Podcast: “You can’t be afraid to speak out” – Scott Camil
Scott Camil served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a forward observer for the Marines. His activism against the war began once he was outside of the military. He began coordinating demonstrations and rallies, which eventually caught the attention of federal authorities including the FBI.
“I thought, I’m a patriotic Vietnam veteran. I understand duty, I believe in democracy. I think the public has the right to know. So I went up and I gave them my name. All of a sudden I was in contact with a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I went to Detroit, Michigan, to testify at the Winter Soldier Investigation. There’s a documentary out called “The Winter Soldier.” I highly recommend it, and we talked about what we did in Vietnam … I helped organize Winter Soldier investigations all over Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. All of a sudden, I started getting arrested, and I didn’t really understand what was happening.”
“…that the war is wrong, that the government is lying about it, and that I have a duty as a veteran to the public to tell them the truth. In my mind, it was a job that I inherited because I was qualified to do this job and it was a job that had to be done.”
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Scott Camil: …that the war is wrong, that the government is lying about it, and that I have a duty as a veteran to the public to tell them the truth. In my mind, it was a job that I inherited because I was qualified to do this job and it was a job that had to be done.
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.
Matthew Breems: Scott Camil is the guest today on the podcast. Scott served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a forward observer for the Marines. His activism against the war began once he was outside of the military. He began coordinating demonstrations and rallies, which eventually caught the attention of federal authorities including the FBI.
Matthew Breems: Scott, I understand that you initially volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Can you just explain what your mindset was when you signed up to join this war that you knew is going to be dangerous?
Scott Camil: Well, I grew up in a time that there was a draft. We flew from my house that I grew up in an American flag. My father was a member of the John Birch Society. We were a very right-wing, anti-communist family. I was taught that it was my duty when I graduated high school to serve in the military. So, I signed up in the Marine Corps in the delayed enlistment program, and three-days out of high school, I found myself at Parris Island, South Carolina. And I just felt that as an American, it was my duty to serve my country.
Matthew Breems: So, it was just an overall patriotism and upbringing that caused you to enlist?
Scott Camil: That’s correct. And the fact that when the recruiters came to my high school, they said, “All you guys are going to get drafted and sent to Vietnam as soon as you graduate. But if you join up now, you have more benefits.” And so I thought, “Well, if I’m going to get drafted anyway, more benefits sounds better for me.” So I enlisted in Marine Corps while I was in high school.
Matthew Breems: And so you’ve enlisted in the Marine Corps. Walk us through what your service [looked] like in the Marines.
Scott Camil: I was really— I thought that the Marine Corps was the best branch of service, and in high school we were required to write a career paper in order to graduate. So in my career paper, I wrote that I was going to be a Marine, and in my mind I thought I could start off a private, and if I do really good, I’ll end up a general. I didn’t know that they had— that the breakup was really workers and management, and enlisted people were the workers, and the officers were the management, and I was always going to be a worker.
Scott Camil: I went to Parris Island, and I got there on a bus in the middle of the night. I got off the bus, I walked up to the little red line, stepped on the line, and then somebody started yelling and screaming at me. They put us on a bus. And then we got off the bus, and they immediately took all of our personal belongings away and put us in a room in a rack to go to sleep.
Scott Camil: I did my time in bootcamp. I had two teeth broken in bootcamp from closet motivation. We’re taught that the job of a Marine is to destroy the will of the enemy to resist the authority of the United States of America, and you do that by making the cost that they have to pay for resistance to the United States more than they’re willing to do. And in order to do that, we have to make you into a Marine. One of the things in that you’re taught in Marine Corps bootcamp is, there’s no such thing as no. There’s no such thing as, “I can’t do this.” Whatever you’re assigned, you will do. You’ll figure out a way to do it, and you will do it. There’s no such thing as no.
Scott Camil: After my initial bootcamp training, then I went to infantry training, then I went to California for guerrilla warfare school at Camp Pendleton, mountain climbing, escape and evasion, demolition school. Then I went to Okinawa for the same stuff. And then I was sent to Vietnam.
