A Vietnam Vet’s Vision of Peace

by Terry Leichner

I spent 50 years, following my time as an infantryman with the United States Marine Corp, denying the existence of God or Christ. I was in I Corps of Vietnam with the 5th Marines from December ’67 to Feb ’69. I was wounded during the Tet Offensive outside Danang. A concussion grenade knocked me unconscious and ruptured my eardrums.

It happened in the middle of the night following a day of intense battle with an NVA (North Vietnamese Army) battalion that had infiltrated into the area to start the Tet Offensive. The NVA ran into my squad acting as a blocking force at the edge of a paddy. They over ran us, killing our radio man and wounding the majority of us with grenades and rifle fire. The day before, I had held my squad leader’s body trying to revive him. An NVA sniper had hit him with a perfect head shot behind his ear. At first, I couldn’t find where he’d been hurt. I had been on one side of a paddy dike in a large rice paddy and he was on the other when we were ambushed. I found him in a fetal like position. He was motionless. I shook him….tried to resuscitate him…..and only after a few minutes did I realize he was dead.

Two other members of the squad were hit with rifle fire. After the night assault on us, we discovered a field of dead NVA and American troops. Many of us were wounded. A village had been hit with napalm across the paddy. We were made to drag the NVA bodies to a central area for a body count and photo-op. One of the members of that effort decided to use his K-bar (survival knife) to remove any gold teeth from the dead bodies he found. Another member of the company hit a captured NVA soldier in the mouth with his E-tool (small folding shovel). He’d just found out his best friend had been killed in action. I watched as captured NVA soldiers were kicked off the tops of amphibious tracks (a troop carrier with tracks like a tank but is also able to used in water) and tanks while they were hogtied. That was just the warm up for the next part of Jan 30, 1968. After lunch we swept through the burned village and saw up close what napalm can do to the human body. Even being numb from the events of the past 48 hours, the sight of the small bodies of children burned to “crispy critters” jolted me. That was the day I knew there could be no God or Christ. Nothing that happened in the following twelve months made me change that belief. Once home I was asked to be a trainer at Camp Lejeune’s Infantry Training Regiment.

I’d made E-4 by age 20 and had outstanding performance evals from my time in Vietnam. I was salty and skilled as a Marine in the “art” of death and the Corps saw potential in turning me into a teacher of that art. The only thing wrong with that plan was the dark hole in my soul. Each day of trying to cope with just being in the Corps, trying to medicate my flashbacks and dreams and trying to stay awake to avoid the nightmares

made the darkness worse. After a month, what little morality I had left motivated me to go AWOL (absent without leave).

I went back and forth to Lejeune. I was encouraged to work it out. They sent me to Correctional Custody, which is akin to going through boot camp again but as a prisoner. They were intensely trying to get us back to being programmed as Marines. They would use solitary in a cell about the size of a middle sized closet for those that didn’t get with the program…in North Carolina that cell out in the sun got very hot (it looked sort of like a porta-potty with one small window positioned up high so the prisoner couldn’t see out but at least go some air). While I was there one Marine cut his wrists and bled out inside one of the solitary cells. He had tried before and was given more time for attempting to harm “government property”. The Marines aren’t much for mental health issues.

I then spent time in the Great Lakes Brig (military prison) and took part in a prison uprising against the Marine guards who were abusing inmates. While I was there, the pods (a large open barracks with jail doors and windows) were overcrowded with many AWOL and deserted Marines. The abuse (other than the constant verbal abuse) occurred on consecutive days. The guards of our pod (two at all times…usually three) had morning, noon and evening formations to do head counts and generally let us know what scum we were. In the A.M. and noon formations each prisoner was assigned a detail (chore), like raking or cleaning outside areas. On two consecutive days a really immature Marine asked to go to the “head” (bathroom) and was refused while we stood in formation. The kid hadn’t been to Vietnam like most of us in there and he really seemed like a slow kid who should never have been allowed to enlist or be drafted. In the Marines, guys like him were magnets for DI’s or guards to target as the biggest screw up. When one guy screwed up the whole unit of men was punished with extra exercise, no break for cigs, or something else that would turn us against the screw up. In our pod, however, most of us were combat veterans who were very wise to that game of targeting the weak. We basically adopted the kid to prevent him from getting targeted by other inmates and to protect him as much as we could from the guards. We couldn’t protect him from his anxiety and bladder, however.

