Podcast: “Everything we could think of to screw with the system” – Ray Parrish
“We knew we couldn’t do much of anything at all. We all felt that we had blood on our hands because our brothers and sisters were in Vietnam dying and killing. And just because we weren’t there doing that doesn’t mean that we were not as responsible for the deaths as the people who pulled the triggers. It was this feeling of solidarity with our brothers in arms that motivated a lot of us to do anything and everything we could think of to screw with the system.”
“The fact that we were not shot encouraged us that this was not an unusual opinion, that even the sergeants were on our side in this feeling that Vietnam was just a bad idea in so many ways.”
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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.
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Ray Parrish: And the glee that we heard from the Israeli pilots as they were killing these people just made us sick. It was the thing that turned me 180 degrees was, this is what war does to you. It makes you happy to kill.
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. Ray Parrish is my guest today. Ray has spent a lifetime counseling veterans both emotionally and legally, as well as helping them receive their proper VA benefits. His work has included advocacy with numerous antiwar organizations and groups. So, Ray, great to be talking with you today. For our listeners, let’s just get a little bit of background information about who you are in your growing up years, your formative years leading up to the Vietnam War and your involvement with that.
Ray Parrish: Well, I’m a military brat and a veteran. I grew up in the air force. I was born on an air base in England in 1953, just before the end of the Korean War. I went to high school on a military base in Japan after my father got back from his second tour in Vietnam, and it was in Japan that I first ran into antiwar veterans. And I started talking to the veterans on base there in Japan, and they started reminding me about my reality that I just hadn’t noticed. For example, there were so many U.S. military bases in Tokyo that we had our own football league. There were seven high schools for military dependent in Tokyo.
The Vietnam War was something we all had to deal with because our parents, all of our fathers were Vietnam vets. I decided to start working full time at the base exchange warehouse, where all the other Americans were, G.I.’s working on their second job, and I was the only dependent. And I worked there all through my senior year, and actually started doing volunteer work at the Medevac Hospital with the guys who had been patched up after Vietnam, and they were getting ready to fly back on the freedom bird to the United States.
Those G.I.’s educated me about the reality of war and the reality of what I was having to deal with as an 18 year old. January of 1972, my first interview with the draft board in southern Illinois, where my father was retiring back to his hometown, and the draft board had already sent off all the young kids in that town, so I knew I was next. So I went to the air force recruiter, enlisted in the air force, made it through basic training, got assigned to study Russian language at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Presidio of Monterey, California, and that’s actually when we, us active-duty G.I.’s, kind of encouraged each other to become as anti-war as possible.
So, one nice summer day in 1972, Nixon had done something, stupid bombs, somebody— I don’t remember what it was that happened, but all the G.I.’s on base were outraged, and the antiwar demonstrators on the other side of the gate were out there demonstrating. So we collected ourselves together and got on our side of the gate with a case of beer, and we encouraged the demonstrators on. The military police were not pleased. A corporal came over and told us that we had to leave, and we laughed at him. The sergeant came over and told us the same thing, we gave him a beer, and he sat down with us.
By that time, the captain came over, took out his .45, charged it, and started counting backwards from five. We knew what that meant, so we gathered what was left of our case of beer and trotted away. But that was the first time that I think any of us who were sitting out on the wall and doing this actually participated in something that would be considered antiwar. And the fact that we were not shot encouraged us that this was not an unusual opinion, that even the sergeants were on our side in this feeling that Vietnam was just a bad idea in so many ways.
I went to my training to become what’s called a voice processing specialist and was transferred to a base in Turkey. So I spent from May of 1973 to November of ’74 in Turkey. My job was to listen to the Russians. I did real well and actually got an unprecedented attaboy. A telex came down from Washington DC from the White House. I had done so well one day that I had intercepted communications between Moscow and other people that nobody else had, that they had changed frequencies and changed from voice to Morse code to change frequencies, and all the other stations in the world who were supposed to be monitoring them lost them–and I didn’t. And I provided information that was used by Richard Nixon in some discussion with the Russians, and the Russians were surprised that Nixon had this information. Their leadership had been assured that nobody intercepted that particular conversation, and I did. It was at that time then that my antiwar activities, I saw, would make a difference. And I began doing that.
Matthew Breems: This is still while you were in Turkey?
