Saturday, May 30, 2009


Rena Kopy
Agent Orange Committee Chair
On February 5th, 2009 I received an e-mail from a Vietnam vet named Paul Cox, that sent me hurling back to another place and another time, 25 years ago. Paul belongs to the Campaign for Conscience and Responsibility with regard to Agent Orange and its effects on the people of Vietnam. When I expressed surprise at being contacted, he told me that no matter which groups of Vietnam vets he spoke to, my name kept coming up; which created even more surprise because I was certainly a voice from the past. At the time of the contact I was still reeling from the death of my beloved husband, John, whose death at the hands of the chemical companies and the government use of herbicides, had just taken place on April 6th, 2008.

Paul wanted me to go to Paris, France, to testify before the International Tribunal of Conscience in May of 2009. At first the request was the same as someone asking me to go to the Moon and I politely said that while I would welcome the opportunity, there was no way that on a widow's pension, I could afford such a trip. I thought that the subject was closed until I received another email from the unrelenting Paul Cox, telling me that if I could go, all of my expenses would be paid for. After speaking to my sons, it was decided that I would be "jetting to Paris, in May"!!!!!!! More importantly, what that did for my deep depression over the loss of the person that made my life have meaning, was, that I could lash out against the forces that had taken everything from me.

As I prepared for my trip I began studying about the effects on the people of Vietnam; not the Viet Cong, the enemy, those horrible people, who never wanted us there in the first place, but the children, the grandchildren, the land they lived off of and the water that they drank. It was an eye-opening experience and one that suddenly had me by the scruff of my intellect and with a renewed anger that had governed my actions in the 70's and 80's, to a semi-successful end for the Vietnam vets, but with no success for the millions of vets' kids (like our own son) who were still dealing with their parents' service in Vietnam.
The biggest difference between our children and the children of Vietnam was, quite honestly, that we lived in the USA and so, as bad as our childrens' health problems were and are, we had medical help and a standard of living that made the problems they were born with somewhat easier to bear, than the children who lived in the mudhuts of Vietnam. Our children could eat food and vegatables that did not grow in dioxin laced soil or eat fish that swam in dioxin poisoned rivers. And so, off I went to Paris, France...

One of my greatest apprehensions was that to the French people, I would represent the "Ugly American" and to the Vietnamese, I would be considered "the enemy". Neither of the scenarios came to pass. The Frenchwoman, Marie Helene, who was to be my hostess, was generous, intellectually challenging and treated me as if we had known each other for years and years. The Vietnamese people, including the infamous Madame Bing, were accepting, caring and actually grateful that I had come so far to champion their cause. I also met, Merle Ratner from the Campaign office in New York and Veterans for Peace. She had worked hand in hand with Dave Cline for quite sometime. The only element that could have been better thought out was the fact that it did not stop raining the entire time I was in Paris; but, even the "mighty activist" cannot stop the rain in France.

The first day that I was in Paris, we went to a dedication on behalf of Ho Chi Minh at one of the most beautiful parks I had ever seen. It was such an exquisite surrounding that I didn't even mind that we were all getting soaking wet standing in the rain. We then went to the VAVA office (Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange) for a meeting in preparation for the Tribunal the following day. It was at that meeting that I met the Vietnamese Ambassador to France and Madame Bing, who was the Vice President of South Vietnam. There was an incredible feeling of cooperation and purpose even though their was an obvious language barrier.

After that meeting I was dropped off at the Hotel where the New York lawyers who had represented the Vietnamese in the lawsuit, which turned out to be another rape committed by Judge Jack Weinstein of the Federal Court. It was at that meeting that I met Frank Cochran, a member of VFP out of Philadelphia and an Agent Orange cancer survivor. One of the attorneys, John Moore, prepared us for what was originally going to be a Q&A type of testimony. After that meeting, Frank and I began what turned out to be a daily adventure of getting lost in the Metro system under Paris.

On May 15th, 2009, the first day of the Tribunal, it became very obvious that everything I had learned about the problems created by Agent Orange in Vietnam, was merely a scintilla of the real story. Over 3 million children and grandchildren, not only of those veterans who served during the war, but, anyone who lived in the spray zones, were effected and the number was growing on a daily basis. Children, who survived birth, were born with missing or deformed limbs, missing eyes, brains and other vital organs and major neurological impairments, just to provide an idea of the extent of the problems. Mothers who were agent orange victims themselves were nursing babies with dioxin contaminated mothers' milk and had no choice but to provide this tainted nutrition because that was all they had to offer.
There was also two other widows of Vietnam vets who testified about their loss and, quite honestly, the world's loss of two positive activists, three if you count my beloved husband, John. Both of these men had returned to Vietnam to give back to the people, for what they perceived that their government had taken away.

When I was called to give my testimony, it felt very strange that here I was in this foreign land, and that the calling of my name, exacted applause from the attendees. I later realized that, although I had been out of the fight for over 20 years, my friend and mentor, Dave Cline had never left the stage and with every speech that he gave, he honored my husband's fight to survive and the child we had together, by saying "my dear friends, John and Rena Kopystenski" or as Merle had told me, he referred to John and I as "the real deal" when it came to Agent Orange activists. So, it was not me they were applauding, it was Dave Cline and all he had done.

