VN-E06: Doug Rawlings
Podcast (VN-E06): Doug Rawlings, “It was a very thin line and you could very easily step across it”
Vietnam Series Podcast, Episode 6:
“It was the Wild West. We’d call it Indian country. It was you went out there, and, oh yeah, they said there were rules of engagement. And their officers would tell you that, “No, my unit never did any of this,” and all this kind of stuff. But not really. It was a very thin line and you could very easily step across it.”
Vietnam Full Disclosure
This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured.
“Moral injury is the realization years later that you were part of it, that you are culpable for some of these things. So I refer to some guys as sociopaths and stuff like that. But where was I? Why didn’t I intervene and stop this guy from smacking around this papasan or these guys from gang raping this 16-year-old villager? Why didn’t I stop that? I didn’t.”
“But then something changed. Guys started saying: “I’m not going out there. I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to do that.” That stuff started happening more and more and more and more, such to the point where some people make the claim, and I think rightfully so, that that war ended because the troops were beginning to mutiny big time. And the muckety-mucks in the military were looking down at this thing saying, “We’re losing control of our army. We better get the hell out of there.” And I think there’s some truth to that, because I saw bits and pieces of it.”
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Transcript (edited for clarity)
Doug Rawlings: We formed Veterans For Peace with one major aspiration — abolish war, and we wanted to do it nonviolently. Although this sounds completely fantastical, we should remember that this was Albert Einstein’s conclusion after attending talks after World War I that were held to “humanize” war. We also wanted to offer the perspective of veterans to the peace movement. Finally, we wanted to be the first veterans organization that did not relegate women to a secondary “auxiliary” status. We started with five members. Now we have 6,000 or 7,000 members, 130-some-odd chapters around the United States, five international chapters. The Vietnam Full Disclosure (vietnamfulldisclosure.org) program is part of Veterans For Peace, including our Letters to The Wall project.
Being part of the founding members became my form of resistance fifteen years after I got out of the Army. Then I had two young kids. And I thought to myself, “God damn it, we’ve got to speak out. We can’t keep on sending these kids off to war without them finding out what it’s all about.”
John Luckenbaugh: This is the Courage to Resist podcast. I’m John Luckenbaugh. This Courage to Resist podcast I produced in collaboration with the Vietnam full disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. My guest today is Doug Rawlings, a retired teacher who has taught at both the University of Maine and at three high schools. Raised in Rochester, New York, he was drafted into the Army on January 9, 1969 in Buffalo, New York. He was deployed to Vietnam with the 7/15th artillery from July 1969 through August 1970. Welcome to the podcast, Doug.
Doug Rawlings: Thank you.
John Luckenbaugh: Can you give us a brief life overview leading up to your drafting.
Doug Rawlings: I was born and raised in Rochester, New York. And I was sent away to college by my father in 1964, which is kind of important to this narrative, I think, because it indicates where I was in terms of authority. My old man sent me to college to get me away from a young woman whom I was becoming romantically attached to.
He sent me to college in Cleveland, Ohio, which is 500 miles away, to a Jesuit University, and we’re not even Catholic, which essentially he’s sending me to the “convent” kind of deal, I guess. But I went. And he even said, “You’re going to major in economics, and you’re going to come back and work at Eastman Kodak,” which is where he worked.
And so, yeah, I said, “Okay.” And I was the only one of my friends who went off to college, as a matter of fact. Most of my buddies went right into Eastman Kodak and got good jobs and stuff. So I did that. And I didn’t really care for it, but I maintained the course and I graduated in 1968 with this degree in economics.
And I actually applied for and was accepted into the Peace Corps, but yet another woman comes into play. This sounds almost like a country western song, right? So I was engaged to this other woman, and she said, “Please don’t go into the Peace Corps.” So I said, “Okay.” So this is 1968, right, and the draft is just hovering over my head. So I enrolled in graduate school at Ohio State University. And that’s where I was drafted.
