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Veterans Day, 1971
By Peter P. Mahoney
I came home from Vietnam in March of 1971 a changed man, disgusted and disillusioned. My patriotism had been spent like chump change in a penny arcade, wasted on a futile effort in a dirty war where survival was the only measure of success. I had survived, but felt no pride or sense of accomplishment from my ordeal. I was simply glad it was over.
I stepped off the plane in San Francisco, and after a few hours flurry of processing and paperwork, I was discharged from the Army. In less than four days, I went from being a combat soldier in Vietnam to being a civilian on the streets of the United States. Needless to say, the transition was abrupt and disorienting, but I suppose I had it better than many. Since I had no particular place to go, I flew to my parent's house which was then in Massachusetts. I had no real idea about what I wanted to do or what my plans were. I had been totally focused on surviving one year in Vietnam, with little thought about what I would do afterwards if I did survive.
When I said I had no real plans when I came home, that's not quite true. I had one overriding goal for when I got out of the military. I wanted to be a hippie (Gimme a head with hair…). I had watched from afar all the iconic moments of the baby-boom generation: Haight-Ashbury, Woodstock, long hair, peace, love, dope, good vibes. The thought of somehow surviving Vietnam and coming back to join my generation in its distinctive life-affirming life-style choices was something that kept me going through the crew-cut, authoritarian, life-negating military experience. By 1971, a lot of the "good vibes" had long since dissipated—drowning under the weight of drug abuse, rip-offs, egotistical excesses, and the ever-present lure of the American materialistic society—but there were still enough remnants of hippie culture for me to immerse myself in and try to catch up on what I missed.
As that summer of 1971 wore on, I was feeling the need to "go straight", or at least develop some sort of acceptable direction to my life. Going back to college seemed like the natural step to take. This fulfilled two needs. The first, of course, was that I now could claim direction, and put to rest all the fears—both my own and my parents'—that I was on the verge of spinning out of control. The second was income. What seemed like a large pot of funds when I returned from Vietnam was quickly dissipating, and enrolling in college would give me access to GI bill money. By the time I became eligible for this education benefit in the fall of 1971, the monthly stipend was at $175; in 1972, the amount was raised to $220. This, of course, was nowhere near sufficient to cover all costs associated with getting a college degree, and did not take into account that many education expenses such as books and tuition need to be paid up front.
Tuition costs at state schools in those days were somewhat manageable. I decided on attending Louisiana State University at New Orleans (LSUNO, or UNO as it became known), and I paid a little over $500 in tuition and fees for an academic year. Initially, my housing cost me $90 a month for a studio apartment on Royal Street in the French Quarter (another bucket list check-off: to live in the Quarter), but soon moved with two other students I had met into an apartment on Amelia Street off St. Charles Avenue where we split a monthly rent of $150. I picked up a part time job pumping gas at a service station close to the campus, so I wasn't rolling in dough, but I had enough to pay expenses and purchase an acceptable amount of recreational drugs each month.
A few weeks into my first semester at UNO, I spied a leaflet on a bulletin board announcing the formation of a chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, with a time and place for the first meeting. My anti-war opinions were not particularly well-formed at that time, consisting of thoughts something like "The war is bad. It should stop." I had seen on the television the huge amount of publicity that VVAW had received for Dewey Canyon III the previous Spring. I had even been in DC during the time that the demonstration was taking place. I drove around the city of Washington for about an hour, passing by the mall trying to get a glimpse of the protesting veterans and trying to screw up the courage to join them. In the end, I was too scared, or too shy, or just wasn't ready to participate at that time. Participation in anti-war activity, however, was a necessary component of the hippie lifestyle I was attempting to adopt, and VVAW seemed the natural way for me to get my feet wet.
There was another reason for my attending this meeting. I was feeling distinctly alienated from most of my classmates. These were kids mostly freshly graduated from high school, younger than me, and most definitely worlds apart from me in life experience. I didn't feel comfortable around them, and didn't want to talk to them about what I had been through. Vietnam had turned me into an adrenaline junkie, and there were few fixes in everyday campus life that satisfied my craving. I took to doing things like sucking on razor blades during classes, or leaning out the open passenger door of a car and dragging my lengthening hair along the pavement as the car sped at sixty miles an hour down the highway. More than anything else, I was attracted to VVAW because I wanted to be around other vets, who could understand the things I was going through.
I showed up at the appointed time and place, and found a room with about twenty people in it. The meeting was chaired by a guy named Don Donner, who identified himself as the regional coordinator for VVAW for Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, who had come down to New Orleans from Arkansas to try to get things going down here. He said that it was being planned that our first action as a chapter would be to march in the annual Veterans Day Parade in New Orleans. The organizers of the parade—the traditional veterans organizations such as the VFW and American Legion—had put out a call that all bona fide veterans groups were invited to join the parade. VVAW was a bona fide veterans group, so we had applied to march in the parade. To say the least, the older veterans groups were not enthused about this idea, and initially rejected our application. Some local lawyers got involved, and we eventually got a begrudging agreement that we could march.
Thirty-three of us showed up on the night of the parade at the spot designated by the organizers, and we watched and waited as the parade passed on by, all spangled high school bands and motley groups of cunt-capped older veterans. Finally, our group's leaders demanded to know when we would be allowed to march. The parade organizers then sprang on us the news that the Grand Marshall of the parade—Congressman F. Edward Herbert, recently selected as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee—had decreed that no anti-war groups were going to march in his parade. We tried to negotiate some sort of alternative, like marching down the sidewalk rather than in the street, but were told that if we marched anywhere as a group that night, we would be arrested. Our response was Fuck It! We marched; we got busted for parading without a permit. The police held us overnight, then released us in the morning without bail. The case never went to court; the purpose of the arrest was to get us off the street so we wouldn't spoil F. Edward's parade.
So, the first time in my life I was ever arrested was for trying to march in my first Veterans Day parade after I got back from Vietnam. It was not to be the last.
Peter P. Mahoney was one of the Gainesville 8.