiers experienced the moment of the shootings, aided the wounded, and watched the ambulances leave the campus before they departed the university grounds once the county prosecutor ordered the campus closed. In Kent and elsewhere, the killings shocked thousands of veterans who had returned from Vietnam that swelled VVAW ranks. Butz became a national leader of the organization, while Johnson and veterans like Dave Childes, who testified at the Winter Soldier hearings, Al Morris and Mike Carmedy all contributed to the growth of the local chapter that emerged as the most important anti-war group on the campus.
The Vietnam anti-war movement is often dismissed as having been the domain of spoiled middle and upper class kids seeking to dodge the draft. Knowledge that combat veterans were fired upon at Kent State, while trying to stop the war in which they had fought, greatly complicates the false narrative conservatives would rather tell.
As long as the war would last, so would opposition to it by veterans at Kent State. John Morrison, a resident of industrial Barberton, Ohio who saw extensive action in the 1st Air Cavalry, dropped out of Kent State after 1969, but continued to attend annual commemorations of the killings there. "I'm proud I served my country," he said in November 2018. "I just wish I would have had a better reason, a belief in why I was there."
Thomas M. Grace, Ph.D., a member of the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Committee at Kent State, worked with the siblings of three of the students that were killed in 1970, and all of the surviving casualties, to organize the May 2020 tribute. The year-long remembrance began in July 2019 and culminated with a "virtual" online program on May 4, 2020. Grace, who was wounded in the shootings, is the author of Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties (2016) and teaches American history at SUNY/Erie. In the early 1970s he was a member of the Buffalo VVAW-WSO chapter.