Podcast: “Based on nothing but a stack of lies” – Greg Laxer

May 14, 2020

After enlisting as a medic in the Army, Greg Laxer decided that he could not in good conscience participate in the Vietnam conflict, even as a non-combatant. His standoff with the Army continued for years as he resisted his deployment. After several AWOLs and many court proceedings, Greg finished his enlistment without ever going to Vietnam.

“Somewhat spontaneously, some guys decided to take sanctuary in the church and say they too had had enough of this war and they weren’t going to participate any longer. That number grew and grew to the point where it was the largest GI sanctuary during the Vietnam period. When I arrived in Hawaii to join this protest and try to sharpen its political focus … we wanted to emphasize the fact that it’s a racist war. It’s a genocidal war. It’s based on nothing but a stack of lies.”

“I wanted to show that an actual active duty GI in 1968 could do this, could take a very public stance against the war and be willing to face the consequence.”

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. Interview and edit by Matthew Breems. Jeff Paterson, Executive Producer.

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Transcript

Greg Laxer:
I wanted to show that an actual active duty GI in 1968 could do this, could take a very public stance against the war and be willing to face the consequence.

Matthew Breems:
This is the Courage to Resist podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. Resister Greg Laxer is the guest on the podcast today. After enlisting as a medic in the Army, he decided that he could not in good conscience participate in the Vietnam conflict, even as a non-combatant. His standoff with the Army continued for years as he resisted his deployment. After several AWOLs and many court proceedings, Greg finished his enlistment without ever going to Vietnam.

Matthew Breems:
Greg, it’s just great to be talking with you about your participation in the anti-war movement back in the Vietnam conflict. Why don’t you give us a brief overview of your upbringing in long Island? How did you come to the conclusion that what was going on in Vietnam was unethical?

Greg Laxer:
My story is kind of straight-forward. I was born in New York City, and my family became what you might call pioneering suburbanites. I was very fortunate to be raised in a household that was pretty much free of prejudice. Now in that social milieu however, I had almost no contact with people of color, but I was raised, basically, with an open mind. My father was an atheist, but he said, “If you want to go check out what’s going on at this or that church or that synagogue over there, out of curiosity, I will personally chauffeur you to that place.”

Greg Laxer:
With this free inquiring mind I would watch the TV news every evening. What I saw on that TV set of what my country, the supposedly greatest country in the world, the shining city on the hill that all should desire to emulate. What I saw my country doing to the people of Vietnam absolutely revolted me. All this fire power being aimed at these slender rice farmers, et cetera. I didn’t expect to end up in the military. I would go to college and, in theory, have a student exemption until 1970, so I wasn’t thinking I’d end up in the military, but I said at that point, “Undoubtedly I will never be a participant in that war.”

Matthew Breems:
So you did end up going to college after high school. Tell us a little bit about that. How you did end up entering military service even though your intention was to go to college.

Greg Laxer:
Right. I chose Syracuse, and I wanted to major in journalism. They accepted me, everything is going fine. Suddenly I’m informed that, “Well, you cannot select your major until you’re a junior.” The bottom fell out for me. In no more than six weeks I had said, “I’ve had it with this.” I quit going to classes. My father went through the roof. He’d footed the bill, and I knew that the draft board would come knocking soon enough.

Matthew Breems:
How long was it until the draft board did give you notice?

Greg Laxer:
Well, it wasn’t long at all. The draft board did come knocking within a few months, which is not at all surprising. I examined all my options, which were basically, one, leave the country. Go to Canada, go to Sweden. But this is my country. I was born here. Nope, I’m not going to leave the country.

Greg Laxer:
Another option would be to refuse to be drafted, the Muhammad Ali model. Anyhow, that wasn’t going to work, because I was a pacifist at the time. My mother, who was pretty neurotic to begin with, she felt that if I went into a prison environment, I would be picked on, despite my physique, because of my objection to violence. That was ruled out because of my mother threatening to commit suicide if I took that route.

