Back in 1972, near the end of the Vietnam war, I was living in San Francisco, and my close friend, ex-Sgt. Van Dale Todd, a combat veteran of the 101st Airborne, lived next door in the same building, a Victorian on 29th Street. Sometimes Van would take a notion to hit the wall which separated our apartments with his fist and shout, “Who the fuck would join the Marine Corps?” I’d yell back, “Airborne sucks!” “The Marine Corps sucks!” Van’d shout. “Only two things come out of the sky,” I’d yell back again, “Bird shit and fools!” That was how we said good morning to each other. It was our ritualized greeting.
We didn’t set out to live next door to each other; it just happened. One day I discovered that someone had moved into the adjacent apartment and had pasted a peace sign on his door.
The next day I encountered him on the landing. He was a tall, powerful-looking guy, about 22 years old, with shoulder-length hair and wearing a combat fatigue jacket, similar to mine. He introduced himself as “Van.” In the course of the conversation we found that we were both ex-GIs and also, coincidentally, members of the same veterans’ anti-war organization.
Van glanced at my door. “You need a peace sign there,” he observed. He produced one from his pack and pasted it up. “There,” he said, “We’re going to be a peace family here in this building.”
During the weeks that followed, we saw each other almost every day. We attended antiwar rallies together and once even got arrested together.
Van told me about his experiences in “Nam,” the killing he’d seen and participated in, of the stress and the widespread drug use among GIs. “I got this medal for killing two people,” he told me, showing me his bronze star, “and when I did it I was high on opium.”
Although I’d spent four years in the USMC, I was never in Vietnam. I was both fascinated and also slightly horrified at Van’s experiences. That was before I ever heard the term PTSD, but it was clear that Van had brought some of that violence back with him.
One day he got in a fight with his cat. I intervened, telling him that if he wasn’t going to be kind to his pet, I’d take the animal away from him. It was a plea rather than a threat. Van was a big man who could easily have broken me in half, but he relented, took the kitty gently in his arms and said, “I love my cat.”
On the corner was a small grocery run by a guy who seemed to go out of his way to be rude to his customers. Nevertheless, Van sometimes went in there. On one occasion, I heard later, the shopkeeper threatened Van with a baseball bat. Van responded, “You put that thing away or I’ll wrap it around your neck!” Fortunately, the shopkeeper put the bat away.
Usually Van was gentle. He hated violence, having seen so much of it in Vietnam. “I killed seven people in Vietnam,” he said. “I killed a mother who was crying because her children were all dead.”
Van had once believed in the war, and he was a guy who’d fight for what he believed in. He’d enlisted in the Army, volunteered for the paratroopers, asked to be assigned to Vietnam. He spent seventeen months in combat with the 101st Airborne in 1969 and 1970. After returning from Vietnam, however, he had second thoughts and joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Nevertheless, Van wasn’t much given to analysis. Instead of looking at how he’d been exploited on behalf of corrupt corporations, he blamed himself for what he’d done, and tormented himself for having “enjoyed” it. “I loved combat,” he used to say, shaking his head remorsefully. “I was so sick I loved to kill.”
“I don’t want my little brother Sam, or anybody’s little brother, to see what I saw or do what I did,” he said, and spoke out against the war. On April 17, 1972, Van and I were part of a group of sixteen ex-GIs who occupied an Air Force recruiting office to protest the war. We were arrested and bailed out the next day.
On April 21, we went to court for a preliminary appearance and got our first look at Judge Lloyd Burke. Judge Burke sat there, just leaning on his elbow and looking bored, like an old railroad engineer gazing at the scenery along the spur he’s been chugging up and down for the last twenty years. The charge was “disorderly conduct,” and the judge refused us a trial by jury. When our attorney pointed out that trial by jury was a Constitutional right, stated in the Sixth, Seventh and Fourteenth Amendments, Judge Burke just said, “Overruled,” without even lifting his chin off his elbow, and he set our trial dates.
To Van, it was a heavy shock. About all he could say when we got home was, “The Man [Judge Burke] just doesn’t give a shit about us!” Van just sat there for a long time with a vacant look in his eyes.
I think Van did expect the judge to care about us. Van still believed very deeply in something he called “America.” In Van’s “America,” there was still something left of that mythical age when you could walk into the White House and talk with the President. Van saw public officials as people who listen—which sometimes they do, but not as often as Van seemed to think.
We went on trial a week later in the courtroom of Judge Robert Schnacke, who reaffirmed reaffirm the decision to deny us our Constitutional right to trial by jury, and then, at the end of a two-hour session, found us all guilty.
The irony was that trial by jury is one of the most fundamental American rights which Van had supposedly fought to defend. It’s an ancient principle which goes back to the Magna Carta.
Before sentencing we were each allowed to say a few words. Van, wearing all his medals on his fatigue jacket, stood up and began: “I was a machine gunner . . .” He told of the horrors he’d seen and of his buddies he’d seen die. The war had to stop. Judge Schnacke nodded as though listening. But he sentenced each of us to 30 days and fined us each $50. (We eventually paid the $50 but didn’t go to jail.)
Judges Burke and Schnacke were both former prosecutors. As judges they did their job as functionaries of the same system that sends American GIs abroad to kill or be killed in defense of U.S. corporate strategy. But to Van there was no such thing as a “system”—just America. These judges represented the America he believed in, and the experience of being denied his rights devastated him. From then on, he acted like a person utterly lost. He became so lonely that he dropped by my apartment five or ten times a day, sometimes even at one or two in the morning.
One night he came to my place and pounded on the door. “I want to show you something!” he shouted. When I opened the door I could see he was terribly upset, apparently in a violent mood. Van was not a person I cared to argue with when he was that angry; I was frightened.
“I killed seven people in Nam,” Van was saying as we entered his apartment. “I can’t live with it any more!” He went to a drawer, took out a bottle of bright red pills, swallowed them and passed out almost immediately.
In a diary we found after his death, he’d written: “Vietnam left me so alone. Why or how could I take the life of a human? Why was killing humans fun? Can God forgive me?”
We gave him a veteran’s antiwar funeral, burying him in his combat uniform with his service medals and also with his VVAW button. While five veterans and a woman carried out the coffin, everybody lined up in two rows and gave Van a final clenched-fist salute.
On returning home, I went into the vacant apartment where Van had lived until so recently. “Airborne sucks!” I called out. Van’s things were gone; the place was empty now. It was an emptiness that left room for my voice to echo back and forth between the walls. I tried again, louder than before, “Only two things come out of the sky!” Again, there was an echo, a louder echo, but still only of my own voice. It was followed by the creaking of wooden floorboards under my feet in that old Victorian house.
Daniel Borgström is an ex-Marine against the war and a member of Lake Merritt Neighbors Organized for Peace. www.danielborgstrom.com.