Friday, August 17, 2007


VVAW 40th AnniversaryFlyin' in Friday a.m.
Chicago, Il August 03-05, 2007

Spoken in the vernacular of The Day: xWhat a trip!

The past week or so has been like a free fall through time: faces, flashes, vignettes, and vibes. What I had originally perceived to be an escape from mundane daily reality -- a venture into the surrealistic world of veterans’ political activism and a world where even the most subtle nuances can carry or lose the day -- turned out to be more of what they call these days an experience in "closure" for me. Closure, at least, in the world of veterans’ activism; a world I have been privileged to have some small part in creating and shaping over the past forty years. A world where the adrenaline flowed freely and political agendas clashed and merged into unity of purpose against overwhelming odds.
But, that was yesterday and yesterday’s gone.
Strange. I had expected to become fired up from sharing air with so many movers and shakers, not all peaceful feelin' like this. After all, next to the Objectives of VVAW and personal politics, force of personality was one of our most powerful resources back in The Day. With so many folks with similar histories, experiences and lifestyles gathered in one location, I imagined that I would just be totally overwhelmed.

This thinking was predicated on my own epiphanies born of the VVAW experience and the sharing of the reality of it with these same personalities so many years ago. Thinking predicated on images of a time when there truly was revolution in the air. I expected that somehow there would actually be uncomfortable, intense sideline sessions over long-past, but no longer relevant political disputes. I expected that in this historically volatile group, long-smoldering disagreements would flare, hopefully that would be emotionally patched up with hugs filled with political maturity, some tears, and a heartfelt warmth for all who had stood, and apparently were still standing. This, despite the coldness of the political winter that has once again fallen across our great land. So much for expectations!

Instead, I found myself experiencing an inner peace that has been lacking for many years. Instead of flare-ups and hugs, there were just lots of hugs, no political rhetoric and nary a flare-up at least that I was witness to. More of a "tales-around the-campfire" kind of gathering, rather than an opportunity to air long repressed disagreements, I am pleased to report. All of the apprehension and tension fell away that first night at the Thai Binh Vietnamese restaurant on Argyle in downtown Chicago. The times have indeed changed!
By the time we arrived at Thai Binh, there were only a few coveted “33”s left for consumption. The crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk from overcrowding inside. While everyone inside switched to a rather strange (but actually not bad) beer, one apparently brewed in China at a German-owned brewery. I had so many of these that weekend, the name is blurred in my memory though I vaguely remember it as being Vietnamese(?). It was, as I recall, sort of a Vietnamese Heineken's (green bottle and all) and certainly highlighted the Global political perspective of the crowd.

I arrived at the restaurant with Russ Scheidler, a VetSpeaker and the man behind the music of Camo & Lace, his wife Linda Crouch, and a new personal friend, vet Doug Drews. Doug is a recent, past president of Vets for Peace in the Twin Cities and the reader of Steve Hassna's words on Camo & Lace. These folks are all Diane's very close friends from the recording of Camo in 2005. We were there to not only "grip and grin" during the hospitality hours on Friday night, but to distribute our VetSpeak "unofficial" VVAW 40th commemoration publication that we had created just for the occasion. I use the term "we" loosely. Truth is, Diane was the soul of this project, putting in an incredible number of hours, and mustering resources from the most unblievable, and greatly appreciated sources and support folks. Had it not been for all of her effort and creativity, our brave little band would probably have not made it to the Windy City to share in this historical occasion.

So, while Russ, Linda and Doug mixed it up with the crowd on the sidewalk, I squeezed my way inside to request clearance to distribute our "unofficial" publication. The place was SRO and rockin' out! I was able to easily find Barry Romo just inside the door and he was having a large time! Barry and I go back to our early VVAW days in Southern California when he was a major player in the San Bernardino Chapter. Back then we referred to that chapter as the Inland Empire. I was actively involved elsewhere in Southern California, mostly with the Orange County, LA and the CSUN (Cal State Northridge) chapters we liked to call the SouthCoast Surfers Empire. I came to personally know Barry through our VVAW organizational efforts around the Gary Lawton trials. VVAW worked closely with the "Free Gary Lawton" community group headed up by Gary's wife, Chukia, a most impressive and incredible woman and consumate grassroots community organizer.