Matthew Breems: So you arrive in Vietnam after all of your training. Describe some of your early experiences over there.
Scott Camil: So the first thing was kind of strange because I got off of the commercial plane at an airport. I report into a building, give them my orders, and then I reported into my unit. The unit was called Alpha Battery, First Battalion, 11th Marines. It was an artillery unit, and I was a new guy in the unit, and I was assigned to guard duty. So I got there March 24th. On the night of April… The day was April 17th, but after midnight it became April 18th, 1966. Around 1:30 in the morning, a trip flare went off to my left front, and as soon as this trip flare went off, all of these people stood up, and they had weapons, and they were already inside the wire.
Scott Camil: And they just— they stood up, and the trip flare went of, and in a fraction of a second, everything I’m telling you now happened. All of a sudden all these people stood up, they were charging, they were shooting. We started receiving rocket fire. Three of the four posts were blown up. My post was the only post that survived. They were Viet Cong sappers. They entered the base from three sides. They destroyed the six 105 Howitzers. They destroyed the fuel dump, they destroyed the ammo dump, and they ran through the tents shooting people.
Matthew Breems: So that was three weeks in, give or take, into your experience in Vietnam.
Scott Camil: And that was my first battle. So I met a guy named Maine, and he was from Jacksonville and I was from Hialeah, so we were friends. The dead Marines were brought to a bunker and laid next to a bunker with ponchos covering them. I went and I pulled the ponchos off the face of the Marines, and I saw Maine, and when I saw him, everything changed for me. When I saw him, I realized that I was in a place, and it was people’s job to kill me. That was their job and that’s what they were allowed to do. And that if I didn’t pay attention, I was going to end up dead.
Scott Camil: That day, I decided that I hated all of the Vietnamese, that I was going to get them back for what they did to us. Like I couldn’t tell which Vietnamese liked us and which Vietnamese didn’t like us. And all I knew is that if they were dead, they couldn’t hurt us. So that day I decided I would have no empathy: I would kill every Vietnamese I came in contact with. I’m going to err on the side of safety, and the life of one Marine is more valuable than the lives of all of the Vietnamese, both North and South.
Scott Camil: That’s what I believed in my brain, and from that point on I was very ruthless. I had no empathy and I just wanted to kill them and get them back for what they did to us.
Matthew Breems: You’ve had this sea change in your attitude after this battle experience, or really as like a protection mechanism almost, you had to just get rid of any empathy. What did the next phase of your combat time over there look like?
Scott Camil: So then the next night, I was sent to that same bunker on guard duty, and as soon as it got dark, I started shaking, and I couldn’t stop shaking till the next day. During the battle, I did fine. So I don’t know how things work with people, why they work the way they do, but when I would be waiting for the battle to start, I would be shaking. Once the battle would start, I was cool as a cucumber. Once the battle was over, I’d be shaking again.
Scott Camil: I get sent to this post and it’s dark, and I’m shaking, and I’m waiting for them to come and waiting for them to come. And it was terrible thinking that I would rather have the job of hunting for them than sitting in the bunker waiting for them to attack me. So I volunteered to be a forward observer, and I got sent out in the field attached to the infantry. Like I really think that that job of being a forward observer is the best job that I could have had, and if I was ever in combat again, that would be the job that I would want. And so I had a great job.
Scott Camil: I had a great relationship with the infantry commanders, because they needed somebody who could read a map and a compass. I enjoyed my job a lot. The first time I was wounded was on February 18th, 1967. I had climbed over a dyke. I had turned my back on the village, and I reached my hand down and grabbed my radio operator, and I was pulling him up over the dyke, and all of a sudden I heard an explosion. It seemed really close to me. I could smell the explosion, and then I noticed that the ground was coming up. And then I woke up.
