Monday, December 30, 2013

Reclaiming Art and History

Long before the carnage of modern wars, there was a clash of civilizations in which mangled armies were left to die in appalling conditions, into which an extraordinary woman waded and challenged military traditions to provide better aid for wounded soldiers. That’s the background to a recent piece of art restoration and detective work.

Hearing about the Combat Paper project, a close acquaintance of Vietnam veteran Walt Nygard gave him a weathered copper plate etching found during upgrading an old building. The faintly visible scene focused on a figure in a long dress bent over someone in a bed, surrounded by gaunt faces of what seemed to be Scottish soldiers in 19th century British uniforms.

“Florence Nightingale,” Nygard surmised, as several war veterans inspected the ancient relic during a Combat Paper workshop the other day at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey studio in Branchburg, NJ. “Crimean War,” interjected another vet. “Looks like a Scottish kilt,” said a third, pointing to a faint tartan swatch in the postcard-size etching.

“Let’s see if these smudges can be cleaned off,” said a fourth vet, as an impromptu work team gathered around, offering advice on cleaning the tarnished metal and preparing it for transferring an inked image to a piece of Combat Paper made of  military uniforms from recent wars. The crew of art restorers included veterans of US wars in Southeast Asia, Somalia and Iraq. Their common bond was striving to improve upon ways of assisting military veterans cope with war’s imprint on their lives.

“Wow, look at that!” said one of the vets, as the inked image virtually leaped from the paper it was printed on: Florence Nightingale at work in a roomful of severely wounded soldiers. The viewers were pulled into the long ago war in Crimea, circa 1854.

A quick Internet query filled in much of the history:  “… nothing could have prepared Nightingale and her nurses for what they saw when they arrived at Scutari, the British base hospital in Constantinople. … More soldiers were dying from infectious diseases like typhoid and cholera than from injuries incurred in battle,” according to “The no-nonsense Nightingale quickly set to work….

“Based on her observations in the Crimea, Nightingale wrote Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army, an 830-page report analyzing her experience and proposing reforms for other military hospitals operating under poor conditions. The book would spark a total restructuring of the War Office's administrative department, including the establishment of a Royal Commission for the Health of the Army.” However, the bio notes, “Nightingale had contracted ‘Crimean fever’ and would never fully recover. By the time she was 38 years old, she was homebound and bedridden, and would be so for the remainder of her life. Fiercely determined, and dedicated as ever to improving health care and alleviating patients’ suffering, Nightingale continued her work from her bed.”

Decades later, around 1930, American artist Robert Riggs—who’d served with a Red Cross unit in World War 1—created a stunning lithograph illustration of Florence Nightingale ministering to wounded soldiers, the very image on the copper plate that found its way to a Combat Paper workshop.


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Community Counters Exploitative Movie

Ramapo Mountains at Ramapo College

Just in time for Christmas, the season of brotherly love, comes a Hollywood film that, according to one reviewer, takes its marquee-star hero on a revenge mission into “the backwoods inbred portal of hell that is Bergen County, New Jersey.”

That’s how New York Magazine reviewer David Edelstein describes the center piece of Out of the Furnace, a newly released feature film directed by Scott Cooper. It features Christian Bale as a Pennsylvania steel worker who journeys after his brother, an Iraq war vet who disappeared into an underground fighting ring in some dark corner of Jersey.

“A movie like Out of the Furnace needs an especially sadistic psychopath to hold our interest, and it has one in Woody Harrelson as a man called Harlan DeGroat. He organizes brutal fights, deals drugs, and kills people in the rough hills of Bergen County, New Jersey,” Edelstein notes. “… a glance this morning at the local headlines confirms that its denizens are fighting mad over Cooper’s use of family names of current Ramapogh Native Americans — in particular DeGroat and Van Dunk. I don’t blame them a bit for thinking they’ve been slimed.”

That review, and an incendiary one in the New York Post that seemed to relish rehashing malicious myths about natives of the Ramapo Mountains, were cited Wednesday in a panel discussion at Ramapo College in Mahwah, NJ. A promontory on the mountain ridge across the Ramapo River from the state college is Stag Hill, which hosts the headquarters of the Ramapough Mountain Lenape Indians.

“Elements of this movie bring back stigma not only for the people, but the mountains, which impacts this college,” said Professor Michael Edelstein, an organizer of the panel discussion. The gathering of about 150 people included students, faculty members, college President Peter Mercer, Mahwah Mayor William Laforet and other community leaders, Chief  Dwaine Perry and several other members of the tribe.  

Laforet recalled growing up in Mahwah when youngsters taunted and tussled with each other over ethnic backgrounds. “We didn’t know better,” he said. But, he added, things have changed in Mahwah, a former farming and factory town that’s now the upscale suburban hub anchoring the northern end of the jam-packed Route 17 commercial corridor that defines modern Bergen County.

“This is the first time that I can recall that this community has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Ramapough Mountain Indians,” said Laforet, who earlier this month held a news conference with Chief Perry to denounce the Hollywood movie. “This is a moment in our history.”

“The movie is nothing more than a sensational attempt to generate money by degenerating and insulting part of our American culture,” Laforet said December 6 on WCBS Radio. “This type of stereotype only serves to foster hostility, intimidation and bullying.”

At the same news conference, Perry questioned the motive for making such a film: “Why the hatred? Why the reliving of what is obviously racism and bigotry throughout history toward the [Ramapough] people.”