Instead of Q&A testimony, those who were to testify provided their own, mostly written speeches, including me. What I did before all else was to stand a picture of my husband John on the table before me and to introduce everyone in attendance to the subject we were discussing. I actually took a great amount of strength and confidence in having him right next to me. When I was done speaking I was amazed to look up through teary eyes, to see a standing ovation for the words I had spoken, even some of the judges were in tears and I was prompted by the reception, to state "I will not stop, I will not go away." I had remembered later that I had said those exact words during the testimony I gave before the Federal court in 1984.

The following day was filed with medical and scientific testimony as well as that of some of the Agent Orange victims of Vietnam. It was heartbreaking to hear from a father who had all of his sons die at a young age or the Korean vet who had to migrate to Amsterdam for the health care and the illnesses of his children. What become ever more clear was that the United States has taken no interest in what can only be recognized, under the Geneva Convention, as a war crime. Nor have they taken what this host nation seemed to take, moral indignation against such crimes when discussing the actions of another country, but not our own. How much money did the United States spend in reparations for Japan, or are presently wasting in Iraq? Does the fact that the chemicals sprayed, with full knowledge of their contaminated state, not only remains in the soil, water and atmosphere, and how it has accelerated in strength and damage done, not seem like a war crime to the politicians in Washington D.C.?

One of the points that I brought up and that was embraced by all, including the attorneys, was that the only lawsuit that stands a chance of succeeding, is a suit by the children of the Vietnam vets and the children of Vietnam against the chemical companies and the United States for war crimes. Children of our vets are not encumbered by the Ferros doctrine and the sovereign nation status will probably not hold up when dealing with birth defected children.

After the speakers were finished and the tribunal adjourned to await the verdict of the judges, Frank Cochran and I set out to do some sightseeing. I was leaving for home on the following day, early, and so it was decided that we would try to see as much of Paris as we could. I had declined staying any additional time because the concept of walking around Paris without Johnny held absolutely no appeal for me. Moreover, the idea of going to Paris without my husband seemed to make no sense. I had never expected to be made to feel so welcome by the French or the Vietnamese, nor did I expect to feel so comfortable with the French people, who were the most courteous and helpful people I have ever met. In a way, I regretted my decision to leave so soon after the tribunal ended, but I did have a family that had never been without me since the death of their father and grandfather.

Frank and I, in keeping with our new found tradition, immediately got lost. We had to constantly sit at one of those outside cafes to regroup over a 1664 beer (the French brand of lager) and share stories of our fight for the cause and our experiences over the years. It was as if we had known each other for a zillion years and we laughed so much we had to have another beer!!!!! And another one!!!!! We ended up forgoing a whole lot of sights and decided to walk toward where I was staying, which neither of us had a clue of which direction we were going to take. Frank was really in love with the Siene and we walked over it so many times that I think we were going to circles. Paris was lovely and one of the things that we kept doing is stopping our walk to both say, "My Lord, I'm in Paris!!!!!!" Boy, did we portray hard line activists or what?

My trip home seemed to take forever and with a 6 hour layover in Atlanta, I had made plans with Elton and Lynn Manzione to meet at the Atlanta airport, which even though we were both in place, could never get together because of the size of the airport. So, unlike Paris where everyone was so helpful, even with the language differences, I realized that I was back in the United States when I couldn't even get one American to assist me with finding where we had decided to meet and spend the first time in 25 years together. Final proof of the American experience of today's world is that when I finally landed in Las Vegas, the airline couldn't find my luggage.

WELCOME HOME?????????????????

Agent Orange Tribunal-Paris, France: Executive Summary

Ed Note: My friend and fellow VVAW Contact, Billy X, sent this e-mail out to the VVAW Contact list, for Memorial Day, referencing "collateral damage" of combat; the systematic destruction of societies and cultures that extends beyond the wounds of the warriors, in this case, through chemical warfare. I am sharing it here with y'all because of the "collateral damage" perspective, relating directly to our government's use of the defoliant known as Agent Orange, during the Vietnam war. VVAW was one of the initiators of the Agent Orange "movement", way back before the "settlement", as it has come to be known.
One of VVAW's own has been in the fight for political as well as very personal reasons, for a very long time. That person is Rena Kopy, widow of John Kopystenski, VVAW member and Agent Orange victim. Rena was recently selected to present at an International Tribunal re Agent Orange. Billy has shared the Executive Summary of the Tribunal with us, along with his personal thanks to Rena, for her persistence, and her courage in travelling so far, on behalf of the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. We will be sharing Rena's thoughts on her participation, here on our pages, in the days to come, as well.WH
Billy's E-Mail:
I know this is a day to remember those who gave their lives in service, but I needed to get this out of my remember those others that gave their all ...without their consent. The collateral damage of war and things done in our name.

Rena Kopy, long time peace activist, mother and member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, has been touched very personally by that war. She was invited to testify at the recent hearings in Paris about the consequences of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange used widely in Vietnam.

I wanted to share the results of those hearings and publicly thank Rena, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace and Peace Activists everywhere. Please keep working.

Billy X. Curmano

Art Works USA
Winona, MN 55987
The Summary:
Paris, May 18, 2009

The International Peoples’ Tribunal of Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange met on May 15 to 16 2009 in Paris to hear evidence of the impact of the use of Agent Orange by the US military in Vietnam from 1961 and 1971. A summons and complaint announcing the Tribunal was sent to the United States Government, and the Chemical Companies which manufactured Agent Orange. Despite notice neither the Government nor the firms responded.