Scott Camil: They patched me up. I didn’t need a medevac. I stayed with the unit. I don’t think that I could convey to a civilian the psychological pressure of always being in minefields and seeing the people in front of you and the people in back of you step on something and blow up. And you have to continue on, and each step you could take could be your last step, a tremendous amount of psychological pressure. On October 12th, 1967, I got hit a second time, and it was from a grenade that was dropped on me from a tree. Again, my wounds were superficial, just shrapnel. Two weeks later, I went home.
Matthew Breems: So the second injury was during your second tour of duty? So explain to us a little bit why you decided to sign up for a second tour of duty after experiencing the horrors of war so early on in your first tour of duty.
Scott Camil: The reason I extended was because it was my belief that a friend does not leave another friend in the fight—it would be wrong for me to run away. Even if we’re outnumbered, it would be cowardice for me to walk away. The manly thing to do would be to stand by your side. And so I became very close with some of the people I was with in Vietnam, and the camaraderie that you develop in combat is unlike any kind of camaraderie you can imagine. But when my time was up, I just felt that I would be a coward to leave my friends.
Scott Camil: So I signed up to stay. After I was wounded the second time, when that time was up, I signed up to stay a third time. I really didn’t want to stay. I had mixed feelings. I wanted to be with my friends, but I was worn out from war. But I did not have the courage to say, “I’m ready to go home.” And I thought it would be cowardice to say that. So I asked to stay, and my first sergeant would not allow me to stay. He told me that I had been through enough, and he sent me home, and I was so grateful for him.
Matthew Breems: So after your second injury, you’re sent back to United States. What did that part of your service look like?
Scott Camil: So I got sent on a Med cruise, and I got sent on a Carrib cruise. And that was a really important lesson to me, because up until that time I was of the belief that the United States is the best country in the world, that our system of government is the best in the world, and everybody else wants to be like us, and we should help them be like us.
Scott Camil: When I went to Europe, they didn’t like us! I had to wear a uniform, and everywhere we went, they didn’t dislike me as a person, but everywhere I went, people told me the war in Vietnam was wrong. The United States was committing war crimes in Vietnam. It really surprised me, because I thought everybody liked us and wanted to be like us, and everywhere I went they were criticizing my government. And so that was a really important lesson for me, to see things weren’t how I thought they were.
Scott Camil: I went on that Carrib cruise, and then it was time for me to get out of the Marine Corps. I wasn’t going to re-enlist because I guess I didn’t like being told to do stupid things by stupid people, and I didn’t like getting in trouble whenever I would question things.
Matthew Breems: Well, let’s move on to the next phase of life. You’re ending your official career with the military or getting back into civilian life. What was the first steps for you back in the civilian world?
Scott Camil: Well, this was going to be the first time in my life where I’m actually responsible for where am I going to live, how am I going to get a job, what am I going to do? Where am I going to live? What am I going to do? And I didn’t have a clue. I really didn’t have a clue. And then I thought, “I could get money on the GI Bill if I go to school. And then that’ll give me time to figure out what I really want to do, because I don’t really know what I want do.”
Scott Camil: So I applied to go to school on the GI Bill, and I went to school on the GI bill, and on the GI Bill I got an AA degree in pre-law, I got a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and I qualified to be a pilot. So I took a vocational training paid for by the VA for a commercial and instrument license.
Scott Camil: The other part of that was learning history. So in school, I took all the history classes, and I didn’t believe what the history books were telling me. So, I set up an appointment with my history professor, but I set up the appointment, and I told the professor that I was a Vietnam veteran and that what the book was saying about Vietnam was wrong. And he smiled at me, and he gave me a bunch more stuff to read.
Scott Camil: And I’m reading stuff. One of the books that I read was “A People’s History of the U.S.” By Howard Zinn, and I read the Pentagon Papers, and I’m reading all of this stuff, and I’m starting to feel like— that I was used and that I wasn’t told the truth about Vietnam. But it really made me kind of confused, and I didn’t really do anything about it. And then Jane Fonda came to speak, and I heard her speak, and she said that, “in order for a democracy to function, people have to have access to the truth. The government is lying about Vietnam, and it’s the duty of Vietnam veterans, patriotic Vietnam veterans, to tell the public the truth about what’s being done in their name with their money.”