Neither Laforet, Perry or other speakers at the Ramapo College forum bought the filmmakers’ assertion that the movie was “not based upon any particular person or group of people,” as stated by a spokesperson for Relativity Media, the film’s production company. Judith Sullivan, an attorney working with the tribe, noted that the film “lists seven characters as Jackson Whites”—a mythical name for Ramapo Mountain natives that’s been circulated in newspaper and magazine articles for generations. “As a lawyer, I cannot believe this film was approved by the legal department.”

“This movie clearly has been aimed at us,” said Vincent Mann, chief of the tribe’s Turtle Clan. Even before this film came out, he recalled, he was accosted by three teenagers who drove up to the tribal community center on Stag Hill looking for “Jackson Whites.” Asked where they learned about this name, the boys said “they found out about it on Weird New Jersey,” a website that promotes state oddities.  

 Perhaps the most impressive speaker on the panel to address the “hillbilly” stereotyping of Ramapo Mountain people, which I encountered as whispered “fact” when I first moved to New Jersey in 1965, was Richard DeGroat Thomas, chief of the tribe’s Marten Band in Staten Island, NY.

“I’m not one of the people in the [New York] Post who eat squirrels. I design multi-million dollar buildings,” said Thomas, a Columbia University-trained architect, who was wearing a beaded buckskin jacket. Thomas said he saw this film in California, while visiting his children, who work in the film industry.

He said the best way to counter such a “negative” movie is to do “something positive.” In a discussion with audience members, who broke into groups to propose actions to take, Thomas said he’d like to see a movie about the real traditions and real lives of members of his tribe.

“I think events like this are very important,” said a student at the table where I was sitting. Another student asked if the college had a Native American minor—and if not, why not. Furthermore, she added, “college tours should explain the origins of the college’s name.”

Another audience member said New Jersey public schools should teach more about the Lenape Indians, the ancestors of the state’s remaining Native Americans. “And when you meet people using these stigmas, immediately address this,” he added.

This reminded me of a recent discussion at a veterans’ art workshop sparked by news articles about this film. A veteran from the Jersey City area recalled that, during the Vietnam war, his Army reserve unit had to lay over in Mahwah during a convoy to a training camp in New York State. The soldiers were warned not to go into the nearby hills, because that’s where the fearsome “Jackson Whites” lived. So some of the troops, of course, snuck off to the nearest bar in the area—and nothing happened, he recalled.

Another Vietnam vet, who grew up near Mahwah, interjected, objecting to the “Jackson Whites” myth-making. “I knew a lot of those guys,” he said. “They’re like you and me.”

Well, Vietnam veterans know a bit about negative stereotyping. The list of Hollywood movies depicting crazed Vietnam vets engaged in gratuitous, gruesome violence is long. Indeed, one of those films—starring a Hollywood icon trying to save a fellow vet from a Pennsylvania mill town who disappeared into suicidal Russian roulette matches in a mythical part of Vietnam—is the model for Out of the Furnace, according to reviews.

“Remind you of The Deer Hunter much? It should. Out of the Furnace, simmering with Rust Belt malaise, echoes Michael Cimino's epic about Pennsylvania steelworkers and Vietnam,” notes Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers, whose gee-whiz commentary utterly misses the point, the underlying elements of egregious exploitation.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


"Remains of Fatal Crash"          watercolor by Jan Barry

I arrived in Vietnam just before Christmas 51 years ago, assigned to an aviation unit in America’s secretive war in Southeast Asia. Casualties in these special ops missions were seldom recorded in the news or elsewhere. Working on art to plumb the origins of disturbing dreams that still propel me out of bed, I’ve been painting an unforgettable scene in Vietnam in 1963.

Years ago, I wrote a poem, titled “Casualties,” that described this scene in detail:

Eyeballing the remains
of one of our planes
recovered from a mountainside,
a bunch of us stand
in the gaping space
where the propeller, engine,
instrument panel, and
windshield had been—

contemplating the miracle
of the copilot stepping unharmed
straight out onto the ground,
while the pilot was fatally
wrapped around a tree,
still strapped in his seat.

Lt. Rhinehart’s take off
from a hole in the jungle
uphill against the ridge’s rise
nearly scattered six Special Forces
troopers and their jump gear
plus the crew chief
through the mangled trees
behind his corpse.

“Lucky thing the lieutenant
only killed himself,”
muttered Sgt. Bowen, the chief
mechanic, through a clenched cigar
jutted into the wrecked cockpit.

“Nineteen years in the Army—
and Wright’s resigning,”
someone said of the copilot.
“Said he’d be damned if he’d die
in this damn campaign.”
Resigning a year short of retirement
provoked respectful silence.

“I'm hanging it up, too,”
Thomson, the crew chief,
barely 19 years old,
abruptly announced.

“Third crash,” he spat,
a grimace aging boyish cheeks,
his suntanned left arm
pinned in a sling.
“The jackass who dreamed up
flying Canadian bush planes
in the god damned tropics
can kiss my ass.”

Monday, December 2, 2013

Legacy of Winning Hearts and Minds

As one of the editors, publication of a collection of poetry by war veterans was a major highlight of my life in 1972. How it fit into the larger poetry scene and the arc of American life I'll leave to others to determine. A very interesting perspective by a British writer who recently explored the legacy of that poetic act is conveyed in the current issue of War, Literature & the Arts.  

Here is an excerpt from “And the fire still burns”: Vietnam War Poetry, Moral Witness, and Winning Hearts and Minds by Adam Gilbert.