The Tribunal was constituted by the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL). The Judges of the Tribunal came from every part of the globe: Jitendra Sharma, India; Judge Juan Guzman, Chile; Judge Claudia Morcom, USA; Professor Marjorie Cohn, USA; Dr. Gavril Chiuzbaian, Romania; Prof. Adda Bekkarouch, Algeria; and Attorney Shoji Umeda, Japan.

The Tribunal received evidence and testimony from 27 people including victims and expert witnesses. The testimony from the victims was very compelling and the testimony of the experts tied the damages that these victims suffered to their exposure to Dioxin. Testimony also described the extent of the spraying, the millions of persons exposed, the jungles and forests destroyed and families devastated.

After examining the evidence the Tribunal found that the United States Government and the Chemical manufacturers were aware of the fact that Dioxin, one of the most dangerous chemicals known to man, was present in one of the component parts of Agent Orange; yet they continued to use it and in fact suppressed a study which showed in 1965 that Dioxin caused many birth defects in experimental animals. It was not until the results of that study were released by a leak from concerned citizen that the use of Agent Orange was stopped.

Considering that this Tribunal finds:
1) that the evidence presented to the Tribunal has established that during the war of USA against Vietnam, from 1961 to 1971, military forces of the United States sprayed chemical products which contained large quantities of Dioxin in order to defoliate the trees for military objectives;
2) that the chemical products which were sprayed caused damages to the people, the land, the water, the forest, the ecology and the economy of Vietnam that this Tribunal can categorize as:
  • direct damages to the people: The illnesses produced directly to the people who have been exposed to Dioxin include cancer, skin disorders, liver damage, pulmonary and heart diseases, defects to reproductive capacity, as well as nervous disorders;
  • indirect damages to the children of those exposed to Dioxin, including severe physical deformities, mental and physical disabilities, diseases and shortened life spans;
  • damages caused to the land and forests, water supply, and communities. The forests and jungles in large parts of southern Vietnam have been devastated and denuded, and may either never grow back or take 50 to 200 years to regenerate. Animals which inhabited the forests and jungles have become extinct, disrupting the communities which depended on them. The rivers and underground water in some areas have also been contaminated. Dioxin will persist in the environment for many years; and
  • erosion and desertification necessarily will change the environment contributing to warming the planet and the dislocation of crop and animal life.

Considering also that this Tribunal finds:

1) that the US war in Vietnam was an illegal war of aggression against a country seeking national liberation: the illegality is based on Articles 2(3) and 2(4) of the Charter of the United Nations which require countries to peacefully resolve their disputes. The massive spraying of Agent Orange/Dioxin on the southern part of Vietnam and the massive bombardment of the northern part of Vietnam clearly demonstrates that the United States violated the UN Charter mandate to refrain from the use of force in international relations;

2) that the Nuremberg Principles define a war of aggression as a crime against peace punishable under international law;

3) that the use of Dioxin was a war crime because it was a poisoned weapon outlawed both in customary international law and by the Hague Convention of 1907. [Hague Convention 23(a)]. Violations of the customs and laws of war are considered war crimes under Principle VI b of the Nuremberg Principles. The Chemical companies knew how their Dioxin- laced products would be used in Vietnam; yet they continued to manufacture and supply these agents with very high levels of Dioxin to the US government. By providing poison weapons the companies were complicit in the war crimes committed by the US government;

4) that the use of Dioxin was a crime against humanity as defined by VI c of the Nuremberg Principles, because it constituted an inhuman act done against a civilian population in connection with a crime against peace and war crimes;

5) that the use of illegal weapons in an illegal war has caused the devastation described above. These crimes have produced so much pain, suffering and anguish to at least 3 to 4 million people and their families. The effects of these crimes will be felt for generations to come; and

6) that the time has come to provide an adequate remedy to the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and their families and to repair as much as possible the environment of Vietnam.


This Tribunal finds:x

I. that the United States Government is guilty of the offenses listed above and determines that the damage to the environment of Vietnam can be defined as “ecocide”;

II. that the Chemical companies who were charged in the summons and complaint are guilty of complicity in the offenses listed above; and

III. that the United States Government and the Chemical companies which manufactured and supplied Agent Orange must fully compensate the victims of Agent Orange and their families. The US Government and the Chemical companies must also repair the environment to remove the contamination of Dioxin from the soil and the waters, and especially from the “hot spots” around former US military bases.

To complete the above task of compensation and repair, the Tribunal recommends that the Agent Orange Commission be established to assess the amount of compensation to be allocated to each victim, family group, and community.

The Agent Orange Commission will also determine the amount necessary to provide specialized medical facilities and rehabilitation and other therapeutic services to the victims and their families.

The Agent Orange Commission will also estimate the costs of the necessary studies of contaminated areas and the cost of environmental repair in the future.

The Agent Orange Commission will also determine the amount to be paid to the State of Vietnam to indemnify it for monies it has expended to support the victims and repair the environment.