Until that very electric moment at the Thi Binh, Barry and I hadn't seen one another since back in The Day. To say that we once had some strong political perspective differences would be an understatement. But when we met again and hugged each other these thirty years later, I knew that I was reuniting with, and hugging to my heart, a Brother -- political perspectives be damned. A Brother who had remained in the fight, keeping the banner ever present and keeping the Principles of the VVAW Objectives alive and well for the major part of all of our lives. Barry has not only subscribed to the Principles and Objectives, from where I'm sittin', he lived them. And that works, for me.

A toast to you Barry, just for still bein' there: Together Then... Together Again... What Soul! A special thanks to you for your help with sharing our commemorative tribute publication and allowing us to make it available at the registration table.

Meanwhile, all around us, period music from The Day wafted in fro
m somewhere unknown. The Thai Binh was alive and roaring with the cacophony of other long overdue, one-on-one reunions -- not to mention the tales-around-the-campfire style of VVAW history, emanating as outpourings of an emotionally charged Open-Mic Night setting. To my eyes, everyone there was as cool, beautiful and as slightly menacing as they were back in the day. To my ears, words were waking history and refreshing long fogged memories. My Heart? My Heart told me that I really was surrounded by family. It's corny, I know, but that Vietnamese restaurant had a lot of love in it that night!

A Full Next Day

Due to an over abundance of the aforementioned internationally oriented brew at the Thi Binh festivities (followed closely by an iced-down trash can full of Bud long-necks back at my room; Russ pickin' tunes appropriate to the occasion; and getting to better know my new friend, Doug Drews; we fell out a bit late. So, by the time that we managed to arrive at the Roosevelt University meeting hall on Saturday morning for all the meetings and panels, things were well underway and the room was packed. We saw not only all those who had packed the Thai Binh's "Welcome to the VVAW 40th" rally the night before crowding the room, but a bunch more folks as well! I was knocked out by the number of people filling up that large hall that morning. It was all just a little surreal, to me; just the way I've always liked it!
As we listened to the presentations of the opening panel (which consisted of a number of folks that I personally knew back in The Day but hadn't seen for over thirty years), the whole room was a kaleidoscope of shifting realities. Faces swirling around in my mind soon became recognizable after adjusting to the wear and tear of the years. Faces, at first a little hazy, then crystal clear as they were when I first encountered them back when revolution truly was in the air. And together, as an organization, we led the fray to bring to an end U.S. involvement in SE Asia and peace for its people, ousting in most-deserved disgrace, the war criminal and political tyrant Nixon and his gang of thugs.

Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win!
As the mental haze lifted, the words being spoken stirred up an incredible array of imagery reminding me of the applied power of those in the room. I couldn't help but think of all those who didn't make it to Chicago, through either attrition or choice. I wish that they all had been there. I wish that they could feel the validation that was beginning to put a very warm slant on the unfolding events. I wish that they could feel what I felt, and experience some of that "closure" that I mentioned. I wish that they could have heard the words that I heard. And with these words I write here, I wish to tell them how much we all missed them sharing this validation with us.

What I believed to be true when we were young, was totally reinforced by sharing this incredible experience with these incredible people. At our peak, VVAW was documented to have about 8500 "active" VVAW members. In such a small group, far fewer than that imagined by the American public or the Nixon administration (but mightily feared by the oppressors for it's ability to win hearts and minds), it is easy to realize why everyone knew everyone, then and now.