Ray Parrish: Right. Right. I had been in Turkey, and the applause had just barely died down when the 1973 Arab-Israeli war happened—I think people call it the Yom Kippur War. And at that time, all of the Israeli pilots were British or American, and so they were speaking English. And we had this huge antenna that we could intercept anywhere in the world, so we listened to the Israeli pilots as they bombed and strafed lines of trucks and troops that were just massacred by the Israeli pilots. And the glee that we heard from the Israeli pilots as they were killing these people just made us sick. It was the thing that turned me 180 degrees was, this is what war does to you. It makes you happy to kill.
And it was at that point that I started smoking hashish. I just couldn’t… My buddy saw that I was spiraling, I was drinking too much, I was doing things that would have been called suicidal or dangerous. And then they introduced me to hash, and it saved my life. And that became, for a lot of us, the way that we dealt with the war, was trying to escape from it. When I moved into the barracks, there were only three of us that were not smoking hash out of the 70 that were there. But the antiwar activities that we had been doing individually were then done collectively.
So our job was to listen to the Russians and record everything we heard. If we did not hear anything for a period of time, our typewriters, we would then type in nil heard, “N-I-L H-R-D”—nothing was heard. Well, the commanders were a little upset when 85 people on our flight had “NIL HRD” for all eight hours of duty. We refused to do the job. They didn’t know what to do about it. They couldn’t do anything. They just wagged their fingers in our face.
Matthew Breems: So that was a collective thing that you were doing as an antiwar protest?
Ray Parrish: Right, right. We knew we couldn’t do much of anything at all. We all felt that we had blood on our hands because our brothers and sisters were in Vietnam dying and killing. And just because we weren’t there doing that doesn’t mean that we were not as responsible for the deaths as the people who pulled the triggers. It was this feeling of solidarity with our brothers in arms that motivated a lot of us to do anything and everything we could think of to screw with the system.
I got promoted to being a buck sergeant over there, and I put my stripes on my dress uniform with double-stick tape. They assigned me to do a flag raising in the morning, and my stripes would be thrown on the ground. Whenever we got the flag up to the top, I’d rip my stripes off and throw them on the ground and lead the troops off the playground after this. I got in a whole lot of trouble for doing stuff like that. But we all did! We all did everything we could to make sure that the officers understood that this was not something that we approved of.
It got to the point with the NSA that they were having a hard time getting anybody to reenlist, and so they kept threatening us. And so the threat they gave me was, “You either reenlist, or we’re going to release you to the air force for your last 13 months of active duty, and they’re going to assign you to do something else.” I didn’t reenlist. They assigned me to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, right by Fort Bragg, as a sheet-metal specialist. And I had no idea what a sheet metal-specialist until I got there to Fort Bragg, to Pope Air Force Base, and they told me that all the gutters on the buildings were made of sheet metal. And that was my job, was to clean out the gutters on the base.
Talking to the other guys that I went through training with, none of us reenlisted, half of us got assigned as sheet- metal specialists at different bases in the civil engineering squadron. So here were these buck sergeants with over three years of active duty, trained in Vietnamese, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Arab, all these languages that we–None of us wanted to reenlist, and we were all gassing up airplanes and cleaning out rain gutters at bases all over the country for that last 13 months of our active duty.
As soon as I got off of active duty, I started college, a little community college in southern Illinois, where my father had retired. So by the time I moved in, the Vietnam War was over. Saigon had fallen. The activities among us veterans in college was to do as much as we could to tell the public, the civilians, about what we had experienced, if we could. My first summer after active duty in college, I started working for the Veterans Administration in their work-study program, and that’s when I first started running into veterans with bad discharges who were not entitled to VA benefits, and listening to their stories about how they ended up with those bad discharges, and realizing that they were being unfairly denied benefits that they had earned.
So in 1979, I got my first bachelor’s degrees and discovered this at the same time, that you didn’t have to be a lawyer to represent a veteran in VA disability claims. So I canceled my law school applications and instead went back and worked on another bachelor’s degree, this time in psychology. My work was going to be working with veterans, and I knew two things:. Number one, what really helps the most is a veteran not merely being allowed to talk about their feelings that would be called antiwar, but actually being encouraged to express antiwar feelings. It was the best therapy they could get.
Ray Parrish: We knew that we had to help these guys open up and talk about things that they really didn’t want to talk about because of issues of guilt or remorse or outright grief. And we knew that alcohol was what had been used for thousands of years by veterans to open up and talk to each other and tell war stories. We were not going to make that same mistake of alcohol, with all the violence that comes along with alcohol. So we used pot, we used hash, we used MDMA, Psilocybin, peyote, anything that was out there to get these guys to talk. And they did.
