Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace
I began writing bad haiku poetry in the spring of 1961, after removing everything but a mattress and a naked lightbulb from my room. In order to cultivate a more seasoned perspective, I took a thirty- three-year break from poetry. It also took me many years to thaw my imagination, frozen by my experience of war. I served as a lieutenant in the Marines in Vietnam during 1967–1968.
I am a board member of the Marin Poetry Center and believe in promoting the poetic perspective to the wider culture. I have volunteered for ten years with The Living/Dying Project, which gives counsel to the life threatened. I enjoy improvisational dance as a practice and as an inspiration. Occasionally, I still surf. Living in western Marin County, I am married with two children and two golden retrievers.
I went to war to fight against war. I was already in the Army, having enlisted in the face of the draft, before I came to understand the moral ugliness of the war in Viet Nam. I felt betrayed. As a citizen of the offending nation, I felt I had an obligation to try to set right the wrong.So I became a medic. I took the best training for field medics the Army had to offer, the Special Forces medics’ course, and served two tours—first, with 571st Dust-Off (Helicopter Ambulance), operating all over I Corps, serving primarily U.S. Marines and MACV advisors, which meant transporting many injured and sick Vietnamese civilians; after that, as senior medic with a line company of the 173d Airborne Brigade, in northern Binh Dinh province, II Corps. (Eighteen months in all, in 1969 and ’70.)
I did what I’d set out to do, but it cost a great deal. The moral clarity I’d acted on became clouded and confused. I saved some lives, and I helped the army machine do its work. I was accomplice to murder. I did a lot of medcaps (village clinics), and that was good, and the army used them as propaganda. Doing the right thing did not make me lighter—it gave me nightmares; it confused the hell out of me.
I went to war to fight against war. I do not recommend that course. To young people, I say: Work for peace before you get into a compromised position. Do not stand up for empire. There is humanity inside the machine, but any way you cut it, the military is about killing.
A draft board pulled me into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam conflict. I served in the Fort Ord military hospital. Afterward I grabbed a graduate degree and set off for Israel, where I became a citizen and a soldier. Annually, for a month each time, I hunted for infiltrators along the northern borders, working mostly at night. At forty-four, I had seen and smelled too much, so I quit. The demobilizing officer sought to keep me in. It would enhance my masculinity, he said. When I retire from my university job, I will become a certified chef ministering to children suffering from digestive tract diseases. Yes, I’ll be in uniform again: this time clean, hospital white.
In “February on the Jordan Rift,” I wrote about helmeted soldiers put on solitary guard duty and left to their own devices. An infantryman’s initial alertness (mine) is followed by flight to Roman foot soldiers of yore, and to Terminus, a god I love. It, though armless and legless, retains immense power to this day. Terminus is a spirit calling to men who have lost limbs in battle, and to the emotionally wounded. Terminus is the god of getting along together, of community no matter how difficult it is to reach and sustain accord.
On the morning of my twenty-fourth birthday, March 2, 1968, I was awakened by the sound of the doorbell. A young man with a sad face, dressed in a military officer’s uniform, was standing outside. “I regret to inform you that your husband, Lieutenant Jeff Gurvitz, is missing in action in Vietnam.” The next afternoon, the same young man came to tell me that Jeff was dead. He had been killed in a mortar attack. There are events in our lives that change us on a cellular level and color the way we see the world from then on. A few years after it happened, I realized that Jeff’s death was either going to destroy me or make me stronger. I had a choice, and his death became my teacher.
I’d always wanted to be a writer, but from the moment I learned about Jeff’s death, I was unable to write. Words were too painful, they made me too angry. So, in 1973, I began working as a visual artist, primarily with photography. For a couple of years, I made self- portraits filled with war, death, and pain. I had a one-person show in New York, and many other shows around the country. I did installations, resulting in a set design for a Jean-Claude van Itallie play, Bag Lady, in New York.
For twenty years after Jeff was killed, I avoided meeting Vietnam veterans. I didn’t see movies or TV specials. My own imagery of Jeff’s death was as much as I could handle.
On January 1, 1988, I awoke feeling compelled to transform Jeff’s death into a powerful statement against war. What had happened to all the widows in the U.S. and also in Vietnam? What could be learned about war through their stories? I wanted everyone in the U.S. to understand what it is like to have somebody you love come home in a flag-draped coffin. The result is the documentary film, Regret to Inform, which looks at the Vietnam War, and at the idea of war itself, through the stories of widows. The film is coproduced by my wonderful husband, Ron Greenberg.
I have been a student of Buddhism since the early ’70s. In 1989, I attended a retreat for veterans led by Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh’s refusal to take sides in the war—his compassion—resonated profoundly for me. This was another life-changing event.
At Thich Nhat Hanh’s second retreat for veterans, in 1991, I met Maxine Hong Kingston, as she was beginning to conceive the idea for our writing group. I joined the group in 1994. The encouragement, support, and challenging questions of Maxine and my fellow VETERANS OF WAR, VETERANS OF PEACE writers helped shape my ideas and give birth to the film. Although composed of very distinct individuals, the group has a life of its own, offering healing, refuge, encouragement, pure energy, and deep friendship. My heart fills with great gratitude to Maxine and to all my fellow writers as we walk the path together.
