On January 13, 2015, I drove from our nation’s capital across its historic bridges to a cold parking lot at Fort Myer, Virginia, where I felt jarred at seeing the vast hillside of solemn gravestones honoring those Americans who had sacrificed everything in our nation’s wars, including 58,000 who perished in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I had visited Arlington many times before, and I had been to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington many times as well. Being there made me feel grounded in grief.
But I could not linger. I was here to talk to the Pentagon. With me was David Cortright, who had been an active-duty soldier in 1968–71 and who chose to oppose the Vietnam War and organize GIs. He was now the director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the author of the definitive history Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War. Cortright was our leader in initiating this attempt at honest dialogue with the Pentagon. His associate Terry Provance, an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ and a lifelong peace activist, cleared our way into the building. We were joined by John McAuliff, long affiliated with the Quaker-inspired American Friends Service Committee and now a leading figure in peace and reconciliation efforts between the United States, Vietnam, and Cuba, and by Margery Tabankin, who grew up in the Weequahic neighborhood on the white suburban border of the Newark ghetto where I, in 1964–67, knocked on poor people’s doors with the Newark Community Union Project, sponsored by Students for a Democratic Society. She had migrated to the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin during a time of mass antiwar confrontations.
Also joining us that day was Heather Booth, a successful organizer and trainer of new organizers over the past 50 years. In the wings to report any newsworthy developments was Ira Arlook of Fenton Communications.
After walking through the doors of Fort Myer Communications Center Building 405, we were greeted by the Pentagon team, led by retired Col. Mark Franklin of the History and Legacy Branch at the Pentagon’s Vietnam Commemoration office. With him was Phil Waite, a communications specialist, and the affable former war correspondent Joseph Galloway, the kind of guy you could swap stories with all day. Galloway had spent many years reporting from Vietnam and had written the best-selling We Were Soldiers Once… and Young, co-authored with retired Lt. Gen. Harold Moore, about the 1965 battle in Ia Drang Valley. Now he was involved in a project to document the lives of Vietnam vets on tape. It was a massive undertaking, and the challenge was daunting. Of almost 9 million Vietnam-era veterans, he said, almost 2 million had already died, and the losses were accelerating as time passed. Tabankin immediately offered to help raise funds and open Hollywood doors to expedite Galloway’s project.
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We started by telling our personal stories and expectations for the meeting. I shared a story more personal than political. Since everyone knew of my activities during the Vietnam War—my unauthorized trips to Hanoi to seek the release of American POWs, my marriage to Jane Fonda, my trials in Chicago for helping to organize protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention—I simply said that all the stories of my efforts to end the war were true. I said my father, a World War II Marine, had disowned me for 16 years, cutting me off from my younger sister, all because of what he read in the papers about my adventures. My mother had virtually lived in hiding every time my name was in the news.