Sunday, December 15, 2019

Frank Wagner, RIP

Frank Wagner: 2019 "Man of the Year," Frontline Arts
(photo: Robert Sliclen) 

Frank Wagner died at home in Bogota, NJ on or around Veterans Day, just before his 78th birthday. He was being treated for cancer associated with Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. 

A multiple recipient of art show awards from the VA, Frank shared his art skills with fellow vets at the Secaucus Vet Center art group, Frontline Arts and elsewhere, including as a patient at East Orange and Lyons VA Medical Centers. 

A member of Disabled American Veterans, Veterans For Peace and Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Frank was a frequent participant in peace vigils and peace marches in New Jersey, New York and Washington, DC. 

His art work appeared in shows at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, NY; Columbia University, NYC; Puffin Cultural Forum, Teaneck, NJ; Brennan Courthouse, Jersey City; NJ; Frontline Arts, Branchburg, NJ and many other sites. 

The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste
For Frank Wagner, 1941-2019

“The mind is a terrible thing to waste!”
Frank periodically shouted
At outrageous inanity by some dim-witted,
Dingbat, wayward driver—

Peace buttons festooning Vietnam vet hat,
Frank fumed for over 50 years
At being drafted and sent to war
Because he flunked a college course—

Battlefield flashbacks set off explosive,
X-rated outbursts, propelling fireworks
Of precisely re-calibrated moments
Of mayhem and miraculous survival—

Dubbing himself “TuDo,”  
Frank frequented peace vigils and protest  
Marches, smoking tokes, taking photos
And making exquisite art

"Eyes" by Frank Wagner 

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Talking Vietnam

Like many Vietnam vets, John Ketwig has made a public service campaign of speaking forthrightly to high school and college students. Responding in a rush before the bell rang to students’ questions and concerns was often the hardest part. 

Consider this hesitant query from a nervous young woman: “I have two sisters,” she said softly, “and both have serious birth defects. I know my father blames his service in Vietnam and something called Agent Orange, but when anyone mentions Vietnam he goes into his room and closes the door, and sometimes he won’t come out for days. My question is, what is Agent Orange?”

To address such deeply emotional inquiries more fully, Ketwig wrote Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter (Trine Day, 348 pp, $24.95).  This is a long-considered sequel to Ketwig’s mind-blowing war memoir: …and a hard rain fell, published in 1985. Challenged by students’ questions, he dug deeper into the era in which he had found himself struggling to stay alive during the height of the fighting in Vietnam. Amid his professional career as an automobile service manager, side trips as an author doing speaking engagements, and activism with Vietnam Veterans Against the War protesting US military interventions that kept popping up around the world, Ketwig read piles of books about Vietnam and the wider events of that era.

“I have been obsessed, trying to put it all together,” he writes. “Trying to understand.” And to share what he’s learned.

“Back in the 1980s, I often found I was speaking to young people who were living in a home where the damage, emotions, or loss of Vietnam were a traumatic everyday presence, but the parents couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about the war,” he notes. “Gradually, my audiences became more removed from the emotions, but always curious…. They seem to sense that the history of that time is critical to understanding today’s America, and the current wars in the Middle East.”

In recent years, students have been directly concerned about current wars. “Far too many describe funeral services for veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, former classmates or relatives,” he writes. “Sometimes, the veteran took his own life, leaving the student bewildered.”  

How does a grandpop Vietnam vet respond to such anguish? Ketwig’s response is woven throughout this book. He writes about friends who died in Vietnam and since, about the silent epidemic of suicide by Iraq vets from one small town in New Jersey, about the times he tried to talk vets out of ending it all.

He provides a brief overview of how the United States got involved in continuing France’s colonial war in Indochina and the deliberate misrepresentations later exposed in the Pentagon Papers. He weighs in with startling anecdotes that challenge historians’ claims.

“In all the history books I’ve seen, the emphasis has been on the impact the Tet Offensive had upon ‘the best and the brightest’ in Washington, and upon Walter Cronkite and the American public,” he writes. “There has been scant recognition of the impact of that enemy action upon us, the American troops in foxholes in Vietnam. … Our best hope of getting home in one piece was the skill and understanding of our officers, and we suddenly had to face the sobering fact that they had ‘no freaking idea’ what was going on… The morale of the American troops in Vietnam was the greatest casualty of the Tet offensive.”

