Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Road from War

Combat Paper art show  (photo: Jan Barry)

The distance from the Roosevelt Room at the White House to Lorton, Virginia is 20 miles and traverses several eras of American history. I made that journey recently after attending a meeting of war veterans and military family members at the White House to discuss waging diplomacy instead of war and boosting programs for healing war wounds. 

The next day, Paula Rogovin and I went to the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton to see an art show and poetry reading by soldiers who had just completed a post-traumatic stress program at Ft. Belvoir. The event in a prison complex that previously housed women jailed for demanding the right to vote, Vietnam War protesters, and all sorts of people held for petty offenses, was the culmination of a series of workshops conducted by Combat Paper NJ and Warrior Writers at Ft. Belvoir and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

Teddy Roosevelt, whose Progressive Era enthusiasms still animate the current occupants of the White House, might well have approved the transformation of the infamous Washington, DC prison farm in Lorton into an arts center assisting wounded warriors.

“A lot of our wounds are not from the enemy but from our commands and our hospitals,” said a woman Army veteran who served at the Guantanamo Bay military prison facility where POWs from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been kept for more than a decade.

Teddy Roosevelt, who led US troops in battle to free Cuba from Spanish military abuses, surely would have bellowed a bull moose roar over such behavior by American troops. In a poem she read, the woman described abuses directed at her by a commander at Guantanamo that “evoke fear and terror.”

Struggling Back from War

“It’s been a 12-year struggle,” said a soldier named Vinnie, noting that his injuries include traumatic brain injury as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. Added a stocky young man who said he’d been a Marine for 12 years: “It’s a struggle to admit that I’ve been broken.”

A woman who referred to herself as a Walter Reed patient read a poem titled “Dear Doctor.” It included this angry indictment: “Dear doctors who didn’t have time to/ listen to my symptoms…who preferred to prescribe/ pills rather than run tests…who made me feel like/giving up on myself…I got my diagnosis today.”

A dozen or so young men and women showed their artwork and read selections from their journals—which included reflections on surviving high speed car crashes in suicide attempts, disastrous battles in war zones, mistreatment in military hospitals, drug abuse compounded by disorienting medications, domestic abuse and other traumatic events. I wished that government officials who oversee our nation’s military policies were there to hear it.

The previous afternoon, in a very different setting, representatives of Military Families Speak Out, Veterans For Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War met across a conference table in the history-laden Roosevelt Room with White House staff members who oversee outreach programs for veterans and family members.

It was the third such meeting at the White House since President Obama took office. Nothing came of the previous meetings, in 2009 and 2014. The Obama administration’s negotiated deal with Iran over nuclear weapons, however, gave hope that arguments for expanding diplomacy to the war zones bracketing Iran—that is, in Iraq and Afghanistan—might finally be seriously discussed. We felt that this time we were listened to.

“As a veteran of what is called the Persian Gulf War in 1990, I want to remind you that the U.S. has engaged in military operations in Iraq for 25 years,” said Michael McPherson, executive director of Veterans For Peace, based in St. Louis. “By any measure of success other than perhaps creating chaos in the lives of the average Iraqi and maintaining U.S. presence there, U.S. foreign policy in Iraq has been a failure. … The underlying problems in Iraq are political and cannot be solved through military means.”

On behalf of the delegation, McPherson presented a list of steps to take to wind down US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I spoke briefly about the need to involve the American people in grassroots citizen diplomacy.We are alive today because of the urgent diplomacy of the Kennedy administration with Soviet leaders to avert nuclear war” during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I noted.  “We’re also alive today because of citizen diplomacy by civic and religious groups in the US and USSR that opened doors for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War and its constant danger of nuclear war breaking out in crisis after crisis. The Reagan administration called the people-to-people citizen exchanges ‘track II diplomacy.’

“Diplomacy, not war, is vital regarding Iran. It is also vital in Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Civic groups that do peaceful programs in those war zones need to feel confident that when they open doors, Washington sends in seasoned diplomats, not special operations assault teams or missile-firing drones,” I concluded. 

Struggling with Ending a War

Military Families Speak Out members described the stresses on soldiers and families of soul-wrenching, often multiple deployments to combat zones.

