Podcast: “I wanted to forget about it” – Mike Tork, Vietnam Veteran

May 28, 2020

Mike Tork joined the Navy before turning 18 and served in Vietnam with the Mobile Riverine Force (1966-1967). Today he serves as treasurer and liaison for School of Americas Watch and on the board of CIS [Centro De Intercambio Y Solidaridad / Center For Exchange and Solidarity], in Central America. Mike is an active member of Veterans For Peace.

“We picked up a bunch of prisoners and we’re transporting them downriver. I remember, first of all, how really terrified they were. I could see it in their eyes, and that blew me away and really got me thinking. I thought— I didn’t understand why they were so afraid! I thought we were— you know, “We’re Americans; we’re not going to hurt you. We’re.—We’re great!” But I sure didn’t see that in their faces.”

“I think the hardest thing though for Vietnam veterans was to admit that the people I knew in Vietnam died in vain — My friends that died there, it was in vain. I think that’s very difficult for veterans to come to grips with. “

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

Mike Tork:
We picked up a bunch of prisoners and we’re transporting them downriver. I remember, first of all, how really terrified they were. I could see it in their eyes, and that blew me away and really got me thinking. I thought— I didn’t understand why they were so afraid! I thought we were— you know, “We’re Americans; we’re not going to hurt you. We’re.—We’re great!” But I sure didn’t see that in their faces.

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. On this episode of Courage to Resist, veteran Mike Tork shares his story of activism. Mike is a lifelong member of Veterans For Peace. He serves as treasurer and liaison for School of Americas Watch and on the board of CIS [Centro De Intercambio Y Solidaridad / Center For Exchange and Solidarity], in Central America. Hello, Mike. It’s great to be talking to you today. I am excited to hear your story of activism, how the Vietnam conflict affected you, how you responded to it. How did you find yourself in the midst of the Vietnam conflict?

Mike Tork:
Thank you, Matt. I’m glad to be here. Well, I grew up in Southern California, which at the time was very conservative. A lot of John Birch folks around, which was a very, very conservative group. And I think I was very naive. I wasn’t very politically aware, and living in Southern California, I was a surfer and sadly I really didn’t pay attention. So I joined the military. I voluntarily joined the Navy. I didn’t like high school a lot. I didn’t really fit in, and I think I was looking for something to— some place where I could fit. So I joined when I was 17 and a half with my parents’ permission, and I joined the Navy Reserve. You can join at 17 and a half. Probably within a year, I was on active duty. You know, I believed USA was the greatest place and they could do no wrong. And you know, John Wayne is from Southern California, and I believed it.

Matthew Breems:
Tell us a little bit about your years in the Navy. What did your service look like, and in what capacity did you serve?

Mike Tork:
I was in the Navy active duty. Like I said, I started out in early ’65 in the reserves—or late ’60— yeah, early ’65, and about a year later I went active duty. I didn’t go to all the meetings and do all the things I was supposed to. And again, kind of going back to how naive I was, I didn’t realize how serious it was but… So I was told, “All right, you’re going to have to go on active duty now.” And I said, “Well, I want to go to Vietnam, and I want to be part of a river patrol or river group.” And I remember the chief looked at me and said… He was a little shocked, but he said, “Well, that’s probably not going to be a problem. You’ll probably get your wish.” So I am— ended up in Mobile Riverine Force in Vietnam. So I was actually in Vietnam most of 1966 and part of ’67.

Matthew Breems:
So what were your first impressions when you got over to Vietnam?

Mike Tork:
Well, it became apparent very soon that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t what I was being told. Perhaps it was a mistake—I remember thinking that. But the other thing, since I spent so much time on the rivers, was how amazingly beautiful it was, and this was, you know, kind of in the middle of the war, of the American war there and— but I still was able to see how beautiful was. And I used to think to myself, “I’d like to return,” when people weren’t shooting at me. But I guess my early impression was that it wasn’t exactly as I was— had been told.

Matthew Breems:
Was there an event, or was it a more gradual turning of mind that caused you to come to a place where you realized that what was happening there was not what you had been told?

Mike Tork:
Absolutely. The first real chink in the armor that I observed was: We were upriver, the Mekong Delta, but we were upriver, and we had to— we picked up a bunch of prisoners, and we’re transporting them downriver. So I was involved with picking them up on the boat and taking them back to our ship. And then part of the folks that were–kept an eye on them while we were transporting them downriver. And I remember, first of all, how young they look. And I was 18 myself, so… And the second thing I remember is how really terrified they were. I could see it in their eyes. They were very afraid. And that blew me away and really got me thinking. I thought— I didn’t understand why they were so afraid! I thought we were— you know, “We’re Americans; we’re not going to hurt you. We’re— We’re great!” But I sure didn’t see that in their faces. And I think that was a moment for me where I really started looking at it from another point of view.