The Tribunal urges the Government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to forthwith constitute such Agent Orange Commission of people of eminence in the fields of medicine, science, engineering, law, epidemiology, agriculture, toxicology, ecology, public administration, and representatives of civil society. The Agent Orange Commission shall make its recommendations within one year of its constitution.

Once the Agent Orange Commission has established the requisite amounts, those monies shall be paid by the United States Government and the Chemical companies jointly and severally to a trust fund specially created for present and future victims and their families, and repair of the environment. The amount of $1.52 billion a year being paid by the United States Government to the US Vietnam veteran victims of Agent Orange can be employed as a guide for the calculations performed by the Agent Orange Commission.

The full report of the Tribunal along with this Executive Summary shall be submitted to the Vietnamese Government within 4 weeks and will be published in full and widely distributed in the International community.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Unity-Struggle-Victory: Veterans Organizing in the 21st Century

ED NOTE: For all of those currently caught in the debate that is taking place with-in progressive Veterans' organizations; the common denominator amongst us is that we are all Veterans, all other considerations set aside. As such, we have quality of life issues that effect each and everyone of us, as well as that of our families, and increasingly that of our neighbors. We also have a responsibility to ensure that today's returning warriors are properly cared for. This, regardless of personal political ideology. There must be unity of purpose amongst us, in order to bring national focus on those issues, and create momentum for change or reform. Pragmatic solutions will not be forthcoming, not without our setting aside our political and ideological differences, and agreeing to work together on achievable common focus issues. By pooling our talents and our resources at the grass-roots, we can bring about change, at the national level.
The model for this as a workable strategy is exemplified in this open letter to the Veterans community, from Steve Crandall, VVAW CA Central Coast Chapter President. It is based on one that we discussed in Steve and Carolyns' living room, during one of our stops on the VVAW West Coast Tour, earlier this year; they have already put the plan into action, as he tells us, in his letter. Unity of purpose, and clearly defined achievable works! WH ( Photo: VVAW West Coast Tour, Steve & Carolyn's)

Steve's letter, a lesson for all of us; action, speaks louder than words...

After reading the back and forth emails regarding IVAW and VVAW, I thought about our own chapter and what role we play in the VVAW org and what keeps us together.
Our chapter is made up of thirteen or so members. Seven are actively involved by attending all monthly meetings, manning the three Street Fair booths per year and serving at the Stand Down when it was operating. We can’t count on the other members to come through all the time so since the seven are the boots on the ground we make all the decisions.
Of the seven active members four of us are veterans (3 Vietnam War and 1 Vietnam era) the other three are our spouses. We tried to bring on “civilians” and they actually joined but it didn’t work out. As much as they wanted to help veterans and end the war in Iraq they couldn’t relate to what being in war or even being in the military was like. Their intentions were good but if it’s not a fit it doesn’t work.
We tried to recruit other Vietnam veterans that were against the war in Iraq but there was one excuse or another for why they couldn’t make the meetings or events. For this reason we have decided not to create a group based on numbers that look good on paper, but rather a group that can be cohesive and therefore affective in our efforts. (Photo: VVAW, last Memorial Day, Santa Barbara)

Initially I thought our group could do it all but soon realized we were limited based on our available time, energy and the simple fact that we are a group made up of volunteers.
Our chapter has one common thread that will out weigh all others and that is, our desire to help veterans. Helping veterans also means educating the public about the detrimental affects of war, veteran’s health issues and governmental policies.
We have also formed close alliances with The Soldiers Project and The Ashcraft Foundation. We (along with Jan Ruhman of SD VVAW) will be meeting with MFSO and IVAW Los Angeles in June to discuss broadening our alliances. We are also working together with Veteran’s United for Truth and Duty’s Calling to get our LA VA veteran’s land back from the Brentwood Conservancy Group. This event will be our first effort to create a Veteran’s Coalition that includes all veteran’s groups.(Photo: VVAW West Coast Tour stop: LA V.A. Veterans's Memorial Park, site of the VA Land Grab)
Today, Sunday, we (all seven) are sifting through over 600 books, 100 VHS movies and 300 CDs we have collected for the new local state veteran’s home opening up in late summer. We will be putting labels inside the front cover of the books “Donated by the CA Central Coast Chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War”. Although it was our idea for the labels we were also encouraged by the VA to label the books (blows my mind).
I know we (VVAW members) disagree about the war in Afghanistan . Even within our own chapter there isn’t a consensus. But what brought us back together was the war in Iraq and what holds us together is our willingness to help veterans. That is our common thread.
The IVAW like all organizations will have their disagreements / fall-outs and will need to find the common thread that will hold them together. If they wish counseling we are there to help but we can’t force it on them. Unity will come with finding that commonality in which they can all agree. It’s up to them.
Steve Crandall, President
CA Central Coast Chapter VVAW

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Winter Soldier Southwest follow-up: Together Then, Together Again...

40 years of tears and one Winter Soldier
Mickey Krakowski
USMC 1967-71
RVN 10/68 to 11/69
It’s strange how some things in life fall together at most appropriate times. This year marks the 40th anniversary of my tour in Vietnam. The very recent reconnection with my brothers from VVAW after a 35 year lapse. The culmination of my struggles with the VA dealing with compensation and medical treatment and finally a reconnection with a woman I loved, that endured my deployment to Vietnam, that had in her possession a 100 letters I wrote while away. All these things felt to me as if they were predestined and that they have a purpose. I hope what I gained from the Winter Soldier gathering in Pasadena, held this past May 9, helps me heal and gives me purpose to continue the struggle against war.

