Podcast: “Veterans need to tell their stories” – Dan Shea
Vietnam War combat veteran Daniel Shea on his time in Vietnam and the impact that Agent Orange and post traumatic stress had on him and his family since.
“This was a search and destroy mission. And everybody said, “No,” and this commander, he ordered people to go on, and everybody flipped him the bird and said, “We’re not going to go.” They just basically did a mutiny. … And they were having such a difficult time that eventually they called in a officer of higher ranks, probably a colonel, who flew in on a helicopter and gave us this big speech about our duty and our mission. And everybody gave him the middle finger salute, and he realized that our morale was gone, and we weren’t going to cooperate, called in hot food, beer, cigarettes in the middle of the field in a battlefield.”
“That’s when I started speaking as a veteran. I started telling my story, and I think it has an effect. I think veterans need to tell their stories because we’ve seen war. We’ve seen hell. We know what it causes. We know the death that it causes.”
Vietnam Full Disclosure
Help Keep These Podcasts Coming
Daniel Shea: That’s when I started speaking as a veteran. I started telling my story, and I think it has an effect. I think veterans need to tell their stories because we’ve seen war. We’ve seen hell. We know what it causes. We know the death that it causes.
Matthew Breems: This is the Courage to Resist Podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. This Courage to Resist Podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace.
I’m joined today by veteran Daniel Shea. Daniel served as a machine gunner in the Marines during the Vietnam conflict. After his tour of duty, Daniel returned home to start a family and hopefully gain a sense of normalcy. Unfortunately, the conflict continued to haunt him, as the effects of his exposure to Agent Orange brought tragedy to his American dream.
Daniel, welcome to the podcast today. Why don’t you start off like all of our guests do and give us a little bit of background information about yourself leading up to your time in the Vietnam War.
Daniel Shea: I was born in Portland, Oregon. I’m 70 years old now, so I was born in 1949 and I grew up in a working-class family. My father was a bartender, immigrant from Panama. My grandfather was an Irish construction worker in Panama Canal area and my grandmother was Panamanian. That’s something that I take very close as my identity is my Latino roots, although my mother is from German and Russian background from the Dakotas. We grew up in a two-bedroom house with six kids, my dad paying for most of our— keeping the roof over our house with tips, because they didn’t pay people. So very working class.
War had broken out in Vietnam. I had been working in a union job, a hard labor job, and I didn’t see much of a future. I didn’t know much about the war. I didn’t know anything about Vietnam. I probably couldn’t have pointed it out in a map. And I dropped out of high school, and I called up a friend, said, “Do you want to take this GED test?” We went down, took it, and graduated before our class. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was always wanting to get an education, something I felt failed me in high school and grade school. Very ignorant about things that were going on.
Anyway, so beginning of sort of a hippie generation, free spirits, free world. And the war was going on, and I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but I didn’t see a future for me, and I joined the Marines. I knew the draft was licking at my heels and I just decided, “Let’s get it over with.” That was basically my view: “Get it over with. If I survive, maybe I can go to college.” That was the only thing that was in my head. I joined the Marines. My brother, Michael, just a year younger than me, joined the Marines right behind me. We both ended up in bootcamp together.
And the minute I was in boot camp, the behavior, the racism, the dehumanization of you was— I knew right away I was in the wrong place. If you want to know what fascism is, join the military. That’s a good point. And what I did, I went through all my training, got through all of that. My brother went AWOL and he was separated. He was sent back. I finished my training, and we were just getting ready to ship to Vietnam. We got liberty, went out with another friend, got drunk, were late getting back, and we just decided, “We’re already AWOL. Why don’t we just go home and say our last words to our friends?” So we hopped a bus and went back to Portland and were there for about four days.
The military called my parents and said, “Hey, you better get their butts back here.” We turned ourselves in, got off the flight, and came back to Camp Pendleton, where we were stationed, and we were sent to a Captain’s Mast, sort of a mini court martial. And there we were charged with AWOL. We were busted from our E2 back down to E1 and docked us so much pay. And then we were sentenced to 30 days in the brig. It was supposed to be 30 days, but a chaplain came to us and told us that if we signed this waiver that we’re going to Vietnam, that we could be released. We did, and we ended up being shipped out to first Okinawa, then to Vietnam.
Matthew Breems: Once you got over to Vietnam, what unit were you assigned to, and what was your role there?
Daniel Shea: Battalion 1, 26th Marines. I was in Quang Tri Province. The names that I remember were Hue by Da Nang, and Quang Tri City. All three of those are the kind of areas that I was in. But when we were really on operations, we were up in the mountains—close to the DMZ.
