|Carl Douglas Rogers, cancer survivor, June 2015|
My friend Carl died over the weekend at home in Los Angeles from cancer. We first met as ex-GIs protesting the war in Vietnam. As a chaplain’s assistant, Carl Douglas Rogers didn’t engage in combat in the war, but he spent the rest of his life fighting for many good causes.
As noted in The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, “Upon his return to the United States, Rogers went straight to the peace movement: ‘I wanted to do whatever I could to end this war.’ ... ‘Rogers, who could step tomorrow into a Wheaties ad (he wears a crew-cut and teaches Sunday school at New York’s Presbyterian Church) has been in the news since his return from Vietnam,’ observed Commonweal magazine in 1967. He marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., appeared on numerous radio and television programs, and became the subject of feature stories in the New York Post, the New York Times Sunday Times Magazine, Redbook, and Eye, a magazine oriented toward the nation’s youth.”
Helping launch VVAW shortly after arriving in New York City from his hometown of Chardon, Ohio to hold a press conference announcing his dissent as a veteran against the war, Carl dove into the peace movement, doing publicity work for Negotiations Now, working with Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, founding Vietnam Veterans for McCarthy and serving on Senator Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign staff, and organizing GI-Servicemen’s Link to Peace, which provided support for antiwar GI coffee houses set up near military bases.
In later years, he helped organize events in support of numerous causes in California. When he was diagnosed 23 years ago with kidney cancer, which later spread to other organs, he became a cancer patient activist.
“I fought for life over cancer and ended up better off because of it,” Carl stated in a profile in New Beginnings: The Triumphs of 120 Cancer Survivors, published last year. “As a patient advocate, I’ve been honored to serve for several years now on a National Cancer Institute editorial board dealing with complementary and alternative medicine.”
At a reunion in Chicago in 2007 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of VVAW’s founding, Carl greeted the gathering with exuberant tales of the early days of organizing vets to protest the war we served in. In the 40th anniversary booklet, Carl recalled the April 1971 morning when hundreds of Vietnam vets threw their war medals onto the front steps of the U.S. Capitol in protest of the war that never seemed to end. “The words and emotions that poured out were the most poignant and angry words I had ever heard in opposition to that dirty stinkin’ rotten little war… I walked away from that moment in tears, but never more proud to have been a part of the founding group of brothers who created VVAW.”
During a walk through Grant Park near the VVAW reunion site at Roosevelt University, Carl was still outraged as he recalled when Chicago police officers stormed through the area in August 1968 beating bystanders with batons, as well as antiwar protesters, journalists and staff members of Senator McCarthy, who was seeking the Democratic Party convention’s nomination for president.
And in quieter moments, Carl implored me and other now-aging vets to get regular checkups for any signs of prostate cancer. He didn’t dwell on his cancer treatments, but his voice conveyed a sense of urgency.
In December 2014, Carl and his wife Debrah visited New York to see old friends while he could still get around. His cancer prognosis was grim. Even so, he was full of cheer to be back in Manhattan strolling streets in the Big Apple where we had run around together back in the day.
When I visited Carl in LA in June 2015, he was full of enthusiastic plans for the future. Another round of cancer treatment seemed to be granting him some more time. Despite his health problems, he cheerfully led the way down a steep path to one of his favorite beaches below a headland south of LA. “Let’s go to Vietnam to commemorate VVAW’s 50th anniversary!” he said. That would be in June 2017.
It was a wildly improbable, compelling vision. He had me thinking about making the trip. So when my cell phone rang on Sunday and I saw his name pop up, I thought he’s calling to tell me it’s time to start getting ready to go back to Vietnam. And then I heard Debrah’s voice.
Carl’s gone. But he sent me a message. I’m thinking about it.