Podcast: Randy Rowland faced death for protesting the war in Vietnam
“I was the reluctant guy who bit by bit by bit, just had to face the facts that things weren’t the way I had been raised to believe that they were. It wasn’t like I planned to be a resister, troublemaker or anything of the sort,” explains Randy Rowland, an organizer of the “Presidio 27 Mutiny.”
Vietnam Full Disclosure
This Courage to Resist podcast is the first in series to be 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.
During the Vietnam War era, the Presidio Stockade in San Francisco was a military prison notorious for its poor conditions and overcrowding with many troops imprisoned for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. When Richard Bunch, a mentally disturbed prisoner, was shot and killed on October 11th, 1968, Presidio inmates began organizing. Three days later, 27 Stockade prisoners broke formation and walked over to a corner of the lawn, where they read a list of grievances about their prison conditions and the larger war effort and sang “We Shall Overcome.” The prisoners were charged and tried for “mutiny,” which carried the death penalty. Several got 14 to 16 years of confinement. Meanwhile, disillusionment about the Vietnam War continued to grow inside and outside of the military.
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Randy Rowland: Well, I was the reluctant guy who bit by bit by bit, just had to face the facts that things weren’t the way I had been raised to believe that they were. It wasn’t like I planned to be a resistor or a troublemaker or anything of the sort.
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 speaking today with Randy Rowland. Randy served as a medic during the Vietnam War. His experiences during that time led him to become a conscientious objector, oppose the war and began a life of anti-war activism. Randy, can you tell us originally how you joined the military and what you expected that service to be like?
Randy Rowland: Well, I joined the Army. I enlisted early 1967. There was a draft going on in those days and so if I hadn’t joined I would have been drafted, I’m sure. I went down to the recruiter and talked to him and so, the recruiter had a big book and he says “Here, look at all these different kinds of occupations that you can do while you’re in the army. You don’t have to just carry a gun,” or whatever. “The Army’s all full of every kind of thing,” and “Be what you can be” or whatever the slogan was in the those days.
So I said I wanted to be an occupational therapist because I thought that an occupational therapist was somebody that did leather projects with the wounded. So, the recruiter says, “Oh, yeah, no problem. You can be an occupational therapist, you can be anything you want to be and we’re going to give you the written guarantee.” He wrote down my written guarantee. He says, “Now, you know it’s the Army, so it’s all in code. Occupational therapist, 91A.”
Of course, it wasn’t until I was in the Army that I found that 91A was a basic combat medic, not an occupational therapist at all. It wasn’t a very auspicious start to my military involvement. But that was my fault, I think, for being that dumb. But at any rate, so there I was. I joined the Army and became a medic, which, that part was cool. In all honesty, I did get a career out of it, I was 45 years a nurse and I’m a retired nurse.
Matthew Breems: And in the Army, what unit were you attached to?
Randy Rowland: Originally of course, I went to basic training and then I went to medic school down in Texas and then I came up to Fort Lewis, where I was working in Madigan General Hospital, which is at Fort Lewis. And it was at Madigan, where I first started resisting. I was taking care of soldiers back from Vietnam who had caught a fragment in their spine or had a closed head injury or … you know, head and neck stuff. The ones that could talk, you get to know that kind of patient because they don’t go anywhere for a long time.
There was two things about it. One, the horror of their situation. Here’s a guy that’s 18 or 19 years old, and he’s paralyzed for the rest of life from some point down on his neck, and it was my first experience with anything of that sort. At a certain point I really resolved that I didn’t—I was happy to take care of the guys, but I did not want to be responsible for ever putting a human being into that kind of a state.
I wasn’t thinking about the Vietnamese or the larger picture of politics in America. I was just thinking about the guys I was taking care of. And the thing about it was that the ones that could talk, none of them thought that they had made their sacrifice for a good cause. Not a single one of them. Here was the people who had made a huge sacrifice for the war effort and come to find out from their opinion that we were not the good guys, we were the bad guys.
And that really stopped my show quite a bit. And made me think that I really had to figure out what was going on. I had to decide what’s going on with this war and it didn’t take me too long, after I decided to pay attention, to come up with the conclusion that the war was wrong. We were the bad guys. We were invading somebody else’s country. They weren’t burning our houses down, we’re the guys that were burning their houses down.
Matthew Breems: Was there a specific person or a specific situation that was really the tipping for you or is it just more of a gradual coming to the realization that this is not okay?
Randy Rowland: Well, it wasn’t so much—I mean it was the various patients, I can’t remember their names or anything of that sort and I don’t know if it was any one— as much as it was the conversations in the barracks at night with the other medics because these guys would ask us to kill them.