Matthew Breems: And what was your role in your unit?
Daniel Shea: My MOS was what they call 0331 machine gunner. I was a machine gunner. I was an expert machine gunner when I came out of my ITR training. And when I got there, actually, they put me and another expert machine gunner in a test, and I ended up being the the machine gunner, and he became my A-gunner.
There’s a couple things that happened while I was there, just to give you an idea of the mentality of people in Vietnam. When I first got there, there were people that were telling me, “Dan, we’re not here for Ma, apple pie, the flag and all that bullshit. We are here because they’ve sent us here. These guys on top that make these wars, they sent us here, and what we’re trying to do right now is survive. So if somebody shoots at us, we shoot back. The people on the other side are doing the same thing. We’re just trying to survive. Just think of it that way. It’s not for some sort of cause.”
So right away I was with some people that had an idea that this war was ridiculous. We shouldn’t be there. That mentality was there. But there was what we called the juicers, the guys that were sort of rah-rah, would mark their rifles with how many kills. And then there were those of us who had a different point of view. They would call us the potheads—and there was pot but it wasn’t an everyday thing. It was just something that some people would take to take the edge off.
There was this one friend of mine, I can’t remember his name. I can’t remember. It’s one thing, you have short term memory and lapses of memory that happen. But I can’t remember things in chronological order, but I can kind of— and my life is that way. I can’t remember things in chronological order. They’re just like everyday I live day by day, and these things happen, and I relive them in different ways. But one thing that happened that I remember that was pretty significant was, I had this friend who was on guard duty at night, and this commander, this captain, who had been out of the area and was coming back, came to the sort of the checkpoint, and my friend challenged him to ask for his password. He couldn’t remember the password. He would not let him pass. And finally he got in, he put this young man, this friend of mine, in front of our entire platoon and had us do an about-face, and he kicked him out of Vietnam, kicked him out of our unit.
He hitchhiked his way all the way to Da Nang and they said, “What are you doing here?” and he told them the story. They sent him back and made that captain apologize to him. Now, that was just really a bizarre thing that just happened. I mean, there’s things like that that— little stories you can tell one right after the other. There’s so many little things.
We had to go on this operation, and I don’t know what the operation was called, but it was a search and destroy mission. And we were humping through the jungle for a number of days. We had run out of food and water and when we did have water, it would be in a stream and there would be— we’d drink from the stream. There was a Chieu Hoi, who was a— which meant— A Chieu Hoi was a scout who had previously been with the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army and had joined our side. Mainly, when I asked him, he said, “Because you feed us better.”
I remember on this one night setting up my machine gun, and it was getting dark, and I reached down, just to cup a smoke on a cigarette, and I felt this thing pass past my neck on the hairs on my neck. And then I hear a bang, and a guy beside me, down in the next hole basically, was shot through the throat. And then that bullet just missed me. And it probably was meant for me, because they probably saw the glow of my hand from the cigarette. That was my first experience of being shot at.
The next night we were up again in the jungle and setting up the perimeter. And I remember my guys were laying down on the ground facing out towards the valley, and I was standing up looking out over it with just a t-shirt on, and I saw this flash off in the distance, and then this swish right behind me, and a mortar went off. The mortar went off, and I felt the [shrapnel] go around me. Somehow I survived that. All of a sudden, in my mind, I started thinking I was dead. I had been shot at once, I had just been— a mortar had just came up behind me, and somehow I survived, and I’m thinking in my head, “How did I survive?” There’s no way that all that [shrapnel] could just pass by me. And somehow it did. And I just thought, I’m just living a dream. I’m just going through these motions but somehow I’m in some sort of hell that I have to live out this thing.”
So that was, kind of, I go back and forth from this sort of reality. I had a real difficult time at that moment. And then I don’t remember how many more days we’re humping up the hills. Again, no water and food. And you’re dealing with heat at a hundred and some degrees in the jungle and the humidity. And I remember I was getting probably heat stroke, and I’d asked the sergeant, “Let’s take a break, man. I can’t go much further.” He said, “No, we got to keep going.” And I physically couldn’t do it, and I just took my machine gun and threw it down the hill. And then the lieutenant came running down, threw me down after, basically pushed me down and told me to clean up my gun. I got my gun. But just that moment I stopped—again, resistance without conscious political view, just anger and upset and probably totally exhausted and not even thinking clearly at a point of almost heat exhaustion.