“If we could not accomplish our goals with over 100,000 troops, why would anyone think we can do it with just 9,800 troops?” asked Mary Hladky, who lives in Kansas City. Her son served with an Army unit during the height of Obama’s surge of combat troops in Afghanistan. “The Afghanistan war is an abysmal failure.  We need to change course, stop military intervention and support a political solution that doesn’t favor one side. As long as there are U.S. forces in Afghanistan there will be no peace.  As President Obama has said, a lasting solution will depend on Afghans and their neighbors reaching a political settlement.”

Our delegation also presented a list of recommended improvements to government programs for assisting soldiers in making the transition to civilian life and in getting assistance along with veterans of previous wars for hidden ailments such as PTSD, as well as physical wounds.

The recommendations included moving quickly to fill the reported 41,000 job openings in the VA system, provide timely information to vets and families on where to find appropriate assistance, and create an oversight system to track and correct problems in VA care.

Within hours of the White House meeting seeking increased attention to aiding injured troops and ailing veterans, the Military Families Speak Out phone tree lit up: a son of one of the group’s members, an active duty soldier, had killed himself during the night.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Agent Orange Secrets

Leroy Foster in his old uniform
Beset by cancer and several other debilitating diseases, retired Air Force Master Sergeant LeRoy Foster is fighting what may be his last battle.

“The VA is killing us,” Foster wrote in a recent Facebook message of his and other veterans’ experiences in trying to get appropriate, if belated health care after exposure to the toxic chemicals the military called Agent Orange that were used in the Vietnam War.  

Foster, who lives in a small town in New York state, has fought for years to get VA officials to acknowledge that he was exposed to Agent Orange during a tour of duty on Guam, where he sprayed the herbicide to kill tropical vines and bushes along runways and fuel pipelines for the Air Force, which was flying bombing missions on Vietnam from the Pacific island. The VA’s answer is that Foster doesn’t qualify for Agent Orange health assistance because he didn’t serve in Vietnam.

“I have 28 autoimmune diseases,” Foster says of the plague of ailments—including spinal stenosis,  degenerative joint and disc disease, heart attacks, strokes, and cancer—that began to cripple his body after he retired from the Air Force in 1987.

“If I could live longer I wish I could help the VA bring awareness to the medical community nationwide as well as our veterans and families,” Foster wrote amid an update on cancer treatments he is undergoing after a misdiagnosis of hemorrhoids was recently found to be a malignant tumor.

“Medical malpractice is running rampant,” Foster says of his VA experiences. To make matters worse, he contends, VA officials in Washington knew decades ago that the dioxin in Agent Orange is linked by medical studies to the very diseases Foster has suffered from. He doesn’t understand why doctors at VA hospitals continue to express ignorance of this association, even though the VA has in recent years considerably expanded its official list of diseases presumed to be linked to dioxin exposure.

The VA’s missteps on Agent Orange shed light on the agency’s dysfunctions on a number of health issues for veterans of current and past wars. That’s the contention of Air Force veteran Richard E. Phenneger, who published in 2012 an online report on his extensive investigations into this matter, titled “Legacies of War: The Truth About Agent Orange in Vietnam.”

“While searching the Internet in November of 2009, I stumbled upon Admiral E.R. Zumwalt’s 1990 REPORT TO SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS ON THE ASSOCIATION BETWEEN ADVERSE HEALTH EFFECTS AND EXPOSURE TO AGENT ORANGE... The Admiral’s Report was emblazoned with “CLASSIFIED – NOT FOR PUBLICATION AND RELEASE TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC,” Phenneger wrote, noting that Zumwalt had served as Commander of Naval Forces in Vietnam and later as the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, the highest rank in the Navy.

Zumwalt’s report, prepared in the wake of the death of the admiral’s son, who served in the Navy in Vietnam and died of cancer at age 42, Phenneger concluded, “identifies the most likely cause of the VA’s reprehensible conduct today: its failure to properly and timely care for our current returning soldiers.”

After years of statements by government officials that there was nothing to worry about, Zumwalt’s May 1990 report to the Secretary of the VA “charged the Department of Veteran Affairs with duplicity, fraud and deliberately manipulating scientific data to get the ‘answers it wanted,’ that the dioxin Agent Orange was not the cause of the illnesses and premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of our Vietnam Veterans,” Phenneger wrote.

