have courage. take heart. bear witness.
Bob: I always wanted to go into the Marine Corps, but I wasn't ready to do it. But when I was, like, seventeen and a half, my friend and I, we got locked up for stealing cars. And when we went to trial, there was this judge, and he basically said, "I see you have a string of juvenile offenses." He said, "This offense is not juvenile. This is grand theft auto. You're over seventeen." He said, "You could really do some prison time."
He said, "On the other hand, I see, in the back of the courtroom, we have Gunnery Sgt. Dean. You might want to go talk to him for about a half an hour and then come back and talk to me."
So I remember asking the judge, "What should I talk to him about?"
He says, "I think that Gunnery Sgt. Dean might make you an offer."
And I guess this was long before "The Godfather" films, but I guess the gunny made me an offer I couldn't refuse, which was, basically, if I enlisted in the Marine Corps, he would go back and see the judge and all this stuff would disappear.
So that's how I came into the Marine Corps. It's good. It's good.
So, I went over the first time, from the Philippines, with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, aboard a ship, the USS Princeton, which was a landing platform for helicopters. And the idea was that we were going to land in Viet Nam, in waves, by helicopter.
We had practiced these things. We had hot-weather training in the Philippines. We spent a month aboard the ship. You know, this was John Wayne territory. This was ... this was something else.
So there was actually an operation that was gonna to take place in the Mekong Delta, called Operation Jackstay. You'd be on the landing deck, in various places. The helicopters would be there. You would load up with your wave. You would go in. The choppers would come back. The next wave would go on.
So, I was with an 81-millimeter mortar company, and we were gonna to be in the third wave. And I was sitting—full pack, with all the equipment—with a dear friend of mine who is now not with us anymore—he's a casualty of war. And he and I were sitting there and we were smoking a joint. And this was it. We were talking about, "This is going to be great. We're gonna get in there, finally."
So the first wave went off. Choppers came back. The second wave went off. The choppers came back. But they held us up—the third wave—from getting on, and they started unloading things we ... I didn't know exactly what they were.
And I . . . I . . . I . . . I says to Butch, "What . . . what is this? What are they takin' off?"
So he says to me, he says, "Those are body bags."
I said, "They're what?"
He says, "Body bags." He says, "This is a war we're in."
"So they're already being killed?"
And he said, "What did you think this was?"
I said, "I don't know, man. I didn't give it a lot of thought," you know? I said, "Give me another joint," you know?
He said, "We don't have time."
So, damn. So that was the first I knew this was a real war. That people I . . . I saw in the morning and had coffee with, now they're coming back in bags already. This is two hours later.
I don't know. I . . . I just didn't expect it would be so quick. How are they already dead? I mean, they just left. But it was, like, I was not coming back in any body bag. I'd kill me some motherfuckers in a minute, before they're going to bag me.
So that was it. And now I was in the Mekong Delta. Yeah.
Bob: My experience in the war is, I loved it. Never in my life, since then, have I felt more needed and more a part of something. It was the time of my life. And it was wild. You know, it's not a romanticized view. That's the way it was then.
And I would trade how I am today to go back there and be how I was then. I had more resiliency back then, had meaning; where today, at this age and illness, I'm very, like, wimpy and needy. Back then it was very different. And I don't mean to glamorize it, but there was something about it. The killing didn't faze me. We did what we did. Some of us found it exciting. Some of us didn't. All of us were scared at one point or another.
But let me clarify this thing about a sense of purpose. The sense of purpose, for me and for almost everybody that I knew over there, and most everybody that I know today that was over there, the sense of purpose had nothing to do with patriotism.
To be honest with you, I couldn't find Viet Nam on a map when I got to boot camp. I never even heard of this place. So the sense of purpose had to do with staying alive, covering your buddy's back, and doing what you needed to do.
I'll always remember, back then, you know, some antiwar people saying, "What do they think—that the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese are going to get in their sampans, cross the Pacific, and raid San Francisco?" And then I remember Muhammad Ali saying no Vietnamese ever called him a nigger.
You know, no Vietnamese ever did me any harm until I got over to their country, you know? So this sense of purpose, you gotta really be careful with this. And I'm not saying there wasn't guys that went over there with a more patriotic sense. I'm just saying I didn't know any of them.
