Chapter 51—"Give Peace A Chance"
Ronda bought the land for a commune and although everyone else dropped out of the planning, she and Rick planned to move to the commune during the summer. I continued on, visiting Marty every Sunday, sleeping alone in our room every night. I didn’t know what I would do come graduation.
As winter turned to spring, opposition to the war became widespread.
January, 1969. Operation Dewey Canyon I, a five-day Marine incursion into Laos.
February, 1971. Operation Dewey Canyon II, seven days of a South Vietnamese invasion into Laos.
April, 1971. Operation Dewey Canyon III, an invasion of Washington D.C., a “limited incursion into the country of Congress.”
By that spring, over 12,000 veterans had joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. For a week, over a thousand gathered in Washington along with the Gold Star mothers, wives, vets from other wars and friends.
Sunday after I visited Marty, Billy, Julie, Mom Olsen and I flew to Washington, D.C. and met Mama McKinney. She embraced Billy and touched the red bandana he always wore.
“It was your son’s,” I heard Billy say to her.
“I know. It fits you perfectly.”
We went to the Mall to set up Julie and Billy’s tent. I would be heading back to the hotel to stay with the two moms. We found the Winter Soldiers sign and watched as Billy reconnected.
I looked around at the vets, a raunchy looking group of men dressed in blue jeans and combat jackets. Long hair, bandanas, beards, the sweet smell of weed floating through the air. “Unbelievable.” That’s all I could think of to say.
Julie turned to me. “I’ve never seen Billy more alive.”
“Not sure I can handle him much more alive. He gets funnier every day,” I said.
“You should have heard him last week.” Julie looked over to where he talked with his friends. “He began mocking Lady Bird Johnson and started into this speech she gave using his best southern accent, ‘Lyndon and I have decided to plant trees, bushes and other such shrubs on the White House lawn.’”
“What got him going about her?”
“I read him an article from Time Magazine about the anti-littering campaign and it mentioned Lady Bird being the driving force behind cleaning up the highways. There was a paragraph about how she also beautified the White House grounds. And he started.”
“He has a way of not stopping once he starts,” I said, remembering how he mocked Marty’s hair the first night we met.
“I laughed so hard I was literally sick. I locked myself in the bathroom. He followed me and I could still hear him by the door. I turned on the shower. I thought I was going to throw up.”
The next day we gathered at the Mall, Gold Star Mothers, mustached bearded long-haired vets in their fatigues, buttons pinned to their jackets, friends and family. We marched across the Lincoln Memorial Bridge to Arlington Cemetery where we found the gates locked. Gold Star mothers denied the right to put wreaths on the graves of their dead sons by a government that feared us.
As we stood at the locked gates, Mama McKinney walked up to every Gold Star mother, spoke softly and gave each a full-body McKinney hug. I don’t know what she said but by the time we arrived back to the Mall, she knew every one of them.
The Supreme Court said the vets couldn’t sleep on the Mall near the Capitol building. They did anyway. They pitched tents and cooked Campbell’s Soup over camp stoves. We showed up the next morning on the Mall with two bags of oranges, four dozen doughnuts, five cups of coffee and a newspaper with headlines, “Vets Overrule Supreme Court.” The campsite was firmly established.
All week the veterans lobbied, marched, protested and camped on the green. One group headed to the Supreme Court building and asked that the court rule on the constitutionality of the war since it had never been declared by Congress. If the U.S. government wouldn’t listen to the millions of Americans against this war, surely they would listen to those who fought in the war. I was wrong.
Friday, April 23rd, we headed to the Capitol. In a show of defiance, vets returned their medals to the United States government. That’s why I went to Washington, took a week off classes, handed the weekly newspaper duties over to the assistant editor. Julie rolled Billy’s wheelchair up to the steps of the Capitol Building. I walked hand in hand with Mama McKinney and Mom Olsen. Up the steps a barrier stopped anyone from going farther and in the “final act of contempt for the way the executive branch is forcing us to wage war,” one by one the vets hurled their medals: their purple hearts, bronze stars, silver stars, citations for bravery, over the barrier. “Take it,” they screamed.
Mama McKinney opened up her leather purse and pulled out the boxes that held Hook’s bronze star and purple heart. She opened up the boxes and the tears rolled down her face. “He hated these things. They reminded him of everything that was wrong in Vietnam.”
Billy rolled over to Mama McKinney. “You don’t have to do this,” he said. “Dennis earned those medals.”
Mama leaned down and put her arms around Billy and pulled him close. “You look so good in his red bandana.” They were both silent for a moment. “He tried to get rid of these. Called me the day he sent them back to the government. Called me the day they sent them back, two days before he died. That was the last time I ever spoke to him. He didn’t want them.”
I walked up the steps with her. Two vets stood next to her. She turned towards me, then turned back and quietly said, “This is for you, Dennis.” Almost reverently she took the two medals and threw them, one at a time, hearing them clink against the cold stone of the Capitol sidewalk. She put the empty boxes back in her purse and hugged the two veterans next to her. How lucky for them.
I stood for a minute looking at the medals lying against the stone-cold marble of the United States Capitol sidewalk. “We finally got rid of your medals, Hook,” I whispered. I smiled at the thought of him.
Then it was Billy’s turn. Julie handed Billy his medals and two vets carried him up the stairs to where the barrier stopped them. He paused, gave the finger and yelled, “Fuck you and your war.” He threw the medals over the barricade. They carried him back down and put him in his chair. It was done. He was done. Veterans threw seven hundred medals over the barricade that day.
When the vets took down their encampment, the Mall was clean. The occupation had been peaceful.
Saturday, the whole world joined the veterans in Washington. Students, teamsters, meat cutters, hospital workers, electricians, nurses, teachers, union leaders, union members, mothers, fathers, children, friends. Three hundred, four hundred, five hundred thousand—the official count didn’t matter— reminding the President that we were the majority and we were not silent. The government was merely deaf. We were loud, we were many, and we would not be silenced. The line of protesters stretched from the White House to the Capitol Building for most of the day.
I looked at the banners in front of and behind me. ‘Remember Kent State – Remember Jackson State.’ ‘Stop the War.’ ‘Engineers for Peace.’ ‘Third Unitarian Church for Peace.’ ‘Bring Them Home Now.’ ‘Radical Women for Peace.’ Bring them all home, even those in prison, even those in Canada.
Up in trees. Down Pennsylvania Avenue. Past the White House. Babies on the backs of their dads. Older folks with canes. We marched. We chanted. We drummed. In front of the Capitol Building, John Denver sang. We joined in. “Last night I had the strangest dream.” Why can't we put an end to war? Peter, Paul and Mary reunited and sang. We sang along, “Give Peace a Chance.” Why was that so hard?
Vietnam veteran John Kerry, one of the organizers, spoke, “We are going to keep coming back until this war ends. And we don’t come back only on a day like today. We come back on the day that they vote. And we tell these men that if they don’t end the war we will alter the basic structure of this country by taking them to task at the polls. And we will not be silent. Until they do this and until our children can look at this country with hope for what it will be and not despair for what it is.”
Indiana Senator Vance Hartke, the only representative from the government, spoke, “Mr. Nixon, we have a plan for you to protect our troops. Announce a date for withdrawal. Accept a ceasefire and get them out now.”
No one heard. The war raged on.
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 56,168