Matthew Breems:
By the time your military service ended, what were your views about the war, and how did that come about?

Mike Tork:
It changed radically. I knew it was a big mistake somewhere inside of me, and I wanted to forget about it—I think that was my first…kind of reaction to it. I moved to Northern California, started working in the woods, pretty isolated, and just wanted to forget about the whole thing. But we know that never works. Certain things happen to people and they don’t just go away. And it wasn’t until years later, actually in a relationship with an amazing woman during a big blow-up— I was always fighting with her, not physically, but we would have big blow-ups. She looked at me and she said, “You know what? You should really go talk to somebody about your experience in Vietnam,” and that was good advice. I did that and joined a group and— in Eureka, California. And that was helpful for at least coming to terms.

Mike Tork:
I think the hardest thing though for Vietnam veterans was to admit that the people I knew in Vietnam died in vain, the— My friends that died there, it was in vain. I think that’s very difficult for veterans to come to grips with. There was three million veterans in Vietnam, and some 850,000 of them are still alive, and I wonder why more of them don’t join Veterans For Peace or speak out against war. But I think for them it’s difficult again to admit that their friends died in vain. They died for lies.

Matthew Breems:
So the Vietnam conflict ended, you are moving on with life just trying to forget about it. Fast forward a little bit. Take us to the point where you decided that you needed to revisit what happened there in as far as becoming an activist.

Mike Tork:
Well, like I said, I knew soon after getting home— or even prior to that, I knew it was a mistake. But again, as I said, I kind of buried it. And when I was being released, we were taken to Treasure Island in San Francisco, and I remember a chief telling all of us that it would be best if we just moved on with our lives, forgot about everything, didn’t bother trying to talk to our civilian friends about it. And I thought at the time, “Well yeah, that’s great advice, but how AM I supposed to move on with my life?” So I buried it. But when things flared up in Iraq, I could see the writing on the wall, the same old bullshit, the same old lies, you know, the weapons of mass destruction. I just saw this same thing repeating again.

Matthew Breems:
And this was the second Iraq invasion?

Mike Tork:
Yes. And I, you know, just— I figured you know, it’s— I need to do— I need to start becoming a lot more active and start speaking out about this. More lies! They say that the truth is always the first thing to die or the first fatality in war, and it was happening again. You know, the feeling of being betrayed because of Vietnam really was a strong emotion in me, and I didn’t want to see it happen all over to another set of veterans. So I found out about Veterans For Peace, joined them in Boston, the Smedley Butler Brigade. And the same year I— you know, that year, I think it was 2005, I went to their convention, and just very involved since then. Found out about School of Americas Watch, which I’m also involved with, at that convention, and it really got me active.

Matthew Breems:
So, Mike, why don’t you give us a little bit of information about some of the ways that you are active, like you said, with the School of Americas Watch. You were the treasurer there. That’s correct?

Mike Tork:
I am the treasurer, yes. And I’m also involved with an organization called CIS [Centro De Intercambio Y Solidaridad / Center For Exchange and Solidarity] in El Salvador. I’m a treasurer on that and a board member. And all those things happened at the 2005 Veterans For Peace convention, the first convention I went to. I met Roy Bourgeois, who’s the founder of School of Americas Watch, and right away wanted to become more involved. And one of my veteran friends, an amazing man, Wayne Whitman, was also at the convention and organizing a delegation to El Salvador as an observer during— an election observer, which also appealed to me. So I jumped in both of those things. And again, it was because my association in— with Veterans For Peace.

Matthew Breems:
So what are some of the other activities that you have been able to participate in with the School of Americas and with CIS?

Mike Tork:
Well, with School of Americas Watch, they’re very involved— Of course, they’re— you know, closing WHINSEC [Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School of the Americas] on the base in Fort Benning is a priority, and it has remained so for 30 years. Many of the people trained at that facility end up terrible human rights violations throughout Central America and South America. Typically, once a year, they would meet at Fort Benning, at the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. But the last three years they moved to the border and had an encuentro in Nogales, Arizona, because of the border issues—and because of the direct connection between the training that happens on Fort Benning and the violence and disruption and intervention we see in Central and South America. So there’s a direct correlation. So they went and moved to the border, which School of Americas felt like that was kind of the— the trenches.

Mike Tork:
So I’ve been very involved in the organizing committee on all three of those encuentros. It was a gathering on both sides of the border, both in Mexico and in Arizona, and I’ve been very involved with deported veterans who I met at the encuentros. And I’ve remained involved with the deported veterans since then. So that’s— And we’re currently planning an action in Tucson, Arizona, around immigration justice and immigration rights. Trying to get as much water out into the desert as we can, both because water is life saving for those crossing the inhospitable desert, but also to stand up against Border Patrol, who’s just being— using intimidation to try to scare folks that want to provide humanitarian aid away. So it’s kind of a twofold goal there: get the water out in the desert, show Border Patrol that we’re not going to be intimidated.