Bob: Those of us that grew up in the '60s, those of us that went in the military before, we weren't that much different than the kids that stayed home. But we weren't accepted by our peers. We weren't accepted by our fathers and grandfathers. We lost our war, they won theirs. They looked at us and didn't know what to make of us. They thought we were crazy. The American Legion, the DAV [Disabled American Veterans]—they didn't want any part of us.
You know, we were abandoned by a whole country. It was expressed by the films that came out at the time, that portrayed us all as crazed killers. The VA hospitals were at their very low point of service—they weren't equipped to handle us. The GI bill that our fathers had from World War II—where basically you get into the best school you can get into and your tuition was paid—that wasn't the way it worked for us. There was a set amount and that was it. So if you took twelve credits at City College, this is what you got. And if you took twelve credits at Harvard, that's what you got.
The elite schools were kicking ROTC off the campus. They weren't welcoming veterans, where, today, you can't find an Ivy League school that doesn't have an open door for veterans. Columbia advertises how veterans friendly it is. The City University of New York system has full-time veterans coordinators on every campus. Veterans are welcomed.
When I finally came out and applied to go to Pace [University], they told me I had to take the SATs. I hadn't sat in a classroom in nine years. So I went and took the SATs, and I couldn't even get into high school with those SAT scores. But in 1973, Pace instituted an open-admissions policy, that any veteran can get in. So I eventually got into Pace.
I was up here, living in New York with my wife and kids. And I was a disabled vet. It's not something I really talk about that much. Because I was disabled, I actually fell under a different portion of the GI bill. So I had my full tuition paid at Pace, plus, I got a living allowance. So I went to school for the first year full time, 'cause we were able to pay for the apartment out of the living allowance, tuition was paid.
And even though I was a full-time student, I took most of my classes in the evening with people that had jobs. But my wife was home with the kids, and she made friends with the other girls our age or a little younger, that had kids, and they hung out together.
All these women, they always thought, you know, that because they were friends, that the men would get along. But I couldn't get along with these men. None of them had served. They all were out in the working world already. It's like, ok, he's on with their career, they're on with their career, they're getting ready to buy a house, and I'm struggling here. I hated it. I hated it. I didn't have anything to say to these people.
So one night we had some people over. And she had this friend she was very close with, husband was an accountant, and I was studying accounting at Pace.
So we're sitting around, so he says, "You don't work, do you?"
So I say, "No." I say, "I go to school."
"So how do you pay for the apartment and everything?"
I said, "Because I get a grant from the VA."
He says, "So just because you was in Vietnam, so we gotta pay for you?"
Before I could say anything—because I had a very bad temper—she just looked at her friend and said, "Take your husband and get out of my fuckin' house. Don't ever come back."
So that's how we were treated. That's how we were looked on. Nobody ever welcomed me home for the first twenty years. They'd have been happy to see me go back. Yeah.
Bob: We were abandoned when we came home, and we've been abandoned again. We're getting old, we're frickin' dying, and you don't hear a word about us. Everything is for the younger guys and, then, girls. And it's not that they don't deserve it. But we are being forgotten about.
You know, there's 58,000 and change names on The Wall. But there's more of us today that are dying from exposure to Agent Orange than ever died in combat. I have four diseases that are presumptively Agent Orange related. And I know that shit was sprayed on me.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, every day, posts on its site and Facebook one casualty of war, whether it's somebody whose name is on The Wall, or whether it's somebody who served that just recently died. And the idea is that each day, by honoring one, we honor all.
But I . . . I really stopped looking at the ones who died in combat. I started looking at the others. And we're all dying of these frickin' cancers. So I advocate for senior citizen vets. I think we're getting screwed a second time. A lot of the new programs that come out for veterans are not for us.
There's employment programs, but they're for the younger veterans. They're specifically not for us. You know, there's education programs. I mean, we've all been out way too long to qualify for these.
There's programs for all kinds of things—the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program, Supportive Services for Veterans Families program, services for women vets. But there's none that recognize that vets of a certain age—namely, my age—are victims of this frickin' economy, that we've lost our jobs, our education is not up to standards, and we're sick. So where's the programs for us? There's not a realization that we may need some of these.