He discovered from obscure books and rare news reports that the black market he witnessed in Vietnam and Thailand was a tiny part of a vast network of corruption run by American military officers, high ranking sergeants, Vietnamese military and shady businessmen and women that sold everything from rifles to explosives to trucks stolen from US military supply shipments. That rip-off campaign, he notes, mushroomed into reports of billions of dollars lost or unaccounted for in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ketwig offers savvy commentary on the swirling demons of profiteering, PTSD and suicide, patriots vs. peaceniks, sex and soldiers, the draft and the Wall, among other topics. He presents lists of questions for students to consider and FAQs on key things such as Agent Orange. He weaves song lyrics and poetry throughout, from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Steve Mason, the late poet laureate of Vietnam Veterans of America, providing succinct ways of sparking talk about Vietnam and the world of hurt that mushroomed from that military madness. I’m honored to be included in the poetry pullouts and passages about VVAW.

What makes this book memorable, a gift to share with others, is Ketwig’s unrelenting quest to dig deeper into what the war in Southeast Asia did to so many people, civilians and soldiers, Asians and Americans, and what to do about it.

“Please don’t thank me for my service,” he writes. “I was playing in a rock ‘n roll band when they came for me, reciting songs about understanding and brotherhood and love. They took me against my will, stripped me naked and beat me bloody, and they sent me to the other side of the world where death fell out of the sky and exploded, and its shards tore up anything and anybody they hit. … Please oh please don’t thank me. If you want to express something, promise me you will get involved in the struggle to abolish wars. ... Then, I will thank you.”

Sunday, August 11, 2019

NJ Energy Master Plan: Which Kind of Green

Union members at fossil fuel moratorium rally in Newark, NJ
(photo/Jan Barry)

New Jersey is in the process of planning its future, amid a global climate crisis that state residents have yet to grapple with. 

The traffic-jammed corridor of turnpike exits that touts itself as the Garden State has relentlessly paved over farmlands and clear cut forests to build some of humanity’s most densely packed population centers; as its public officials welcomed smog-belching petro-chemical plants and constructed car-and-truck-tangled highways, while shrugging at lung-burning air pollution and toxic contamination of water sources. Residents, meanwhile, turned running around shopping at multiple malls into an Olympic sport.

Now New Jerseyans are suddenly being asked to slow down, take a deep breath and drastically change our lifestyles.

“Scientists in the state say that without comprehensive changes, life in the Garden State will be about adapting to a reality where the Jersey Shore is continually a disaster zone … and inland river flooding brings floodwaters to the Statehouse steps in Trenton,” reported last fall. Repeated downbursts of heavy rain during heat waves this summer, punctuated by tornadoes and thunderstorms, flooded local streams and streets across the state.

Governor Murphy’s response to reports of dire weather events getting much worse if greenhouse gasses from power plant and vehicle emissions continue to heat up the planet was to order up an energy master plan for switching out smog-producing fuel to solar, wind and other kinds of clean renewable energy. Like many other states and nations, following the guidance of international climate scientists, the goal is to accomplish this massive energy makeover by 2050.

Meanwhile, the fracked gas industry is pushing to build more than a dozen new pipelines, compressor stations and power plants in New Jersey. Environmental activists say this would dramatically increase emissions from fossil fuels, just as they should be decreased.

“To meet the Administration’s objective of 100% clean energy by 2050 … New Jersey needs to aggressively reduce, not increase, greenhouse gas emissions,” says a report by Empower NJ, a coalition of civic groups that includes the Sierra Club, Food & Water Watch and NJ Industrial Union Council. “This requires annual reduction benchmarks and objectives starting NOW. Approving any new fossil fuel expansion projects will move us further away from achieving necessary GHG targets and make it virtually impossible to fight climate change and achieve the Governor’s 100% clean energy goal.”

The activists’ call to reject new fossil fuel projects “threatens to deepen a rift between the environmental community — that largely backed Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, in his gubernatorial bid — over the administration’s reluctance to halt several new natural gas pipelines in New Jersey as well as four new gas-fired power plants. A huge coalition of environmentalists wants an immediate moratorium on all new fossil-fuel projects,” noted statehouse reporter Tom Johnson in

“This has nothing to do with facts and figures, but with money and politics,” Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s state chapter, said of the Murphy administration’s reluctance to follow the lead of California, New York and several other states in enacting legislation to set a path for promptly reducing fossil fuel use in order to help counter the effects of global climate oscillations.
At public hearings this summer on the draft energy master plan presented by the Board of Public Utilities, environmental activists called for a moratorium on state permits for proposed fossil fuel projects and a quicker pace of moving utilities, transportation, businesses and homes to non-polluting sources of energy.