"Forty years after its publication, Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans remains one of the most compelling, insightful, and moving accounts of the American war in Vietnam. A key work of witness of the twentieth century, this poetry anthology of over one hundred pieces, written by thirty-three contributors, testified to the disaster of what was then America’s longest war. Although the current conflict in Afghanistan has now claimed that grim record, and along with its sister war in Iraq has generated a fair amount of debate, the war in Vietnam is still America’s most controversial and contested military campaign. Winning, and the body of “Vietnam war poetry” that it helped to establish, presented a searing critique of the war by those who had fought in it, a critique that continues to offer a valuable opportunity to understand and examine “America’s policies and attitudes towards Asia through the eyes of the men who implemented them.” This article presents an overview of the history and legacy of “the seminal anthology against which all future Vietnam war poetry would be judged”, and outlines how the collection can be viewed as a particularly powerful and perceptive case of moral witness. Four decades on, now is an appropriate moment to consider the legacy of Winning, to see where it came from and where it led to, and to start to come to terms with its profound and enduring moral significance.

"Whilst interesting and penetrating analyses of Winning can be found in works such as Michael Bibby’s Hearts and Minds: Bodies, Poetry, and Resistance in the Vietnam Era, Subarno Chattarji’s Memories of a Lost War: American Poetic Responses to the Vietnam War, or Lorrie Goldensohn’s Dismantling Glory:Twentieth-Century Soldier Poetry, the actual story of its publication, placed in a literary-historical context with particular attention given to its antecedents and successors, has not been investigated as thoroughly. The fullest account of the anthology’s publication, Caroline Slocock’s “Winning Hearts and Minds: The 1st Casualty Press”, is a helpful description of the painful publishing process faced by the collection, but does not give much consideration to what came before or after. Furthermore, since Slocock’s article was released in 1982, it did not have the benefit of being able to assess the long-term legacy of the anthology. This study utilises the material available to Slocock and brings the story up to date with additional information from the newly accessible Jan Barry Archive at La Salle University and recent interviews with some of the key poets. By examining the forerunners and descendants of Winning, as well as the volume itself, we can begin to appreciate the importance of its role in the history of Vietnam war poetry. ..."

To read the full article:

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Writer’s Activist

Herbert Mitgang, one of my major influences in becoming a journalist, died this week at age 93. Here’s how the Authors Guild, which he served as president for many years, noted his passing:

“Herbert Mitgang began his distinguished writing career as an army correspondent for Stars and Stripes during World War II; he would soon become managing editor, first for the paper’s Oran-Casablanca edition, then for its Sicily edition. After the war, Herb joined the staff of The New York Times, where he would work for nearly five decades. (He also immediately became a writers’ activist, serving on the executive board of the Newspaper Guild of New York from 1948 to 1949.)”

When I met him in 1971, he was a member of the editorial board at The New York Times. He took an interest in a scathing antiwar essay I sent to the Times and dropped by the tiny office of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in New York to meet me. Shortly after, as VVAW conducted an encampment in Washington, DC, calling for an end to the war in Vietnam, my essay prominently appeared at the top of the op-ed page of the Times, titled “Why Veterans March Against the War.”

Mitgang stayed in touch, encouraging me to write about the Vietnam war as I saw it. In the spring of 1972, the Times’ op-ed page, where he was an editor, published a highly unorthodox selection of poetry from Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, introducing to an international audience a self-published collection that I coedited, published from my apartment in Brooklyn.

In subsequent years and decades, Mitgang, who was also a wide-ranging author and magazine writer, was my model for combining a journalism career and activism encouraging wider civic participation on war and peace issues.

Having served as a soldier-correspondent in World War II, Mitgang went to Vietnam to review coverage of the war by CBS News and came away convinced that the fuller story beyond U.S. combat operations wasn’t being reported.

Some insight into his stance on the Vietnam war at the time I met him can be gleaned from a passage in a book review he wrote in 2000 that appeared in Newsday: “Columnists and editors on the same newspapers were divided about the conduct of the war. For example, The New York Times editorial page opposed the escalation of the war and the human and environmental damage caused by the intense aerial bombing, while some of the important news editors on the paper supported the war effort and disagreed with the editorials.”

As I forged my journalism career, I was greatly encouraged by Herbert Mitgang to report it the way I saw it. My poetry was also influenced by his insight that the best writing on war is by soldiers. In Civilians Under Arms, a history of the Army newspaper The Stars and Stripes, he wrote: “For the G.I. poetry was the Greek chorus of his conscience, emerging in language of humor, protest and beauty.” 

For more information:

Friday, November 22, 2013

Death of a Dream

Fifty years ago today, I was sitting in an assembly hall at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, when an announcement was made by an Army officer: “The President has been shot.” It was as though a gun shot exploded in that room. Resisting an urge to duck, I thought: just days ago, the president of South Vietnam was killed—and now the war has followed me home.

Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S.-picked leader of the Republic of Vietnam, died on November 1, 1963, killed in an overthrow of the government in Saigon by his own generals, an assassination carried out under the umbrella of the U.S. Military Command in Vietnam that President Kennedy had created to protect this Cold War ally. On November 22, Kennedy was assassinated in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.

As I sat stunned in that gathering of fellow soldiers at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School, my dream of attending West Point and having an illustrious military career dimmed considerably. The killing of the leader of South Vietnam by American-trained military officers made a mockery of the military mission in Vietnam where I’d served the previous 10 months. We clearly were not waging war for democracy in Vietnam, as we troops had been informed.

The duplicity of the Diem assassination by military officers we trained struck me hard. Now I thought, is Kennedy’s assassination tied to this? A few days before Diem’s overthrow, as I was awaiting a flight to the States from Saigon to report to Ft. Belvoir, rumors of an impending coup against his government were openly discussed in a nightclub frequented by Vietnamese and American military officers. Barely two weeks later, the rumors I’d heard—and thought were just drunken chit-chat—proved to be true. 