And yet it gave me a few minutes to catch my breath. Somebody gave me a sip of water, and we made it up to this plateau. And this plateau, it was kind of an open space [with] the jungle all around, and off down in the— you could see down the valley, the rice paddies and this little farm or village down below, and it was so picturesque and it was unbelievable. And they were ordering us to keep moving, and we were supposed to go on down. This was a search and destroy mission. And everybody said, “No,” and this commander, he ordered people to go on, and everybody flipped him the bird and said, “We’re not going to go.” They just basically did a mutiny.
But the sergeant, one of the first people to ever pick me up in Vietnam and take me to my duty station, was ordered to go, and like a good sergeant, he started going down this path. And I remember him go through this sort of path with the jungle that just came around like doors behind him, closed up. He walked for a little bit and we heard this explosion. He had stepped on a mine and it killed him. Nobody would move. Nobody would follow. And they were having such a difficult time that eventually they called in a officer of higher ranks, probably a colonel, who flew in on a helicopter and gave us this big speech about our duty and our mission. And everybody gave him the middle finger salute, and he realized that our morale was gone, and we weren’t going to cooperate, called in hot food, beer, cigarettes in the middle of the field in a battlefield.
Well, what I remember is then this helicopter, while they’re giving us this food, they’re pulling that sergeant’s—putting his— in a body bag and shipping him out in the same helicopter. And that’s something that’s imaged in my mind.
Matthew Breems: Is this something that you guys planned all together? You just got to a point where you were going to quit? Or This was more spontaneous?
Daniel Shea: It was very spontaneous! That was the strangest thing about it. It’s like, nobody planned this. We all had enough. Isn’t that amazing? Again, this unconsciousness, not a political move that I saw at anywhere. But then I remember this phantom jet laying over across the— flying over the rice paddies and laying down Napalm. And then I just had this feeling it was going to crash, and I told somebody, and they said, “Nah, nah.” And sure enough, it crashed. They found out the pilot ejected. He wasn’t shot down. He just— The gears got stuck and he bailed out, and he called in and they said, “You wait until we [come] over.” So we had to go down, and I remember walking through the rice paddies with my machine gun, and my A-gunners following me, sort of a single file or a squad.
And these other Marines were walking on the dikes, and that was not a good idea because on that dike I would hear an explosion, a scream, an explosion, a scream. And then when we got to land, as I stepped onto land, all of a sudden I saw a trip wire, and I stepped over the trip wire, letting everybody know. And then I saw a punji pit and I let people know. And my A-gunner, even though I warned him, he stepped right into the the punji pit. Fortunately there was no explosion. I thought I was dead. I just thought right then, I’m waiting for the explosion, I’m just kind of tense and then nothing happened and thank goodness, we could keep moving on. And I kept hearing explosions and screams. And then my mind goes blank.
I go to therapy once a month because I can’t remember what happened after that. What frightens me is I used to tell people that I never fired my weapon. And when I was doing that in a public speech, my body started trembling. I started crying and I couldn’t stop because the horrible thought was that we went in and massacred people there. Now I don’t know if that’s true or if I was still suffering just from the idea of all these people that were killed. But all I remember is sitting on a large unexploded ordinance, a big bomb, and a caravan came up, picked us up. But my memory is in a fog. So it may have been hours before we got back. I have no idea. It’s just something that’s in a part of my mind that I have not been able to deal with. And it frightens me because I can’t believe that I would be a person that would go along with something like that—like a My Lai massacre or something. I just couldn’t believe that that could happen—but it could! And so that’s a very frightening thing for me.
Shortly after that, when I was back at my home base and I was cleaning my machine gun, and my brother came in and they said, “Your brother’s here, Dan.” And I couldn’t believe it. He ended up in the same company and platoon. He was in rockets, but he came over. I didn’t believe it. And then he says, “Hey Dan, here I am.” I said, “What the hell are you doing here?” He said, “I came here to save your life.” And in reality he did, because shortly after that we had monsoon rains that were starting to hit us, and I’d been sleeping in mud puddles, and I had picked up jungle rot on this mission and I could barely walk.
And they had another mission that we were supposed to go on, and I’m saying I can’t do it. And the medic was not sympathetic to that. So my squad and my brother’s squad picked me up and took me to the commander’s tent and said, “He’s not going on this mission.” And he said, “Who the hell does he think he is?” And they said, “We’d like you to meet his brother.” Next thing I know I have orders and I’m shipped out to De Nang and then to Okinawa, and then about a month in Okinawa, and then to the Philippines, where I spent the rest of my tour.
