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News :: DNC : Organizing
The Death of Sgt. Van Dale Todd
27 Aug 2004
Remembering an antiwar Vietnam veteran -- digging deeper into a painful memory that won't go away. This is a rewrite of an article I posted on IMC some time ago
Back in 1972, near the end of the War in Vietnam, I was living in San Francisco, and my close friend, ex-Sgt. Van Dale Todd, a combat veteran of the 101st Airborne, lived in another apartment of the same building. It was an old Victorian house out on 29th Street. Sometimes Van would take a notion to hit the wall which separated our apartments with his fist and shout, "Who the fuck would join the Marine Corps?" I'd yell back, "Airborne sucks!" "The Marine Corps sucks!" Van'd shout. "Only two things come out of the sky," I'd yell back again, "Bird shit and fools!" That was how we said good morning to each other. It was our ritualized greeting.

We didn't set out to live next door to each other, that just happened to be the way it turned out. One day I discovered that I had a new neighbor; someone had moved into the adjacent apartment and had pasted a peace sign on his door.

It was a day or two later that I encountered him on the landing at the top of the stairs. He was a tall, powerful-looking guy about 22 years old, with shoulder-length hair and wearing a combat fatigue jacket, similar to the one I had on. He introduced himself as "Van." In the course of the conversation we found that we were both ex-GIs and had both attended some of the same antiwar marches and rallies. We were also, coincidentally, members of the same veterans antiwar organization.

Van glanced at my door which was totally bare and unadorned. "You need a peace sign there," he observed.

"Nobody would see it," I objected.

"We'd see it. Isn't that enough?" he said, producing a peace sign from his pack and carefully pasting it on my door, in precisely the same position as the one on his own door. "There," he said, nodding with the satisfaction of seeing a job properly done, "We're going to be a peace family here in this building."

During the weeks that followed, we got together almost every day and talked about the war, politics and other things. He told me about his experiences in "Nam," the killing he'd seen and participated in, of the stress and the widespread drug use among GIs. "I got this medal for killing two people," he told me, showing me his bronze star, "and when I did it I was high on opium."

Although I'd spent four years in the USMC, I was never in Vietnam. I'd known only peacetime garrison duty. I was both fascinated and also slightly horrified at Van's experiences, but I tried not to let on. That was before I'd ever heard the term "Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome," but it was clear that Van had brought some of that violence back with him.

One day he got in a fight with his cat. I heard some terrible racket in Van's apartment and on going over to see what it was all about, I found that Van was intending to whip the kitty with his belt. "The cat's shit was weak!" he told me angrily, meaning that the poor animal had done something to displease him.

I intervened, telling him that if he wasn't going to be kind to his pet, I'd take the animal away from him. It was a plea rather than a threat. Van was a big man who could easily have broken me in half had he wished to. Still, I held onto the cat and remonstrated with Van till at last he relented. He then took the animal gently in his arms and said, "I love my cat."

Van did seem to love his cat. One side of him was a kind, gentle, loving and caring person. But there was also that violent part, seething just below the surface.

On the corner at the end of the block was a small grocery store run by a guy who seemed to go out of his way to be rude to customers. One day I was in there to get a newspaper, and the owner gave me a bad time. So after that I avoided the shop. But Van occasionally went into the place, probably just to hassle with the owner. I never went in there with Van, but there were a couple of stories I heard later from others. One time the shopkeeper took out a baseball bat and threatened Van with it. But Van didn't back off. Instead, he told the guy, "You put that away or I'll take it away from you and wrap it around your neck!" The shopkeeper put the bat away.

Usually Van was gentle, and it seemed to me that he tried hard not to lose his temper. He hated violence, he told me, having seen so much of it in Vietnam. He often related his war memories, sometimes in graphic detail. "I killed seven people in Vietnam," he said. "I killed a mother who was crying because her children were all dead."

He told me these stories remorsefully, but they bothered me. One day I lost control of myself and blurted out angrily, "You killed those people! You murdered them!"

Van didn't say much at the moment, but later he brought it up with the other veterans in our antiwar group; and the ones who'd been in combat situations in Vietnam all took me to task for speaking so insensitively to Van.

"In combat you kill to survive. That's the way it is," said one. "You either shoot your way out, or you don't get out."