Or perhaps one of the other secret operations U.S. forces were engaged in under Kennedy’s presidency triggered his death.

In a year and a half in the Army, I’d encountered many incredible tales of covert actions, including soldiers’ stories about the U.S.-organized invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro groups that foundered in the Bay of Pigs debacle, hush-hush Special Forces operations in various parts of Southeast Asia, and the back-story of how the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved by a secret agreement by Kennedy to remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey, installed within close firing range of the Soviet Union, in exchange for the Soviets removing the nuclear missiles they set up in Cuba within close range of the United States.

Somewhere in these secret maneuvers was the trigger that fired the bullet that killed Kennedy, I felt. And this cast a huge shadow over my dream of becoming a West Pointer and following in the footsteps of statesmen-generals like Eisenhower, Grant and, harking back to the origins of our nation, Washington. If our military forces couldn’t protect the president of the United States—and the leader of an allied nation whose army we created, advised, supplied and paid—what kind of career was that to aspire to emulate?

And so began my unexpected, emerging career of asking questions, rather than salute and blindly follow orders.        

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

New Jersey Veterans Mentoring Program

Public Meeting Thursday at Fairleigh Dickinson University
for New Jersey Military Veterans Mentoring Program

HACKENSACK, NJ—The New Jersey Battle Buddies Mentoring Program is being launched to help expand services offered to military veterans through the state courts’ Veterans Assistance Project.

The first of several public information sessions on the mentoring program is scheduled for Thursday, November 21 at 6-8 p.m. at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Edward Williams Auditorium, 150 Kotte Place, Hackensack, NJ. 

Speakers at the event include retired state Superior Court Judge Barbara Curran, who serves as a pro-bono counsel for veterans seeking disability benefits and other services; Jim Fallon, of Hoboken, a veterans service officer with the Disabled American Veterans; and Benjamin Levine, a U.S. Navy veteran and Hackensack-based lawyer who is organizing the mentoring program.

 “The idea is to focus mentors to work with veterans who need assistance,” said Levine, who served in the Navy as a pilot. “Who better to understand the problems of veterans than a veteran.”

The Veterans Assistance Project (VAP) was launched in 2008 as a pilot project in state and municipal courts in Atlantic and Union counties and has since expanded statewide. VAP is a joint effort of the state Judiciary, New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, and the New Jersey Department of Human Services, Division of Mental Health Services.

“This project seeks to identify veterans as soon as possible after they enter the criminal justice system, and when needed, provide referrals to community resources to address the unique services required by veterans. Those services could include substance use/abuse treatment, mental health counseling, securing veterans’ benefits and if necessary, mentoring by a fellow veteran,” states a summary of the project on the New Jersey Judiciary website. The goal of the project is to aid veterans to overcome or change “behaviors that led to their criminal justice involvement.”

In addition, the mentoring program will assist veterans who potentially face legal problems. The program is seeking honorably discharged veterans of all branches of the U.S. armed services to serve as mentors.

“We’re looking for men and women willing to serve as, essentially, ‘Battle Buddies’ with fellow veterans in the court system,” said Levine. “We are seeking veterans with a variety of life experiences, from college students to older veterans active in community and veterans’ organizations.”

The mentoring program will include training sessions for volunteers and be developed through the assistance of the Administrative Office of the Courts of New Jersey, the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, county veterans service officers, college veterans affairs officers, and veterans service organizations.

For more information, contact: Benjamin Levine at 201-488-1161 or

Friday, October 25, 2013

Art Works

"Losing It," water color by Jan Barry

In my continuing quest for self-improvement, I’ve taken up delving into “oh crap!” moments as I dabble with learning to paint in water colors.

Thus, I mutter “oh crap!” whenever I mess up in my late-stage foray into painting, which outburst echoes—and hopefully draws some of the sting from—far more unsettling “oh crap!” moments in life.

Recently, I’ve managed to do an art piece on an incident that happened last spring. For reasons that will become evident, I’ve titled this work “Losing It.”

For a couple-three years now, I’ve joined other veterans as volunteers staffing tables in the “Activist Area” at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival music festival at Croton Point Park, NY. This year, several of us decided to display a large array of Combat Paper art works on just about every nook and cranny of a street festival-type tent sheltering a folding table covered with more art work.

The idea was to raise public awareness, funds and support for the Combat Paper Project, which provides workshops at which military veterans turn old uniforms into hand-made paper, to which art is applied that addresses deep-seated emotions about war-time and postwar experiences.

On the second afternoon of the festival, after others in the group had drifted off to rest, catch some music or head home, a thunderstorm cloud rose just across the Hudson River. Abruptly, a fierce wind swirled across the water, scattering Combat Paper pieces into wet grass and mud puddles from a previous rainstorm.

I felt overwhelmed by hostile weather, trying to save what seemed like an endangered enclave of artists’ works. “Oh crap!” was the mildest of the volley of four-letter words I yowled.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Vietnam Blues

 Lem Genovese returned from Vietnam with two burning passions—playing guitar and chasing elusive faces of the war.

“My VA counselor asked me what I hoped to accomplish writing this book,” Genovese notes in his 550-plus-page self-published memoir, Tunesmith Chronicles: A Musical History Tour. “I gave him a simple answer. ‘To get it right…’

“The US involvement during the Indochina Cultural Exchange Program has caused enough dissention, derision, confusion and damage. As a veteran I have seen both sides of that polarizing experience and like [Ulysses S] Grant, long to see the sense of hostilities subside into a mutual understanding of what is truly needed to learn valuable lessons from a bitter war to enable this nation to approach that more ‘perfect UNION.’”

