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Ventura County Perspective

'Heartline' Leads Anti-War Activist to Veterans Wall

May 28, 2000|ROSIE LEE | Rosie Lee is a freelance writer living in Westlake Village

Like a phone call in the middle of the night, the sign announcing the arrival of the Vietnam Memorial Traveling Wall in Thousand Oaks startled me. Silently and somberly it beckoned, inviting reconciliation between those such as myself who protested the war 31 years ago and those who died in it.

Arriving at the Wall late one Saturday afternoon, I sat in my car looking across the low-lying bushes of the Civic Arts Plaza to see the understated black granite monument on the lawn between the Ventura Freeway and Thousand Oaks Boulevard, a statuesque testimony to life and death. A biker pulled up behind me. Was he a vet? I considered waiting in the car and looking at the Wall from a distance but I got out, compelled and repelled by its sheer beauty.

As I crossed the soggy lawn, wet from weeks of February rain, I was stunned by the multitude of names. Flowers, flags, poems, letters and photographs left by the day's visitors lined the ground along the touring gravestone. A force field of love and loss surrounded this vivid reminder of the war--and of the anti-war.

I remember another wall, a moving wall of people who went to Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1969. From all over the country we came to wear placards around our necks to commemorate those from our home states who had died in the Vietnam War. We walked around the White House, holding candles, singing songs and hoping the government would hear our hearts and allow our brothers, fathers, husbands and friends to come home.

As a sophomore at the University of Vermont in the fall of 1969, I helped to coordinate Vermont's involvement in the Moratorium Against the War, a national collaborative effort to peaceably protest against the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia. I practically moved into the Quaker Meeting House in Burlington, which we called the Peace Center. There was a beehive of activity to organize bus transportation to Washington and to make sure that each protester had a placard to wear with a deceased veteran's name on it. Keeping the placards current was a more profoundly disturbing project than any of us could have ever imagined; every day new names were added to the list.

All kinds of people came to that first moratorium. Some didn't understand the war and its complicated political backdrop; they only knew that it was taking young men away from their families, friends, college, jobs, hopes and dreams. For others, the war was primarily about politics. There were even protesters ready to resort to violence to get their message across. The day after the march, some of these people clashed with the local police. I tried to leave the area and asked a police officer for directions away from the commotion but he sent me on a route that led me back into it. I found myself in the middle of a chaotic ruckus where I got tear-gassed along with thousands of others. The bus ride home was intense, with the heater on and the fumes from the noxious gas burning my eyes, nose and throat for the 12-hour drive.

I demonstrated for peace because I wanted peace, and I stopped demonstrating for peace for the same reason. Violence in the context of the peace movement didn't make sense to me. To fight and argue for peace was not the journey I wanted to take. As a spokesperson for the peaceful protest point of view, I endured severe criticism from some of the more extreme activists who thought that to be heard, one had to be defiant, even if it meant breaking the law.

Radicals, of course, had a major influence on the anti-war movement and have dominated our collective memory of the late 1960s and early '70s. Drama excites people and stirs up their interest; and dramatic incidents such as street riots, break-ins to damage draft records, Kent State and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago changed both lives and the course of history.

But this isn't the only story to tell.

A tale of truth is also revealed in lesser headlines, in what could be called "heartlines." Inner, more personal revelations are often prompted by actions that seem to be almost non-actions but that inspire a profound and fundamental life change.

Having tired of the overwhelming sense of futility in trying to demonstrate against government policy, I decided to protest in smaller, more personal ways.

ROTC had a desk set up in the basement of the student union at my university, outside the cafeteria where everyone used to hang out between classes. Planning to harass the cadet who was at the table trying to lure young college students into the reserves, I came down the stairs and saw this nice looking fresh-faced kid sitting behind the desk looking nervous and completely out of place. He reminded me of my brother. I looked at him from across the room and realized that, like me, he eats breakfast, wears pajamas--that someone loves him. I had no anger at him. It was a purely emotional reaction. My heart went out to him as a fellow human being. I went and got a cup of coffee and that was that. It was over for me.

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