That’s my experience in Vietnam. Then, when I got married, my first-born child, Casey Allen Shea. Sometimes it’s hard for me to talk about these things, but when Casey was born after many hours of labor, all of a sudden I remember the nurses and doctors, my doctor talking with the nurses and they seemed concerned. And this pediatrician went in and examined Casey for a little bit and came out and told me that they wanted to send him up to this Doernbecher Hospital, where they were going to do some examinations, because this bluishness in his lip represents possibly a heart condition. He was having a problem with oxygenation.
And while we were talking, Casey, he had a seizure, and all of a sudden everybody was in emergency mode. They got him, they’re rushing him out of the room, and then they tell us that they had to take him up to this emergency room, the ICU unit up in, what they call it? Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. We start learning that my son is born with a congenital heart disease that they call tetralogy of fallot with a pulmonary stenosis, and a hole in his heart. And then he has some other abnormalities: he has a cleft palate, he has what they call prune belly, and the seizure that happened. And they would examine for other things. As we brought him home, we learned to take care of his needs, and we knew that he was going to have to go through various surgeries over the years, but the prognosis was pretty good.
He and his sister played like any other two children. They laughed and giggled and they were just so important to us in every part of our life. And eventually Casey had to go for surgery when he was three years old. I started thinking of things like…just learning about Agent Orange, and I hadn’t made the connection before, but it was just starting to happen, and Casey’s going in for surgery. I just remember standing there as they were wheeling my son by— past me in a steel gurney, and he’s starting to go through these steel doors in this other area, and those doors closed. And when those doors closed, I saw in my head and my mind those jungle bushes closing up on that sergeant. And it frightened me even more. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing! “Is this premonition?” It frightened me.
And after 10 hours or surgery, something went wrong: oxygen shock to the brain. And my son was in a coma for seven weeks. My wife one day was holding him, and she was saying she was getting tired. She says, “Your turn to hold him.” And she says, just to me as she’s passing, “He feels so cold!” And I put him in my arms, and I’m trying to warm him up and hug him, and rocking him back and forth. And he takes a deep breath, sighs out his last breath, and he dies in my arms. My whole world fell out from under me. That’s the reality of war. That’s the reality of what happens to people.
Matthew Breems: So you have just this unbelievably horrible experience with your son. How does that then catapult you forward into a place of becoming an activist?
Daniel Shea: Well, at first it was just a very, very hard time for me to do anything. Our families are grieving also, and they knew that we needed time to ourselves, so they actually chipped in some money and bought us some free time down at the Oregon coast. They babysat. So while they were babysitting her, I remember we were walking on this sort of isolated beach, and as we’re walking along the beach, I had this sort of out of body experience. And through that out of body experience, I traveled back through time, and I saw all the wars: the Vietnam, the war I was in, to the Korean War, the World War II, World War I. Not just war, but violence and murders and all kinds of things that were happening in the world. Until I came to the mythical place of Adam and Eve. And Eve was holding her dead son Abel in her arms as Cain stood over her with a rock in his hands, dripping with blood.
And she let out this horrible, horrible scream, the scream that shook the entire universe, and even God trembled. And the angels began to cry, and they filled the oceans, and the oceans began licking at my feet and brought me back to reality. And at that moment is when I had this sort of epiphany that my grief— I understood the horror of grief, but I also understood the idea of brother killing brother, and that my grief was one of millions and millions of people. Those Vietnamese families whose [children] were killed by our bombs and bullets. Or the Napalm and Agent Orange that was continually killing people, and their children being born with birth defects. And I understood their grief, and I became a brother and a sister to the Vietnamese people at that very moment. And that became a part of my dedication to work towards peace, to end wars, and to stop the use of chemical weapons, and to do whatever I could to try and alleviate the problems that people who have these kinds of birth defects caused by war. That’s what began my path, I think.
Matthew Breems: And what were some of the steps that you started taking then at that point in your life?
Daniel Shea: Well, it wasn’t just about war at the time. I mean, I didn’t want to talk about war. I didn’t really want to talk about being in the military. And I didn’t speak out as a veteran. But I started being involved in issues: just human rights, social rights, fighting racism, fighting issues of labor exploitation. I became a— elected to my union and was very active in the issues that were going on. The Central American wars were happening in the 1980s. Went to some meeting where I saw a refugee that came from Guatemala. These are just the things— you start hearing the stories. And then El Salvador. And then there was Brian Wilson. He was an inspiration, and that’s the first time I had even thought about a veteran taking such a strong position. But still, I didn’t speak out as a veteran. So I was active in and bringing in forums and speakers.