All of these veterans were antiwar people and some were very sympathetic to the Viet Cong, but they all saw it alike. "You can't hold it against a guy for what he's done in a combat situation."

I was quite stunned by what they told me, and I wasn't sure what to make of it all. But it was clear enough to me that I must've hurt Van with my outburst. I went back and apologized to him.

Van wasn't angry at me. "I understand where you're coming from," he said. "You weren't in Nam. You're coming from a philosophical point of view."

I objected that my views were the result of something more than philosophical speculation. "I've traveled in some thirty countries around the world," I told him. "I've been in Europe, in the Middle East and in the Far East. I’ve spoken with people in those countries and heard their views. I spent several years in those travels."

Van shook his head. "What you have is an intellectual, philosophical view."

"How can you say that?" I demanded. I was thirty at the time, almost a decade older than Van, who was twenty-two, and I considered myself more experienced and knowledgeable, having traveled abroad as I had.

"You weren't in Nam," he said. "You don't know what it's like to see your buddies die in front of you."

I didn't agree with him, but I let it go at that. Our friendship survived the incident, and we continued to get together as before, attending demonstrations together, even getting arrested together. But he would often say, "You don't know what it's like to see your buddies die." It seemed to be Van's one-upmanship, or at least that's the way I took it.

One night at around midnight he came to my place and pounded on the door. "I want to show you something!" he shouted. It was his birthday, and on this day he was 23 years old. When I opened the door I could see he was terribly upset, apparently in a violent mood. He demanded that I go with him to his place and see whatever it was that he wanted to show me. Van was not a person I cared to argue with when he was that angry; I was frightened and I followed him into his apartment. As soon as we went in, he took out a bottle of bright red pills and swallowed all of them in front of me.

"I killed seven people in Nam," Van was saying. "I can't live with it any more!" He said some more things; I don't remember everything he said. Again I hear, "You don't know what it's like to see your buddies die."

Although I'd once rescued his cat from his anger, this evening I'd been afraid to grab the pills or do anything else to stop him. Not knowing what else to do or say, I told him to sit down and take it easy. He did, and almost immediately he passed out. I went for help and got him to a hospital where he died a week later without ever regaining consciousness. I later learned that the red pills he'd overdosed on were Seconal, a type of sleeping pill. People also told me, "When somebody O.D.s on downers, you never want to let them sit down. You gotta keep them walking."

Van had once believed in the war, and he was a guy who'd fight for what he believed in. He enlisted in the Army, volunteered for the paratroopers, asked to be assigned to Vietnam -- and got it all. And when his year in Nam was up, he asked for another. In all he spent seventeen months in combat with the 101st Airborne. That was back in 1969 and 1970. After returning from Vietnam, however, Van began to have second thoughts about the war. He took part in peace marches, and on April 17th, 1972, he and I were part of a group of sixteen ex-GIs who occupied an Air Force recruiting office in San Francisco to protest the war.

Nevertheless, Van was not really political, or maybe I should say he wasn't much given to theories or philosophical speculation. Instead of looking at what U.S. corporations were doing around the world, and how he'd been exploited into defending them, he blamed himself for what he'd done, and tormented himself for having "enjoyed" it. "I loved combat," he used to say, shaking his head remorsefully. "I was so sick I loved to kill."

By the time I'd met him he was no longer in love with war. In a diary we found after his death, he'd written: "Vietnam left me so alone. Why or how could I take the life of a human? Why was killing humans fun? Can God forgive me?"

Van didn't want another GI sent to Nam because he knew that a person can come back traumatized. He said many times, "I don't want my little brother Sam, or anybody's little brother, to go and see what I saw or do what I did." But as much as he hated the war, he still believed very deeply in something he called "America." In Van's "America," there was still something left of that romantic, mythical age when you could just walk into the White House and talk with the President and tell him the problem. Van saw public officials as people who listen -- which sometimes they do, but not quite as often as Van seemed to think.

I believe that's what his thinking was on April 17th, when sixteen of us occupied the Air Force recruiting office. After three hours' occupation, Federal Marshals broke the door down and arrested us. We spent the night in jail and were bailed out the next day.

