Scott Camil: Internationally Known Winter Soldier Finds Peace With War Buddies

Marines salute during the national anthem before a baseball game between the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers Sun
Marines salute during the national anthem before a baseball game between the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers Sunday, April 8, 2012, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Photo by Amanda Adams

Scott Camil's Marine Corps fitness report written before he left Vietnam states the following: "[Sergeant Camil] can be trusted to complete any task assigned to him and often takes the initiative to do the odd, unglamorous but necessary jobs that arise from time to time. Under fire he is extremely cool."

He was praised for his "complete knowledge" of his job as a forward observer -- to call in artillery on enemy targets from the field -- his organizational skills, his fierce motivation, and his keen ability to instruct enlisted men and officers alike.

But no adjectives or elevated language could convey the gravity of what Sergeant Camil had experienced during his 13-month tour, and the extended six months he volunteered to stay on and fight. And however laudatory the officer who evaluated Camil, he couldn't possibly have known that the 21-year-old sergeant would apply the same skills that made him a good marine to a tireless life of activism.

Camil's entrance into the antiwar movement was gradual. When he came home from Vietnam in November 1967 he served two more years in the Marine Corps and had time to adjust from combat.

"I would say that the time was a buffer that saved my life because the conflict resolution skills I learned in Vietnam was to just kill the guy," Scott Camil said in a recent interview with us.

"We were all very aggressive when we came home and if somebody spat on me I would have messed them up. I don't know any guy that came home and got spit on."

It was while he was studying at the University of Florida in Gainesville that Camil heard Jane Fonda speak at an anti-war rally on the campus and his life took an unexpected turn.

"I was throwing a Frisbee, not really paying attention. I just wanted to see Barbarella," Camil told us.

"[Fonda] got my attention when she said, 'This is supposed to be a democracy, and the people are supposed to be in charge. The people are not getting the truth, and without true information a democracy cannot function. It cannot live. It's the duty of patriotic Vietnam veterans to come forward and tell the truth about Vietnam because the government is not.' Well, I was patriotic, I was a Vietnam veteran, and I knew what we were really doing in Vietnam, and I felt that the people had the right to know the truth."

During the rally, Camil gave his contact information to an organizer in front of the stage taking names of veterans willing to speak truthfully about the war in Vietnam. Several days later he received a phone call inviting him to Detroit to participate in the highly publicized Winter Soldier Investigation -- a three-day media event sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW) intended to expose war crimes by American troops in Vietnam.

V.V.A.W. 1971

The Scott Camil who showed up in Detroit in late January 1971 was a wide-eyed and seemingly benevolent young man with long hair and a beard. He looked like any other college-aged hippie who subsisted on a steady diet of ramen, casual sex and good weed -- not a twice-wounded, decorated marine with enough confirmed kills to thrill any battalion commander. But the moment he introduced himself on the 1st Marine Battalion Panel, jaws dropped in the audience as he began his testimony:

"My name is Scott Camil, I was a sergeant attached to Charlie 1-1. I was a forward observer in Vietnam. I went in right after high school and I'm a student now. My testimony involves burning villages with civilians in them, the cutting off of ears, cutting off of heads, torturing of prisoners, throwing prisoners from helicopters, calling in artillery on villages for games, corpsmen killing wounded prisoners, napalm dropped on villages, women being raped, women and children being massacred, CS gas used on people, animals slaughtered, Chieu Hoi passes rejected and the people holding them shot, bodies thrown off of helicopters, tear-gassing people for fun, and running civilian vehicles off the road."

Death on a tombstone: eating lifesavers on Operation Stone. Dai Loc, 1967

He left Detroit with a renewed sense of self, totally politicized. Songwriter Graham Nash wrote and recorded the song "Oh Camil! (The Winter Soldier)" in tribute and Camil ultimately became a known presence in the anti-war movement, especially on his college campus where he organized demonstrations.

From the 1972 Documentary Winter Soldier

By 1973 he'd made J. Edgar Hoover's list of dissidents to be "neutralized" for his conspicuous activities with the VVAW; as a member of the "Gainesville 8" he stood trial for conspiracy to disrupt the Republican National Convention with violence and was later hospitalized after a federal narcotics agent nearly shot him to death.

In a sense, Camil has always been "under fire." He has repeatedly endured the painful rejection of former comrades, been called a traitor by ex-active duty marines, for once testifying before Sen. George McGovern's committee and in recent years for his staunch opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I was in two units in Vietnam. First I was in the artillery unit, Alpha Battery, 1/11, or Alpha North, which was my mother unit, and then I was attached out to an infantry unit. A lot of the guys in that infantry unit who had sons in the military and were proud of them for going to Iraq stopped inviting me to their reunions because I accused them of 'not having learned jack-shit from their experiences that they would want their children to go to war.'"

Of the dozens of abbreviated names and acronyms in the Vietnam lexicon used to describe the enemy, battles, units, and locations there are two words that hold the most significance for Camil: Alpha North.

Short for Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, it was a fire support base located just south of Da Nang when Camil arrived on March 24, 1966.

As the "new guy," he was assigned to guard duty for his first three weeks and on April 17 was sent with 15 others to four separate outposts on the camp's perimeter (four men per outpost) to pull guard duty. Since Alpha North was in the rear and far enough away from the fighting, the rules of engagement for those on guard duty were that no weapons could be loaded and they would not be allowed to fire without permission from the sergeant of the guard. Grenades were also taped up so that if the pins accidentally came out no one could get hurt, but because the weather was so hot, the tape melted to the grenades rendering them useless during an attack.

"But I was the kind of person (and still am) for getting in trouble for thinking for myself. I thought, 'I'm in Vietnam, I'm in the Marines at war and I'm getting combat pay,' so I loaded my rifle."