Every member from those days has a story to tell. Those stories are our history. That spirit
permeated the entire proceedings in Chicago. It was the grassroots membership that drove VVAW in The Day. And it was the grassroots membership that were given tribute in Chicago. To me, this is a testament of our effectiveness as an organization at the grassroots level, and our principled ability to present a unified front around a predetermined set of Objectives or Demands. This, in spite of the amazing number of political perspectives of the membership in the face of overwhelming odds. Those of us who made it to Chicago were simply living proof of this, gathered once again in one spot for one unified purpose. We comprised, as it were, a living monument to the validity of the principles of Unity, Struggle, Victory!

The Future of VVAW: Be There for IVAW

Of course, being the occasion it was, there was discussion about the future of VVAW. With the impressive representation of the Iraq Veterans Against The War at the meeting, the decision was voiced all day by all in attendance: Be There For Them. IVAW put on a dynamite panel. They seemed to have a handle on where they want to go and how they want to get there. It all seemed clear to me: Continue to rally around the Objectives; understand how you fit in with all that history from our time: and share our experiences and resources with a new generation of anti-war veterans fresh from battle; an opportunity that was never there for us.

Early on, it became clear that their battles on the homefront were becoming increasingly similar to ours. The Truth was bubbling to the surface, reminding the world that we were right in the Post-Vietnam Syndrome (PVS/PTSD) days: The government's version of PTSD was a whitewash diagnosis that put the loss of the war on the backs of the veterans who fought in it. Walter Reed is nothing new, not by a long shot! I think that the younger vets left our event convinced that we had their back -- and would as long as we draw breath.

Those young warriors brought out the old spirit, alright. Somewhere toward the evening, Doug Drews and a few others itching for action commandeered the dais banner and took it to the streets. All that talking all day inspired an impromptu anti-war rally out on Michigan Avenue in front of the Roosevelt University. The turn out was great! We stood right across the street from the park where the Lollapalooza was being held, so we had lot's of exposure due the ebbing and flowing of the concert crowd, mixed in with regular Saturday evening traffic in Chicago.

After dinner in the meeting hall, the music began.
Anna Stange played music with some of the members. Russ and Diane Wood sang a couple of tunes from Camo & Lace. Russ continued with some of his original songs and some old labor songs like Solidarity Forever. He also sang a few Celtic tunes that he plays under the nomer, Hugin The Bard, which inspired some dancing in the audience. There was even a lilting version of Amazing Grace played on the bagpipes by the daughter of one of the members. And a little performance art done on guitar by cartoonist Billy X. Curmano.

But then, all too soon, the last dances were danced and it was Last Call. It was time to call it a day. And what a day it had been! Old friendships rekindled, lifelong political commitments renewed, love aged like fine wine flowing the whole time and most importantly, the torch passed on to a new generation of anti-war warriors. It don't get no better than that! Slowly, the lights dimmed, the crowd thinned, and the last of the musicians -- a little drunk with beer, history and emotion -- took their last turns trying to make the night last a little longer. And then, it was over. I swear that as I left the building, I heard people already talking about the 50th! What Soul!
The Last Day

Sadly, on Sunday, our brave little band from MN, WI and FL were out of gas from all of that emotion, reverie and -- old age. I extend our apologies to all for our having missed that last important gathering, a brunch at the Vietnam Veteran's Museum. (We'll try and do better at the 50th.) In spite of all that I have written here, I have to admit I was glad to finally clear O'Hare for Florida after a long night in the airport and a 24-hour layover due to bad weather. But all that time in transit allowed me to ponder some of the things I learned on this most memorable trip: Real friendship will endure the tests of time, politics, and events. VVAW was and is the real deal and has remained true to the original Objectives. All the folks who were in Chicago for the 40th are very real (vernacular of the day) people, and are an important part of America's history. And it is imperative that all of us continue to make our powerful history known as far and wide as we can.

It is imperative that all of us continue to make make that powerful history known far and wide, as there is a whole new generation of warriors seeking answers...and those answers are in our history.
Semper Fi!

Willie Hager