On April 21, we went back to court for a preliminary appearance and got our first look at Judge Lloyd Burke. Judge Burke sat there, just leaning on his elbow and looking bored, like an old railroad engineer gazing at the scenery along the spur he's been chugging up and down for the last twenty years. The charge was "disorderly conduct," and, using the pretext that it was a "minor offense," the judge refused us a trial by jury. When our attorney pointed out that trial by jury was a Constitutional right, stated in the Sixth, Seventh and Fourteenth Amendments, Judge Burke just said, "Overruled," without even lifting his chin off his elbow, and then he set our trial dates.

To Van, it was a pretty heavy shock. About all he could say when we got home was, "The Man [Judge Burke] just doesn't give a shit about us!" Van just sat there for a long time with a vacant look in his eyes. I tried to explain to him that this judge wasn't there to give us a fair trial. "Judge Burke's a cog of the war machine," I said. "He was obviously assigned to our case for the purpose of putting some quasi-legal façade on a very dubious process. The reason for denying us a jury trial is that he wants to convict us."

Our veterans group had done a similar action in December 1971, occupying the offices of the South Vietnamese Consulate. We'd been tried by a jury and acquitted at the end of a four-week trial in March 1972. So this time the powers-that-be apparently distrusted the jury process. Perhaps Van understood my explanation, but he seemed unable to accept it.

Five of us, including Van and myself, went on trial a week later in the courtroom of a different judge, Judge Robert Schnake. This judge didn't lean on his elbow, but he did reaffirm the decision to deny us our Constitutional right to trial by jury, and then, at the end of a two-hour session, found us all guilty.

The irony of this process is compounded if one pauses to recall that trial by jury is one of the most fundamental American rights which Van and other GIs supposedly fought to defend. Although it has often been wrongfully denied, as it was in our case, the right to trial by jury is an ancient principle of English and American law which existed before the U.S. Constitution was written, and even before the thirteen colonies were founded. It goes back to the Magna Carta of 1215 A.D., and even before.

Before sentencing we were each allowed to say a few words. Van, wearing all his medals on his fatigue jacket, stood up and began: "I was a machine gunner . . ." He told of the horrors he'd seen and even committed himself, and of his buddies he'd seen die. He told the judge that the government just had to stop sending American GIs to Vietnam. Judge Schnake nodded. He seemed to be listening. But he sentenced each of us to 30 days and fined us each $50. We appealed it, and the way it eventually turned out, we paid the $50 but didn't go to jail.

Judges Burke and Schnake were both former prosecutors. As judges they did their job as functionaries of the system that sends American GIs abroad to kill or be killed in defense of U.S. corporate strategy. But to Van there was no such thing as a "system" -- just America. These judges represented the America he believed in, and the experience of being denied his rights devastated him. From then on, he acted like a person utterly lost. He became so lonely that he dropped by my apartment five or ten times a day, sometimes even at one or two in the morning.

Van had been known to smoke a joint before, and occasionally I'd seen him stoned. But after seeing these judges, he seemed to be stoned much more of the time, as well as drunk. I'd never seen him inebriated before that. Two small glasses of wine had been his limit. But after the trial, he'd often put away half a gallon of wine in a day. The overnight change in him was phenomenal. His war memories bothered him more and more, and he'd talk about people he'd seen killed. "Do you know what it's like to see your buddies die?" he'd keep saying, "Do you know what it's like to kill a mother who's crying because her children are all dead?"

It was two weeks after our trial that he took the overdose of Seconal. We gave him a veteran's antiwar funeral, and veterans came from all over the Bay Area, almost everybody wearing military fatigue jackets. We buried him in his combat uniform with his service medals and his button which proclaimed him to be a member of VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War). While five veterans and a woman carried out the coffin, everybody lined up in two rows and gave Van a clenched-fist salute.

On returning home that afternoon, I went next door, into the vacant apartment where Van had lived until so recently. "Airborne sucks!" I called out. Van's things were gone; the place was empty now. It was an emptiness that left room for my voice to echo back and forth between the walls. I tried again, louder than before, "Only two things come out of the sky!" Again, there was an echo, a louder echo, but still only of my own voice. It was followed by the creaking of wooden floorboards under my feet in this old Victorian house.

This work is in the public domain
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