Zumwalt’s research with a team of independent scientists found that a bureaucratic maze had been constructed to mislead veterans seeking answers to severe health problems.  “Were the faulty conclusions, flawed methodology and noticeable bias of the [VA] Advisory Committee an isolated problem, correcting the misdirection would be more manageable,” Zumwalt wrote. “But, experience with other governmental agencies responsible for specifically analyzing and studying the effects of exposure to Agent Orange strongly hints at a discernible pattern, if not outright governmental collaboration, to deny compensation to Vietnam Veterans for disabilities associated with exposure to dioxin [Agent Orange].

 “Shamefully, the deception, fraud and political interference that has characterized government-sponsored studies on the health effects of exposure to Agent Orange and/or dioxin has not escaped studies ostensibly conducted by independent reviewers, a factor that has only further compounded the erroneous conclusions reached by the Government,” Zumwalt added.

Phenneger, who served as an Air Force pilot in the Vietnam War, dug further to find out why the federal government would have taken such a stance.

“In an interview on July 26, 1999, Admiral Zumwalt reported finding a memo circulated by the Bureau of the Budget in the early 1980s ordering all agencies of government in essence not to find a correlation between Agent Orange and health effects, stating that it would be most unfortunate for two reasons: 1) The cost of supporting the veterans and 2) The court liability to which corporations would be exposed.”

“We need medical evaluation boards watching the VA,” says Foster, who worked after his Air Force service as a financial auditor for the Department of Defense.

“The important part is the autoimmune diseases,” Foster said of what he feels is a deliberately hidden finding in Zumwalt’s 1990 report, which listed a number of diseases that scientific studies suggested were linked to dioxin exposure. “They wouldn't let the truth come out. Classified it for 20 years so we would die off.”

For more information:


Monday, August 17, 2015

Waging Diplomacy

Secretary of State John Kerry on Iran talks   (photo: US State Dept.)

The latest dispute between the US and Iran is hurtling toward a resolution by diplomacy or war. That’s the stark choice President Obama laid out in arguing for public support of his diplomatic moves to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

Americans debating Obama’s negotiations ought to review how a previous president handled a previous dispute between the two nations. When Iranian revolutionaries held American diplomats hostage, Ronald Reagan did not hesitate to choose diplomacy.

Despite Reagan’s often bellicose rhetoric on foreign affairs, he gladly announced the release of the US hostages shortly after his inauguration, a development brought about by determined diplomacy by the departing Carter administration and, reportedly, backroom deal-making by Reagan campaign operatives.

Later in his administration, reversing a controversial policy of confronting the Soviet Union’s communist ideology in proxy wars in Central America and Afghanistan, Reagan effectively ended the nuclear-war threatening Cold War through negotiations with the Soviets.

“From opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev carved a joint legacy in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end,” noted an historical review by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. “Both leaders pursued their own agendas with a focus that some considered heroic and others considered reckless, but their dialogue led to taking a step back from the brink of nuclear disaster.” 

In contrast, Reagan also presided over military policies that provided weapons to both sides of the Iraq-Iran War, adding fuel to a cauldron of regional and religious conflicts that has consumed millions of lives and billions of dollars and is still flaring and flaming across the Middle East. The Reagan administration also funded an army of Islamic fundamentalists to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, which morphed into the Taliban and Al Qaeda groups that have been battling US armed forces for the past decade and more.

There is no end in sight to these wars without persistent diplomacy.

Several years ago, Phyllis Bennis, a peace advocate with the Institute of Policy Studies, suggested applying a peace proposal by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for ending the war in Vietnam to Afghanistan.

Addressing the seemingly endless war raging in Indochina, King offered a plan for ending that conflict. Speaking at New York’s Riverside Church in April 1967, he said:

"I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:

1.   End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.

2.   Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.

3.   Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.

4.   Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and in any future Vietnam government.

5.   Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam ... “

Instead of waging diplomacy, however, the US continued waging war in Vietnam and neighboring nations for another eight years until the ignominious end in 1975.

A similar scenario is relentlessly playing out in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Everything short of nuclear war has been waged by US armed forces and still these bitter wars roil the region. The Obama administration’s diplomatic outreach to Iran is a necessary start in transforming US policy from counter-productive, destructive military actions to patient, persistent diplomacy.