Greg Laxer:
Next option or potential option. I applied to join the Peace Corps, which would have bought me some time, but I did apply for the Peace Corps and they rejected me because A, I didn’t have a college degree. Obviously, after one semester of incomplete, and B, I didn’t posses any specific special skills that they were looking for. That didn’t work, so there you go. Uncle Sam wants me.

Greg Laxer:
Now, the Army was offering deals, so to speak, whereby if you committed to unlit, which is a three year hitch at the time versus being drafted for a two year hitch, they just might train you in the area that you wish to be trained in. Of course there was the fine print, which I’m sure exists in the military still today. The fine print is they will put you where they feel you’re most needed. This whole story is a matter of gambling really, taking my chance, with the underlying firm understanding that I am not going to be a participant in this heinous criminal war being waged in Southeast Asia, but I took my chance, spoke to Mr. Recruiter, and they said, “Sure, you can sign up to be a medic. No problem.”

Matthew Breems:
Can you describe the sequence of events? I understand from your biography this is a fairly lengthy series of events, but the series of events that took shape as you began to resist your deployment to Vietnam.

Greg Laxer:
Sure. I took my, what you might call basic medical training, where everybody in the Army and the Air Force does. That’s Fort Sam Houston. During that course, myself and some other fairly bright fellows were approached and given the chance to sign up for advanced medical training, and that would be a 10 month course of study at a hospital, a major Army hospital. I signed up for that. I had to extend my enlistment four months, but I had no problem with that. I had won another delay in the showdown that was likely coming.

Greg Laxer:
On my advanced training, which took place at Valley Forge General Hospital, which was an Army facility in Pennsylvania. A demonstration had been scheduled to protest the war outside the gates of the Philadelphia Naval Yard. The night before the scheduled demonstration, we held a meeting. Basically, it was the American Friends Service Committee. The Quakers were coordinating the thing, so we met in their offices, and the next day I had to make my first real decision to what level am I willing to take my resistance to the war? Will I join this demonstration and sit down on the grass outside the Philadelphia Naval Yard and get arrested? Well, ultimately I decided that wasn’t the day, so I stayed on the sidelines while something like 138 people were arrested and carted off to the pokey.

Greg Laxer:
Of course, the orders did come down, and I was ordered to report to Oakland, California on October 22nd, 1968 to ship out to Vietnam as this awesome advanced medic. I knew that wasn’t going to happen, so when October 22nd rolled around, I started spending time away from the family home for the first a week or so at least, because I didn’t know if MPs were going to come knocking, looking for me, or what. Got introduced to the American Servicemen’s Union. I went to the War Resisters League in New York City.

Matthew Breems:
So you joined up with the American Servicemen’s Union and they were giving you the advice to go AWOL for 30 days. Explain a little bit the logic behind that decision.

Greg Laxer:
Right. Okay. They informed me that if you’re AWOL over 30 days, that’s absent without official leave, of course, I think. If you go over 30 days, you’re officially classified the deserter and you will be dropped from the rolls of whatever facility had been expecting you. I had been expected there on October 22nd. It was approaching the 30 day mark that I hadn’t been there, so I was AWOL from that facility officially at the time. When you’re dropped from the rolls at the facility from which you’ve gone AWOL, you go into a legal limbo until they figure out exactly to what extent they want to punish you, and you’re not going to get shipped anywhere for a while.

Greg Laxer:
I decided this would be a good opportunity to make a public stance against the war. I wanted to show that an actual active duty GI in 1968 could do this, could take a very public stance against the war and be willing to face the consequences. We got off the bus; myself, the other AWOL, and our supporters, and held a brief demonstration. The other AWOL and I surrender ourselves to the MPs at the gate. I spent less than three weeks in the charming Fort Devens stockade, and I was released to the Special Processing Detachment, SPD, and this is where everybody who’s in limbo for one reason or another spends their time.

