Antiwar Vietnam Vets Mentor Next Generation of Resisters
The way AWOL Iraq vet Kyle Snyder sees it, "The GI resistance was one of the main things that ended the Vietnam war, and it's going to be a very important part of ending the one we're in now."
That's why he and others like him, who oppose the war in Iraq, are welcoming the help of their predecessors in their present-day struggle.
On October 28, Snyder returned from Canada, where he has been living ever since he went AWOL in August 2005. He was accompanied by Vietnam war resister and anti-war activist Gerry Condon, who he met in Vancouver shortly after his arrival. They were under the impression that his lawyer, Jim Fennerty, had worked it all out. He was to be processed at Fort Knox and would receive an honorable discharge.
"I just wanted to put this whole thing behind me," Snyder said. He claims that about an hour after he arrived, the Army changed its tune and wanted instead to put him on a Greyhound bus to rejoin his unit, now at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. "I never got on that bus," he said with a smirk. "I went to a bar near the bus station instead -- and called my lawyer."
This Veteran's Day, Snyder gathered with dozens of other antiwar Veterans, young and old, for a day of political protest, camaraderie and movement building at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago. The Vietnam Veterans took the lead in organizing the events, which Vietnam Vets Against the War and Vets for Peace have been holding annually for years now. They manned the barbecue. They slapped backs and reconnected with old friends. Their younger counterparts, in contrast, spoke in quieter tones. They looked on, listened to words of advice and received a warm welcome.
The gathering in Chicago was part of a national trend in which Vietnam vets who fought tirelessly to end that war are passing the torch to a new generation of soldiers breaking rank. Many Vietnam Veterans have played a key role in their reintegration into American society, providing emotional, political and financial support.
Vietnam Veterans have also been instrumental in offering help to ex-Iraq soldiers who went AWOL.
According the Air Force Times, the Pentagon has registered approximately 8,000 deserters since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. While many of them are living underground in the United States, the War Resisters Support Campaign, a Canadian network of individuals supporting incoming soldiers with material and legal assistance, estimates that there are "as many as 200 or more military personnel in Canada today."
Lee Zaslofsky is the Campaign Coordinator for the Campaign. He went AWOL in 1970 and, like many during that time, crossed the border into Canada. He has since become a Canadian citizen. When he saw an announcement about a planning meeting for the organization two years ago, he decided to check it out. "There were a lot of people there who I recognized and had worked with in the past, so I knew that they were for real," he said, speaking on the phone from Toronto. "A good proportion of people involved in the organization are either draft dodgers or war resisters, like me."
As of April, 25 servicemen refusing to deploy to Iraq had filed claims for political refugee status. An applicant is legally allowed to stay in Canada, and may apply for a work permit, while their application is being considered. So far, two applicants, Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey, have been denied by the Refugee Board. Hinzman is appealing the decision in Federal Courts.
Jeffrey House, a former draft dodger who moved to Canada when his number came up in 1970, is the lawyer representing Hinzman. House is basing his case on the Geneva Conventions, prohibiting wars of aggression, as well as the Nuremberg Principles, which state that a soldier has not only a right, but a responsibility to refuse to take part in war crimes, regardless of their orders.
House claims that by attempting to obey international laws, his clients face persecution in the United States. Indeed, just last month, the U.S. Army announced its intention to court martial two deserters already in custody: Lt. Ehren K Watada and Army Spc. Suzanne Swift.
Vietnam Vets who became organizers in the peace movement have also lent their networks, experience and know-how to recently politicized soldiers.
"We wouldn't exist without the older generation of veterans," said Amandee Braxton, Administrative Coordinator at Iraq Vets Against the War's (IVAW) national office in Pittsburgh. IVAW was founded in July 2004 when eight service men and women back from their tours attended the annual convention of Veterans for Peace (VFP) in Boston.
Frank Corcoran, Vietnam vet and member of VFP, remembers when those young soldiers announced the birth of their movement. "That day, we had a workshop called 'Iraq Vets Speak Out,' " he recalled from his home outside of Pittsburgh. "I remember it being in this big room. We had a tight workshop schedule, but those kids went more than an hour over schedule and nobody moved. Everybody was rooted to their chairs. When Michael [Hoffman, founder of IVAW] got up on stage at our public gathering later that night and made the announcement that they were going to create Iraq Vets Against the War, I thought that hall was going to collapse. Everybody was crying and yelling and clapping and cheering."
Today, IVAW claims members in 32 states, Washington, D.C., Canada and on numerous overseas bases.
Corocan, a retired teacher, has been a regular volunteer at the IVAW offices from the get-go. "A lot of us Vietnam Vets wake up every morning and try to figure out how to end this war and how to be there for the Iraq Vets."
Braxton, from the IVAW offices in Pittsburgh, says that Corocan and his comrades have been an incredible source of support -- morally, financially and logistically. "VFP as an organization is our fiscal sponsor," Braxton said. "Members of that organization also served on the interim Board of Directors that helped guide Iraq Vets Against the War that first year. They have played a fundamental role in our development as an organization."
"Sixty percent of the members of our organization suffer from PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]" Braxton said. "And they have been constantly getting advice and support and insights from these older vets who have been through it all."
To Corocan, that is one of the most important roles that the older Vets can play. That's why he and former Marine Jim Driscoll have launched the organization Vets for Vets. They seek to build a nationwide network of Veterans' discussion groups where Iraq Vets can "speak about their experiences without interruption."
Other groups, like Citizen Soldier, are also trying to open up such spaces for active service men and women. To that end, on October 27 they opened the Different Drummer Internet CafÃƒÂ©, modeled after the GI Cafes of the Vietnam era. They hope that Different Drummer, just outside of Fort Drum in New York, will be the first of many designed to welcome soldiers in for coffee, internet and entertainment, while also providing access to legal counseling, documentary screenings and discussion groups.
For many old-timers, this hasn't come without a price. "You relive it. It puts you back literally in war, in varying degrees," Corocan said. "My VA counselor last year was telling me that she was seeing WWII vets coming to the VA for the first time in their lives, unable to sleep, not aware that it is the war in Iraq that is bringing this stuff back up for them."
Other vets have simply re-dedicated themselves to the antiwar movement, seeing a concrete role for them to play in mentoring the next generation.
"I was in Kyle's shoes many years ago," said Gerry Condon, who is currently touring the country with Iraq vet and AWOL resister Kyle Snyder, acting as his tour organizer and confidant. "When I met him I told him, I'll support you whatever you decide to do."
"We plan to tour until the Army agrees to discharge Kyle without further punishment."