Scott Camil: And I thought, I’m a patriotic Vietnam veteran. I understand duty, I believe in democracy. I think the public has the right to know. So I went up and I gave them my name. All of a sudden I was in contact with a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I went to Detroit, Michigan, to testify at the Winter Soldier Investigation. There’s a documentary out called “The Winter Soldier.” I highly recommend it, and we talked about what we did in Vietnam, why we did it, what are orders were, And that lasted for three days.
Scott Camil: If you watch that film, you will see, on that film is where my conversion takes place from being a Vietnam veteran who knows things about Vietnam, to being a Vietnam veteran who realizes that the war is wrong, that the government is lying about it, and that I have a duty as a veteran to the public to tell them the truth. Because when civilians are telling them that the war is wrong, they’re being called communist sympathizers; they’re being called cowards; they’re being called people who aren’t willing to serve their country.
Scott Camil: But a veteran, they can’t say that you’re a coward, or you don’t know what you’re talking about, or you’re not willing to serve your country. In my mind, it was a job that I inherited because I was qualified to do this job, and it was a job that had to be done. And I helped organize Winter Soldier investigations all over Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. All of a sudden, I started getting arrested, and I didn’t really understand what was happening.
Scott Camil: And I learned much later the full story from the Freedom of Information Act papers that I received, but I was targeted by the FBI as a threat to national security. J. Edgar Hoover sent a memo to the FBI calling for my neutralization as a threat to national security, and authorizing pretext operations and counter-intelligence techniques. So a pretext operation, well, they bust you. They put a bullet in you. They stick some drugs in your pocket. They say that you were selling drugs. They say you were resisting arrest. They say that you attacked the FBI agents, and that they had to shoot you in self-defense.
Matthew Breems: So what activities were you doing that caused such fear—that’s probably the best word—in the FBI and in federal authorities that they wanted to arrest you?
Scott Camil: I was being a Marine, exercising my constitutional rights, and basically— So we started having demonstrations. They started busting up the demonstrations, and we fought back with violence. And I felt that I’m defending my Constitutional rights, and it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s the fucking FBI or the communists that are trying to take away my rights. If the rights are worth defending halfway around the world, why wouldn’t they be worth defending right here?
Scott Camil: So, there was an issue when the U.S. Mined the Haiphong Harbor, and we considered that an escalation in the war. What if a Russian ship hits one of those mines? That might bring the Russians into the war. So this is terrible. And so we blocked the main intersection of the city of Gainesville for two and a half days. And the purpose of our demonstration was to inconvenience the public in order to make them think about the war in Vietnam.
Scott Camil: It’s your duty to control the government. The main duty of a citizen in a democracy is to control their government. Our government is out of control, and it’s the duty of the citizens to do something about it. And when the police are trying to stop us from doing that, we’re going to resist them. And we basically used the minimum amount of force necessary to protect our rights.
Matthew Breems: So you had already been identified sort of as the ring leader of these protests going on in Florida, and so that got the attention of federal authorities, then?
Scott Camil: Well, I was being arrested by state and federal…stuff. The FBI contacted the sheriff’s department and told them they needed to get Scott Camil. Anyway, then the Democrats and Republicans decided to have their conventions in Miami Beach. Under the rules of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a regional coordinator is responsible for any activities done by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in their region.
Scott Camil: When the Republicans and Democrats decided to have their convention in Miami, that came under my authority because I was the regional coordinator. But one of the things that I didn’t realize because I was so naive, is that my organization had been thoroughly infiltrated by undercover agents. Well, one of them, his name was Bill Lemmer, and he was a regional coordinator. But he was also working for the FBI.