Matthew Breems: Hmm.
Randy Rowland: I mean, they would just beg for death, basically.
Matthew Breems: The people you were taking care of?
Randy Rowland: Yeah, yeah, the wounded. These are guys that are paralyzed, they’re pretty severe circumstances for a young man to be in and you’re feeding them their breakfast and he’s going, “Can you just stick the pillow in my face, man?” We would talk at night about should we do that? The horror of that situation-
Matthew Breems: Right.
Randy Rowland: Of having to make a decision-
Matthew Breems: The fact that you have to contemplate that decision.
Randy Rowland: Yeah. Who would have ever thought of that? I was the guy that was committed to helping people. I was supposed to be putting the band-aid on their owey. And they’re saying “Put the pillow over my face.” You know, phew. That made me start thinking.
Matthew Breems: Tell us the first acts that you actually did that were resistant to the war effort and what you were part of in the military?
Randy Rowland: It wasn’t like I went from a young dufus to political resistor in one step. My very first act of resistance had more to do with culture—or counterculture—than it did with the politics of the war or any of that sort of thing, because I wanted to grow a mustache. In those days, the way it worked was that once a month you’d go marching in, in front of the paymaster, and you’d salute, you’d report for pay, and then they’d count out your money in cash.
So one of the old sergeants pointed out to me that the paymaster really didn’t want you to fail to take your pay, because they had to check all the money out of wherever they got it from and it was a lot of paperwork to take and give any of the money back. So I went marching into the paymaster and came to attention like you’re supposed to, and saluted like you’re supposed to, and I reported for pay. Then I said, “Sorry, sir, but I can’t accept the pay because I don’t look like my ID, because I have a mustache.”
And the paymaster, of course—who was not part of the direct chain of command—the paymaster looks at me with horror and says, “Go over there to the ID place and get a new ID.” So I saluted and said, “Yes, sir” and I went over and got my new ID and came back and reported for pay again and got my pay. And as I walked out with my mustache and my money, why, that night every young soldier in the barracks started growing a mustache. It was just a total victory on my part. That was my first confrontation with the military and I think it gave me some courage to know that I could stand up, that it wasn’t all them telling me what to do. That there was at least a certain amount of two way street to it.
When I was at Fort Sam Houston, which is where medics are trained, just by happenstance I had trained with a bunch of conscientious objectors. So I decided that … you know, I still believed in doing my duty and so I wasn’t trying to get out of the Army.
So I decided that I should be a conscientious objector, to apply to be a non-combatant, the kind of medic that carries the aid bag but not the gun. So as I was wrestling with that decision, I went to my commanding officer and kind of poured out my heart to him about what I was thinking about and he really tried to dissuade me. He says, “Look, you’re just bringing trouble on yourself. You’re a medic in a hospital, it’s not like anybody’s asking you to shoot anybody.” And he says, “Rowland, I will never ask you to pick up a gun and go shoot somebody. I won’t ask you to pick up the gun, so don’t apply.”
In the end, I decided to not take his advice, but to go ahead and apply to be a conscientious objector. There was no counseling in those days-
Matthew Breems: No one was giving you any advice on how to go about that properly?
Randy Rowland: No, and it didn’t occur to me that I might need a lawyer, for instance. And so I did the best I could with my application and turned it in. I had to go and have, you know, interviews with—they always have you see a chaplain or somebody to make sure you’re not crazy. Somehow applying to be a conscientious objector is suggestive that you might be crazy.
Matthew Breems: That you might crazy because you have doubts about hurting other people.
Randy Rowland: Right.
Matthew Breems: I thought it was the other way around.
Randy Rowland: Yeah, I know. But at any rate, so I jumped through the hoops as best I could, but then my application came back denied. Pretty much along with the application came orders for Vietnam, which I took to be punishment for having tried.
Matthew Breems: Shortly after the time that you applied to be a conscientious objector, you got the orders to go to Vietnam?
Randy Rowland: About the same time that I got the answer, the verdict, on my application.
Matthew Breems: It was close enough where it didn’t feel like a coincidence to you?
Randy Rowland: Right, right. So then the next thing I know, I’ve got this, I got a—I can’t remember how my notification came, but I got some kind of notice that I was supposed to go report to the firing range to familiarize myself with the M-16. So I went back in to my commanding officer. I went to him and I said, “You know, you told me, man to man, when I came in here and poured my heart out to you—I revealed my soul to you—and you told me, man to man, that you would never ask me to pick up a gun. And here it is, the orders to go out to the firing range.”
