Sunday, June 21, 2009

VVAW: A Living History...

Ed Note: This piece by our Agent Orange Editor, Rena Kopy, is a prototype for a serial feature, to be carried on the pages of the soon to be awakened on on-line mag. This type of piece dovetails nicely with VetSpeak’s mission of recording and preserving VVAW’s history. We choose to present that perspective from those who lived it, not that of observers and researchers. It is always compelling, but quite often, humorous, as well. Much of VVAWs real story hasn’t been available to folks. The real history of those who really made it happen hasn’t been fully tapped, as of yet; that being the personal and unprecedented history of Veterans organized in struggle with the government over the policies of illegal warfare, and the imperializing of the US Presidency, and foreign policy. Rena and, hope to change all that, and put an “I was there” face on that history.WH

Rena Kopy, Editor
Mirth & Frivolty
(As well as Agent Orange)
My recent rededication to Vietnam Veteran Agent Orange activism has brought about a most unusual phenomenon. In the middle of doing either research, writing or studying, I find myself stopping to gaze into the déjà vu of my memory bank. I do not come up with great moments of what others have credited me with, such as changing laws or the perception or should I say misconceptions of what was at one time the most horrendous image of American heroes. What keeps stopping me to recollect is some of the strangest and even hilarious moments that were accumulated over the years.

In recent dialogues with my fellow activists, like Ward Reilly, Willie Hager and Chuck Palazzo, I have recounted stories of days gone by and experiences that, I guess, were all part of the penning of the “How to Be an Activist for Dummies” handbook. It was decided that I will relate some of those long ago (but obviously not forgotten) excursions to the choppy waters of activism, in the hope that others who read these memories will (since it is probably only activist read anyway) come up with stories of their own to add to this new endeavor.
The memory that started this idea for an interactive column was one that involved one of the very first demonstrations of the original organization that John and I started: A.O.V.N.J. - Agent Orange Victims of New Jersey.

It was a Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1980 that a group of about 35 or 40 of us met outside the main gate of the East Orange VA Hospital in East Orange, New Jersey. We had to do this on weekends, because contrary to the public image of Viet vets, at the time, almost everyone had a paying job they could not take time away from. We were all dressed in our “Sprayed and Betrayed” tee shirts and ready to keep moving, as the law required, across the front of the hospital entrance. We formed an orderly line and began to walk and chant “test and compensate” or “agent orange kills”, etc., back and forth across the street that led into the front gates. After a few minutes, we realized that something was missing and that with all of our planning and organizing no one had been put in charge of the signs, banners and placards!!!!!!!

Since we were a suburban group of vets and vet families from, far away, Monmouth and Ocean counties, no one had any idea where we could get the much needed signs, etc. So, for approximately an hour we marched, back and forth, from one side of the street to the other, yelling out our chants and cadence at the top of our lungs. The only problem was that to the public, we looked like a whole bunch of people who were walking back and forth, trying to decide what side of the street we wanted to be on and YELLING AT EACH OTHER!!!!!

One of the VA security guards, turned out to be a Vietnam vet, a brother, who during his break, got in his car and drove past us, showing us his hand in a “wait” gesture, which we did not understand because we were still trying to look “official”. He came back, slowed down right in the midst of our picket line and quickly handed, out of the driver’s side window, a stack of oak tag and construction paper and a whole bunch of markers. He then drove quickly away so as not to lose his job for collaborating with the enemy. For years, we told the story of the “activist virgins” who lost their cherries on the cement streets of East Orange.

In the mid 80’s, we had organized a demonstration outside the Diamond Shamrock plant in the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey. It was a families demonstration and we not only brought our children, decked out in our tees and kids cammies, because, keeping in mind that most of our Jersey membership were suburbanites, we even had a “cabbage patch contingency” of cabbage patch dolls with pitch signs taped to their little hands. The media was waiting for us (as were the “unmarked” FBI agents) but after only about 30 minutes into our demonstration, the media became thinner and the ever-present helicopters left as well. We went on with our demonstration because we figured either that the media got what they needed or they were watching from beyond our sights.

It was a cold day, so my husband John and Buzz Pucillo kept running over to the “well hidden” FBI car with cups of hot coffee. When we got home, the phones started ringing because as all of us flipped on the television news it became evident that the reason the media had left was because the landmark Freehold Racetrack had burned to the ground. Every vets group who knew us flagged their newsletters with a story about how the government was so worried about the mark we were making that they burned down the only trotter’s racetrack in New Jersey to keep us off the radar!

The greatest feat that A.O.V.N.J. ever pulled off was at a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in one of the coastal towns, which, if memory serves me, was Belmar, New Jersey. Our group, in a show of patriotism by the town council was invited to participate in their local parade. We showed up with a long flatbed trailer float, which was decorated with flowerpots on prettily covered podiums, with happy children, vets and their wives all smiling and waving from the moving float. (One minor problem was that someone who probably much later in their career came up with the recent idea of flying Air Force One low over Manhattan, without warning the still shell-shocked residents of lower Manhattan, was that the float behind us was an engine which was manned with what sounded like rifle shots going off, until we explained to them that one more volley of “gun salutes” and we couldn’t promise any flashback safety.)

Everyone was cheering and waving from the spectators’ area, until, we were coming close to the reviewing stand, and, suddenly our float came to a complete stop and a full tarp was drawn over the entire float. Within 2 to 3 minutes, which was a feat of theatrical timing in itself, the tarp came away and the pretty plants were now dead twigs sitting on top of 55 gal. Drums with orange stripes, the women were screaming in horror as they held children lying across their arms in a dead pose, while the vets were wearing Scott paks and gas masks and shooting an orange liquid (food coloring) out of spray bottles at the crowd. That was what went slowly past the mayor and all the other dignitaries sitting, in shock, on the reviewing stand, as spectators ran to get away from the orange spray!!!!! Needless to say, we made the front page of every newspaper in the tri-state area and no one ever asked us to do a float parade again. We certainly taught those people what happens when you burn down a racetrack to deprive us from getting our word out!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

These are just a few of my more colorful memories and we have not even started on Dewey Canyon 81’, but more for another day. As the newly appointed editor of creativity and frivolity, here at, I ask for readers submissions that will also provide me with a defense against mental illness and weird stunts when I go before the big activist judge in the sky. Who knows, maybe we can come up with a book to be read aloud in Congress before any votes are cast to commit to an opportunistic war.