Genovese’s quest put him on the road roaming the country as a hard-strumming bard of Vietnam veteran blues, as a crusty college student trying to pin down the unsettling role of Vietnam vets in American society, and as an old-timer National Guard medic trying to protect less experienced soldiers in the 1991 Gulf War.

He still harbors a white phosphorus-hot anger about a lot of things he encountered in war zones in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, as well as stateside. And each outrageous incident or moral injury is buttressed by pages of deeply researched background information—ranging from Agent Orange to post-traumatic stress disorder, war crimes to billion-dollar wastage of military equipment.

“Frankly, after being exposed to dioxin in the Mekong Delta, the toxic cocktails in Desert Storm and 40 years of bad luck, the author relishes this opportunity to follow in the large footsteps of Army Air Corps General Billy Mitchell in one regard, sacrificing what little reputation this particular retired Army/Guard staff sergeant field medic has left … to better protect this nation’s future,” he writes in introduction to a section in which he lambastes “war profiteers” with more than 60 pages of examples.       

Nearly lost amid his furious, fulminating diatribes is a story about a soldier from Des Moines, Iowa, who found salvation in making music. “After returning to Iowa from my 13 month tour of duty in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam, MUSIC was my form of therapy and has kept me from going off the deep end (drugs, alcohol and suicide) many times in the ensuing years,” he states deep in this massive memoir.

As he notes more succinctly on his Yankee Medic Records website, Lem Genovese’s aim is “to be a musical bridge that promotes compassion, healing and understanding.”

For more information:


Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Heart of Art

"Lost in Vietnam" by Jan Barry

Recently, I took up painting. It was an awkward feeling. I can’t draw a straight line. I dropped by a Vet Center art workshop during the summer to see what some friends were doing, and the woman running the program handed me a bag of paints and brushes.

The other guys—mainly retiree Vietnam vets and a quiet young fella who did combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq—were working seriously amid light-hearted banter on a wide assortment of art work. What could I do? I spent several Tuesday morning sessions doodling on an idea that didn’t work out. Meanwhile, the other guys were lining the main hallway at the Vet Center in an office park in Secaucus, NJ with arresting paintings of war scenes, nightmares, vibrant city scenes and soothing landscapes.

I’m a writer. I can paint with poetry. I once lived with a highly accomplished artist. But I was stymied as to what to do with an artist brush.

But watching the other vets encourage each other to try various media—pencil sketches, charcoal drawings, acrylic paint, water colors—an idea emerged to convey the vastness of the jungle-covered mountains in Vietnam and depict how hard it was to find a plane when it crashed in such terrain.

I found water colors worked for what I had in mind, because I could paint over my mistakes as I layered in peaks and ridges and swirls of monsoon rain in a rough facsimile of this corner of the world I haven’t seen in nearly 50 years. That intense focus brought back vivid memories of being a radio specialist in an Army aviation unit that lost planes and aircrews in those mountains.

Meanwhile, the other guys were turning out a growing gallery of art works that caught the attention of other vets coming to the Vet Center for therapy appointments. One of those vets talked with someone who knew someone who runs an art gallery. And before long, an art show was being organized at the Brennan Gallery in the Justice William J. Brennan Court House in Jersey City, NJ.

The “War & Peace: Art by Military Veterans” exhibition opened this week in the rotunda of the historic court house. Lawyers striding through between courtroom rounds stopped to take a look. Sheriff’’s officers and janitors dropped by to check it out—and then proudly pointed out to vets the stunning murals of historic figures in the Hudson River city’s early years displayed on corridor walls circling the marble columned rotunda.

Guided by Angela Maio, a family therapist at the Secaucus Vet Center, participants in the vets’ art workshop explored a variety of media to probe, uncover and convey hard-to-express experiences.

“After many years of doing talk therapy with veterans, I realized that another more powerful outlet was needed.” Maio said in a news release statement. “The ‘Paint Your Pain’ Art Group has had a healing cathartic effect on participants’ combat stressors.  Several members have expressed the feeling of finally finding closure to their nightmares and to the Vietnam War.” 

One of the most stunning works is a painting of a “Point Man” on patrol raising his arm, signaling other GIs (and viewers) to “follow me” into a murky mist in a jungle clearing. The artist, Barry Jensen, a retired carpenter who jotted in a sketchbook during the war, was wounded while serving with a long range reconnaissance patrol unit in Vietnam.

One of the most creative commentaries on what the art workshops mean to these men is a water color titled “Forty-Five Years Later,” by Joe Lis, a combat infantryman and retired nurse. It shows several vets working on art pieces under the hovering blades of a military helicopter, from which one vet is set to jump waving a paint brush, rather than a rifle.    

"Forty-Five Years Later" by Joe Lis

Other artists with works on display include Jim Fallon, Michael Eckstein, Frank Wagner, Tom Sears, Walt Nygard, and Wilson Montaleza. Montaleza served in the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq. The other vets served in Vietnam in the Army or Marines.

For more information:

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Art by War Veterans in Jersey City Courthouse

For Immediate Release

Meredith Lippman, Hudson County Office of Cultural & Heritage Affairs/Tourism Development 201-459-2070/800-542-7894
David Cathcart, Secaucus Vet Center 201-223-7787

“War & Peace: Art by Military Veterans” Exhibition
at Brennan Gallery in Jersey City, October 3-31

An array of art drawn from war veterans’ lives will be hosted throughout October by the Brennan Gallery in the Justice William J. Brennan Court House, 583 Newark Ave., Jersey City, NJ 07306. The art gallery in the court house rotunda is open Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Opening reception for the event is Thursday, October 3, from 6-8 p.m. A poetry reading by veterans on the theme of “War & Peace” is scheduled at the gallery for Thursday, October 10, from 6-8 p.m. These events are free and open to the public. The Justice William J. Brennan Court House is a fully accessible venue.