A week before the conference I had a call from Jan Rhuman. He invited me to take part in the Winter Soldier Southwest and requested that I pick up, a friend from way back, in southern Colorado. I left for my journey on Friday May 8, I had to drive 170 miles to Durango to pick up a former friend and fellow revolutionary brother I haven't seen in 35 years, a fellow Marine, (Alfredo Cabrera….then Che and now Calixto). Calixto and I had 5 minutes to greet each other before we jumped into the car and drove almost a 1000 miles to Pasadena (we were so lost in our conversation that we actually got lost). The long trip seemed much shorter than it should have been as I reacquainted myself with my comrade and discussed politics as we always had. It’s always good to rekindle relationships that have a history in political and personal struggles.

We arrived early in the AM Saturday to rooms awaiting us at a hotel near the Pasadena College venue. The morning came early as Jan Rhuman (the perpetual VVAW organizer) had us up soon after 8 AM. He helped set up a Winter Soldier forum at Pasadena Community College along with Wendy Barranco of IVAW. Winter Soldier Southwest involved VVAW, IVAW and AVAW (Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan). There were also other groups that spoke, Military Families Speak Out and Gold Star Mothers (mothers who lost sons and daughters). VVAW was to start the event and supply security for the day (keeping those right wingers at bay if they came to disrupt the proceedings). Jan had assembled a crew of VVAW and VFP volunteers to guard the conference.

Jan, Calixto and myself were the first to address the auditorium about our experiences in the Vietnam war and how the conduct of war has remained unchanged throughout the years.

Jan started with the history of American conflicts since Vietnam and some of the history of the anti war movement and VVAW. Included were a number of wonderful quotes to embellish his speech. Calixto spoke next about his combat experiences as a leader of Marines and some of the events he had witnessed. His testimony was emotionally charged and at a few points he had succumbed to tears. I had to exert all the strength to keep reducing myself into a sobbing blob. My turn came next. This was the first time I ever had to speak to an audience of strangers, I was incredibly nervous and had difficulty trying to say what I wanted. I tried to speak of the unseen wounds that warriors bring home with them. I tried to explain about the frustration of a system (the VA) that disavows responsibility for our care. I felt my delivery inadequate, possibly because of my desire to not fall apart on the stage. I think now of what I could have said and hope for another chance to unburden my soul.

I wished I would have had the courage to tell what was really in the back of my mind. The pain I sometimes relive over and over during the years. A feeling of helplessness and rage.. I was a radio operator for a Battalion Landing Team 2/7 operating off of the LPH 10 Tripoli for the first half of my tour in Vietnam. The ship held 1000 marines and was capable of steaming anywhere along the coast and off load it contingent of Marines as needed for support or for operations. I directed air support, artillery fire, food and ammo drops and medivacs.

The medivac experience was my lowest point in my time in Vietnam. It had nothing to do with killing but of watching death occur. I had been out on a number of operations and had never experienced more than a few medivacs in a day.. Between November 20 and December 9 of 68’ we went out on an operation called Meade River. The purpose of the combined action was to move the inhabitants of nearly 141 small hamlets in the largest of the County Fair operations to date. We received incredible resistance along our route and paid a high toll for the numbers we killed. 500 marines wounded killed in a two week operation. We had only 1000 KIAs and POWs to show for it. A very high price to pay.
On one particular afternoon we had been caught in a cross fire and had a high number medivacs of wounded and dead. I tried to make myself useful between incoming choppers. I helped in any way I could, triaging and holding the hands of the severely wounded. I held the hand of a new guy in our company as he lay dieing. I listened to what he wanted to tell me, all the time telling him everything will be alright. He told me things to tell his family, friends and loved ones. I didn’t have time to write these things down. He died while I sat at his side and I felt incredibly helpless that I couldn’t get him on a chopper and to the hospital for treatment of his wounds. He passed away before I even knew his name, my promise of relaying his wishes an impossible task. His life slipped away on a muddy rice paddy dike slick with blood. I was mourning his loss, my helplessness in aiding him and my failure in helping him survive. A deep rage started at the corps of my being, I was going to extract revenge any way I could.. The months that followed were filled with my anger and torment of my victims. The phrase we used was that “We leave no witnesses!”.

The operation was a horrific experience, I witnessed the inhumanity of war and our failure to serve the people we were supposed to protect. There were further events that occurred during that operation. We had difficulty moving some of the handicapped citizens. Many of the old men and women were unable to walk and carry possessions. It was expected of us to help out. What we chose to do instead was to turn the duties over to the ARVN forces accompanying us to this village. Rather that carry their own, they chose to take four of the old men into a hut and killed them, just to save time.

As I listened to the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan warriors tell their stories, my memories came flooding back. The story was the same for most of us, the background a desert not a jungle for the latter. Many wept at the podium and in the audience, I wept with them too. The soldiers let loose a torrent of stories each one more horrifying than the last. The stories of torture, murder and personal acts of revenge. Stories continued of watching comrades die and the rage that followed. A simple explanation of my PTSD is the things we do, not in defending our country or the country we liberate, but how we exact revenge for loosing friends in the field, and in the process, unleash an uncontrollable rage and vengeance. We are soldiers and we react to situations without process.