He said, “I’m not going to ask you to pick up the gun, the colonel is.” You know, I really felt betrayed. Well, so anyway, I went out to the range and of course I wasn’t going to do it. I just applied to be a conscientious objector. The last thing in the world I was going to do is pick up that damn gun. I don’t think I really seriously considered exactly how much trouble I could get in. I walked outside along with everybody else, but I left my rifle sitting on the table.
And so, sure enough, up comes the major or somebody, some big officer; “I’m ordering you to pick up that weapon and go to the firing range and train.” And I respectfully declined to do it. They took me off the firing range and that was it for that moment. They could have given me five years for refusing a direct order.
Matthew Breems: Wow. So that’s the punishment in the military for refusing a direct order is five years prison.
Randy Rowland: Well, a maximum of five years in confinement.
Matthew Breems: Okay.
Randy Rowland: And a dishonorable discharge. My commander said, “Well, are you still willing to go to Vietnam?” I said, “Well sure. I believe in doing my duty. I’m just not going to carry a gun. That’s all there is to it.” So they gave me an Article 15 and so I lost a couple stripes and I was confined to the barracks for a couple of weeks, and that was it, as far as the punishment. But at that point, I was still willing to go to Vietnam, so I had a 45 day leave and then I was supposed to report to Oakland Army Terminal down in the Bay area.
We got down there and it didn’t take any time at all for us to fall in with the anti-war people. But then to go into the demonstrations in Berkeley and we were witnessing this horrible police brutality. That really shocked me because the whole argument for why we were supposed to be in the war against Vietnam, we’re fighting for freedom and democracy and the American way, and there in the streets of Berkeley I was witnessing freedom and democracy and the American way and it involved cops clubbing an obviously pregnant girl, for instance.
Boy, did that open my eyes. Why in the world would I want to go to this war to fight for this?
That’s what we’re fighting for?
Matthew Breems: Right.
Randy Rowland: It opened my eyes in a big way. I decided that not only wasn’t I going to carry the weapon, that I wasn’t going to go to the war. I was going to have to do a better job of getting a conscientious objector application and just get out of the military altogether. So I wasn’t going to do this any more.
Matthew Breems: Witnessing the infringement on people’s democratic freedoms that you’re supposed to be fighting for caused you to take your objections to the next level by, no I’m not just a conscientious objector, but I’m not going to go over there and be a part of this is any way.
Randy Rowland: Yeah. I really was just acting on my own. But once I got down to the Bay area, I realized — I was part of the movement, first of all, because I was out in the civilian world even though I was still in the Army, I was on leave. But I also, quickly enough, realized that there was a GI movement and all of a sudden, I felt like I was a part of the GI movement and it gave me a sense of identity that I really hadn’t gotten when I was just one guy, the only guy in the barracks, who was applying to be a conscientious objector.
I had fallen in with this group of—it was a Christian ministry. It was run by this guy named Jock Brown, and it was sort of a street ministry for anti-war hippies I suppose is the best way to put it. So Jock Brown and those cats said, “Well, you know, you could get yourself in big trouble here, boy. You better think it through and you better get a lawyer and whatever.” And so, through them they introduced me to a lawyer, Terry Hallinan, who was quite a figure in the Bay Area.
And so, I was still on leave, but in preparation for the fact that I had decided that what I was going to do is refuse to get on the plane, and so, I met with Hallinan. He says, “Okay, here’s the problem. The last guy that I represented that refused to get on the plane, they just threw him on the plane, anyway, in handcuffs. And it’s really hard to represent a guy once he’s over in Vietnam, you know, he’s going to be out in the bush somewhere. So, a better thing to do would be to get dropped from the rolls. The way you do that, is you go AWOL for 45 days.” He said, “But if you go AWOL for 45 days, then they drop you from the rolls. And then. while they’re figuring out what to do with you next, you’re not actually on orders to go to Vietnam anymore.” And he says, “At that point, we can file a better conscientious objector application and try to get you out of the Army.”
I had written a letter to my parents, pouring out my heart, and telling them what I was going through, and what I was thinking about, and why I was doing what I was doing, trying to explain to them. My father was in the military. He was a career officer in the military. So this is kind of not the behavior they would have expected out of their son. And so, I was trying to explain to them.
But what they also did is they turned my address over to the authorities. My wife and I were in our apartment there in Berkeley and all the sudden, bang bang bang, there’s a knock on the door and it sounded really official. And so, my wife went to the front door, to see who it was, and I went out the back door. We had another really close call. So the Bay Area was getting kind of hot, so we decided to get out of town and spent the rest of my 45 days that I was waiting for my 45 days to be up, so that I could be dropped from the rolls. We spent those up in that cabin in the woods.