“Viewed through a broader lens, the [nuclear weapons] agreement could open a new U.S.-Iran relationship,” Phyllis Bennis wrote in a recent op-ed essay with Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action. “Economic, cultural, and travel opportunities could flourish between our peoples. Security cooperation could begin between Washington and Tehran, reflecting our shared interests in bringing urgently needed peace and stabilization in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and beyond.”
A model for such cooperation is the relationship that developed between the US and Vietnam once the war there ended.

“The war that took place here half a century ago divided each of our countries and it stemmed from the most profound failure of diplomatic insight and political vision,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at a commemoration of peaceful relations in Hanoi earlier this month.

“Vietnam and our shared journey from conflict to friendship crosses my mind frequently as I grapple with the complex challenges that we face in the world today,” added Kerry, who fought in the Vietnam War and then worked in the peace movement to bring it to an end.

“That we are standing here today celebrating 20 years of normalized relations is proof that we are not doomed merely to repeat the mistakes that we have made in the past," Kerry continued. "We have the ability to overcome great bitterness and to substitute trust for suspicion and replace enmity with respect. The United States and Vietnam have again proven that former adversaries really can become partners, even in the complex world that we face today. And as much as that achievement matters to us, it is also a profound and timely lesson to the rest of the world.”

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Sunday, August 9, 2015

Moving from Military to Diplomatic Action

President Obama speaks on Iran nuclear deal  (photo:

Americans may well be confused by President Obama’s push to gain a diplomatic deal with Iran to halt its apparent moves to build nuclear weapons. In his recent speech at American University, Obama vigorously called for the nation to transform its world view from “a mind-set characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy.”

The question is whether it’s the public that needs to change its views on waging war or working for peaceful solutions or whether Obama needs to transform his administration.

In electing Obama president, a majority of voters chose the “peace candidate” who pressed for winding down the war in Iraq. Once in office, however, Obama seemed in no hurry to get troops home and wind down the war in Iraq—which on his watch has since expanded into Syria. And he took the Pentagon’s advice and sent a surge of additional troops into Afghanistan.

As I wrote in a January 2009 blog, many close observers of the war in Central Asia raised alarms about escalating military actions in a region of ancient feuds flaming through nuclear-armed Pakistan. Yet no diplomatic action was taken by Obama to press Pakistan to disband its nuclear arsenal.

“One lesson from Vietnam was that the United States should not go to war without broad public support. One lesson from Iraq might be that we should not go to war without a vigorous public debate in which an administration’s claims are carefully examined and challenged,” Ray Bonner, a veteran journalist in Asia, wrote in a New York Times review of two books about the Afghan war. “Yet we are on the verge of significantly expanding the war in Afghanistan, which will inevitably affect Pakistan as well.”

Days after Obama was sworn into office, former Senator George McGovern set off a big flare in The Washington Post to illuminate the issue: “To send our troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan would be a near-perfect example of going from the frying pan into the fire. There is reason to believe some of our top military commanders privately share this view. And so does a broad and growing swath of your party and your supporters,” McGovern wrote.

“I have believed for some time that military power is no solution to terrorism. The hatred of U.S. policies in the Middle East -- our occupation of Iraq, our backing for repressive regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, our support of Israel -- that drives the terrorist impulse against us would better be resolved by ending our military presence throughout the arc of conflict,” McGovern continued. “This means a prudent, carefully directed withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere. We also need to close down the imposing U.S. military bases in this section of the globe, which do so little to expand our security and so much to stoke local resentment.”

Some may dismiss McGovern as a failed presidential candidate trounced by Richard Nixon. However, Nixon subsequently resigned in disgrace for presiding over an administration that illegally attacked political opponents, and Congress heeded critics like McGovern and cut off funds for the widening war Nixon waged in Indochina. Given the history of the disastrous military campaign in Southeast Asia, a sober reexamination began taking place inside and outside military circles on how best to engage earth-scorching Islamic insurgencies well before Obama was elected president.

