Country Joe's Place

Healing from the War:
Building the Berkeley Vietnam Veterans Memorial


by Joe McDonald

From The Vietnam War on Campus: Other Voices, More Distant Drums edited by Marc Jason Gilbert. Praeger, 2001.

On Veterans Day 1995 the City of Berkeley Veterans Memorial Building was full to overflowing. A crowd had come to witness the unveiling of the Berkeley Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial consisted of a display listing the names of the twenty-two citizens of Berkeley who died in the Vietnam War and an on-line memorial that allowed anyone in the world to see, via the Internet, photographs and electronically stored materials connected with the lives of these men. As this was also the first interactive Vietnam veterans memorial, it was also possible for visitors to leave a record of their own sentiments on the Vietnam era and its human cost.1 On the memorial's dedication day the tables and display cases of the Berkeley History Museum, which is inside the building, were bursting with Vietnam War memorabilia. The memorabilia competed for space with the computers and with the staff ready to guide the visitors to the on-line memorial. Red, white, and blue bunting draped the building itself.

Among those gathered for the dedication were those who fought in Vietnam and those who opposed the war. A Vietnam Veterans of America color guard with honorary members of' the South Vietnamese military presented not only the American flag, but also the South Vietnamese flag. A Buddhist priest, so often the symbol of anti-war sentiment, offered a meditation. The mayor of Berkeley, Shirley Dean, wept as she read her speech. She apologized to the families and friends of those who had perished in the war for the long delay in honoring those individuals who had died for their country. There was a certain electricity in the air, and many things happened as if by magic. There was no anger or hostility, just complete agreement that blaming soldiers for war is like blaming firefighters for fire. There was the sound of weeping as the crowd remembered and honored the lives lost in a cause that most Americans, including the architect of the war, former Secretary of State Robert McNamara, still do not fully understand.2

The media were out in force. The television-satellite trucks deployed in the streets ensured both coast-to-coast and foreign-press coverage. It seemed as if the world were watching Berkeley's struggle to come to terms with its role in the Vietnam War. Much of the coverage was sympathetic and positive, focusing on the families of the deceased. Many of those who were interviewed seemed glad to finally get their say. Some siblings of the dead sought closure, for it had been hard to watch the anti-war protests of the time while grieving their loss. Many grieving parents and relatives were reconciled to their loss but sought recognition of the heroism of their lost loved ones. While some people found meaning in their moment in the sun, others were lost in it. Au obviously distraught woman struggled to bring herself to enter the building and look at the artifacts. She was a member of Berkeley's Vietnam-era draft board, and she was attempting to summon the strength to look upon the photographs and medals of the men she had sent into battle, never to return.

How could such an event as this take place in the city known to the world as the People's Republic of Berkeley, a place famous for its Vietnam War protests in the town and on the University of California at Berkeley campus during the war years? How could a Vietnam veterans' memorial be dedicated on the grounds of what was once known as Ho Chi Minh Park and be welcomed by many war veterans and war protesters alike?

The answers to these questions can largely be found in the life experiences before and after the war of the person who suggested that the memorial be built and championed its completion. That person is this author, who as Country Joe McDonald had earned fame during the Vietnam War for singing an anti-war song, the "I Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Rag," which can still be heard on the Internet at The chorus of the song was as follows:

And it's 1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?
Don't ask me I don't give a damn
The next stop is Vietnam
And it's 5, 6, 7, open up the pearly gates
There ain't no time to wonder why
Whoopee we're all gonna die.

How this war protester came to develop a memorial honoring Berkeley's war dead as a means of promoting healing from the Vietnam War is partly my own story, but my efforts would have achieved little if my story had not resonated in the lives of those many people who contributed to the project, welcomed its presence, and thus fulfilled its intent.

Perhaps the two most important facts about my life that are relevant to the Berkeley Vietnam Veterans Memorial is that, first, I grew up in Southern California with American Communist Party members as parents and realized that Americans are often divided by political ideology. Second, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the young age of seventeen and served for three years in the U.S. military. By the time large numbers of American combat troops were dispatched to Vietnam in 1965, I was both the child of a radical leftist family and an honorably discharged veteran. Both these experiences left me feeling victimized. I had no love for the leaders of the American military or of the American Left, but I also was not mystified by either entity. I felt a deep camaraderie and respect for the rank and file of both organizations, but 1 had a healthy knowledge of the capacity of both for betrayal and friendly fire- A life mission did, however, emerge from these experiences that I never was to abandon: to protect those who cannot defend themselves and to remain dedicated to the cause of justice and the dream of peace.

By the time Saigon fell to North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces in 1975, I was emotionally drained and exhausted. Like almost everyone else I wanted to forget America's longest, most controversial war and get on with my life. That plan worked fine from 1975 to 1981- But in 1981 the phone rang with a request from Vietnam veterans for my help in securing benefit programs for those with war-related problems. I answered this call and began a journey that led me to the dedication of the Berkeley Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But this was only after I went on a journey to my own personal past regarding my participation in the Vietnam War.

By 1981 I had managed to forget that 1 was a military veteran, and I saw myself as a rock star who helped veterans. At a symposium held in the Veterans Memorial Building in Berkeley that year, I met my soon-to-be good friend and comrade, the late activist Jack McCloskey, who pulled me aside and told me, "Joe, you are a veteran too!" Jack, a Vietnam corpsman turned vet counselor, forced me to look at myself in a way that I had not done before. In a flash all the false trappings of innocence were torn away, and I realized that my efforts from 1959 to 1962 in the navy had helped the American Vietnam War effort. For a time I felt just as guilty of conducting the war as I was of trying to stop the war. This realization was a terrible blow to my ego.