I got my draft notice, and I went back home to Rochester, New York, and hung out. And remember, now, my parents were from Canada. They came over from Canada in the early ’40s. And we used to go to Canada all the time. They were from Toronto. And it’s just over the lake from Rochester.
And so I had aunts and uncles and cousins in Canada. I could’ve gone there. I thought about it, but I said, “Eh.” I had three brothers. They were in the National Guard. I didn’t want to do the National Guard either, which was another way to get out of it. So I just said, “Screw it.” And I got drafted. And I went into the Army in January 9th in Buffalo, New York, a bit of a cocky kind of guy with a chip on my shoulder. After all, I was a college graduate, right? And these guys weren’t going to get me.
And off I went to basic training. And I got to say, after eight weeks, they did get me. I was in the best physical condition I’ve ever been in. I was an expert on the M14 rifle. I learned all of this military stuff. I was looking at it, but I was looking at my situation from a personal perspective. I think it was Norman Mailer or Hemingway, one of those guys, had the notion that you could enter the military, enter a war and look at it objectively, be a witness to it without getting involved in it. At this point in my life, I thought I could cruise through this whole thing and come out of it unscarred.
And so it was that kind of game for me. I said, “Oh, wow, so this is what the Army is like. So far so good.” And they sent me to AIT, advanced individual training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in artillery, sort of a ballistic support person. And I had my education and stuff like that to fall back on. And Fort Sill AIT was kind of like college. We had to march and do all that crap, but we were essentially taking classes. Of course they kept threatening us if we didn’t do well in our classes, then we’d be going 11 Bravo, Infantry.
So I knew how to take tests and do that kind of stuff. So I did that. And they kept on telling us, this is, again, this is 1969 now, spring of 1969, and they kept on saying, “You guys aren’t going to Nam. You’re going to go to Germany, Hawaii maybe, Korea at the worst. No sweat,” right up until the last day of AIT, and I’ll never forget that, going to this desk and standing in front of this guy. And he said, “Okay, Rawlings. You got to report on July 2, 1969 to Travis Air Force Base for shipment to the Republic of Vietnam.” I said, “Say what? What?” And so I still caved into authority. I went home. I still had a two-week leave, right?
John Luckenbaugh: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Doug Rawlings: And I’m up in Rochester, and I’m doing what most people would do — I just drank myself silly every night, right? The lure of going over across the border was very strong. And I’ve had 50 years to reflect on this. and I kind of feel like I was living out what Tim O’Brien wrote about in his wonderful book The Things They Carried. He’s got one story in there called “On the Rainy River,” where he faced the same thing.
And he did what I did. And he ends that story by saying, “I was a coward. I went to Vietnam.” And that’s the way I felt. I had no patriotic fervor at all. I just did it because I was told that’s what you got to do. You do it, right? And, after all, it’s all about me, right?
John Luckenbaugh: Right.
Doug Rawlings: And so off I went and flew across the states, and da, da, da, da, and got on a plane. I didn’t know anybody on the usual flight over, and landed in Tan Son Nhut; didn’t know anybody, got off the plane and was smacked in the face by the heat and humidity and smells of Viet Nam. I remember that I got actually stuck in a barracks with a bunch of Republic of Korean troops. And once they cut my orders and said, “You’re going to Bồng Sơn,” these guys said, “Oh, beaucoup VC, beaucoup VC.” I said, “Oh shit. What?”
And, by the way, the first time I was handed an M16 rifle was then. I had trained on the M14. I had never trained on the M16. So I’m handed an M16, and I’m put on a chopper and then a 3/4 ton and then a deuce and a half. And I go up into the center highlands around this place called Bồng Sơn, after passing through An Khe, etc etc, all these names. And I was the typical Greenie. I show up there. I got on a bright green uniform. I got my duffle bag. I got my weapon. I got my helmet. My flak jacket. I’m bumbling and stumbling around. What the hell is going on?