The thing that the audience could probably never understand is that these recollections aren’t just words expressing what soldiers feel. To a war veteran they are also combined with the sights, sounds and smells that coincided with each event. The smell of burning huts, the cries of mothers, sons and daughters mourning lives lost before their eyes. The screams of the interrogated as young American soldiers ask unanswerable questions in English. The sounds of gunfire and artillery nearby, thumping of helicopters and the attitude that the only way to survive was to waste and raze everything in our path..

The conference continued when MFSO spoke next. They all suffered the fear of an eventual knock on the door and expectation of the two soldiers outside bringing them bad news. Families of deployed soldiers suffer their own PTSD and continue to live the horror as they watch their children, after their return, sinking into drug and alcohol abuse and self destructive, violent behavior. They are driven to support their children’s choice of entering the service of the United States and live in constant fear of how it affected their children

The last to speak were the Gold Star Mothers, women who lost children. I couldn't attend because I knew I had left Vietnamese mothers without their sons. I had souvenirs to prove it, I collected ID‘s of the dead.. I could only imagine what it would feel like to lose a child far to early in life.

On my return drive home, Calixto, a Nuevo York, Puerto Rican, claims to have healed himself of his PTSD through his own beliefs in spirituality and meditation. He asked me if I believed him when he said he was cured, my answer was immediately and unequivocally, NO! I gave him the “Look“ over the top of my sunglasses. I have no doubt that he too would question his rehabilitation.. He never argued in his own favor, he just patted me on my shoulder and we continued the drive. We talked till we were both too hoarse, regaling in the good old days, talking revolution and telling war stories, we both cried together. We both wondered the same things, did any of our demonstrating and revolutionary work serve a purpose? Did we change any government policy? Not.

Did we help someone decide not to join the military and become a government pawn? Yes we did. Did we focus attention on our returning warriors and their immediate needs? Yes! It's frustrating we could do no more back in the 70‘s, and yet, we still wish we could do it again. I dropped him off in Durango, CO and after a couple of hours sleep continued the final leg of my journey home.

I leave behind my own trail of tears, in my lone drive over the mountain passes. Driving alone in my car I was able to express the grief I feel for all my fallen brothers. I cried while agonizing the burden the surviving warriors have to carry on for the rest of their lives. I also came to realize that the older we get the more we realize the impact we leave in our wake and how it will affect us until we are gone.

The words I write are 2 dimensional on paper, they don’t have the 3D effect that the mind produces when memories flood back. I wish I could just make them go away, I wished I had served not only my country better but that I had helped save an oppressed people. Instead my memories are filled with the oppression I delivered, the lack of compassion I could have afforded the frightened people of South Vietnam. War is Hell and many, including myself, have to contend with the fires of shame and regret every day of our lives. Our purpose now is to make others realize that our conduct in wars need to be addressed, our returning brothers in arms need care and support and that things need to change so history isn’t constantly repeated.

For this winter soldier the war never ends and the memories flood back with every news report and newspaper article. The truth is never completely revealed, only the soldier knows the truth.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Soldiering on in Pasadena at Winter Soldier Southwest, Iraq and Afghanistan

Pasadena, CA--May 9, 2009

By Horace Coleman

The energy level was high. The atmosphere outside the lecture hall where Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) held Winter Soldier Southwest, Iraq and Afghanistan was like a combination convention, music festival, major sports event and appearances by popular celebrities.

“Event staff” volunteers (security, facilities, registration) at Pasadena City College functioned as if a mini Rose Bowl Parade / football game was going on. Wendy Barranco, president of the LA chapter of IVAW that hosted the event, quickly moved from place to place checking and overseeing detail after detail, resolving the usual last minute glitches and changes.

Sound system working all right? Lighting functioning properly? Media checking in? Water and microphones in place and name placards ready for panelists? Tables outside the hall assigned to organizations and vendors who had pre registered--and paid--for space? Panelists present? Security assignments filled?

CDs, DVDs, books, flyers, newspapers and pamphlets were unloaded and set out. Programs were passed out. People mingled with old friends and met in the flesh people they’d only known by e-mail messages, a chat room or phone calls. New acquaintances chit chatted and checked out the location of bathrooms before the event, lasting from 1 P.M. until 8 P.M., began.

Seven panels and a spirited Question & Answer session were held. The first panel was “History’s Relevance (VVAW)” composed of Marine VietNam combat vets. Jan Ruhman led it. The other panelists were Mickey Krakowski and Calixto Cabrera.

Ruhman set the context and gave details about the awakening about, and resistance to, that war. Krawkowski and Cabrera focused on the personal awakening and odyssey they made as they tried to get the smoke our of their ears and lives and tried to become civilians when back in “the world.” All reconsidered and recognized the reality their war experiences had on them. Cabrea spoke movingly of his trip through PTSD.

He stressed that different paths and treatments can lead to healing after trauma and PTSD and each person has to find and follow the way that works best for them. But there is—after time and much effort—healed life after war. Because there is no draft and more people “support” the troops than become one, today’s warriors do repeated deployments and have a higher rate of PTSD than Nam vets and a high suicide rate.