At around 2 a.m. on April 18 all hell broke loose.

"A trip flare went off to my left front and when all of these hardcore Viet Cong sappers (suicide unit) with weapons got up to fire and I started shooting. Chaos erupted everywhere, rockets started blowing things up, people were shooting."

The enemy completely destroyed two of the 105mm howitzers and caused damage to the ammo and fuel dumps. Out of 90 marines, five men had been killed and 28 were wounded. Forty dead Viet Cong sappers wearing black pajamas lay scattered around the compound.

"The next morning I knelt down and pulled the ponchos off each of the dead marines- one of them was my first friend in Vietnam, William Terry 'Jake' Main from Jacksonville, whom I met when I came to the outfit.

"I remember thinking, 'This war stuff isn't going to be as much fun as I thought it would be' and that I'm in a place where it's people's legitimate job to kill me... and if I get killed, that is the end. There is no second chance. There is no King's X. There is no time out. This is really serious and I have to get my head out of my ass.' So I made a decision that day that I was going to be ruthless, brutal, and that I was going to have no empathy. I wanted to live. I said, 'kill them all' let God sort them out. And so, I'm going to err on the side of safety. If you're dead, you can't hurt me or mine. If you're in free fire zone and I couldn't tell the difference between a good guy and a bad guy whether you're male, female, child, you're dead. (Who knows if that same person who's smiling at you during the day isn't planting that booby trap at night.) I was going to get them all."

After Alpha North's camp was attacked the battery moved to another compound and Camil volunteered to be a forward observer with the infantry unit whose activities he explicitly spoke most about during the Winter Soldier hearings.

What happened to Camil at Alpha North and afterward is now etched indelibly into the public record. Camil has told the same stories about what happened to him in Vietnam ad infinitum in documentaries, interviews, and in the countless articles about him online. On some levels Camil is no different from other combat veterans battling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and who revisit painful events in the many self-sealed narratives which have remained frozen for decades.

But Camil's war also prefigured his very public world view and greatly informed his life in activism which he has maintained at a breathtaking pace. In 1971 he started the Gainesville chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and in 1987 established the Gainesville Chapter of Veterans for Peace. In the late '80s, and into the '90s, Camil represented Veterans for Peace on fact-finding missions to Central America and the Middle East.

Then in 1994 he returned to Vietnam for the first time since the war to work on the Vietnam Friendship Village Project -- a nonprofit organization that raises money in the United States to help support the Vietnam Friendship Village in Hanoi.

While there he told officials that there was one place he had been during the war that he absolutely needed to go but they balked at his request. After all, American veterans were always asking to be taken to their old battlefields but nobody ever knew exactly where they were located. But when the ex-forward observer took out his old maps from Vietnam he stunned his hosts who then gave him permission (and a driver) to go where he needed.

"I went back to this village where our battalion killed 272 people -- old men, women and children." Camil said. "It's where I got my first Purple Heart from a 'bouncing betty.' There is a memorial in that village for the people we killed and I spent one day on my hands and knees and placed three burning incense sticks at each grave, one of which was a mass grave for 23 children. I made it a point to tell the people from that village that I was one of the guys who did this and there was absolutely no hostility against me. So now when I think about that place I have different pictures in my brain besides the people we killed and my buddies who bled with me. I have pictures of people who are happy there now, who are my friends, and who have forgiven me."

Then this past year a woman named Bonnie Gallegos, whose brother PFC Robert Dwain "Arnie" Arnold was killed at Alpha North, decided to organize a reunion of the unit's surviving veterans in Las Vegas. Camil went and uncharacteristically took politics off his agenda. It was a chance for him to write the post-script on a story that has been closed for 46 years.

"There were some who were afraid that I'd turn it into an anti-war event but the real reason I wanted to go because there were people I wondered about, who I cared about," Camil said. "And for the last 46 years wondered 'did that person have a good life?' or 'is that person alive?'

In addition to his wife Sherry (it's his second marriage) accompanying Camil from Gainesville was a four-person team from the Samuel Proctor, Oral History Program at University of Florida, which was going to interview people from the unit and record the history of Alpha North.

"The reunion just put something so glorious and happy inside me. We hadn't seen each other in 46 years and it was as if no time had passed. The camaraderie, the love, the emotion, the warmth, the sincerity was just unbelievable. I have never been as close to human beings in civilian life as I was with these guys in combat.

"For the wives, it was just wonderful. The wives got to see that the things they deal with their husbands are not unique to them -- being married to a combat veteran is a lot of work and it takes a unique person to be able to understand us and put up with our shit, really."

"The majority of the people that I spoke with at the reunion were Republicans, a few Tea Party people, and Christians -- very opposite of where I am on everything. But it didn't matter because we were brothers first. I had a lot of conversations, one-on-one about politics and there was never an argument, there was no yelling, just complete civility. And I miss that kind of civility in that real world. What are amazing are the varying backgrounds, where we are politically, what we believe in and what we stand for is so different. But when we're together, we're fucking Marines first, Americans first, and the other bullshit doesn't matter and that's how our country should be."

Always Faithful: The men of Alpha North today, Las Vegas, October 2012

All of the oral histories recorded at the event will be filed with the Library of Congress and there will be a section at the University of Florida called the Alpha North Collection. Another reunion has already been planned for 2013.

At age 66 Scott Camil gets 100 percent disability from the government and Social Security allows him to do full-time peace and justice work. He's currently the president of the Gainesville Chapter of Veterans for Peace, now planning their annual peace concert on December 8. Proceeds from the event help raise enough money to cover the organization's expenses for one year.

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