There was a copy of a 1925 encyclopedia. So to entertain ourselves at night, we would take turns reading the encyclopedia to each other. Every night we would read a certain, however many entries. We started with A, and we got all the way to “Butter.” When we got to butter, the entry for butter was so obviously biased that it blew my mind. It was written from the standpoint of the butter lobbyists, I guess you could say. Because I guess back in 1925, maybe margarine was just coming in, I don’t know when it actually became a thing.
But the article was all about how the nefarious margarine people were trying to sneak margarine in on good honest folks who wanted butter and it was all about how you could test to tell the difference between butter and margarine. It was biased. But it was the encyclopedia. So at that point, I had given up my faith in most of the authority figures. I had broken with my own family. But it had never occurred to me to doubt the encyclopedia. You could go to any class in high school and say, well I got this information out of the encyclopedia and nobody was going to challenge it.
Matthew Breems: It was supposed to be unbiased, right?
Randy Rowland: Right, it’s supposed to be the truth. But there it was, the entry for butter and it was just such a lie, such a biased thing that it blew my mind. And so, after that, we spent the rest of our time reading on in the encyclopedia and found lots of things that were clearly biased. From the distance of—from 1925 to 1968—was enough perspective so that I could see it. What occurred to me in that period was that if the 1925 encyclopedia was that bad, then—chances are—the 1968 encyclopedia was that bad too, it’s just that I wouldn’t necessarily have the time distance, the separation, to be able to really perceive the bias.
And I hadn’t really gone out of my way to try and find out that the war was wrong. At every point, it was more or less forced on me. And I was the reluctant guy who, bit by bit by bit, just had to face the facts, that things weren’t the way I had been raised to believe that they were. The time was up. We hitchhiked back into the Bay Area. I reported for duty. That is to say, I went and contacted the movement.
It just so happened that there was a big demonstration scheduled in San Francisco. It was called the GI’s and Veterans March for Peace or something like that. So that was about to happen and it was time for me to also turn myself in, back into military custody, to face the music for being AWOL, and to file my conscientious objector application, and try to get out as a conscientious objector.
My lawyer, or somebody, said, “Well, you know, since you’re going to turn yourself in anyway, why don’t we do a thing that’s kind of like the Nine for Peace and sort of publicly turn yourself in, maybe in conjunction with the march, at the Presidio Stockade,” because that’s where the march was going to march up to; the Presidio of San Francisco, which in those days was a military base. It was the headquarters for the Sixth Army.
So I planned to turn myself in at the Presidio, but the day before, in the Presidio Stockade, a prisoner at the Presidio Stockade was shot and killed by a shotgun guard while he was on work detail. And so, the movement said, “Well, Randy, look. They just killed this kid in the stockade, and there was a riot. You’re going to go to the stockade when you turn yourself in, so once you get to the stockade, why don’t you see what the situation is. Take it to a higher level, like maybe have a sit down protest or something.”
So I turned myself in at the end of the march. Once I walked into the stockade and up into the cell block, I kind of announced, “I’m from the movement. They sent me in here to see if we couldn’t organize something.” That was on a Saturday evening and on Monday morning, we sat down, 27 of us, and we sang “We shall Overcome,” linked arms. The Army decided to charge with us mutiny.
Matthew Breems: Wow.
Randy Rowland: Which is the most serious military offense. There is no maximum sentence, so it’s a capital crime. There is no maximum sentence. So the thing that makes mutiny different from all of the other kinds of rules is that you’re doing it in concert with others.
Matthew Breems: So capital punishment, death sentence is a possibility with a mutiny charge?
Randy Rowland: Exactly.
Matthew Breems: Wow.
Randy Rowland: Well what we did is sit down and sing, “We shall Overcome.” You know, link arms. I mean it was a non-violent demonstration in the tradition of the civil rights movement. But then up comes marching a whole company of MP’s with their tear gas masks and the batons and their everything. So I go, “Oh man, this isn’t going to be good.” But there was nothing to do at that point, we were in it. I mean, we were nervous when the fire truck drove up and we were nervous when we saw the batons and the tear gas masks.
Eventually, they came in and grabbed us one at a time and lifted us up and carried us back into the stockade, into the building and up into the cell block and that was the end of the demonstration. That was a real turning point in the GI movement. The GI movement had shifted from individual acts of resistance to group actions by multiple soldiers working together. So in a sense, it really had come to mutiny. And now, here was hundreds of soldiers marching in an anti-war demonstration in San Francisco, California. And the military had clearly summed up that there was a movement and that this marked a serious escalation, in terms of undercutting the war effort.