Other panels were “Boots on the Ground (IVAW)”, “A Daily Sacrifice (MFSO)”, “Military Tactics in the Occupations” (Marine Iraq vet Jacob “Jake" Diliberto), Activists of Today (VFP)”, and “GI Resistance (IVAW).” Many panelists made very good points.

Ruhman quoted Donald Rumsfeld: “The Geneva Convention does not apply.” “That set the state for torture,” Ruhman said. Marine Iraq war vet Ryan Endicott read from a moving piece he’d written describing combats incidents and flatly stated “I can not mend what I’ve broken.” Diliberto spoke of his “journey of repentance” to Israel’s West Bank and northern Israel and how “my world view of these people [Arabs / Moslems] changed.”

Marine Christopher Gallagher served three Iraq tours. He mentioned not having body armor on one deployment and that “contractors were paid five times what I was.” “U.S. imperialism is wrong” Gallagher told the audience. “You can’t bring democracy through the barrel of a gun.”

On the “Daily Sacrifice” panel, Navy wife Paulina Brooks spoke frankly about the strains of military life, readjusting to a “new” husband every time he returned from a deployment (including eight combat tours in a 26-year career) and the drinking problem she’d developed and conquered. Her Lt. Commander, surgeon husband, David talked about the PTSD he’d developed and the RPG he’d been wounded by. It was fired at such close range it didn’t travel far enough to arm itself and explode but its impact did damage that later caused three heart attacks. That—and PTSD—ended his military career and his ability to do the work he was good at and proud of.

Tina Richards, a member of the same panel, told the stories of her two military sons. One, despite having been wounded in a mortar attack and having reached the end of his enlistment, was stop lossed and scheduled for redeployment. She begged, demanded, demonstrated, lobbied and pleaded with military and congress people. Finally, within days of military and VA personnel actually and seriously evaluating the situation, her son was discharged—with 80 percent disability. She shared accounts of having one-sided phone conversations with her other son. He would listen with the barrel of a gun in his mouth as she talked him out of suicide.

Arturo Cambrom told about his son, the most gentle and caring of his children, who planned to use his enlistment bonus to start a day care center. Home on leave before his second Iraq deployment began he began showing obvious signs of PTSD (including flashbacks).

A soldier with PTSD in a combat zone is a danger to them self, the people in their unit and to the civilians there. Such a person has intermittent diminished capacity. Consequently their actions, triggered or driven by a mind taking in information inaccurately, can be inappropriate. Or, bad judgment may lead to action that worsens PTSD--or gets someone killed.

Dangerous and devastating things can easily happen in any part of this cycle when there is easy or instant access to rifles, machine guns, explosives, helicopter or fixed wing gun ships, artillery and mortar fire, fighter / bomber and drone air strikes.

One Iraq vet testifying at Winter Soldier Southwest said that one night on guard duty a troop manning a heavy machine gun mounted on a vehicle swung the gun around to investigate a sound behind him. A sniper? A suicide bomber?

The weapon went off as he turned. When he looked back he saw that the troop who’d been standing nearby had been cut in half. The gunner knew him. On the spot he took out his sidearm and killed himself with a shot to the head.

Friendly fire is Milspeak for “My bad!” Here’s an example of unfriendly fire, given by the same person. It’s also about night guard duty. Some suspicious shadows with what might have been guns were approaching. Someone fired at the shadows. They turned out to be boys with sticks waving them in greeting at the Americans. There’s a military mantra that goes “When in doubt, take ’em out!”

One of the day’s many highlights was the “Activists of Today” panel VFP conducted. VFP past president Eliot Adams made two significant remarks. Adams gave a quote about war that he attributed to President Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of Western allied forces during World War II: “ . . . It’s brutality, stupidity and futility.” Adams said Obama “cannot create the change we need; we must do it. “

That statement made me think of another I’d heard: “We must be the change we need!” If you’re not, you’re just like the zeros in a number, place markers with more weight than significance.

That made me write this down: Don’t just protest! Affirm. Know history. Plan. Build coalitions. Revise and work your plan.

After a dinner break there were two more panels. One was on GI Resistance and was conducted by IVAW members Tracey Harmon and Jabbar McGruder. Practical and effective “resistance” is hard in the military. The organizational structure of the military is a pyramid with a narrow apex. Power and authority live there. Orders, commands and demands flow down to the pyramids broad base. The apex basically answers only to itself and the political figures funding it and directing the targets of its actions. If you want to change the military, change the top and change will trickle down.

The last panel was called “The Ultimate Sacrifice.” It consisted of members of Gold Star Families, parents who’d lost a child to war. Jane and Jim Bright (mother and step father of Evan Ashcroft, KIA in Iraq) talked about their son and the foundation they’d started to aid today’s war vets, honor Evan and keep his spirit alive. Jim Bright said he’s quit being an activist about seven times but always came back. Two other mothers spoke of the pain and loss they’d felt after their sons had been killed. One mother was still agonized by her decision to sign her underage son’s enlistment papers. But, how long would that have kept a young man determined to join the military out of a uniform?

You’d think that a day listening to what most people avoid acknowledging would be hazardous to your weekend. However, the crowd leaving after the Question & Answer session seemed uplifted. Perhaps it was seeing and hearing intelligent, articulate and informed war veterans who’d walked the walk and performed more practical patriotism in harsh conditions than most war hawks and arm chair patriots ever would.