Contrary to what some people think about brothers in arms kind of stuff, everybody just sort of looked at me like, “You’re an idiot. And until you prove yourself, until you prove that you’re not dangerous to us or to you, stay away.” And that’s kind of the way it was for awhile.
John Luckenbaugh: What did your service in the military during Vietnam, what did that look like?
Doug Rawlings: We were supposed to be providing support for these artillery pieces, and I’m starting to do that kind of stuff, when we got hit with our first mortar attack. I think I was probably there in country maybe a week, and all of a sudden the mortars started coming in. And that sort of set the pattern of the time I was there. I was at this landing zone, what they call Landing Zone Uplift. We were attached to the 173rd Airborne. So those guys would go out on missions and stuff like that. And if they ran into any crap, then we would bring some artillery down on their coordinates, where they were.
So it was like that for a while until Tet of 1970, which I think at that time was the end of January. We were then told to go up to this other landing zone further north and build a fire base called Fire Base Two Bits, which is around Bồng Sơn. And so we went up there, and that was really freaky because there was nothing there, and we started stringing concertina wire, loading up sand bags, hunkering down at night; we didn’t know who the hell was out there, a little probing of the wire here and there, some mortars coming in. We were scared shitless.
And so eventually we built up this Fire Base Two Bits, and then they brought in these four big howitzers, eight-inchers and 175’s. I was at Uplift and Two Bits for 13 and a half months. It got to be we were terrified of being overrun by the NVA, but we never were. We were just constantly harassed by the Viet Cong, and periodically back and forth, back and forth. I spent my time there. And nine months in, I got R&R and headed out to Sidney, Australia, went over there and got drunk too, and approached by some interesting people over there.
I mean, we met up with some women, and we had some good old times and stuff. And then people would start saying, “You don’t have to go back.” I’d go, “Shit, do you think I should desert?” They weren’t twisting my arm, but they were dropping hints that, “If you wanted to stick around, we could move you up some other place.” But I didn’t.
John Luckenbaugh: That never crossed your mind?
Doug Rawlings: Oh, it definitely crossed my mind. And what freaked me out was I had another four months left in country. Now I knew what I was going back to. When I first went over there, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Now I knew what I was going back to, right?
John Luckenbaugh: Right. What were a couple of the defining moments that led you to later act against the war?
Doug Rawlings: It was just being really disgusted with the whole situation, the way we were treating the Vietnamese and stuff. My resistance in the military wasn’t like … I’m not anywheres near the caliber of Susan Schnall, or Keith Maher, or Bruce Beyer, or J.J. Johnson, these people who really were right in the middle of it and said, “No way,” based on strong moral principles. Mine was more of a personal thing about they’re screwing with me. I don’t like being screwed with. I did’t like following authority much anymore now. I’ve gotten over all of that stuff. And so I did a lot of dope. I was involved in a fair amount—not heavy stuff. I never did heroin, but we did grass and opium, which was readily available. That waste way, I guess, of resisting authority.
So then there were confrontations. I mean, obviously we’re on this squat little fire base, and the highest ranking officer was, I think, a captain. And these captains went in and out. And so we had different guys come in and tell us what we’re supposed to do. And one captain came in and said, “You guys can’t go to the wire anymore and talk to the Vietnamese villagers because we know you’re dealing with drugs.” And he was absolutely right.
But I took my stand, and I pulled out this little card they gave us called Winning Hearts and Minds. And I said, “How can we win hearts and minds if we’re not allowed to even interact with those Vietnamese people?” So I went back out to the wire, and I got busted, and they gave me what they call an Article 15. By that time, I wasn’t doing the job that I was really trained for. I was driving a deuce and a half a lot, pulling a lot of guard duty and stuff like that.