“Act like your child’s life depends on it—because it does,” Leslie Stevens, a former AT&T vice president who now teaches at Stevens Institute of Technology and is a volunteer Climate Reality community leader, said at a recent hearing in Newark.

“The reality of what’s happening now could have a devastating effect on our future,” Newark City Council President Mildred Crump said as she joined a rally of environmental activists in front of Seton Hall Law School, where a draft energy plan hearing was held.

Flanked by union members, Kevin Brown, the state director of 32BJ SEIU, said emphatically “we need to end fossil fuels.” His union, he noted, represents more than 13,000 commercial, residential and public school-contracted cleaners, security officers and airport service workers in New Jersey. These workers live and work in communities affected by air pollution. “Many of our members have asthma.”

In testimony before the Board of Public Utilities energy master plan committee, Brown echoed a statement he made earlier this year directed at Congress: “it’s more important than ever that we come together to reduce greenhouse gasses, switch to renewable energies and create strong, union jobs while ensuring a just transition for impacted workers.”

“Newark is ground zero for climate change,” said Kim Gaddy, environmental justice organizer for the South Ward Environmental Alliance. Port of Newark activities involve 8,000 trucks emitting diesel fumes daily, on top of constant aircraft and car traffic at one of the nation’s busiest airports, amid clouds of smoke from a regional trash incinerator, she stated. “It poisons our children now… We need zero emissions at the port now.” She noted that technology exists to switch trucks and cars to electric battery power.

“The draft plan ignores that we are already facing a climate emergency,” added Paula Rogovin, an organizer of the Don’t Gas the Meadowlands Coalition. Air quality in northern New Jersey was so bad from ground-level ozone this summer that the state issued repeated health warnings, she noted.

In response to the grassroots campaign, state Senator Loretta Weinberg issued a statement to the news media last week announcing that she and Assemblyman John McKeon have “introduced a resolution urging the governor to impose a moratorium on fossil fuel projects in the state. There is no reason to build new fossil-fuel guzzling infrastructure in 2019. We must start taking responsibility for our future today—there is no time to waste.”

For more information:

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Protesting Concentration Camps

Protest demonstration in Elizabeth, NJ
(photo/Jan Barry)

Americans don’t usually think of ourselves as cruel. But there’s no other word to describe our nation’s gulag-like prison system that now includes concentration camps for increasing numbers of people whose crime was trying to come to America.

Years ago, I met a woman in New York City whose family fled from a civil war by walking out of Russia in the winter of 1919 and made their way to America. Her worst experience on arrival was spending a few days in a dormitory on an island in New York harbor, which she fondly recalled for an exhibit at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.

That is not the story of today’s emigres herded into barbed wire enclosed detention warehouses, tent camps like what Japanese-Americans were kept in as prisoners of war, private prisons run by incarceration corporations and overcrowded county jails.

“Holding them in cages where they die in custody is unacceptable,” Essex County Freeholder President Brendan Gill said yesterday at a protest demonstration at the Elizabeth immigration detention center near Newark Liberty International Airport. Gill joined hundreds of protesters, including families with small children, calling for closing what many signs and speakers called “concentration camps.”

"I can't imagine, now that we have a child, being separated, and knowing what is going on with the kids,'' Tina Jensen of Guttenberg told a reporter for Jensen and her husband Joel Garcia stood with their 2-year-old son, Ethan, amid an upset crowd of 200-300 people who filled much of the street in front of the immigration detention building. Elizabeth police officers patrolled crowd control barriers to provide a narrow passageway for trucks and cars entering and exiting a Fed-Ex and other truck distribution facilities.

The privately owned prison is set in a busy trucking warehouse area near one end of the main airport runway. Huge commercial airliners roared just overhead every 90 seconds or so, the sound so loud no one could hear the speakers.  

"I just don't think what we are doing reflects the values of this country,'' Naz Pakizegi of Montclair told the reporter. "Just thinking of the children, the parents, and the desperation that brings people out." 

When I lived in Montclair years ago, Brendan Gill was a neighbor. His younger brother and my youngest son played together. The town, like all of New Jersey, all of the United States, was full of people whose families came from Ireland, Scotland, Russia and other nations during troubled times. Why is it that people trying to flee hard times in Central America are treated as enemies?