Artists with works on display include Jim Fallon of Hoboken, Joseph Lis of Union City, Michael Eckstein of the Vietnam Veterans of America State Council in Bayonne, Frank Wagner of Bogota, formerly of Jersey City; Toms Sears of Washington Township, formerly of Jersey City; Jan Barry and Walt Nygard, both of Teaneck; Barry Jensen of Lincoln Park, and Wilson Montaleza of Lodi. Montaleza served in the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq. The other veterans served in Vietnam in the Army or Marines.

Guided by Angela Maio, LCSW, BCETS, BCD, a Family Therapist at the Secaucus Vet Center, participants in the “Paint Your Pain” Art Group have explored a variety of media, from water colors to oil paintings, to probe, uncover and convey hard-to-express experiences.

According to Maio, “After many years of doing talk therapy with veterans, I realized that another more powerful outlet was needed.  The ‘Paint Your Pain’ Art Group has had a healing cathartic effect on participants’ combat stressors.  Several members have expressed the feeling of finally finding closure to their nightmares and to the Vietnam War.” 

“This is art from the heart of darkness, in many cases, drawn from still startling war memories,” said Jan Barry, one of the participants, an author and editor of several collections of poetry and art by veterans, who served in Vietnam. “Other pieces commemorate facets of homecoming, from intensely memorable soothing scenes to troubling legacies such as the health toll from Agent Orange.”

David Cathcart, MA, is the Team Leader of the Secaucus Vet Center, 110 Meadowland Parkway, Secaucus, NJ (201) 223-7787.  The Vet Center provides free outpatient treatment services to Combat Veterans and Military Sexual Trauma Veterans and their families, including children. 

The Brennan Gallery is sponsored by Thomas A. DeGise, Hudson County Executive, the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders and the Hudson County Office of Cultural & Heritage Affairs/Tourism Development.

Artists' Bios

Jan Barry: Born in 1943 in Ithaca, NY. Retired newspaper reporter (Bergen Record), poet and author, books include Life After War & Other Poems (Combat Paper Press) and (co-editor) Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, among other works. Served in Vietnam (Dec. 1962-Oct. 1963) in US Army aviation unit. Graduated Ramapo College of New Jersey, BA in Political Science. A college journalism instructor, he’s active with Combat Paper and Warrior Writers workshops for veterans and family members. His Combat Paper art has appeared in exhibitions from Reno, Nevada to Washington, DC to Teaneck, NJ, where he rests his head between war bulletins, rumors of war, ambulance sirens and other alarms.

Michael Eckstein: Born in The Bronx, NY. Currently retired and living in Hopatcong, NJ. Served in US Army from 1965 to 1967 with a year in Vietnam at Tay Ninh, Xuan Loc and Cam Ranh Bay. Life member of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 327 and chairman of NJ State Agent Orange/Dioxin Committee, life member of DAV, member of Jewish War Veterans and VFW. Served as a commissioner on the New Jersey Agent Orange Commission, member of Admiral Zumwalt’s Agent Orange Coordinating Council. Married for 45 years, with 3 children and 3 grandchildren.

Jim Fallon: Born in Hoboken and raised in Jersey City, NJ. From 1963 to 1969, I was an Army Reservist in New York City while bartending and exploring my skills as a jazz drummer. As a Medic with the Army Reserve Medical Field Hospital Unit, I was activated in 1968 and sent to Vietnam. Our Unit was in charge of a POW hospital at Long Binh treating wounded Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army soldiers. Our Unit was also involved with a Vietnamese orphanage. We brought food, toys and extra medical supplies to the children, who were always excited to see the Army Medic and his truck with the big Red Cross bringing supplies.

After serving in the Vietnam War, I returned to bartending, jazz clubs and was an active Union Representative. For a period of time, I owned the Half Note Jazz Club in NYC. I have been an active member of many Veterans’ organizations, including Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Veterans For Peace, Combat Paper, Secaucus Vet Center and LZ Hope. I am a Service Officer for the Disabled American Veterans and belong to several PTSD support groups.

Barry Jensen: Born in 1947 in Hackensack, NJ. Graduated Pompton Lakes (NJ) High School. Served in Vietnam 1968-69 in Central Highlands with 4th Division, 3rd Brigade, 1st of the 14th Infantry Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP). Combat wounded. Serving fellow Veterans in Point Man International Ministries, Northern NJ. Chaplain of Military Order of Purple Heart Chapter 366. Retired carpenter. Happily married 42 years.     

Joseph Lis: Union City, NJ resident. Graduated North Arlington (NJ) High School 1965. Drafted into US Army October 1966. Served in Vietnam, I Corps, Chu-Lai 1967-68. Upon discharge from the military, pursued the arts of apprentice photoengraving. Attended night school at Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art 1968-71. Later attended Christ Hospital School of Nursing and worked full-time as a registered Nurse. Attended Upsala College, East Orange, NJ 1975-80. BA in Fine Arts and Biology 1980. Military awards: Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Purple Heart for wounds received in action during combat operations, Army Commendation Medal, Honorable Discharge October 1968.

Wilson Montaleza: Born in Ecuador in 1985. Served in US Army with A Co., 2-4 Infantry, 10th Mountain Division at Mizan, Afghanistan for eight months in 2006-2007, and in Iraq at FOB Falcon for 15 months in 2008-2009. Currently a student at Montclair State University majoring in dietician studies. Resides in Lodi, NJ with his two cats and 3-year-old son. 

