Tuesday, November 15, 2005
"Politics is a very volatile arena. It should be entered with care. Our veterans (all of them) have served their country well. If only they could put these ideological differences aside. They fought the enemies of freedom and peace together; one would think they could do it at home, as well. They break my heart." Lynne Pittman-Wilder
BURYING THE HATCHET: Why Every Veteran Deserves to Wear White
by DIANE FORD WOOD
Combat veterans have a back-to-back, foxhole bond not easily broken. Years of "human dynamics," philosophical differences, personal and societal stress can break down even the tightest connections. This Veterans' Day, VetSpeak.com is making a call to all veterans to bury the hatchet, find forgiveness, and give each other a break.
So much of what we know about each other is based on perception and, yes, misperception. It's time to check in and make sure that the grudge you've been holding all these years is a valid one, both on an organizational level and a personal one.
One case in point is Vietnam Veterans Against the War. For years, VVAW has labored under the public misperception that it is an all-Communist organization. Politics aside, who benefits from such a one-sided perception? The vets? The Cause? Or the detractors who seek to minimize, discredit and undermine an organization with a venerable 40-year history? VVAW vets and supporters "risked everything to tell the truth" through the years. They still do. Yet, some vets shy away from the organization for reasons they haven't checked the veracity of in years. Sounds like playing into "divide and conquer" techniques to me.
In 2005, VVAW has received the most financial support in a twelve-month period in its entire history. People all across the nation are putting their faith, trust -- and dollars -- into VVAW to end to the war in Iraq and help veterans get a fair deal when they get home. I, for one, know that there are many veteran brothers and sisters who hold back their support, feeling like something important was taken away from them "back then," putting their efforts in other directions.
Personally, I think it's time to give VVAW another chance. Maybe Veteran's Day is a good time to bury the hatchet and remember what VVAW did for us in "The Day." It not only provided a support system and place for veterans with extremely unpopular beliefs to stand together, it ushered many of us, vets and supporters alike, into an era of social activism that changed the world.
On October 29th, I spent fourteen hours with the VVAW National Steering Committee in Chicago. The perception that "VVAW Anti-Imperialist (VVAW-AI) is in control of VVAW is just not true. The website validates this right on the front page. To be sure, I walked right up to Barry Romo and asked him the question. His response was honest and straight-forward. He assured me that VVAW-AI was a rough spot in the organization's history. And like any diverse group of leaders in a national organization, there are multiple political philosophies at play.
After eight hours of meetings, and a few more hours of partying, did I perceive that any one philosophy was in control of VVAW? Were there pictures of Marx and Lenin on the walls? Absolutely not. Even if there were, who cares? While Barry is still at the helm (talk about commitment), he is also surrounded by a superlative group of activists and staff members who are no one's dupes. What I sensed is a cohesive, functional group, made up of both fresh new members, and long-term ones, representing a wide variety of philosophical beliefs and opinions. To even have long-term members (i.e., volunteers) continue to commit precious time to any social change organization is pretty amazing in itself. It proves that there is "something happening here."
The staff, too, showed this level of commitment. When I complimented the generous spirit of Jeff Machota who runs the VVAW office, Barry said that it's hard to find staff members who not only give 1000%, but also show up at the times when funds are short and there isn't even a paycheck in it for them. Jeff qualifies.
And in case you're wondering, I am not in Barry's (or anyone's) back pocket. In fact, ultimately, we didn't bond well. Maybe it was the comparison I made about he and Willie Hager ("You are bald with a black goatee, Barry; Willie is bald with a white one.") Whoops. Or a passing comment I should not have made about a veteran superstar who turns out to be a very good friend of Barry's. Sadness. The truth is, it's pretty daunting to walk into the National Steering Committee of VVAW. And it's too easy to get a little stupid when meeting people you admire. (A personal glitch.)
Barry did everything he could to open the doors for me. Just before the meeting started, he jumped up from his seat, walked over to me, and gave me a quick peck on the cheek. To me, that told the group, "Listen to what Diane has to say. She is welcome here." I was very appreciative of that. And I did feel listened to.
But the truth is, while it is more comfortable for us all to get along, THE MISSION IS THE THING. Barry knows this, I know this. Throughout the day, the mission was stated and restated: To end the war and treat the soldiers well when they come home. There was not one thing said about, "Well, that doesn't conform with the teachings of Marx," or whatever. Truly, VVAW is a group effort, made up of powerful entities who agree on some things and disagree on others. To me, that is a plus, not a minus. Who cares what picture hangs over anyone's bed or the books they read at night? In 1967, VVAW set a powerful mission for themselves, and all around me were men and women who keep showing up to the table and the streets, some for decades, to get the job done.
That evening, I was invited to party with VVAW at a Vietnamese restaurant. Once there, I did something I haven't done in years. Yes, I recently wrote an audiobook about VVAW with 8 original songs -- and sang them, too -- but I have not had the courage (or heart) to sing in public for nearly 20 years. That night, I listened to David Cline of Vets for Peace play the blues on the guitar. I watched Barry Romo dress up in clerical drag to entertain the troops. I listened to the heartfelt poetry of Californian Horace Coleman. I was mesmerized by the artistry and soul in the voice of Joe Miller's daughter Lisa. Almost everyone, it seemed, jumped up to do something, or put a lot of energy into supporting those who did. (Annie Bailey even baked some curiously delightful brownies.) And finally I got up, too. I sang "For What It's Worth," and "House of the Rising Son" with Bob Gronko, who played many songs with Anna Stange. I felt like a butterfly escaping a cacoon in those moments. It was all great fun. And much more, when you think about it.
Just before I left for Chicago, I received an email from Gerald Nicosia, author of "Home to War." (His book was partly panned by VVAW for alleged factual inaccuracies; I followed the scuttlebutt in VVAW's "The Veteran," magazine between Nicosia and reviewer Kurt Hilgendorf.) In his email, Nicosia asked if I would suggest to Romo that "it's time to make peace" because we're all on the same side.
I met Hilgendorf early on that day, and found him to be a very serious (possibly genius) young man. Like the rest of us, he put all self-conciousness aside to play some Rolling Stones tunes on the guitar. And it struck me, almost whimsically, that if Nicosia would just 1) show up to a National Steering Committee meeting, and 2) be willing to make a fool of himself like everyone else, maybe even do a duet with Hilgendorf, (I know, I can hear the comments) his peace offering might actually get heard. Even if you think that this is a bizarre suggestion, making music together just has to be a better form of communication than email -- which I would put money on is how Nicosia, Hilgendorf and VVAW communicated over "Home to War."
That evening, we all risked a fool's label and put our hearts in the music with no care about anything but the community of it, the fun of it and the soul of it. I could tell that this is something the group does a lot, and maybe that is why it remains so healthy and vital. What struck me is how alike we all are -- and how different. And what mountains we can still move (and what wars we can end) if 1) we show up and 2) we give each other a little room for error.
I felt warmed that these people, who surely could have treated me in a paranoid way, even let me in the door that day. They are professional activists, many with names I may not remember, but who share a sense of community and commitment I will never forget. At one point, Bill Davis, a massively committed activist, asked me about the background of someone associated with VetSpeak.com. "Does it really matter what the guy did in 1972?" I responded. "Which one among us can look back and see a completely clean slate?" He seemed to take this in, and I went just a little further. "You know, Bill, every veteran deserves to wear white. They really do."
I love and honor all veterans on Veterans' Day. Something that happened thirty years ago just doesn't matter today. People change, people grow -- and so do organizations. What matters more is the Mission -- and the common bond of experience and soul you all share. There is not one vet among us who does not deserve to wear white. Think about it, okay?