So I had some mobility. And there was an Air Force base about, I don’t know, 30 clicks, 30 kilometers, away from where we were called Phù Cát. And I knew there was a JAG office there, the sort of Attorney General’s Office with lawyers. And so I wrote up this defense of myself, and I got myself down to Phù Cát Air Force Base and like went into the office. I remember, I mean, you got to understand, here I am, faded greens, and I have wire-rimmed glasses, and look like a real stoner. And I handed him this paper. And these guys look at me and said, “Jesus Christ, you wrote this?” And I said, “Yeah.”
They’re expecting an 18-year-old kid, and I was 22 at the time. I said, “Yeah.” And so I appealed to the JAG, and I won. In a sense I won. I didn’t get an Article 15. But I had to go back to that fire base with this captain who hated my guts from then on. And then I got all kinds of crap duty, burning shit, and doing this, and sending me out on, “Okay, Rawlings, you do this, da, da, da, da.” And so he made my life pretty miserable.
But I felt good about that resistance in a sense, right? Another thing we did, I was never anywhere place that was considered “in limits.” I never went to Saigon. I never went to any of the cities and stuff. We were always outside this little village of Bồng Sơn, which was off limits. But we decided it’s not going to be off limits. And so we would sneak into the village, myself and two or three other guys. And one guy could be assigned every time we went in there to stand over our helmets and our weapons and flak jackets and stuff like that.
And the rest of us, the three of us, wandered into the village without any weapons or anything just to engage with the people. And we weren’t after their daughters and stuff like that. Guys would do … A lot of that happened. But we were sending strong signals that that’s not what we were doing. We just wanted to know them.
John Luckenbaugh: And how did they take that? How did they respond?
Doug Rawlings: With a lot of skepticism, of course. And I remember one guy inviting in, an older papasan inviting us into his hooch. I have a couple of pictures of this, and sat us down, and we ate some stuff. They were rice cakes or something. I don’t know what they were. But they were crawling with red ants. I remember that.
John Luckenbaugh: Oh wow.
Doug Rawlings: We tried to be polite and brush them off and eat them. I don’t know if he was doing that just to screw with us or whatever, but it didn’t seem to be that. So we befriended them somewhat, and then we got to know some of the mamasans that came up to the wire and some of the younger kids. But I didn’t know anything about children at that time at all. I realize now they were using us big time, right? I mean, we’re scoring dope from them and various other things. They were getting their money. And that was the nature of that whole thing. And so that was my 13 and a half months there. I spent 13 and a half months. Normally you spend a year, right?
John Luckenbaugh: Right.
Doug Rawlings: But being the college graduate that I was, I did some reading, and I discovered that if I came back stateside with less than six months active duty, I could process out of the Army altogether. And at that point, I knew there’s no way in hell I could do stateside duty. I was just so disgusted by this whole operation; I mean I hadn’t even polished my boots in months. I was like there was no way in hell I was going to do stateside. So I extended over there for 34 days, which means when I came back in the United States, I had one day less than six months. Those were, by the way, the longest 34 days of my life.
So I did that. And my experience was a lot of boredom, a lot of heat, a lot of the monsoons, the rats, that kind of stuff, and then mortar attack, and probes as it got dark. There was always … The Army is just rife with rumors and stuff, and we’d get these late evening messages from God know where that say, “Okay, there’s a red alert,” which means the enemy is in your area. That’s what we had to deal with. And then we’d get I think four or five times we got what they call double red alerts, which was they’re coming for you. They want your guns. They’re going to come try to blow up your ammo dump. They’re going to try to get you. But they never did. They never got in, into it, into us. It scared the crap out of us.
John Luckenbaugh: Were there any other defining moments that encouraged your resistance?
Doug Rawlings: I actually think it was really incremental and built up. It was a constant low-level and then sometimes pretty extreme brutality towards these Vietnamese people.
John Luckenbaugh: Like what?
Doug Rawlings: Well, there was rape, and there was shoving, and pushing around, and slapping around people, and throwing people around.