But this was the training that we were getting from the medics at Fort Bragg. The medics at Bragg, let’s face it, the troops had been going to Vietnam and coming back to Fort Bragg for a decade. So these medics had been trained by the previous generation of medics, et cetera, on how to deal with their returning brothers.
Matthew Breems: You started your counseling practice after you’d finished college, or was this happening while you were still in school?
Ray Parrish: We started doing the counseling on active duty, and then when I was in school working in the VA’s work-study program, the veterans would come in, and I’d do counseling there. After I started working on my degree in psychology, the other veterans who were in that work-study program started sending veterans to me to work with that were being referred by the college as dropouts. So the veterans that were the most damaged by the war were the ones that were least able to deal with themselves, alone. They needed somebody with them, and they’d get referred to me. And we could sit down and talk and smoke and talk some more. Sometimes I even got on the phone with them to talk to their relatives, their parents or girlfriends or wives. That way, the veterans would be able to make it through the next few days. That was almost all we wanted to focus on is a day at a time.
The work I did there made me understand how necessary it was for this work to be done in the future. I finished my psych degree in 1981, I moved to Chicago in ’83 because I knew that there was a very active chapter of Vietnam Vets Against the War, but more importantly, there was an organization called the Midwest Committee for Military Counseling. And this was a group that had started up, was very active during Vietnam doing draft counseling. When the war ended, they continued doing counseling with active duty personnel and veterans.
So, my first year here, in 1983, a group of 11 veterans groups each sent a representative to Nicaragua, and I was the representative sent by VVAW. So that’s where I met all these veterans that had been doing this work for many, many years. Veterans from all walks of life worked together there in Nicaragua, bringing back reports on the Sandinistas and how much better life was without Somoza. We had to stop that war. We didn’t want another one starting up. And so the antiwar work back there in the ’80s had a lot to do with opposing intervention in Nicaragua, but it also had a lot to do with what was going on with veterans back in the United States, due to Agent Orange as an example.
So Reagan had declared people to be communist, and they would not provide diplomatic security service for these visiting dignitaries. As an example, Bishop Tutu, Desmond Tutu came to visit the United States on a speaking tour, and you can imagine what kind of death threats he was getting back in the ’80s while apartheid was still the law in South Africa. And VVAW raised their hand and said, “We will provide the protection.” So as he traveled across the United States, VVAW chapters would provide bodyguards.
My particular—I guess we could say—skill was, I could drive a car real fast, even on two wheels. So I drove the getaway car that sat in the back alley, just in case they needed us. And they never did, thank God. But VVAW’s attention was on anything they could do to expose the realities of what wars were actually going on at that time around the world. 1987, I started working with Midwest Committee for Military Counseling. When the First Gulf War started up in 1990 and ’91, that’s when the job became real intense.
Back in 1990, the parents were afraid that they would restart the draft and draft their children. So, that was one of the big deals, was going around the country doing training sessions on how to be a draft counselor. So I was able to use that occasion to spread the word around the Midwest. The other counselors across the United States who had small organizations just like mine—mine was a one man office—they were doing the same thing.
So, in 1994, we had all been seeing each other during the Gulf War, and that’s when we got together and formed the GI Rights Hotline. Now, that’s still going today, and they’re still getting phone calls from active duty and veterans, specifically dealing with injustices in the military. So a lot of it, for a period of time, had to do with discrimination against women and the rape culture of the military. When that First Gulf War came out, so did all the veterans.
You know, the clouds come over, the war clouds come over, and you got to look for good things that happen as a result. And the result of that First Gulf War was the antiwar people from Vietnam realized that even though Vietnam was 15 years earlier, we still had this mentality, this war mentality, that had to be addressed preemptively. We did not want to become antiwar activists after the war had started up; we wanted to stop the war from even getting started.
Matthew Breems: So there was a real resurgence within the movement during that First Gulf War.
Ray Parrish: Yeah. One of the things that actually inspired us was when we called for the first antiwar march, and we put out the notice around Chicago. And we were just looking at each other across the meeting room thinking, “We might get 50 or 60 or maybe 100 or 200.” We had over 5,000 people show up that first march. So that first antiwar march, then, in 1990, led to— I think of it as a dramatic increase in awareness by the public of what was going on, and why Clinton got elected was because the Republicans had identified themselves with the Gulf War, that this was their baby, and they had to live with it, and they didn’t win the election.