No Military Solution to Terrorism

 “There is no battlefield solution to terrorism," The RAND Corporation, a top Pentagon contractor on national defense research, concluded in 2008 in a study of military campaigns against insurgency groups around the world since 1968. “In looking at how other terrorist groups have ended, the RAND study found that most terrorist groups end either because they join the political process, or because local police and intelligence efforts arrest or kill key members. Police and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, should be the tip of the spear against al Qaida in most of the world, and the United States should abandon the use of the phrase ‘war on terrorism,’” the report to the Pentagon stated.

This reexamination was nudged by Washington Post reporter Dana Priest’s insightful critique, The Mission:  Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military, published in 2003, and kick-started by retired Marine General Anthony Zinni’s broadside challenge to Bush administration’s policies, The Battle for Peace, which came out in 2006.

“Since the end of the Cold War, the imperatives of ‘global leadership’ have led the United States to assume ever-greater obligations around the world.  With little or no consideration of the implications, policymakers have sloughed off the burden of handling those obligations onto the armed services, which are cheerfully assumed to be able to do anything, anywhere, at any time,” states a synopsis of Priest’s book on the U.S. Air Force’s Air University Library Web site. “That assumption deserves to be reconsidered -- as does the corollary, long cherished by conservatives, that other government agencies, such as the State Department, are incompetent beyond salvaging.”

For instance, “There can be no military solution to the problem” that violently divides Israelis and Palestinians, General Zinni told Priest after serving as U.S. military commander in the Middle East and as a State Department special envoy on Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. “You know, there is no military solution to terrorism, either.”   

Need for a New Strategy

In his book, Zinni wrote: “Think about it: We’ve declared war on a tactic—terrorism—not on an ideology, not on a nation-state… This is no way to fight terrorism … Military responses by themselves will not do the job. ... We need a new strategic vision for our country—a vision that will focus our government and all its elements of power on the task of bringing peace and stability to the world.”

Based on his military career, which included enduring severe battle wounds as a young marine in Vietnam, Zinni concluded that “We have not been skillful in understanding how to effectively apply our power in ways that do not alienate or threaten other societies. We understand warmaking far better than we understand peacemaking.”

The remedy, he wrote, is to treat diplomatic negotiations and other means of resolving conflicts seriously. “A set of countries around the world—primarily the Nordic countries, Canada, and Switzerland—have traditionally centered their foreign policy on peacemaking, mediation, and conflict resolution, and have funded and provided resources for these activities.”

In his 2004 autobiography, Battle Ready, composed with military storyteller Tom Clancy, Zinni bluntly fired off a warning to the American public and to his former colleagues in the Pentagon: “The military traditionally goes out there and kills people and breaks things. … We have to ask ourselves how the military needs to change in order to actually deal with those political, economic, social, security, and information management challenges that we’ve already been facing for a long time. … Either the civilian officials must develop the capabilities demanded of them and learn how to partner with other agencies to get the job done, or the military finally needs to change into something else beyond the breaking and the killing.”

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"American Native" Film Probes Indian Reality

"American Native" documentary photo 

Imagine that you have to prove your ethnicity when filling out a census form and myriad other forms posing that question in American society. Do you have an original document showing direct lineage from ancestors who lived in a likely distant area of the world centuries ago?

That’s the seemingly impossible to navigate bureaucratic maze faced by members of the Ramapough Mountain Indian tribe, whose quest to prove their ethnic heritage is conveyed in "American Native," a new documentary making the rounds of film festivals and scheduled to open in theaters in September.

"Their history has been written by everybody but themselves," film director Steven Oritt said at a recent screening at the Hoboken International Film Festival, held in Middletown, N.Y.  Oritt and producer Corey Bobker made the independent documentary to help tell that story.

Residents of northern New Jersey and adjacent areas in New York are more likely to recall other names for these long maligned Americans—the Mountain People, “Jackson Whites” and less printable names. This film explores a gritty grassroots effort by marginalized American citizens to reclaim a heritage denied by hostile neighbors, rumors fanned by newspapers, and government officials parroting the self-interested howls of casino moguls.

These backwoods folks were mocked by Donald Trump, long before he heckled fellow candidates for the Republican nomination for president of the United States. Belittling the Ramapoughs’ request to be recognized as a  Native American Indian tribe by the federal government, which might potentially gain standing to open a casino closer to New York City than his gambling palaces in Atlantic City, Trump announced on a popular New York radio show—revived in this film—that “I have more Indian blood than they do.”