Greg Laxer:
I was offered an Article 15 initially. Now, an Article 15 was a nonjudicial form of punishment. You basically go before the commanding officer and you cop a guilty plea, and he determines what your punishment is going to be like. I was insulted actually that they offered me a lousy Article 15 for having gone AWOL and publicly refused to participate in this war. I demanded a court-martial, which is probably a pretty rare thing for a guy to do. They were willing to do that. It was a simple, very straightforward trial, and so I was tried and, shockingly, convicted of having been AWOL for about 30 days.

Matthew Breems:
The court-martial gave you a sentencing. What was the next step for you after that?

Greg Laxer:
All right, so I decided now maybe it was the time to apply for a conscientious objector status officially. Again, there’s a lot of paperwork and I have to go get interviewed. That went on, that dragged things on. The conscientious objector application was denied. Again, a big shock. Then I pulled one last delaying tactic out of the old trick bag, the legal trick bag, if you will.

Greg Laxer:
My mother had hired a civilian attorney in the Boston area who had some experience with military law, and he had defended me at the summary court-martial. We found a reasonably sympathetic judge in Boston in the Federal Court, and he issued a stay on my orders to report, once again, for duty in Vietnam. We launched an appeal of the conscientious objector decision, and that took a while, obviously. Meantime, the Army was really impatient, and eventually the Federal Court said, “Well, the plaintiff has some decent arguments here, but the Army is correct that he did not exhaust all the appeal remedies available within the Army before coming to this court.” They even said that, “Yeah, it does look like he’s objecting specifically to this war.”

Greg Laxer:
That was another loss. A new set of orders was generated. ‘You will report on specifically July one, 1969 to Oakland Overseas Replacement Terminal for our shipment of Vietnam.’ When July 1st came around I became AWOL for the second time.

Matthew Breems:
Now you’ve gone AWOL a second time. What was the military’s response to you this time around?

Greg Laxer:
Okay, so initially I stayed away from home. After a while the word from home was that, “Nope, nobody has come looking for you,” so I spent most of the time safe and sound in my bed at home in the suburbs once again. I was looking for ways to publicly oppose the war, making sure I was, again, away for at least 30 days so I would be dropped from the rolls again.

Greg Laxer:
A demonstration to Free the Fort Dix 38 was called for August 2nd, 1969 in front of Penn Station. I showed up for this demonstration on August 2nd, once again in my full Army uniform. We noticed out on the perimeter of the crowded demonstrators were a couple of armed services policemen in their uniforms. Quick decision, I mean split second decision, because these guys are approaching. I decided, “Nah, today is not the day.” I slipped through the crowd and descended into Penn Station, and I had evaded them.

Matthew Breems:
Obviously that got the attention of the authorities. You weren’t able to go back to your family’s home in Long Island, and this led to an excursion out to Hawaii for a protest. Can you run us through that story of your time out in Hawaii?

Greg Laxer:
Sure. Somewhat spontaneously, some guys decided to take sanctuary in the church and say they too had had enough of this war and they weren’t going to participate any longer. That number grew and grew to the point where it was the largest GI sanctuary during the Vietnam period. When I arrived in Hawaii to join this protest and try to sharpen its political focus … we wanted to emphasize the fact that it’s a racist war. It’s a genocidal war. It’s based on nothing but a stack of lies.

Greg Laxer:
I arrived out there in Honolulu and I joined the sanctuary participants at the Church of the Crossroads. The church elders supported opposing the war, so they did make their facilities available, and we just camped out there. The grounds of the church are a sizeable, so it did accommodate us. Time went by, and I was elected spokesperson because I’m a bit of a propagandist for an interview that was to be shot about the sanctuary by a film crew from the BBC who happened to be there, the British Broadcasting Corporation. That interview happened. I was very candid about my own views and explained why GIs were coming to oppose the war. To this day, I have no idea if that ever got broadcast over in the United Kingdom, so that’s frustrating.

Greg Laxer:
As time went on, the number of guys still in the sanctuary dwindled, and the ASU decided this wasn’t going to really bring any more benefit. We had done what we could here, so maybe I should come back to New York and continue the work out of the national office against the war as my own AWOL continued.

Matthew Breems:
Let’s hear about the story of how you finally did surrender yourself to the authorities.