Walt Nygard: Born in Portland, Oregon and raised on U.S. Army posts of the American West and in Germany. He is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, Okinawa and the Philippines, 1969 – 1970. Following graduation from the University of New Mexico – English/Art – Walt managed the legendary Albuquerque saloon, Okie's Rathskellar. With the end of the 70's, Walt found himself with a family, a blue-collar writer and artist living in New Jersey.

Walt started a series of veteran's poetry readings at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, NJ in 2008. Featured in the New York Times, the series presents prose and non-fiction as well as poetry, spoken word, music and gallery art by veterans young and old. Since 2011, Walt has been active with Combat Paper NJ. Working as a paper and printmaker, he's honored to work with younger veterans, assist at workshops and to exhibit his art. Walt's oldest son is a veteran of both the Afghan and Iraq Wars.

Tom Sears: Born in Jersey City in 1947. Served in Vietnam 1967-68 with 13th Combat Engineers, 3rd Marine Division in Happy Valley, Dong Ha and Phu Bai. Currently lives in Washington Township, NJ. Enjoys fishing, hunting and making charcoal drawings on canvas and paper.

Frank Wagner: Born in Jersey City, grew up in Union City and Bogota, NJ. Drafted into US Army in 1964, served in Vietnam Sept. 1964-Sept. 1965 with MACV and 22nd Advisory Team attached to Vietnamese 22nd Division. Studied at New York Institute of Photography, 1967-68, and School of Visual Arts, 1968-1971. Apprentice medical photographer, New York Hospital. Also worked in variety of other jobs, from aerial mapping to airport limo driver. Active in VVAW, Vets for Peace, DAV, Combat Paper, Warrior Writers, Teaneck Community Chorus. Today I am retired and busy with art in different ways and forms.


Friday, September 13, 2013

America Mired in Middle East

As President Obama threatens to smack the militaristic Syrian regime with a missile barrage, a prominent military historian says this is just the latest proof that America’s military might is flailing about in the Middle East.

Addressing the current crisis over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University history professor and retired Army colonel, said on PBS television last night: “if I could have five minutes of the president's time, I'd say, ‘Mr. President, the issue really is not Syria…'"  The real issue, Bacevich said, is that a decades-long campaign "to use military power to somehow stabilize or fix or liberate or transform the greater Middle East hasn't worked.”

Bacevich, a West Point graduate who served in Vietnam, noted the dubious outcomes of numerous US military actions in Muslim nations over the past three decades. 

“And if you ... just sort of tick off the number of military enterprises that we have been engaged in that part of the world, large and small, you know, Beirut, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and on and on, and ask yourself, 'What have we got done? What have we achieved? Is the region becoming more stable? Is it becoming more Democratic? Are we enhancing America's standing in the eyes of the people of the Islamic world?'

 "The answers are, 'No, no, and no.' So why, Mr. President, do you think that initiating yet another war, 'cause if we bomb Syria, it's a war, why do you think that initiating yet another war in this protracted enterprise is going to produce a different outcome? Wouldn't it be perhaps wise to ask ourselves if this militarized approach to the region maybe is a fool’s errand.”

The stark reality, Bacevich argued in an extensive discussion on the Moyers & Company program, is that America’s mighty military machinery is stuck in the shifting sands of massive upheaval sweeping the region. Since the 1980s, American leaders "have claimed that we possess the capacity to somehow direct or control these processes of change. Even though the truth is, we don't have that capacity," he said. "The truth is, we are largely irrelevant to what's going on in that part of the world. But if we reach out and, you know, use our military powers to drop some missiles here and there, we can sustain the illusion that we have some kind of relevance.” 

If the United States wants to help the Syrian people caught up in a brutal civil war, Bacevich continued, “why is peppering Damascus with cruise missiles the best way to demonstrate that concern?”

“I mean, a little bit of creative statesmanship it seems to me might say that there are other things we could do that would actually benefit the people of Syria, who are suffering greatly, who are fleeing their country in the hundreds of thousands. Who are living in wretched refugee camps. Why don't we do something about that? Why wouldn't that be a better thing to do from a moral perspective than bombing Damascus?”

Bacevich is the author of several books—including Limits of Power—critical of what he sees as American militarism run amok.He is particularly critical of the war in Iraq, in which his son died on a military mission. “Now some number of Americans paid for that disaster in terms of soldiers killed, lives shattered,” Bacevich said. “Far, far greater numbers of Iraqis paid for that disaster and are still paying for that disaster. So the conversation about Syria is far too narrow. It needs to be expanded to include some of these other military misadventures that we have undertaken.”

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Monday, September 2, 2013

War or Diplomacy

As we celebrate the Labor Day holiday, Americans should thank our lucky stars that we’re still around. America as we know it nearly ended in October 1962. That’s when the US military squared off against Soviet forces in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Long before President Obama proclaimed a “red line” in Syria, President John F. Kennedy drew one around Cuba. In the end, World War III was narrowly averted by back door diplomacy.

The Soviet Union is no longer around, but Russia inherited its nuclear weapons. And Russia’s leaders back Syria’s government, which Obama is threatening to “punish” with a military attack. Getting into a proxy war with Russia in the Middle East could well revive the most dangerous times of the Cold War nuclear age.

Furthermore, Syria and its regional allies previously devastated a US military force sent to send them a message.