Regret to Inform opened in 1999 at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received Best Director and Best Cinematography awards. It was nominated for an Academy Award, received the Peabody Award, the Independent Spirit Award, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival Award, the Courage of Conscience Award from The Peace Abbey, and numerous other awards. Regret to Inform continues to be shown nationally and internationally, and is used in this and other war-torn countries as a vehicle for healing and reconciliation, to look at how war creates profound suffering on all sides.
The experiences of war and travel and exotic new peoples were so intense that they begged expression. I found taking up the pen to be one of the most satisfying exercises in life. My mother would read my letters to the family, and they begged for more. My younger sister would take them to school, where her history and geography teachers would read them to their classes. A few were published in the local newspaper. I later took my degree in English and have plied the trade of scribe ever since.
I joined the navy. I haven’t dropped anchor since. And when I die, I’ll be buried at sea. It’s already arranged with the navy. Not that I’ll die any time soon, mind you. Hey, I’ve got a lot of living to do! And a lot of beer to drink!
RICHARD L. STEVENS
I was born in Chicago in 1939, grew up in way-rural Prairie City, Iowa, and joined the Marines soon out of high school, mostly for adventure. I was in Vietnam three years during the war in military and civilian roles, was wounded twice, and came home wiser. I’ve been a gardener, Foreign Service Officer, refugee worker, university professor, and hunter of ancient trails for the state of Hawai‘i. I’ve written two books on organic gardening and two on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the role of nature in the Vietnam War. I’m a hiker, camper, and passionate tree planter, and I work on native-species restoration projects, including the “Arlington of the Pacific,” the West Hawai‘i Veterans’ Cemetery.
In 1969, I was the Chieu Hoi (“Open Arms”) Advisor in Quang Tri Province. Chieu Hoi was the program to induce communist guerrillas to defect; Quang Tri bordered North Vietnam. On the night of the midsummer full moon, a Vietnamese Buddhist holiday called the Night of Wandering Souls, I met and helped capture the “goddess” of this story. What I saw her do that night and what she endured after changed my mind about what humans are capable of, and about the war. In 1995, I returned to Vietnam to search for her. The title of this account, “Meeting with the Goddess,” is taken from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which the mythic hero’s journey is understood to be the life journey of us all.
I was born in Minnesota in 1939, of Norwegian and Swedish farmer parents, and migrated with my family to California two years later for the post–Pearl Harbor shipyard jobs. As a teenager, fascinated by the labor struggles of the postwar unions, I searched out the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World), but Gandhi’s nonviolent ideas captured my imagination and life path. As a draft resister in the early ’60s, I dropped out of Stanford University to join the antifallout shelter, atomic testing ban, and blossoming civil rights movements.
I met Joan Baez and Ira Sandperl in 1959 at the Peninsula School in Menlo Park, and in 1969 became director of their Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, a great crossroads of draft and war tax resistance, AWOL soldiers seeking refuge, farmworker boycott staff, and Buddhist monks and nuns.
At the end of the Vietnam War, I edited the Simple Living Newsletter for the Quakers, then became the executive director of the catalytic Farallones Institute. I met my wife, Vijaya Nagarajan, through Ivan Illich in 1982, and since 1985 we’ve worked in the Recovery of the Commons Project and our Institute for the Study of Natural and Cultural Resources. Our twin girls, Jaya and Uma, were born in 2000.
During the Vietnam War, some 6,000 draft resisters did time in federal prisons, mostly serving two-year sentences. During World War II nearly the same number served prison time—up to four years in federal prison. Each prisoner had a visitor-and-correspondence list of eight people. As one of them, I would make the monthly trip to visit the Safford Federal Prison in southeast Arizona to see Randy Kehler and David Harris. Then they were transferred to La Tuna Maximum Security Prison on the Rio Grande River near El Paso, where the pigpens were air-conditioned and inmates’ cells were not. Visiting hours were 9 A.M.to 5 P.M. Saturday and Sunday, once a month. I drove a thousand miles each way in my noisy Volkswagen Bug. My ears still ring.
Two years before his federal prison sentence began, while the Tet offensive was ramping up in South Vietnam, Randy Kehler and I spent twenty days in Santa Rita Jail (along with 150 other draft resisters and demonstrators) over Christmas and New Year’s, 1967 into 1968. Randy and I paced endlessly up and down the caged-in sidewalk of the rundown World War II barracks, Alameda County’s dumping ground for demonstrators.
I teach English and business, and am dean of the Language Arts Division at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. I took my undergraduate degree in engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point. After two tours of duty in Vietnam, including a year in Cu Chi, above the tunnels, and a year in Saigon at the American headquarters, I took a graduate degree in English at the University of Virginia, and later, a graduate degree in business systems from the University of Northern Colorado.
A retired Army officer, I have lived in Asia, Europe, and Africa. I have extensive experience in sales and marketing, including Internet marketing, and have cowritten and coproduced a Hollywood movie, Fire Birds, starring Nicolas Cage, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sean Young. I am past president of the De Anza College Faculty Senate, and have been on six Campus Abroad trips to Paris, London, and Vietnam. I recently returned to Vietnam (my fourth trip back) with 440 wheelchairs from the Wheelchair Foundation and the Santa Clara Valley Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce. My wife, Susan, and I live in Saratoga, California. .