Greg Laxer:
Okay, so we move into September now, because I got back after Labor Day from the sanctuary in Hawaii. September rolls around and Nixon is coming to town to address the UN General Assembly. A demonstration was called because Nixon himself is going to be in town. For some reason we ended up being deemed to be demonstrating illegally. Guess who was there in his full Army uniform? Yes, there I was for the fourth time, in full uniform demonstrating against the war. The time came, as it typically does, in cop activities where the cops decided, “Okay, we waited long enough. Let’s bust this thing up.” They came in, nightsticks waving, and pinched like 12 or 13 of us, and I was one of them. That was okay, because I was well beyond 30 days in my AWOL and I knew I had to face the music eventually.

Greg Laxer:
The next morning, I too became an inhabitant of Fort Dix stockade in beautiful New Jersey. We went into a prolonged dance, if you will, the Army and myself. Finally, they decided they would charge me only, once again, with being AWOL. Once again, I’m feeling insulted that they want to let me off this lightly. They did put me up for a special court-martial, that that middle level, so that was better than the Article 15 or a summary court-martial. I was moving up in the world. The wonderful world of military justice. I went to trial and of course I was convicted, and I was sentenced to six months hard labor, remaining in the lowest rank of E1.

Greg Laxer:
Ultimately, they chose one of the options that is in the package of options if you’re sentenced to six months, and that is to be sent to Fort Riley, Kansas to a facility called the Correctional Training, underline that, Training Facility to be rehabilitated. Can you imagine this? The Army deemed me rehabilitatable. Going through CTF was going through basic training again with all the humiliation and all the bullshit that comes with that. If you go along with the BS long enough to graduate the program, they offer you a choice of where you want to be stationed next.

Greg Laxer:
Now this is almost unheard of in the military, but I was offered my choice of where I want it to be stationed, and I was told Vietnam was out. Even if I wanted to volunteer, they weren’t going to send me there, so I couldn’t complain about that. I asked to be stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco, which is a small Army facility inside the city limits. I asked to be stationed there, and as it turned out, there was no opening on the roster there for another 91 Charlie, so they sent me to Fort Ord in Monterey, California. Okay, I could settle for that for my second choice.

Greg Laxer:
There I was for my final 16 months. I started working with the local civilian anti-war people who ran a GI coffee house in the nearest town, which was actually Seaside. That was closer than downtown Monterey. I helped found a new so-called underground GI newspaper there, because the one that had been circulating there had gone defunct. I wrote articles for that and I signed my name to them, and other guys did the same. The Army and I were in a standoff there. For the final 16 months I didn’t do anything too outrageous, but I have written a memoir called ‘TAKE THIS WAR AND SHOVE IT!’ with the subtitle ‘A Most Unwilling Soldier 1967-1971’.

Greg Laxer:
We stayed in this stand-off. I was not prosecuted ever again. I was never prosecuted for my public demonstrations against the war in uniform, though the FBI was certainly compiling a file on me, and the Army’s military, so-called intelligence people had a file on me, and the CIA had a file on me, but theirs only said … I got all this later through the Freedom of Information Act of course. The CIA’s file only said, “We only have what the FBI had.” So yeah, they knew about my activities, but I guess they just needed me to keep serving as a medic, and that I did. I served out every last day of what I had committed to when I enlisted. Took me 50 months to complete what had started out as a 36 months commitment.

Greg Laxer:
I was doing my job conscientiously, because that’s the kind of person I am, and yet I walked out of Fort Ord with a discharge that said under honorable conditions, which is not a straightforward honorable discharge. They got one last poke at me there. Ultimately, I think I came out on top. I told them, “I’m not going to participate in this filthy war, and I’m going to do everything I can to encourage others to not participate, and that’s that.” I emerged and one piece on the other end of that long, long process.

Matthew Breems:
Well Greg, that is a fascinating story of your resistance to participation in the Vietnam conflict. Thank you so much for taking the time to share it with the listeners here today on the podcast.

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 US 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.