So, the 1990s then for me was a period when the counseling became more than just emergency counseling. We got to put together a strategy for full employment for better health care for veterans. By 1995, the funding for all of this work I had been doing had dried up, and we literally had to shut down the doors of Midwest Committee because I hadn’t been able to pay myself in over two years. And the day after I closed the office, I started working for the American Legion. I had gained a reputation doing VA claims and disability, so I spent five years of doing VA disability appeals for the American Legion. They at least paid me.
But the Legion fired me because the VA complained that my appeals were too antagonistic. Yes, believe it or not, the VA convinced the American Legion to fire me for that reason, and the Legion did it. So that happened, and within a few months, I was working as a mental health caseworker on the streets of uptown Chicago with homeless people. And as you might imagine, a large percentage of them were veterans. So I was a mental health caseworker from 2000 to 2003. Until one day, I was making the rounds of the homeless shelters, I ran into my first homeless Afghanistan vet. And I had a breakdown. I was not prepared to see homeless vets that young.
I was used to dealing with “old Vietnam vet homeless vets” kind of issues. But when I saw this youngster as homeless and just— you could smell the war on him. I quit my job as a mental health caseworker with full pay and benefits and pension, and went to VVAW and said, “We got to start up our counseling service again.” And we did. So March of 2004, I started up the VVAW counseling service, and did my own fund raising, wrote all the IRS reports, did all the usual stuff for keeping a nonprofit going, and was able to raise enough money to hire a counselor, an actual— somebody with a degree to do the psychological counseling, and I could devote myself to the more— the legal aspects of it.
Within a couple of years, the reputation of VVAW had spread. They did a story about our work in a newsletter for prisoners, incarcerated people, and within a month, I had letters from 200 incarcerated vets sending me their claim files, asking me to help them. Almost 90 percent of these vets were combat vets dealing with PTSD- inspired legal problems. They’d get drunk and do something stupid was the most common problem that we had with the incarcerated vets.
And part of what happened was, they were getting drunk and doing stupid things when they were still on active duty, so they ended up with bad discharges. So helping them get their discharges upgraded or helping them through the VA procedures that allow vets with bad discharges to get full benefits if only they produce the mental health records showing that they were suffering from what we now call PTSD, back at the time of the misconduct.
And back in the 1950s, the debates were going on about this. And in 1959, Congress passed legislation to the VA regulations for what’s called the Insanity Exception. So in 1959, they said, it doesn’t matter what kind of discharge they got, if they were insane at the time of the misconduct that led to the bad discharge, that they were entitled to full VA benefits, regardless of the discharge. And their definition in 1959 of insanity was almost identical to the 1983 definition of PTSD.
We knew from our own personal experience that once we’re out of uniform, we still carry the war with us, and nothing we can do from then until the day we die will stop that war from being with us. But we can make sure that the war doesn’t affect other people, our friends and family, by taking care of ourselves, by getting into therapy, by getting your medical marijuana card, for example, making sure that the public understands that it’s the body bags that you don’t see. It’s the one-car accidents, it’s the overdoses, it’s the suicides in the VA parking lot. These things are the reality that we have to deal with. Twenty-two suicides a day is something that most Americans see as collateral damage—you know, just like civilians dying when a drone strike happens, well, that’s just the way war is. And that’s not acceptable.
Matthew Breems: Ray, do you have any closing thoughts for us or anything else you’d like to add about your life and your service to veterans?
Ray Parrish: Growing up in the military is different from growing up any place else. There’s no doubt about that. But the reality of my life has been that the people I grew up with, the G.I.’s, were my father’s era, and I knew they needed help. And then it became my generation of people that needed my help. And then it became the next younger generation. And here I am in my sixties now, and I still see the absolute necessity for not only mental health counseling but being able to express antiwar sentiments.
And so any time that a veteran hears another veteran say something that could be considered antiwar, you have given that listener the ability to say the same thing to himself without feeling guilty, without becoming a suicide. And that’s what we got to do is do everything we can, so that one of these days, the active duty guys will simply decide, “No, we’re not going to follow orders. We are going to not go to war. We’re not going to kill the way you want us to.”
Matthew Breems: Well, Ray, thank you so much for sharing your story of antiwar activism and all the many, many years of your service to veterans and keeping them healthy and preventing deaths even after their act of duty. Very inspiring. Thank you for your service. 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, from 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.