So we went on trial for mutiny and they convicted us. The first sentences to come down were 16, I think, 17 years of confinement, which is better than the death sentence, but still pretty big damn sentence for singing “We shall Overcome.” I was one of the ringleaders. So we knew that we were going to get the biggest punishment and … but I wasn’t part of the original three or four guys that had the first trial, they didn’t try all 27 of us at once.
So when the first guys, who were guys that we thought would get let off easier, got 16 or 17 years, well that didn’t seem very good for a guy like me. But, the public outcry was such, that by the time my trial came around, the military had already been forced to start backing down. On automatic review they had dropped the sentences of those first guys down and so, by the time I got sentenced, I think I got a year and a half.
Matthew Breems: And did you end up serving that full time then for singing a song?
Randy Rowland: Well I did about a year and a half in prison. In the meantime, the Free the Presidio 27—as we had come to be known—the Free the Presidio 27, they’d been doing sit ins at the Pentagon and they’d been doing all kinds of things and all the GI underground newspapers that were jumping up carried stories about us, and all the civilian underground papers had stories about us. There was quite a bit of movement. And I have to say, that for people who don’t really believe that the Free Huey movement or the Free Angela Davis movement or the Free Mumia [Abu Jamal] movement.
A lot of times, it’s kind of hard to think that those were actually going to work, but they often times do work. And in our case, they clearly worked because all of the sudden they decided to more or less let all of us out. I went into jail in 1968 and I got out in 1970. And in 1970, the war was still going on, so the movement sent me back up to Fort Lewis because I had already been stationed up here and knew my way around the area.
Matthew Breems: So even after receiving that punishment and doing your time and really having some time to think about the consequence of what you were doing, your first reaction was to just jump right back into the movement?
Randy Rowland: Well yeah, I was an activist. That was my commitment.
Matthew Breems: It hadn’t deterred you a bit?
Randy Rowland: No, no, in fact, I work with a movement and frankly, I’ve worked with a movement in some form or fashion—I was just at a demonstration a couple days ago with Veterans for Peace. I started off thinking that it was all just about Vietnam. That Vietnam was a tarnish on an otherwise remarkably good reputation of the United States. And it was with some horror that I realized early on, that Vietnam wasn’t the exception to the rule, it was the rule.
That Vietnam typified the relationship that the United States had with other countries, these third world countries and Venezuela just the most last, most recent one, but it’s not the only one and it’s exactly the same kind of thing that we were opposed to in Vietnam. So it’s no surprise, I suppose, that I was there, along with the other Veterans for Peace members.
Matthew Breems: Just summarize. What does your activism look like? How have you participated or continued to participate in the movement?
Randy Rowland: Well I’ve done a variety of things over the years. I was a union activist. I got to say, I’d probably define myself in terms of my activism, that’s the kind of thing that gives my life meaning and sense. We live in the belly of the beast, as we used to say. It’s the United States. If we lived in a different—if we were in a third world country, my task would be different. But I don’t live in a third world country, I live in the United States, and so my duty as an American citizen really is to reign in my own government.
Really I think that veterans ought to be lining the borders of these countries where the United States is talking about invading and that American veterans ought to be standing with their back to that country and their face facing America, to say “Over our dead bodies,” because that’s our duty. We are the only ones, really, that have the power to do it.
So nobody else could stop America from doing the bad stuff that it does, really it’s up to the American people to do that and that is our duty.
Matthew Breems: And what would you say to someone who hasn’t really thought about the cost of war or those that just assume that it’s an inevitable, necessary evil?
Randy Rowland: Well, I came to my understanding of what I think is the situation, or the truth of the matter, bit by bit by bit. It took butter. It took growing a mustache. It took all kinds of little steps. But each step led to a deeper understanding and I really think that people would be well served by—if they dream about a better world, if they wish that there would be decency in the world, and they really have moral attitudes about things and really wish for unity among people. If they dream of any of that kind of the better world that’s possible, then I think that it’s really, really important to recognize our duty, and our duty isn’t to uniform. Our duty, in the biggest sense, isn’t to country.
Our duty is to humanity and that’s our people, is the human species. And that’s where our duty lies and really encourage people to examine their lives and figure out what their duty is; not to their country, but to humanity.
Matthew Breems: Randy, thank you so much for sharing your story with us and your insights and your thoughts. It’s greatly appreciated. Wish we had more folks like you around.
Randy Rowland: Well, there probably are a lot of folks like me around and hopefully they’ll be more.
Matthew Breems: The 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 to the U.S. war in Vietnam. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and courgetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support. Thank you