John Luckenbaugh: Was this-
Doug Rawlings: And-
John Luckenbaugh: Would you say this was like the majority of the-
Doug Rawlings: Oh, no, no, no, no. But there were enough of these incidents that they started to mount up in my head.. Again, I’m talking from the perspective of being a white privileged male. I like to say that I’m a member of the most privileged subspecies ever to exist on this planet, right?
John Luckenbaugh: Right.
Doug Rawlings: White male raised in suburban America in the 50s. And I’d never encountered sociopaths before. And that’s what I encountered in the military. These guys were, now reflecting back on it were real … They took pleasure in hurting other human beings. So years later I read a memoir by a guy named Doug Peacock who was a medic with the Green Berets and did two tours in Nam, I think. He wrote a wonderful book called Walking it Off about his experience, but there’s a phrase in there that really stuck with me. He said he came to realize that we were in a place where anything was permitted, anything was permitted. So you’ve got a 19-year-old kid walking around with his weaponry and pretty much knows that he can do what the fuck he wants to do to anybody he wants to do it, right?
I mean, it was the Wild West. We’d call it Indian country. It was you went out there, and, oh yeah, they said there were rules of engagement. And their officers would tell you that, “No, my unit never did any of this,” and all this kind of stuff. But not really. It was a very thin line and you could very easily step across it; hence, I think the prevalence of drugs in my life when I was over there. I kept on trying to pull myself away from that, that urge, which is very real, which is very scary. There’s a wonderful essay written in 1917 by the philosopher psychologist William James called The Moral Equivalent of War. It’s an excellent account of the military mindset.
John Luckenbaugh: I’m familiar with that.
Doug Rawlings: You familiar with it? Yeah.
John Luckenbaugh: Yeah.
Doug Rawlings: So it’s like the military has that pull on you, this camaraderie, this you’re in a special class, da, da, da, da, da. And you pick up that kind of mindset, and it can go in bizarre directions. And so I saw some of that. And now they’ve got a name for this, which I think I’ve probably been dealing with. I don’t think I have PTSD. I go to the VA and stuff like that, but I really do think I suffer from this thing called moral injury, which they’ve come up with now, which is a much more comprehensive malady, if you will. And it can spring from that. And PTSD, I mean, I think sometimes that arises if you were a perpetrator of some pretty awful, traumatic things or the victim of it, right? And so-
John Luckenbaugh: Right. What’s moral injury, then?
Doug Rawlings: Moral injury is if you were a witness to some of this stuff and didn’t do anything to stop it, and it comes back, it comes onto you years later. This is why it resonates with me. I mean, I remember I thought of myself as a witness to this war at first, right?
John Luckenbaugh: Right.
Doug Rawlings: And so I kept journals. I’m going through my 50-year anniversary thing right now, and so on July 2, 2019, I’m going to open up my journal that was written on July 2, 1969 and read it, right, and start. So I kept this journal all the way through this thing, thinking that I wasn’t part of it. But I was part of it. And moral injury is the realization years later that you were part of it, that you are culpable for some of these things. So I refer to some guys as sociopaths and stuff like that. But where was I? Why didn’t I intervene and stop this guy from smacking around this papasan or these guys from gang raping this 16-year-old villager? Why didn’t I stop that? I didn’t.
John Luckenbaugh: Was that more because of I guess immaturity?
Doug Rawlings: No. Well, I guess, maybe. I mean how immature are you at the age of 21 or 22? It varies, I suppose. I suppose I was. But I think that that was also a lot of cowardice. These guys could make life very rough for you if you turn out to be one of these dudes who were going to turn them in or do something like that. There were people who were dispatched, as they say back in the day. So it was a rough time.
John Luckenbaugh: So I guess this went really high up in the ranks, then, with the …
Doug Rawlings: Well, just people turned the other way. There was no question how … And this, again, when you speak to people who’ve been to Vietnam, right, it depends upon when they were there, where they were, what their ranks were, what their units were, what their MOS’s were. All of these things are contingencies that play into the whole thing.