The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs rejected the Ramapoughs’ claim for lack of historical proof of tribal status, such as a treaty with the fledgling US government.

Who gets to decide who is an Indian is an unsettling question raised by this tiny clan of bow and arrow hunters who talk in a distinctive Appalachian mountain tone, alternately polite, reflective, and bluntly defiant.

Many of these families who live in Hillburn, NY, Ringwood and Mahwah, NJ and neighboring towns have photos that trace their roots to previous generations who lived in the once remote mountains along the New Jersey-New York border, hunting, fishing, working in the iron mines created before the American Revolution, working on horse farms and estates of 19th century wealthy New Yorkers, and then at the massive Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Mahwah. Among relatives in the photos are sturdy, young men wearing military uniforms of the world wars.

In scene after scene, the film shows repeated insults from the current crop of mansion owners and government officials upset over the notion of a hardscrabble group of self-styled American Indians insisting on reviving their culture and traditions in what is now prime real estate in suburban New Jersey and upscale Rockland County, NY. 

On camera, local officials and owners of neighboring mansions try to block tribal leaders from building a log longhouse on a scenic tract on the Ramapo River. An academic researcher dismisses the Ramapoughs’ oral history of rustic life in the Ramapo Mountains passed down by generations upon generations and insists that members of the group are actually descendants of freed blacks who lived in New Amsterdam under the colonial Dutch.

In the unkindest cut of all, the head of the Delaware Nation in Oklahoma proclaims in an interview at his tribal casino headquarters that any Indians who stayed behind in New Jersey rather than be pushed west abandoned any claim to tribal status. Asked about his heritage, the Delaware chief cheerfully states that he is one-eighth Indian.

“I know who I am” is the refrain that weaves through this film. In often impassioned dignity, men and women who grew up in these ancient mountains, listening to stories by grandmothers about previous generations who survived previous pressures to leave these forested ridges, speak for themselves.  

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Monday, July 27, 2015

Walking Point: A Step into the Unknown

Vets, family members work with a dancer    (photo: Jan Barry)

I was dubious when the organizer of a veterans arts program emailed seeking volunteers to participate in a dance workshop. On the other hand it sounded like fun, if not for my wobbly old knees that generally command assistance from a cane or walking stick.

To my relief, Roman Baca and fellow dancers with the Exit 12 Dance Company warmly welcomed a gaggle of geriatric Vietnam vets into the dance workshop Sunday, a part of the Warwick Summer Arts Festival, held at Arthur Finnegan American Legion Post 1443 in Greenwood Lake, NY. Also on the program were a Combat Paper art show and a Warrior Writers workshop and reading, which is what drew most of the participants.

Our informal, pick up dance troupe also included a 60-ish mother of an Iraq War vet, a 40-ish mother who served with a US Army field hospital in a long-forgotten war in Somalia, and a 30-ish female festooned with tattoos commemorating service as a combat medic in Iraq.

Shuffling into the formation for dance warm up exercises felt like walking point on patrol into unknown territory. Even more so than usual, I had to concentrate on every step, trying to anticipate potential hidden dangers. At my age, losing balance and falling is an always lurking menace—as happened recently to a fellow vet laid up from injuries from a misstep in his own home. 

Baca, a professional dancer who served in the Marines in Iraq, and his dance crew guided us through warm up moves that brought back memories of a suddenly imposed PT drill one humid morning in Vietnam, amid sleepy air crews grumbling about being subjected to jumping jacks, push ups and other strenuous exercises last encountered in basic training.

In this case, however, we were advised not to do any movement that felt uncomfortable. The idea, Baca explained, was to tell memorable personal stories in creative movements.

“They take away your identity in the military,” he said. The idea that came to him, which is the core of the dance company he created after military service, is to reclaim affirmation of yourself and address troubling experiences in creative ways.

A fun way of doing this, he demonstrated, is conveying your first name with arm and hand and body gestures—and then sharing this with a circle of other folks, each adding a creative twist or flair. And then speeding up the action of repeating everyone’s name/moves to make a flowing set of movements.