Scott Camil: And he had information that the government was going to shoot somebody at the demonstrations on the beach, that they were going to blame it on the antiwar movement, that they were going to raise the five drawbridges that connected the beach to Miami, and that they were going to wipe out the antiwar movement. When I got that report, security is part of my job. So what if that’s true? What are we going to do? So we made plans to capture those five drawbridges, to lower those drawbridges, and to blow up the mechanisms so the bridges could stay down.
Scott Camil: Because in the Marine Corps, when I came back from Vietnam, one of my things I became— getting ready for riots. So I was a riot-control NCO for the 10th Marine Regiment—that’s 1000 me, and I was senior NCO. And so you use— you’re taught to use the minimum amount of force to protect lives and property. So all of the rules that I taught the Marines for riot control is what I now taught our people, how they would respond if we were attacked by police.
Scott Camil: In riot control, you’re taught, you have to leave the group, that you’re controlling an avenue of access. If you box them in, they will fight. The object is to move them away from where they can hurt lives and property. So if they raise the five drawbridges and box us in, it’s clear to me that they want to fight and they want to hurt us. They’re not planning to just break us up. They want to hurt us. We’re not going to allow them to do that. We’ll take those drawbridges, we’ll lower them, we’ll blow up the mechanisms. And then we don’t have the ability to fight all of them on the beach.
Scott Camil: So we need to get the cops off the beach. So I planned contingency actions that called for attacking all police stations, all federal stations, all federal buildings, and all fire stations in two counties in Florida. And that would be the two counties, Dade and Broward Counties, where all mobile enforcement would be coming from. So if we attacked those buildings, not to hurt people but just to create problems, they would have to leave the beach and go back and protect their own fucking turf. And that would allow us to lower the bridges and evacuate the people whose rights were being violated.
Scott Camil: So yes, our plans called for using weapons, explosives, and actually fighting them. But every sentence said, “This will be done for defensive reasons only. This’ll be done for defensive reasons only.” In the Gainesville Eight trial, the jury wrote— they got to read the plans that I wrote, all of these things that I just told you. The jury read all of that stuff. The jury ruled that it was defensive and found us not guilty.
Scott Camil: The cops were mad because they believe that you never have the right to stand up to authority. You let them beat you up, you let them violate your rights, and then in court it gets settled. But you never have the right to defend yourself on the street. And we did defend ourselves, and the jury found us not guilty.
Matthew Breems: So after these initial trials and confrontations with the authorities, what does the next part of your activism look like from this point?
Scott Camil: Well, once I was found not guilty of all of my charges… Well, there was the Gainesville Eight case. And then after I was found not guilty on that case, and before that there was a drug case and there was a kidnapping case, and I was found not guilty in all of those cases. Then there was the J. Edgar Hoover move— the J. Edgar Hoover document calling for my neutralization and authorizing counter-intelligence techniques and pre— pretext operations. [crosstalk 00:25:41]
Matthew Breems: Clarify what you think they mean by neutralization.
Scott Camil: That means, “to kill.”
Matthew Breems: Okay. I just wanted to clarify that.
Scott Camil: In my brain, it means to kill. They’re going to say it doesn’t mean to kill, but when you read documents that say we neutralized someone, it’s usually someone who’s been killed. Then one day this girl comes to my door, knocks on my door. She needed to borrow my telephone. This is before cell phones. I let her come in and use the telephone. She’s very pretty. She turned out to be an agent working for the FBI. She introduced me to two of her friends, which were federal agents for the DEA.
Scott Camil: One day her friends came to my house and they said they were in town to get some cocaine, so I didn’t want to give them my money. I went with them to get the gram of cocaine. All of a sudden the guy in the back seat grabbed me around the neck, and he pinned my head to the headrest, and he started beating me in the head with a gun. And I grabbed his wrist. I pinned it to the headrest of the car. The driver hit the brakes, took his hands off the steering wheel, grabbed both of my hands and pulled them, and was holding both of my hands behind my head. And the other guy pulled his hand loose, put the gun up to my back, and fired.