Why aren’t we sending the Peace Corps to El Salvador and neighboring nations instead of perpetuating a history of military missions that created the chaos in Central America?

These are some of the thoughts I had as I stood with the protesters in Elizabeth.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Michael Eckstein RIP

Mike Eckstein at Secaucus Vet Center Art Group
(photo/Frank Wagner)

Mike Eckstein joked about his ailments as he talked about scheduling another round of surgery for spinal problems that left him bent over and unsteady without a cane. With a mischievous grin, he traded quips with Frank Wagner, a fellow Vietnam vet and multiple surgery survivor, at a recent Warrior Writers writing workshop at the VA Vet Center in Secaucus. But for the date with a doctor, Mike would surely have made the trek into New York last Tuesday with Vet Center art group members to visit the Museum of Modern Art.

That’s where we learned via a cell phone call that Mike had died in the hospital. He was 74.

Among other things, Mike Eckstein was a walking, talking encyclopedia of hard-earned knowledge about Agent Orange and its monstrous offspring, dioxin. A member of New Jersey’s Agent Orange Commission, Mike testified before government agencies, organized public meetings for vets and family members to speak about their health experiences and hear from experts on emerging information on dioxin health effects, and issued periodic updates on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans of America New Jersey State Council’s Agent Orange/Dioxin Committee.

To cope with his own health problems, Mike was a regular at the weekly art group that met at the Secaucus Vet Center. He created paintings about things on his mind, including Agent Orange spray planes, the Army truck he drove in Vietnam, and baseball, which he excelled at when he was young. More recently, he dropped by the monthly Warrior Writers workshop and wrote sprightly vignettes about memorable experiences in the military and as a kid growing up in The Bronx.

Mike often laughed that he got more paint on his clothes than on the canvas. A numbers guy who retired as a corporate chief financial officer, Mike could nail a spreadsheet but struggled with drawing a straight line. His artistic strategy, deployed by many of the paint brush wielding vets, was to paint over mistakes with layers upon layers of acrylic. The result was a vibrant rendition of a vet’s memory. Many of these pieces were hung in various art shows including at the Brennan Courthouse Gallery in Jersey City and Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck.

As noted in the Star-Ledger obituary, Mike was “the beloved husband of Susan (nee Segal), devoted father to Craig (Tricia), Matt (Jim), and Cindi; cherished grandfather (Elmo) to Danny, Maya, Alex, and Martin; loving brother to Stanley and also leaves many nieces and nephews.”

Some of his art work was on display at the funeral home.

One of Mike’s best talks about his life and the debilitating health effects of Agent Orange was posted on YouTube. See it here: 

Monday, May 27, 2019

Letters to the Wall

Veterans For Peace 2019 Memorial Day ceremony, NYC
(photo/Jan Barry)

Today, members and friends of Veterans For Peace are placing envelopes at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC containing letters to and for the dead to be shared with visitors paying respects this Memorial Day to the ghosts whose names grace that wall. The letters were written by veterans, military family members, war protestors, peace activists—all stirred to speak by the consequences of the endless, dinning drums of war—from across America.

Here is my contribution to this grassroots commemoration of what we’ve lost to war. I read it yesterday at a gathering of Veterans For Peace members and friends at the Battery in New York City. The event included a procession carrying a flag-draped coffin from war memorial to war memorial to war memorial. Around us swirled crowds of people from around the world boarding and departing tour boats to the Statue of Liberty. Battlefields where American soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and women in uniform died span the world. The names of all the dead could fill a wall beyond imagination. Just imagine the life cut short of one name. 

At the Wall in Washington

The Vietnam Wall is where the dead
Greet the living eye to eye—
Face it, your eyes
Staring back from the black marble
Framing a soldier’s name—
Your soul and his startlingly entwined

Jan Barry
US Army Vietnam 1962-63

Monday, April 22, 2019

Earth Era

A flock of phlox  ( photo/Jan Barry)

This Great, Green Earth

How often we forget the debt we owe
This great, green Earth:
The land, the food, the water, the air…
The mysterious, solitary parent of our birth.

From whatever speck of wet in the universe
Life may have come at first,
It is Earth that cradles us and sustains us,
To whom we are joined for better or for worse.

Let us walk this great Earth once again as guests,
Not as conquerors or even hosts—
For we are no more immortal
Than bluebirds or the continents’ coasts.

--Jan Barry
From Earth Songs II: Poems of Love, Loss and Life