So Vietnam, the Central American conflicts, wars across the world, those all became something that started to hit me over and over again. We started an organization called Students for Unity at Portland State University. We helped create the multicultural center at the university that exists there today. We helped organize with students to create a on-campus radio station. And while I was there doing my graduate work, Bush I drew a line in the sand on Saddam about going into Kuwait, and they started bombing! That bombing is when I— it triggered my post- traumatic stress. And I just realized that they were going to be killing a lot of innocent people in this war. And they had lots of people that were opposing the war. But I never spoke as a veteran before until in demonstrations that were happening. I would say, “I was at war. This is insane. This is what’s going to happen.”
And I began to realize there were a lot more veterans that were opposed to war and that people were paying attention to what I was saying. Not because I was saying anything great but because I was a veteran. That’s when I started speaking as a veteran. I started telling my story. And I think it has an effect. I think veterans need to tell their stories, and they— because we’ve seen war. We’ve seen hell. We know what it causes. We know the death that it causes. And I thought, “We need to start, instead of dealing with war, we need to start working towards peace.” So it became a part of my life is to wage peace in this world, to find ways to find peace. And we say in Veterans for Peace, “Peace at home, peace abroad.” And that’s to look at what’s happening in your neighborhoods, your domestic, the police brutality, et cetera, on our borders. But those things, those wars and bases all across the world that we have, and how can we work to make a better world, not one that’s constantly in conflict? And that’s what led me to Veterans for Peace.
Matthew Breems: So Daniel, just share with us a little bit about your time with Veterans for Peace that came a little bit later in your life for you. Just explain what transpired that had you join with that organization and then what you’ve been doing activism-wise.
Daniel Shea: Well, In 2006 I got a call from Dave Cline, who was president, who had asked me to be a part of a delegation going back to Vietnam in March of 2006 for a Agent Orange conference. I went with five VFP members to Hanoi in this incredible visit with people who— children at Friendship Village, which was started by a veteran. This village has became a place where children born with birth defects go. Some with no arms and legs learn computer skills. And we met a number of people, officials, government officials. But this was a conference of veterans from all over the world that have served in Vietnam. So there were veterans from Australia, there were veterans from Korea, there was, of course, us five. This conference was amazing and they— So these were incredible people on the– We were working with a group there called VAVA, which is sort of the Veterans of Agent Orange over there.
It was an incredible trip. That’s how I got involved with what they call the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Committee. They were one of the people that helped to organize this, and I became a core member of that, which is a project of Veterans for Peace. And I remained on that ever since. And we worked on legislation for Agent Orange. So these are the issues that we continue to deal with. And like I said, I joined around 2006 and have eventually been a part of a number of things within VFP. I ended up being on the board for a while. Dave Cline recommended me to be on the board. But then I eventually ran for the board, and I just finished a three-year term. In 2018 I finished. So as of January of this year was the end of my three-year term on the VFP board. I was also very active, not just in Agent Orange issues, but I’ve become very much a part of Save the VA Against Privatization. So I’m very active on that. And in our recent convention in Spokane, I was on two panels. One of the panels was an Agent Orange panel; the other one was on Save the VA.
So that’s my activism, and I continue to speak out on these issues and to organize locally. I am now the president of our local chapter, chapter 72 here in Portland, Oregon.
Matthew Breems: Daniel, thank you so much for taking the time to share your story and give us an insight into your activism.
Daniel Shea: Like I said, I’m an artist, and sometimes my activism, I don’t get to produce art. So poetry has been something that I’ve moved to a lot, and I just wrote this poem recently and this is in July, and it’s called “I Can’t Breathe.”
“I feel the weight of the state’s oppression as our iron hill presses harder on all of our necks. I can’t breathe. I’m suffocating by all the injustice. Choking on the cries of babies being torn from their mothers’ loving arms, thrown into the concentration camps. I am drowning from the tears of families mourning yet another black life murdered by the police. I am losing consciousness as forever wars fill graves in genocidal waves. I am dying because my heart is breaking. I am not sure I can survive this hell.”
Matthew Breems: This Courage to Resist Podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance to the U.S. War in Vietnam, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. This episode was recorded and edited by Matthew Breems. Special thanks to executive producer Jeff Paterson. Visit VietnamFullDisclosure.org and CourageToResist.org for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.