Maybe it was people saying in front of God and every one that they’d drunk some government Kool-Aid, experienced pain, loss and fallen down but gotten up again and were moving on. It could have been the call to abandon partisan politics and unite to forward common goals good for the country.

The colonies that became an expansionist nation and then an empire have morphed into lifestyles and demographics dependent on credit cards and deficit budgets to pay for overreaching ambitions and delusions.

Reality wants its—now.

It will take more than puffing up your chest and chanting “We’re #1!” to change course on this ship of state. There are some battle tested patriots willing to accept the challenge, though.

Still, it all makes you wonder if the U.S. will grow up before it dies or . . . .

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Winter Soldier Reflections

Ed Note: This post is a re-edit of a piece that first appeared in our on-line magazine commemorative, IVAW Winter Soldier 2008 - Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations. With just minor tweaks, it was still appropriate as a precursor for this weeks upcoming Winter Soldier Southwest event.WH
Willie Hager
xxThe summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country, but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Thomas Paine, December 23, 1776.

Those words penned by Thomas Paine in 1776 were referencing the Continental Army huddled together at Valley Forge, freezing and severely tested in battle. They had many wounded, were short on food, and critically short on military supplies. However, they were not short on spirit or in heart. These first Winter Soldiers – the rag-tag Continental Army of patriots who marched up from General Washington’s Valley Forge winter bivouac – sent the best trained and equipped army in the world at that time scurrying back to England.

An observation: It ‘don’t’ have to be cold for there to be Winter Soldiers.
Ever since Valley Forge, Winter Soldiers have met the challenges of our nation’s greatest moments of distress and peril. Like I said; It ‘don’t’ have to be cold for there to be Winter Soldiers. Their greatest stands have occurred in all climes; Boston Common, the Battle of New Orleans, the Alamo, Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, San Juan Hill, the sands of Iwo Jima, the Battle of the Bulge, the Frozen Chosin, and the Hanoi Hilton.
The spirit of the Winter Soldier – fueled by true patriotism; love of one’s country and its political ideals – transcends popular political party or special interest group thinking and political operatives’ rhetoric and spin, with ideals that are grounded in the American Constitution, the Bill of Rights and in our inherited principles. It is the soul and an unshakable sense of duty to one’s nation that makes one a Winter Soldier; the soul to stand and fight in face of withering fire; to patriotically march up into history, unafraid, principles unscathed, no matter how overwhelming the odds.
In 1971 in Detroit, at the Winter Soldier Investigation (WSI), the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) produced yet another band of patriots who, this time, marched off the battlefields of Vietnam and into history. Speaking truth to power, Vietnam Veterans testified about the tactics of “pacifying” the Vietnamese people at a sit-rep designed to inform the American people of the Truth about what was being done in Vietnam in their name.
The VVAW WSI testimony was not leftist political rhetoric and spin coming from the mouths of communists and “wannabes”, as those of the swift boat 527 ilk would have you believe. This testimony was the real deal. It was given by Winter Soldiers barely come of age (average age in Vietnam was 19 years old)…those “doin’ the doin’s” as they say here in the South; young men barely grown, with “thousand yard stares,” addressing often blindly patriotic parents with words few wanted to hear, for fear of the burden of responsibility it may bring.
And once again in history, here we are. For those of us who lived through Vietnam, soldier and citizen alike; it is Déjà vu.
Well, now a new generation of Winter Soldiers is marching up from battle to bring the Truth about their war to the American People; those of the Iraq Veterans Against The War (IVAW). The latest group of Winter Soldiers will come from the shadows at Pasadena City College, on Saturday, May 9, 2009, at an event entitled:
Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan – Eyewitness Accounts of The Occupation.

This event is planned to start at 1:00 pm on May 9, 2009 at Building R room 122 @ Pasadena City College.
These Combat Veterans and in-country logistical support personnel will testify about the impact of America’s boots-on-the-ground involvement in Iraq & Afghanistan. Involvement that arose as the result of the Bush administrations’ lies about the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq and their alleged “ready availability” to terrorists worldwide. IVAW has accepted this mission in spite of mounting personal perils and sacrifice, in the same spirit of patriotism that inspired the testifiers at VVAW’s WSI, in 1971, and at Winter Soldier I&A, at Silver Spring.
These troops are the true Winter Soldiers and American patriots who will soon have their patriotism, motivation, war record and military service questioned publicly by self-described patriots who accuse them of not “supporting the troops” because they are profoundly moved to testify to the Truth that they have lived, in the name of America.
Forget the rhetoric of “pride” and blind “patriotism” – think for yourself, hear what your Combat Veterans have to say, take personal responsibility where responsibility is needed, and make things right…for the Veterans, and for America. That is truly supporting the troops. That is a patriotic first step in recapturing our flag and our we can all take at no cost, but with major gain. A patriotic act that is contrary to the swiftboating of the honor and service of those who have fought in foreign lands in our name.
There is nothing more American than our own Winter Soldiers speaking truth to power in the face of grave personal sacrifice and peril.

Today’s IVAW Winter Soldiers will not be there alone, though. The Old School Winter Soldiers of VVAW will be there with them, back to back. The VVAW

Together Then…
Together Again…