So I'm out of work 'cause of sickness. But I find that when I do look to get back to work, that some of my skills aren't what they should be. Some of this computer stuff, as good as I am with it, some of it has passed me by. So why can't I go back to school and use some veterans benefits?
When the Vietnam Veterans of America was formed, it was no coincidence that their founding motto was, "Never again will one generation . . . never again will one generation of veterans abandon another." And we knew what we meant by that.
We are not abandoning this new generation. We are there for them.
Bob: I want to lighten it up for a minute. This past Veterans Day, I went down to the parade, and I saw some people I wanted to see. But I didn't want to march with either of the groups that I could have marched with. I didn't feel that great. So I decided to come home. And I took the train to 86th Street, and I said, "I'll get off and then I'll walk home."
So over on Park Avenue, here, and 97th Street there was this doughnut shop. And it's one of these shops that opens up in a strange place, that got written up in New York Magazine as having the most creative doughnuts in the city. And every time I passed this place there was lines—a little store—lines out the door. People were coming from all over. This was the place to be, you know? They discovered this doughnut shop.
So, I always wanted to go and see how the doughnuts were, but I'm not waiting on any line. So on Veterans Day, I'm passing by 97th and Park, and I said, "There it is. And there's no lines—only two people in the store." I said, "I'ma go in and get a doughnut."
So I went in. There's two people in front of me. I'm looking in the doughnut case and they've got these big fat doughnuts, all kinds of flavors. So I saw the one I wanted to get—raspberry-lime-rosemary. Big fat thing. It says, "All doughnuts, three dollars."
My turn, I ordered the doughnut. There was a young girl behind the counter, maybe in her early twenties. I told her which I wanted.
She asked me, "Is it to go or to stay?"
So I said, "Nah, " I said, "Put it in a bag; I'm taking it with me."
So she put it in a bag and I'ma give her the three dollars.
So she says, "Nah." She says, "Today, it's on us. Welcome home."
And I didn't realize that I was wearing my Vietnam Veterans cap, 'cause I only wear it twice a year—on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. I said to her, "Why?"
She said, "Well, it's Veterans Day." She said, "The least we could do is give you a doughnut." She said, "You sure you don't want coffee with that?"
So I said, "Nah," I said, "doughnut is good enough."
It was a personal, spontaneous thing, you know? I'm not into all these welcome homes and these thank yous for your service. I could live real well without them.
It was just a young girl giving me a doughnut and saying, "Welcome home." It was nice. It was a good doughnut.
Bob: So, I want to talk a little bit about this thing called moral injury. And the way it was explained to me is, people in combat and in war do things that they're ashamed of, or that are against their beliefs, and it screws them up.
I gave this some thought, because I still do a lot of work with young veterans and I do a lot of work with older veterans—not as much as I would like to do, but I do some.
And it struck me that, over the years, many Vietnam veterans have stayed silent. If you fight in a war, and you see those next to you being killed, you see devastation, you participate in killing, it's very difficult to then say it was in a worthless cause. To survive and to make any sense of things, you need to be quiet. That's the true moral injury.
I knew that the Vietnam War was a useless, bullshit war, during my second tour there. I knew that it was a corrupt war. And I had feelings that were equivalent to what my demographic cohort that was back home had.
By the time my second tour in '68, there were more of us over there wearing peace signs on our helmets, listening to the same music you guys listened to at home, smoking the same dope—only ours was better. We had more integration in the military, among the races, more integration geographically.
You know, I was a kid from Brooklyn, from Coney Island. I started to actually like country music. I started to like listening to the Grateful Dead and the [Jefferson] Airplane. We started to grow our hair long over there. They didn't have any control over us. We were in the Marine Corps. We didn't walk around with buzz cuts. We grew our hair long and says, "Fuck you. What are you going to do, send me to Viet Nam?"
But when we came home, we kept quiet. I mean, there was organizations—you had the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and you had individual veterans, and you had movies that portrayed it. But for the most part, guys stayed quiet. And they especially stayed quiet around civilians.
Among ourselves, we knew. But we didn't break the bond publicly for years and years and years. You know, I think it's maybe only in the last twelve, thirteen years that I would talk with a civilian and say, "Yeah, war was a lie. Should never been in it. The kids back home that were protesting it were right."