And when I was there, the TET offensive had happened the year before. So when I went over there, and we were … I don’t think I met anybody who thought they were there to save democracy for the South Vietnamese people or to protect the homeland. We were just there because we got fucked. And we’re going to survive, and we’re going to get out of there somehow. And that was it.
And so during the whole thing, guys served. But then something changed. Guys started saying: “I’m not going out there. I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to do that.” That stuff started happening more and more and more and more, such to the point where some people make the claim, and I think rightfully so, that that war ended because the troops were beginning to mutiny big time. And the muckety-mucks in the military were looking down at this thing saying, “We’re losing control of our army. We better get the hell out of there.” And I think there’s some truth to that, because I saw bits and pieces of it.
There was what they call the fragging thing was taking place, and I never saw anybody frag an officer, but there were some gas grenades thrown into certain tents at certain times and pretty open threats made to people about, “No, we’re not going to do that.” Or some captain, I remember this one captain wanted to send us out to go up to Phù Cát Air Force Base. And it was like 3:00 in the afternoon. And we did our quick math and figured out there’s no way in hell we could get there and come back before it got dark. And we just said, “We’re not going.” That’s unheard of, right? You talk to guys in the military, and they think, “Oh my … an Officer gives you a direct order and you just said, ‘We’re not going.'”
John Luckenbaugh: Wow.
Doug Rawlings: And this guy looked around, and here he was in this little fire base with us, and he said, “All right, God damn it, you guys, report back to me at 0800 tomorrow morning,” to save face and shit like that. But that’s pretty minor. There was a lot of other stuff that was happening that we were really pushing back.
John Luckenbaugh: How did those actions inform who you became?
Doug Rawlings: I didn’t realize how tightly wired I was until I got back home. I didn’t even get home to Rochester until three weeks after I processed out. . I process out of Fort Lewis, Washington, in August of ’70. Judy meets me in San Francisco, and we hitch hike from LA across the country and down to Mexico. It took us about three weeks of being on the road. It was really a very helpful process for me to start unwinding, and, too, and for the woman to whom I’m still married after 47 years, to get to know each other again, so we stuck together. We stuck together after that experience.
John Luckenbaugh: That’s awesome.
Doug Rawlings: It sort of saved my ass because I was just so angry, so disgusted. My old man had sort of set up this track for me to go into Eastman Kodak and become an executive and all that shit. And I said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that crap at all. I don’t want to have anything to do with any bureaucracy.” So I was increasingly angry at myself for having participated in that war, but I didn’t know what to do with it. We moved to Boston in the fall of 1970, and I came across a VVAW group up on Mass. Ave in Boston, and I kind of checked them out. I said, “Everybody is getting stoned.” I was okay with that. And I’d been there. And I was still doing that. But I wanted to do something else.
So I joined the Socialist Workers Party out of Boston University. They really wanted to stop the war big time. And I got involved with them, and I went down to DC with them in May of ’71 for the big demonstration down there. I started putting my life together a little bit and thought, “Shit, I want to do something.” I decided, and I still don’t know why, that I wanted to become a high school English teacher. Since I didn’t have any background in that, I took a year and went over to Seattle University in Seattle, Washington, and studied literature for a year and then came back and got my master’s at Boston College to become a teacher mainly because I think I … Well, I hated high school, and I wanted to go into high school and change it.
And that was just when this whole radical teacher’s thing was happening, and particularly around Boston. Like, we were the young Turks, and we were going to go in there and really change things around and engage students and get them to be freethinkers and all that stuff. We were somewhat successful, I think. So now, years later after being retired six years, I teach a course in Peace Studies at the University exploring the concept of nonviolent direct action. We use Staughton and Alice Lynd’s great book THE HISTORY OF NONVIOLENCE IN AMERICA.
