A Memorial Day Remembrance of Peace Activist Soldiers

On Memorial Day, I remember some of the most ardent and intense peace enthusiasts I've ever known: U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War.

Take David Velasquez, a soldier I served with at U. S. Army Republic of Vietnam Headquarters at Long Binh, South Vietnam, in 1971. Back then, he was Specialist 5 Velasquez, and he refused to accept a Bronze Star for bravery because he felt, rightly, that as a GI serving in the rear he didn't deserve it. In the process, he was labeled a malcontent and given a court martial.

I think about David every Memorial Day (Decoration Day), not because he is a fallen soldier but because he used to play his guitar in Vietnam, often leading us in sing-alongs. One of his favorites was "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"

For me, that song strikes at the heart of Memorial Day and its historical connection to the flowers used to commemorate those who have died in America's wars. We sang that song with gusto many nights in Vietnam, forgetting for a few brief moments where we were and that we, too, could be "gone to graveyards every one."

Of course, the song's refrain -- "When will they ever learn?" -- is apropos and haunting even today. When will we? How soon?

We are now waging war globally, and we have a responsibility to provide this generation of servicemen and women with alternatives to soldiering. Or, at the very least, we need to help them to understand and appreciate a peace movement that was alive and well within the military itself during the Vietnam War.

So on Memorial Day I also remember the Fort Hood 3: Privates James Johnson, Dennis Mora and David Samas, who refused to go to Vietnam in 1966.

I also remember Captain Howard Levy, who refused to keep training Green Beret medics that same year.

Along with David Velasquez, they showed me that you could be a soldier and a peace activist.

And on Memorial Day, I still ask, as David did, "When will we ever learn?"

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(NOTE: This piece is also being distributed through McClatchy Media on behalf of The Progressive magazine's Progressive Media Project.)