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Uniforms, Rage, Medals and Citations
By Joseph Petzel
This story is how I remember these events. It always surprises me when I tell a story and someone else who was part of the story disagrees with things. To my brother, Tommy, and long-time friend Jeff, I hope I did you right.
We came home from the war in various states of physical, emotional, and spiritual turmoil. Many never returned. When discharged they gave us a new dress uniform to fly home in. Some of the airlines gave a returning vet half off on a ticket, but wearing the uniform was required. I refused. I swore I'd never wear it again. No more wars for me. No more military madness. I was not proud of my service in Vietnam.
I enthusiastically wore parts of my uniform a few years later while serving my country as a Vietnam Veteran Against the War. This was really serving my country. It was a bright and shining lie that I served my country in that war.
I held a simmering rage, which would explode when I perceived someone trying to establish authority, control, or power over me. The Army lifers and officers had completely burned me out with their incompetence, self preening, and narcissism.
I had many opportunities to project my rage toward others, particularly with police officers.
Many Chicago Police Officers also had their own projected rage. In 1969, I was a male with long hair, the recipient of that rage. There were quite a few meetings of my rage and theirs. I had no fear of the police; they had none toward me. Their power, authority, and disdain toward "hippies" were the perfect screen for me to project my rage. I bristled when called a hippie.
Remember the Democratic Convention in Chicago, 1968, and the riots that occurred? Otto Kerner, a former governor of Illinois, was appointed to head an investigation into the events of that tumultuous few days. The commission's findings were that a series of "police riots" occurred. The police had rioted and took out their rage on the protestors.
In Chicago, lines had been drawn. The police and many of the people of Chicago had a rage toward the hippies, peaceniks, radicals. If you were a male with long hair you often put your safety at risk while moving through the city. I have numerous stories of these confrontations.
I became active in protesting the war, economic injustice, racism, and other social ills. I was vocal and had numerous confrontations with police officers who directed their disdain towards me or those around me. I didn't feel my fear in these confrontations. Notice I didn't write courage. Courage is action in the face of fear. At that time I had learned to distance myself from my fear. I just rarely felt it. Some of them began with me causing the confrontation.
This is a story of one confrontation. This story happened over 50 years ago. I hope I remember it the way it happened.
Bart Savage, Jeff Hillier, and I were close friends. We were brothers, active members of the Chicago Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Bart had a VW bus painted camouflage. On both sides of the van was the large VVAW logo. Bart was fearless, driving around Chicago advertising our opposition to the war, being stopped by the police often. In 1969 many Chicago police officers were overt in their hatred toward members of our organization. In a future story, I'll write about the time 4 officers, after arresting me, beat me up in an elevator at the police headquarters.
Jeff was driving the van in the southern suburbs, I think visiting his mother. He was pulled over, not for speeding or reckless driving, but for driving while against the war. His long hair was another reason for the stop. In many of the Chicagoland areas, I would be confronted about the length of my hair. A few times I had to defend myself physically. I never was quiet when confronted with statements like, "Is it a boy or a girl, I can't tell.", or "Hey sweetie, how about a kiss." The fools who said these things were often very surprised at my responses.
The police searched the van and Jeff, finding a small bottle with a few aspirins. The bottle was not marked and they arrested Jeff for possession of, I hope I remember this right, LSD.
He called me to get bailed out. I was with my younger brother Tommy. He was around 16 years old.
At the police station, attempting to bail Jeff out, I was met with the same tired comments about my hair. There was a visceral sense of their hatred toward me. I was wearing the uniform blouse I wore in Nam, a green top with the insignias of the unit I was with, the 3rd of the 5th Armored Infantry, the Black Knights on one arm, and the VVAW insignia on the other. They were clearly seething at seeing this. This was a common response. Many people could not believe a "real" vet would be against the war. Another reason was they felt we were betraying the uniform we wore in combat. and the soldiers who were currently in Viet Nam.
A couple of years later a World War II vet disgustedly told me that, "We won our war, you lost yours."
After the police officers' comments, they ignored me and my brother. I had come to bail Jeff out and was being ignored.
"Someday the people will have the guns and the pigs won't. Things will change", I said loudly to my brother. I am in no way justifying what I said. My fearless rage was up. I wanted a confrontation. I did not consider what danger I was putting my younger brother in. I am embarrassed by this. Of course, the police officer's anger rose. He pulled out his revolver and pounded it down on the desk between us, yelling, "Go ahead, go for it!"
The other officers in the room froze, hands to their sides. I sarcastically replied, "If I grab that gun you all will kill me. "
A silence of 5 seconds, that lasted for an eternity ended as the other officers grabbed me from behind and threw me out of the station, locking the door behind them.
My younger brother, startled by this eruption, told the officer when he returned, "Now I know why they call you pigs." The officer grabbed him by the neck and pushed him into the cell with my friend. I own that I was creating as much chaos, fear, anger as the police were. We co-created that exchange.
A couple of years after my discharge I met a vet, Phil, who belonged to the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He and I were students at the University of Illinois in Chicago. I was active in anti-war activities on the campus. He asked me to join and I immediately knew I should.
After a few meetings, I volunteered to speak to a high school class. Thus began a two-year journey of speaking out against the war. I lectured at schools, churches, meetings, demonstrations, city corners, peoples' homes. I participated and later organized demonstrations, fundraisers, meetings, and recruitment of fellow vets. I became the Regional Coordinator for Northern Illinois and Iowa. I led the Chicago Chapter, a very active group of Vietnam Vets. I was arrested three times and beaten in a police station's elevator. Later I was the proud owner of 300 pages of FBI and Chicago Police undercover files on my activities. I read them with pride, a feeling I do not have about my military service.
There was safety in participating with young men who carried the scent of war. We were all trying to make sense out of our lives that had lost the gravity that held most others in place. The gravity that held our lives in place before the war no longer was there. We were free-floating, holding onto each other, raging at the war machine and indifference. We created our own gravity that held us together. A new kind of gravity of shared, determined struggle to bring the truth of that war to others, a gravity of shared pain, guilt, despair, and hope.
I loved almost every minute of my participation in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I knew many people admired us, hated us, and were indifferent to us. VVAW saved many of us; it saved me from a despair of the spirit. It was a huge growth step in my spiritual journey, even though I never considered it in those terms at the time.
At one demonstration in Washington DC, we returned the medals and citations we had earned in the war. No one would accept them so we threw them onto the steps of the Capital.
Twenty-five years later, I was visiting my family in Chicago. We were having a large dinner. My beloved grandmother, Mamaw, age 93 sat next to me.
Out of nowhere, she exclaimed, "I want to apologize to you. We should have listened to you back then, Joey, you were right."
I was confused and asked her what she meant. "About that war, we should have listened to you. You were there and you knew. We didn't listen and should have listened. I'm sorry. Thank you for speaking up."
I thanked her and began to cry. I cry as I write this. My sweet grandmother, whom I thought the world of was thanking me for my service in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an "army" I am proud to have served in.
I no longer have the citations I received in the army. I gave them back. I "wear" my grandmother's words ever since she spoke them. This is the citation I am proud to wear, will never forget, or want to return.
Joe Petzel is a Vietnam Veteran, who served as Regional Coordinator for Northern IL and Iowa VVAW, after returning from the war.