When the guards refused to allow the kid to go to the head, the kid wet himself. That set off a loud verbal abuse of the young man by guards as well as extra work for all of us. After the second time of the kid wetting himself, we rebelled. We all started asking to go to the head and when refused went anyway. When the guards demanded we get back in formation (it was outside of the large barracks in a courtyard.) more of us went inside to the head. Finally we locked ourselves in the barracks and barricaded the door with bunks and chairs. Probably 20 of the 30 prisoners were inside, part of the rebellion. We made a list of demands that included going to the head as needed, cessation of the constant verbal abuse by guards and the mass punishment for the acts of one individual.

The standoff lasted four hours. The commander of the brig and a riot team responded. The commander (warden) was a Lt. Colonel in the Corps. He went from demanding to finally listening but all the time he was planning an assault on us with the riot team. He attempted to get the perceived leaders to open the door to let him and one guard inside. We figured the door would be stormed once opened. We had discussions on strategy once the riot team was unleashed. We all knew it was a matter of time before we were gassed with CS (a higher potency tear gas). We discussed if we would resist or be non-violent. There were a good number that wanted to fight the riot team entering the door. But, finally the majority of us talked the group into the non-violent method. So, when the gas did come, we had the plan to get wet towels to cover our airway by tying them in the fashion the anarchists of today use with bandannas. We also decided we’d sit on the floor with our fingers laced together and placed on top of our heads. The gas did come right at 4pm. We had decided once the gas got too strong we’d remove the barricade of beds and chairs and open the door. They opened the door quickly and threw in two gas grenades. The riot team came in screaming for us to get face down, armed with M-16’s and batons. A couple of the prisoners didn’t move quickly enough for the team. They were kicked down to the floor. All of us were made to stand in formation for hours as the unit was cleared of the gas and a thorough search for weapons and contraband took place. Three of the perceived leaders were taken to another more restrictive part of the brig. All three were black. They were part of a leadership of close to ten of us. I was one in the group that planned the strategy and talked everyone into the non-violent response.

After that there were no more refusals to allow us to go to the head and the verbal abuse did decrease. All of us received the additional charge of “inciting a riot” to go with either our AWOL or desertion charge that got us in the brig to begin with. That charge would go with us to our home unit once we were returned. I was returned to Camp Lejeune after more than two weeks at Great Lakes to rejoin my unit and face a possible court martial. A group of ten of us were shackled and cuffed and taken to Midway for transport by two Marine MP chasers. All of us were either AWOL or classified as deserters after 30 days of absent without leave. All of us were combat veterans. At that particular time almost 40% of the Marine Corps infantry was said to be in AWOL or desertion status. Once I reached Lejeune, still cuffed and shackled, we were taken to the base Provost Marshall’s where the base brig was located. Each of us was processed from a holding cell and told to report to our assigned company. I was now alone, without a guard. I decided to go AWOL again. I went straight to a transition barracks and sneaked in to sleep one night. After showering, still in civilian clothing, I boarded a base bus to Jacksonville, NC then took a Greyhound to Denver. The next time I encountered the Marine Corps was a year later when the FBI sent six agents bearing handguns to my parents’ home to arrest me (that’s another story in itself).

I then spent a month in Denver City Jail waiting for chasers to arrive to return me to the Corps. On one Sunday a Catholic priest came to give communion and “talk with us”. I asked him if his God approved of sending young men like me to kill others, including kids. The priest gave me the rote answer that God would forgive me because I was in a war to protect my country. I yelled that his God wasn’t any God I wanted to be part of.

Eventually I ended up with a less than honorable discharge rather than go to a court martial. I went to the ACLU for legal help. The Corps immediately offered me a deal for a discharge. I continued angry, violent and self-medicating for years. The only good thing in my life was my wife and two sons and VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War). I terrorized my family for years with rage attacks, violent destruction of walls and furniture and verbal abuse. I also continued to deny and ignore the existence of God. I couldn’t fathom God was present in a world of constant war, injustice and oppression of the rich toward the poor.