But let me give you a caveat on that. They were right to protest the American involvement. Those that took the other side, I have nothing but loathing for them. "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! The NLF is going to win!" Jane Fonda sitting on that tank up in Hanoi.
Or whose politics took them away from just opposing the Vietnam War, but somehow saying that that made America corrupt. So my sympathies, in the end, lie with the protesters of the war that wanted it to end—they were right.
That Vietnam War was wrong. It . . . it didn't take me twenty years to know it. It took me twenty years to acknowledge it publicly. And that by saying so, I wasn't breaking faith with my comrades.
I respect those who demonstrated against the war, but I'll never, ever lose respect for those who fought the war.
Bob: How do you face things that you have to do, which you somehow believe are inherently unnatural? Killing is inherently not a natural thing for a young man or woman. So you . . . you do things, you see things, you . . . you know that somewhere along the line, you . . . you've probably killed the wrong person. Or . . . or you just know you've killed somebody, and you can't understand why.
So if you are in the military and you're in Iraq, Afghanistan, Viet Nam, Somalia, wherever the hell you are, and you really don't think you had a purpose there, then what's the purpose of this killing you're doing? How do you reconcile it?
So, moral injury comes about when you need to justify what you've done, and you need to try to make sense of it. And then you start lying to yourself. You start believing that what you did was in a just cause. You take actions that cause you to hide how you truly feel about something, because you don't want to betray others or yourself.
The young folks coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, they're coming back with problems and with issues relating to war. But I haven't met very many that don't believe in the cause. And I'm starting to wonder now, is it they believe in the cause, this war on terror, or if they're truly mirroring my generation, you know, that they're holding it in? I wonder.
You know, they're all being welcome homed, you know, so a lot of them, I think, maybe feel it's in their best interests to keep this shit to themselves. But I wonder.
What do they say, "The first casualty of war is truth"? That's not true. The first casualty of war is humanity. You cannot go to war without losing your humanity. Can't do it.
When you're purpose is to kill—and that's the purpose of war; don't let anybody ever tell you differently—when that becomes your purpose, you've already lost a piece of your humanity. When . . . when you send people off to war, if you recognize that that's the first casualty, then you know what to expect. That there are things are going to happen. And it's not like you see on TV, you know?
'Cause a lot of it portrays combat like it's organized, like you know what's going on. Fuck, you know what's going on! They're going to be firing this shit at you—you're coming from that way—it's noisy! It's coming from this way, it's coming from that way, people are screaming, it's dark out, you start firing, you don't know . . . You know, portrayed on TV, you pick your head up, you take a shot, you put your head . . . fuck outta here. It's chaotic. It's crazy. You . . . you're not prepared for this.
So you're in Iraq, and you crash through a door where there's been enemy fire, and you have your night-vision goggles on, and you got your Kevlar, and you got your weapons, and you start firing, and you kill a couple of kids. Is that right? Is that wrong? Could you have done something differently? Is that going to affect you? Who's responsible for it?
Those warriors that serve, their responsibility is an individual responsibility to conduct themselves as honorably as you can in war. But you . . . you can never just lay it on them.
So this leads me to say that the American people have a collective responsibility for our wars. And I would go far as to say that some of these atrocities that you hear about—whether from my day, in My Lai, to whatever happened at this prison at Abu Ghraib; whatever supposedly happened when these Marines pissed on these corpses; when Robert Bales went out and massacred those people—individuals need to take responsibility for their actions, but I believe that our country has a collective responsibility for all of this stuff.
You see, I'm . . . I'm comfortable with my war. I am totally comfortable how I fought my war. And that's what I'm responsible for. And I don't know that everything I did was right. And I know of some things that I know that were wrong. But I'm okay with it.
I think everybody that's in combat is changed in some way. You cannot take an eighteen-year-old and put him in Iraq and Fallujah; in Afghanistan; at the Chosin Reservoir, in Korea; in the A Shau Valley, in Viet Nam, and he's coming home the same. It's just not happening.
Before you do send kids there, make sure you know what you're doing. And make sure you're prepared to take care of them when they come back.
Somebody said to me recently, "Are you saying, then, that anyone who serves in the military now has a blank check on the American people?" And I said, "Yeah. That's the national debt."