Scott Camil: The bullet went in behind my— It went my back. It cracked a couple of ribs. It collapsed my lung. He hit my kidney and my liver, and I was laying in the street. He jumped out of the car, sat on top of me, put the gun to my face. Just then the police pulled up, and somebody in a restaurant had seen the car driving down the road with somebody with a gun beating someone. So they called the police. So the police were there immediately, and the police arrested them, and I went to the hospital.
Scott Camil: Then I had my— And then I was charged with possession and delivery of drugs, assaulting federal agents, resisting arrest with violence. I represented myself. The federal jury came back, found me not guilty, and the federal jury recommended that the agents be indicted for attempted murder. So then, after I was found not guilty, I was really tired of going to jail, being arrested, getting bond, going to jail, being arrested, getting bond, going to court. I was really tired of it.
Scott Camil: I always had wanted to have a family. I decided that I wanted to get married and have a family. And so what my politics were was, a friend of mine was running for Congress. His name’s David Harris. He used to be married to Joan Baez. He did 20 months in prison for refusing to be drafted.
Scott Camil: So David was student-body president at Stanford University, so he had a deferment because he was a student. He gave a speech at Stanford saying that deferments were unfair because they only help rich people who could afford to go to college. Poor people couldn’t get them. And so he burned his deferment. But the law said, if you were in college, you couldn’t be drafted. And he was in college. He was student-body president.
Scott Camil: But because he’d burned that piece of paper, they tried to draft him anyway, and he refused to go. He said he’s a student, he’s not going, and they sent him to prison, and he did 18 months in prison. After he got out of prison, there was a time that he and I traveled the country together, and we were “the draft dodger and the hero.”
Matthew Breems: Scott, how has your activism changed over the years?
Scott Camil: So my activism now is more local. I’m in Veterans for Peace, and Veterans for Peace is against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I support all of that kind of stuff. But I feel that I have more power in local politics. So I’m in the Sierra Club; I am the political chair of the Sierra Club. And so as political chair, I’ve gotten to know all of our representatives by name and I’ve got their phone numbers. I’m able to meet with them, I’m able to lobby them. They all come before us for our endorsement.
Scott Camil: And so I have a tremendous amount of clout with our elected leaders here in Alachua County, and I’m able to get a tremendous amount accomplished locally, and that’s what I do. I manage elections, and I lobby our elected officials mostly on environmental issues.
Matthew Breems: And what would you say as some final words to our listeners about being an antiwar advocate in this political climate that we live in right now? What words of wisdom would you leave them with?
Scott Camil: Well, the first thing I’d say is that I’ve been an antiwar activist for about 49 years, and in those 49 years, things have gotten worse. So I’m not quite sure that I have the answer as far as, “If you do A, you’ll get the result B.” We have to try to hold our government’s feet to the fire. And I think that that it’s important to call your representatives. It’s important to visit your representatives. It’s important to work to change your representatives. It’s important to speak out publicly.
Scott Camil: I believe that something like 70 percent of the public, both Republicans and Democrats, are opposed to what we’re doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. And yet the wars are still going on. Why is that? I don’t really understand why the public is okay with a government that’s not doing what we want the government to do. So I think being active is really important. Writing letters to the newspaper is really important. Going to the public meetings, to the city commission meetings, the county commission meetings.
Scott Camil: All I can say is, you have to maintain active, and you can’t be afraid to speak out, and most importantly, the idea that you don’t have the right to criticize the government, that’s an anti-democratic idea. And when the government is not being responsive to you, it’s incumbent upon you to go and get in their face. And the final thing I want to say is the importance of thinking for yourself. Don’t let the government or other people tell you how to think. Do your own research. Find the facts and think for yourself.
Matthew Breems: Thank you very much, Scott.
Scott Camil: Thank you so much, Matt.
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 U.S. War in Vietnam, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured.
Matthew Breems: 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.