I had been baptized in the Baptist church when I was 11. I hardly remember what led me to that decision. I suspect it was due to pressure and my training to follow the crowd since the time I could walk. About nine years ago, when I was 50, I went to a grandson’s baptism at the cathedral here in Denver. It was Easter Sunday. My grandson was baptized just as the noon bells in the cathedral started ringing. The priest was pouring water over his forehead as bells rang. That baptism and the bells were a jump start to the dormant spirituality I had barely retained since Vietnam. I was struggling to keep from crying. I lost the struggle once the bells started. Tears rolled down my cheeks as my grandson had holy water poured on his forehead. I call it my epiphany.

I returned to the church and discovered a personal reawakening. I listened to the words of Christ, read His words and came to understand their meaning. I realized Christ had nothing to do with the wars of men.

I want to tell the Christian troops in the US military to resist the evil asked of them. I want to tell them to search their consciences and find their moral center to understand the war they’re being asked to kill or be killed for by a corrupted government. I have often said anytime a young man or woman picks up a weapon for the purpose of hunting down another human to kill, they’ve lost any semblance of being a peace keeper. It’s trite to say, “what would Jesus do?” but if we’re Christians I believe we must ask if Christ were actually “with us” would we be killing other humans for a government that lied to justify their wars? Would we be calling our “enemy” by the denigrating terms of “gook” or “haji” to depersonalize them? I believe in the Christ of the “sermon” on the mount. Not the vengeance seeking Christ of the “rapture” driven radicals. I don’t think we can be pro-life with the unborn but fail to sanctify the lives of the innocent civilians sacrificed in our wars. Since WWII, the number of innocent war dead is 90% of the total killed in wars. Of that number 40% were children. That percentage is even larger in Iraq where over half the population is under the age of 20. Can we say our “shock and awe” destruction discriminates in killing only the “terrorists” or do we acknowledge more children and their innocent families were under those bombs we launched or dropped? Just as we held the Germans accountable at Nuremberg by saying “just doing our jobs” wasn’t an excuse for taking part in atrocities, we must hold ourselves responsible by the same criteria.

I want any Church leader to question why we send young people to foreign lands as agents of death and terror. Where are the Christian leaders speaking out against the madness of Iraq and Afghanistan? Fighting the Muslim nations shouldn’t be the “new crusade”. But then I remember it was the Samaritan, and not the Pharisees or others claiming to be righteous, that Christ used in the parable. There was a reason and purpose to the way Christ spoke that parable, I believe. It tells me my brothers and sisters aren’t confined to my tribe, my state or my nation. We are supposed to be the people of Christ who would have us love one another as we love ourselves, right? I wanted that priest to give me more than a pat answer. I wanted him to say…”yes, you’re right. We humans have lost the message of God and Christ.” And maybe he could have reminded me that Paul was one of the greatest sinners who killed and did horrible things to the followers of Christ. And Christ still chose him, forgave him and loved him. I think troops want more than “it’s ok, you did it for your country”. I think they want to know they can reclaim their humanity and the spiritual roots that wars take from us. It deeply saddens me parents are so protective of children while they are growing up but that they fail their children when the choice of taking up a rifle to kill another human comes up. They demand helmets and pads. They demand calls and check-ins. But going to war is like a rite of passage we somehow expect of our children. We accept it as an institution and wave flags and cheer in parades to encourage our “warriors”.

I became an activist and gave up my job to oppose the war. I marched, rallied and screamed out my protest. And the beat goes on. War and tragedy never stops, it seems. My faith is greatly tested every time I go to mass. I enter the church angry because I know the priests and deacons will call for prayers for our “troops who protect our freedom” but fail to acknowledge the innocent victims of our wars. But I still go, hoping to hear those bells again. The bells of the Church that Easter my grandson was baptized were a miracle of sorts. They reawakened me. Now I fear the rhetoric of the leaders of my church has drowned out the true “message”. A combination of PTSD-caused despair and my ever failing faith seems to be pushing me back into that abyss I thought I’d left behind.

Terry Leichner’s runs a blog called Visions of Peace: A Combat Veteran’s Dream at http://visopeace.blogspot.com