And I don’t tell my students that I’m a Vietnam veteran until about halfway through the course. So they probably think I’m one of these flower children or something out of the ’60s, this old guy with a gray beard and weary eyes. And I have them reading all kinds of really interesting stuff, including William James. And then when I tell them that I was in the Army, and they look at me, and I would say I was drafted, and they look at me again. And I say, “And I went to Vietnam.” It’s like, “Holy shit. What?” And then-
John Luckenbaugh: Does their whole view on course change then?
Doug Rawlings: Well, yeah. I think so, or on me anyways, because then I start talking to them. I say, “So what do you know about Nam?” And a lot of them, and they come from rural Maine … Most of them, about 80% of my students come from rural towns and stuff, and their idea of Vietnam was told from their grandparents’ perspective, used to be their parents, now their grandparents. And it’s always told from the perspective, or most of the time told from the perspective of the poor Vietnam veteran come home to being spat on by those hippies and stuff like that. And so I disabuse them of that notion big time.
And I start talking to them about this idea that this notion of focusing on American soldiers disregards the fact that this war was fought in a country where three million people were killed and all these horrible things happened to them. We weren’t in these little sand boxes becoming men. We were doing some real harm to people. So I try to get that message across to the students that war is not this thing that you see in the movies, or it’s not this personal travail and all that stuff, it’s got all kinds of horrible ramifications attached to it.
But then I’m a professional educator, and I don’t want to turn my course into a soap box. So I allude to these things, hint at these things, have them read some various things that give them a slightly different perspective. And then I give them a chance, the right to push back against that, and some do. Some defend their grandfathers. And I never, ever attack their grandfathers. Once one young woman said, “My grandfather loved it when he was in Vietnam. He did real good.” I said to myself, “Okay. I’m not going to call your grandfather an insidious psychopathic liar. I’m not going to do that,” even though I’m thinking it. Of course I may be dead wrong. Maybe he did do more good than harm.
So I do that, I teach, and I also volunteer up at our VA hospital. Every two weeks I go up into the psychiatric ward and lead discussions with Vietnam veterans and younger veterans using veterans’ poetry ranging from the Civil War, right, to perhaps today. And I engage with namvets. I engage with Afghan and Iraq War vets and everyone in between. Men and women.
In a sense, and I really get a lot out of it, so I don’t want to make it melodramatic, but there is that part of that moral injury thing that makes me think I’m just doing this penance, if you will. I’m trying to transform that horribly negative experience into something somewhat positive. That’s how VFP started for me. I was a member of a group called Western Maine Peace Action Workshop up here in the Western Mountains, the central highlands of Maine, if you will. And we were really concerned about our government’s policies going down in Central America — particularly, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
So we brought these guest speakers up to Farmington. They were a part of the Witness for Peace Program. They actually literally went into Nicaragua as American citizens with notebooks and stood there and took notes, hoping to save people’s lives. So they were very inspiring, and at the end of their talk, this guy, Jerry Genesio said, “I’m looking for some veterans who might want to form a peace group.” I said, “Yeah! I’m up for that.”
And we worked on it, and we formed Veterans For Peace. There were five of us in 1985. We eventually put together the official papers and became incorporated. And, again, this is when there were just telephones and newspapers and handwritten letters, and so getting word out was a bit of a grind.
John Luckenbaugh: The Veterans For Peace, what did you do with that group?
Doug Rawlings: We’re still in it. We formed it, and Jerry had a brother who was in the Marines who was killed in Vietnam. So that was his incentive. And another guy was a chaplain in World War II, and another guy was a medic in Nam, and there was myself and Judy Genesio. And we decided, we formed this group, and we said basically what we wanted to do was abolish war, and we wanted to do it nonviolently.
And so we wanted to offer the perspective of veterans to the peace movement. Like I said, we started with five. Now we have 6,000 to 7,000 members, 130-some-odd chapters around the United States, five international chapters.
John Luckenbaugh: That’s awesome.