Mike Tork:
As far as CIS, which is in El Salvador, they’re a solidarity group. They’ve been there for 30 years, standing in solidarity with the Salvadorans and providing amazing aid. The work they do down there is nothing short of incredible. They give lots of scholarships, high school and college; they support women’s businesses. I mean, it’s a very, very long list. They’re an amazing organization and I’m very proud to be part of it. And in fact, next week I’m headed down there for the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Oscar Romero. So I’m the treasurer and a board member of that organization. And like I said, I’m happy! I’m busy with all three organizations.

Mike Tork:
I just want to mention this, because it’s something that really sticks out in my mind and an indication to me that I knew something was afoul. When I came back to Treasure Island to— I flew back from Vietnam. I remember the pilot tilting the wing and going, “Okay, there’s Vietnam. Say goodbye to it, you guys. You won’t have to see it again.” And of course everybody, all kinds of military people, cheered, but the rest of the flight was really quiet actually. And when I arrived at Treasure Island, you would think it would be a time that I’d be elated or happy. But looking back at it, I was probably the most depressed I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was… It was miserable. It was— I remember, it was foggy, everything was gray. It was very, very depressing, and I really didn’t know why, but looking back at it, I do know now why it was so depressing.

Matthew Breems:
Explain a little bit why that was depressing. You think after being in conflict like that, coming back home would be a joyous occasion.

Mike Tork:
Well, I knew in my soul or deep inside that— what a mistake it was. I knew many, many people had died, both— on both sides. And I think it’s kind of a common theme, but I think I felt kind of guilty and worried about my friends still in Vietnam. I mean, the one thing the military does is, they can build deep relationships pretty quickly, and so I was worried about them. When we were in Vietnam, I used to— again, being naive, every time a boat went out on patrol, I wanted to make sure that I was on board as an engine man. Because again, being naive, I thought, if something happened, I’d get everybody back, and I didn’t want my friends out there without me being there. So I think that’s pretty much the nutshell of why I found the return to Treasure Island so enormously depressing. I remember being so excited to see all my friends once I got home, and as soon as I did, it was just like, “Oh, my God, you guys haven’t changed at all! You’re still like in high school.” And I felt like I was way past that.

Matthew Breems:
Mike, you’re very active currently with Veterans For Peace. What are the most important ways that veterans can be involved in the peace movement? What are the most important ways that non-military people should be involved in the peace movement?

Mike Tork:
Well, I like doing actions, and I’ve got several friends, probably some of them that you’ve interviewed. So I like doing things, whether it’s protesting somewhere or blockading something, or— That’s what I like to do, is action. Overall, I see Veterans For Peace as providing support to other groups. I see our role more as, instead of trying to always be out in front of the parade and all that, a role more of support. And so, I mean, that’s kind of what I try to bring to other groups and try to get veterans involved with, whether it’s School of Americas or CIS, is to join a support.

Matthew Breems:
And what about those who have never been in the military, but this is a cause that they feel strongly about, seeing wars and seeing America not be the aggressor? How do they need to get involved?

Mike Tork:
Well, there’s many ways. I wouldn’t want to tell somebody one organization or one way they should be involved, but I would tell people, “You need to get involved in something certainly around ending war.” And I think it’s important that they join and that we all join together. I see— So I would tell them to get involved. There’s many, many groups doing great work, and I think those groups need to come together and form an alliance. I think— You know, it’s nothing new—or not a new idea, but if we want to really build capacity in our ability to make change, we have to come together. All these different groups need to form an alliance and start combating this. It’s crazy.

Matthew Breems:
And, Mike, one last question for you. How do you stay hopeful in trying to resist the military-industrial complex that’s calling the shots currently in our political climate?

Mike Tork:
That’s a tough question. I don’t know if I’m having any effect on all that. I mean, it’s such big money and it’s political support and for the— all that is so strong. I don’t know! I think I don’t try to… I would love to see that, but I think I try to break it down in smaller pieces and try to do things that I know I have a pretty good chance of being successful at. I mean, getting rid of the military-industrial complex or changing it or switching it around, that’s going to take a lot of people coming together. That’s huge. And it’s huge money. I don’t know. You ask me how I remain hopeful, I guess I try to look at things I know I have a good chance of accomplishing or being successful and try to focus on those. Knowing that the end game is really to change, maybe turn the whole system around.

Matthew Breems:
Mike, thank you so much for taking the time to share your story of activism and the ways that you’ve been involved. And it’s greatly appreciated. Thank you for all that you do and all the ways that you serve in the peace movement.

Mike Tork:
Well, thank you. And thank you for all you do too.

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 G.I. 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 vetnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.