“At this time of crisis, it is worth remembering another time, 30 years ago in October, 1983 when U.S. warships bombarded Lebanon, the country located next to Syria,” retired Col. Ann Wright wrote recently. “Within weeks, the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut was blown up by a massive truck bomb that killed 241 American servicemen: 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers. The truck driver-suicide bomber was an Iranian national named Ismail Ascari … Two minutes later a second suicide bomber drove a truck filled with explosives into the French military compound in Beirut killing 58 French paratroopers.”

The explosive blowback against US military posturing aimed at countering Syria’s influence in Lebanon also destroyed US diplomatic work in the region. Wright, a former diplomat as well as Army officer, noted:

“Earlier in the year, on April 18, 1983, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut had been blown up by another suicide driver with 900 pounds of explosives that killed 63 people, 17 Americans, mostly embassy and CIA staff members, several soldiers and one Marine, 34 Lebanese employees of the US Embassy and 12 Embassy visitors. It was the deadliest attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission up to that time, and marked the beginning of anti-U.S. attacks by Islamist groups. The U.S. and French military were in Lebanon as a part of a Multi-National force after the PLO left Lebanon following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. ostensibly to create a 40 km buffer zone between the PLO and Syrian forces in Lebanon and Israel.”

US military forces withdrew from Lebanon and diplomatic efforts sputtered out. Three violent decades later, Obama aims to fire cruise missiles into Syria to teach them a lesson, a move that could backfire in explosive ways that wreck peacemaking work in the region for another generation.

If Obama intends to resolve this long-simmering crisis, rather than inflame it, he should read a perceptive account in The Atlantic of how Kennedy ultimately used diplomacy in the Cuban Missile Crisis:

“Plainly shaken by the apocalyptic potentialities of the situation, Kennedy advocated, in the face of the bellicose and near-unanimous opposition of his pseudo-tough-guy advisers, accepting the missile swap that Khrushchev had proposed [that the US remove its nuclear missiles from the Soviet border area in Turkey in exchange for Soviet missiles being shipped back from Cuba]. …”

Obama should continue reading how Kennedy hid this diplomatic deal from the American public, so that he would look tough militarily.

“Although Kennedy in fact agreed to the missile swap and, with Khrushchev, helped settle the confrontation maturely, the legacy of that confrontation was nonetheless pernicious. By successfully hiding the deal from the vice president, from a generation of foreign-policy makers and strategists, and from the American public, Kennedy and his team reinforced the dangerous notion that firmness in the face of what the United States construes as aggression, and the graduated escalation of military threats and action in countering that aggression, makes for a successful national-security strategy…”

As the author of The Atlantic article, Benjamin Schwarz, noted:

“This esoteric strategizing—this misplaced obsession with credibility, this dangerously expansive concept of what constitutes security—which has afflicted both Democratic and Republican administrations, and both liberals and conservatives, is the antithesis of statecraft, which requires discernment based on power, interest, and circumstance.” 

The lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis that Kennedy muddled is that diplomacy is a far better bet than waging war—and it takes more courage to do peacemaking than doing puffed chest posturing to look warrior-like.

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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Waging War on Peacemakers

Vietnam vet Frank Wagner at March on Washington 8/24/13

That the Obama Administration is set on waging war in yet another nation, amid national celebrations of the 1963 March on Washington, is beyond bizarre. It is a betrayal of everything Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and fellow peaceful demonstrators stood for 50 years ago and since.

On Wednesday, speaking to the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, President Obama invoked much of Dr. King’s stance on civil rights, but pointedly ignored the major theme—nonviolence—of his life.

Instead, Obama spent most of the week preparing public opinion for his plan to launch a military attack on Syria—even as his administration is still entangled in violent whirlwinds from its military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and enabling support for the military regime in Egypt that violently overthrow a democratically elected president and killed hundreds of nonviolent protesters.

Had he truly wished to honor Dr. King, Obama could have done so with an appropriate quote, such as this:

“Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say. Aren't you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”

And if Obama were truly aware of his administration’s reckless continuation of the violent American tradition of waging war on other people, from Native Americans to other nationalities around the world, he could have cut to the chase and quoted this statement by Dr. King:

“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today--my own government.”

Yet even with a once-dissident Vietnam veteran as his Secretary of State and another once-outspoken-on-the-costs-of-war Vietnam vet as Secretary of Defense, Obama has mounted the bully pulpit and brushed aside the searing lessons of the Vietnam War’s disastrous effects at home to pursue yet another in a series of ruinous war policies.

Apparently, Obama never studied Dr. King’s career after 1963. Apparently, he never studied nonviolent conflict resolution. Apparently, he never consulted fellow Nobel Peace Prize recipients on how to end wars, rather than enflame them.

Otherwise, this president—who campaigned to end the war in Iraq, but then widened US military actions into other Muslim nations—would be challenging fellow Americans to live up to the fullness of Dr. King’s dream, as expressed in numerous sermons and public statements on the Vietnam War. If Obama truly honored the change in America that Dr. King lived and died for, he would channel the man who said this of waging war:

“The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Instead, the Obama Administration has aimed and fired America’s military weapons at people around the world, aimed its national security apparatus at fellow Americans at home and abroad, prosecuted and persecuted whistle-blowers who sought to inform the public of what the government is doing, supplied and enabled state and local police to repeatedly assault peaceful demonstrators, including dissenting veterans of Obama’s wars, and continued waging year after year a brutal war in Afghanistan that is daily, in Dr. King’s phrase, “sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged.”  

President Obama does not wear the mantle of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Increasingly, he has acted like Lyndon Baines Johnson—whose bull-headed presidency wrecked social welfare programs at home in the pursuit of  a monstrous war in Vietnam—and Richard Nixon, who waged war on fellow Americans protesting his expansion of war, combined.   

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