Creative juices flowing, we were assigned in groups of three to tell a memorable story in our life through dance movements. For me and others with knee or ankle issues, this meant thinking about making moves that were expressive without being disastrous. It was a real life exercise in thinking on your feet.

Later in the afternoon, after the writing workshop and reading to the assembled audience, we presented our dance movement renderings. Writhing arms, legs and bodies conveyed the best we could pent-up emotions from war and uneasy peace.  

It was an exciting melding of writers, artists and dancers addressing hard-to-express events. It was an adventure that, for me, pushed some previously accepted limits, with no injuries. I’d like to do it again.

Since forming the dance company in 2007, Baca and fellow dancers have performed and done workshops with vets and family members in New York City and around the country. As he told a San Francisco journalist earlier this year: “Like many returning veterans, Baca found that the re-entry period to normal civilian life was ‘incredibly difficult. After six months, my girlfriend, who is now my wife (Lisa Fitzgerald, who is also a dancer with Exit 12), sat me down and said, 'You’re not OK. You’re angry, depressed, anxious.’

“She wanted to help me and said, 'If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?’ ‘I said, 'I’ve always wanted to start a dance company.’ So we gave it a shot.”

For more information:

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Dave Curry, RIP

Dave Curry    (photo:

There was a memorial service in Chicago today for Dave Curry, a long-time leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I learned of his death and memorial service in an email this morning. I’m sorry to say I didn’t know Dave well, living and working as I have mostly on the East Coast, but his life exemplified what remarkable, life-long civic activists grew from this dissident group of ticked off war veterans.

“Few people at the University of Missouri-St. Louis knew that respected criminology professor David Curry had been sentenced to 34 years in prison on federal drug charges. Or that, years later, he had been granted a rare presidential pardon,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted in its obituary on Curry’s death in April, at age 66, of congestive heart disease. He also suffered from Parkinson’s disease and hepatitis C, two other maladies that have afflicted many Vietnam vets.

The arc of his life was like a movie plot, former academic colleagues stated in a tribute on the American Society of Criminology website. Growing up in an impoverished coal-mining family, “Dave never finished the twelfth grade, but his test scores were so high that he was admitted to a community college and then the University of Southern Mississippi without a high school diploma, earning a B.S. in Sociology (with a minor in Mathematics)  in 1969,” noted former collegiate colleagues Bob Bursik and Jim Lynch. “Since he was supported at USM by an Army ROTC scholarship, he was obligated to serve a tour of duty.  He was sent to Vietnam as an intelligence officer and eventually was promoted to captain. 

“Upon his return, he enrolled at the University of Mississippi, where he was awarded an M.A. in Sociology in 1973.  In addition, greatly disillusioned by what he had experienced in Southeast Asia, he served as the Mississippi state coordinator of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Upon completion of his degree, he enrolled in the doctoral program in Sociology at the University of Chicago in 1973 (when and where we first met him), graduating with his Ph.D. in 1976.

“His odyssey becomes even stranger at this point. He accepted a tenure track position in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of South Alabama, achieving the rank of Associate Professor and serving regularly as an expert witness for the local NAACP- affiliated law firm and the Southern Poverty Law Center.  He also intensified his work with the VVAW.  These activities did not sit well with the Alabama political power brokers and they assigned a Special Agent from the Alabama Bureau of Investigation to go undercover with the VVAW in an effort to take Dave down.”

One drug sting later, Dave Curry was convicted of cocaine distribution and sentenced to 34 years in prison. That’s the kind of heat VVAW and other social activists faced in the 1960s and 70s. But Dave had a lot of supporters, who got him out of jail, back into academic work, and convinced President Bill Clinton to issue a pardon in 2000.

“Upon his release, Dave accepted a position at West Virginia University (1989) and then joined the CCJ faculty at UMSL in 1994,” Bursik and Lynch noted. “At that point he already had garnered international acclaim for his work in military sociology and his studies of street gang activities, which later expanded into a focus on youth violence in general. Not only did he continue to be a prolific researcher but he was highly devoted to his teaching responsibilities and in 2004 received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Service. He also served on the national boards of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (winning its Advocacy Award in 2001).  He retired in 2011 for health reasons and moved to Mobile, Alabama.”

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