Doug Rawlings: The Vietnam Full Disclosure project is part of Veterans For Peace, as well as the Letters to The Wall project. This work for VFP became, and still is, my form of resistance fifteen years after I got out, mainly because I had two young kids. And I thought to myself, “God damn it, we’ve got to speak out. We can’t keep on sending these kids off to war without then finding out what it’s all about.” So that drove me big time. I am now currently the president of a chapter here in Maine, and I was president before, and I was on the national board, Veterans For Peace, for a couple of years, editor of the newsletter for a couple of years, and currently one of the co-editors of Peace In Our Times.
I organize the Letters to the Wall program where we deliver letters to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial every Memorial Day. In one sense, I don’t know if you would call it resistance, it’s certainly not, again, it’s not anywhere as near in the category of the folks I mentioned before. But it is pushing back. And in our early years, and still, we have incurred real resistance from other veterans, right? They called us pinkos and shit.But we are undaunted. We still get involved in Memorial Day parades and Veterans Day parades with our flags and our banners and all that kind of stuff.
And people would turn their backs on us and that kind of crap. But it’s all part and parcel of this. Again, did we call it resistance? I don’t know. It’s pushing back against the militaristic culture that we live in, so if that’s resistance, I suppose I’m a resister.
John Luckenbaugh: Absolutely. Before we wrap it up, here, Doug, do you have anything, any final points that you would like to share with the audience?
Doug Rawlings: We’re going to devote this year, 2019, to recognizing GI resisters, which is a story that’s not been told widely. So starting from 1969 to the present day, we’re collecting a number of stories. So what we want, we want people to know, and certainly if people have loved ones in the peace and veterans communities, or active duties service men and women themselves, we want them to know that you can take a moral stand and you can resist.
If you’re active duty and called upon to do something that you really find to be abhorrent and totally against your morals, that there are people who have your back. It’s very dangerous stuff to do. And nobody kids you about that. If you’re in active duty military and you refuse orders, that’s pretty serious stuff. There are people that will support you, support those people if they take that stand. So we’re trying to … We’re going to put together actually a special issue of Peace In Our Times we hope, which will be a whole series of stories about people who have resisted while in the military. We hope it’s historical and inspirational for people in the military right now to understand that there is a history of this, that there are people who took stances and changed things because of those stances.
John Luckenbaugh: If someone is looking to contact you, either you or the Veterans For Peace, how would they go about doing that?
Doug Rawlings: They can contact me at my email address if they want.
John Luckenbaugh: Now, does Veterans For Peace, do they have a website that you can log on to to-
Doug Rawlings: Sure. Just go to veteransforpeace.org, lowercase. You can get onto our homepage and look at a whole host of different things. We also have, if you’re interested in the Vietnam War, we’ve got a special website called vietnamfulldisclosure.org, again, all lowercase and all one word, vietnamfulldisclosure.org, which we started about five years ago when Obama devoted $63 million to telling the history of the Vietnam War. And we quickly looked at what they were coming up with. The Pentagon’s website was dreadful. And so, we have various folks who have been working on our website to counter the Pentagon’s. It’s really pretty amazing.
Actually, these kind of conversations are going to be on that website. So there are those good resources, not to mention all the chapters we have around the country and our international chapters. There’s a wealth of information there and some really good people. Our newest chapter was down in Tijuana, where we’re providing support for guys from, mostly from Mexico, but also Central America, who served in the United States military and then were deported for stupid reasons. That’s our latest chapter. We’re trying to support those folks.
John Luckenbaugh: That’s great. Doug, I appreciate your time tonight. And I thank you so much.
Doug Rawlings: Well, thanks for listening to me prattle on. I am a 72-year-old man now, right? I’m sort of looking back at, like I said, 50 years ago and just going, “Yeah, what the hell was I thinking?”
John Luckenbaugh: This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance in and out of uniform. For many involved with this campaign, speak truth to power and keep alive the anti-war perspective on the US war in Vietnam. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support.