I began both to talk almost exclusively about my military experience and to identify with military veterans and military personnel, so much so that I started to drive my family and friends crazy. I read everything that I could find on the subject of the war. I began to get involved in the many Vietnam veteran events happening all over the country. I came to Washington, D.C., dressed in navy whites to stand alongside members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) in a protest action titled "Dewey Canyon 4." This demonstration protested the Veterans Administration's neglect of victims of Agent Orange, posttraumatic stress disorder, and other war-related problems that affected Vietnam veterans and their families.

During our protest march we paused for a moment at the construction site of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the product of war veteran Jan Scruggs and architect Maya Lin. Many people had expressed diverse opinions of the soon-to-be-completed memorial. Some people liked it. Some people hated it. No one could ignore it. I had never thought about a war memorial before, but this experience got me thinking. It was perhaps my first postwar thought about the problem of healing from war.

Soon afterward I was working in my garden in Berkeley. My neighbor from across the street was attending my next-door neighbor's garden while he was away. We struck up a conversation, and of course I went on and on about the Vietnam War. He then quietly told me that his son was killed in the war. I was stunned. I had never met someone who lost anyone in the war. Now I had met someone who lost a son. It struck me then that I had a son, and that fact magnified my instinctive compassion.

Not long after this chance encounter with my- neighbor, 1 was in Washington, D.C., again. I went to the finished Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I took a photograph of my neighbor's son's name, made a rubbing of the name, and brought it back to my neighbor and his wife. It was a sad and loving experience talking with these people, my neighbors, about the death of their son Frederick Howard Henderson. I discovered that a mistake had led him to be listed as a New York resident (he had graduated from West Point, his last address prior to his death), and so he was going to be left off the California memorial. I facilitated the placing of his name on the soon-to-be-built California State Vietnam War Memorial in Sacramento, California. I noticed that both my neighbor's family and myself felt some closure and healing from that event. I realized that I had not "stood down" from the war and that many, many others still were fighting the war emotionally.

There was great debate in the veterans' community about spending money on memorials as opposed to spending money on veterans. I gave the entire subject of war memorials considerable thought. I found that I did not feel guilty about my military service. l especially did not feel remorse about my protesting of the war. I felt that I had a right as an American military veteran and citizen to express myself. Also, as a child of American communists I readily identified with the children of Vietnamese communists who were killed in the war. At the same time I also identified with the American soldiers who did what they were asked to do. I became convinced that unless the war was emotionally and symbolically ended, there was no chance for emotional peace and healing. Still, l did agree that spending lots of money on a memorial was a waste. So what was I to do?

I realized that my generation had not been allowed to grow up together. Some of my peers avoided military service because of the war, and others had never had the experience of going to rock shows and love-ins in the 1960s because of the war. I felt that this division allowed those who did not serve in or protest against the war to control the country and its destiny. Since I was a vet, a hippie, and a known anti-war protester who had never lacked respect for GIs, I had entree into both worlds. I began to feel that I was one of the very few people who had this dual credibility. I took that responsibility very seriously and began to desire one thing: that my generation unite and sort out for itself who did what and how we were treated.

I saw that the biggest difference seemed to be between the individuals who did nothing and the people who did something. Those motivated to "serve" joined the military, the anti-war movement, the Red Cross or another public-service organization. Those motivated to make a moral stand sometimes left the country at great sacrifice because of government intimidation. Other individuals took alternate service as conscientious objectors or did hard time in jail for resisting the draft. Other people just dropped out and became hippies to be disowned by their parents.

But the vast majority of the 50 million people making up the Vietnam generation did nothing but wait it out. There were 10 million people (9 million men, 1 million women) in the Vietnam-era military. I think about 3 million people were in the peace movement, or the counterculture as it is now called. Many of the people who did nothing were able to move up the socioeconomic ladder into positions of leadership and power, leaving those who experienced the trauma of the era on the outside looking in.

I felt that I needed to see and use the names of people killed during the war to help me focus my feelings and give me purpose. I discovered that the names were public information. I called the Department of Defense and ordered lists of casualties and veterans. This experience led me to put on several events designed to attract both civilians and military veterans from the era. It was then that I started to raise some money to build a memorial to Berkeley's Vietnam War dead without a thought of what the memorial would be. A small group of non-vets and vets met to talk it over with me, and only then did I began to think hard about the form and content of such a memorial.

The first two events that I held to focus attention and gain money for a local memorial project were in 1986 and 1987 at two San Francisco nightclubs, which the famous rock promoter Bill Graham controlled. Bill was a Korean War veteran and sympathetic to my cause. We raised several thousand dollars. I then hatched a grandiose scheme to stage a week-long event on the very campus in Berkeley where many Vietnam War protests were staged. I called the editor of the campus newspaper, The Daily Cal. I told him that I needed official sponsorship to use the campus for what I called the Vietnam Film Festival and Arts Fair: A Tribute to Those Who Fought and Resisted the Vietnam War. The editor supported the idea. With his approval I deposited the money for the event in a Daily Cal account. I then secured the sponsorship of the Associated Students, the Office of the President of the University, the Berkeley Draft Counseling Center, and the campus ASUC SUPERB Productions, which staged musical and art events on campus.

My hopes that the evolving program would prompt both a visceral response and quiet reflection were encouraged by the events that took place around the preparation of a display case in the student union. The display case was to be filled with Vietnam War memorabilia during the program. One day while I was arranging items in the case, a Vietnamese woman came by and reacted strongly to a picture of Ho Chi Minh. Her face filled with fear and terror. Her eyes started to fill with tears. On another occasion a campus policeman came by, looked at the items on display, and said that it looked like his closet at home. In the end I put on display a three-foot replica of a bronze casting of a Vietnam War nurse, which was sculpted by Roger Brodin, a Vietnam vet and artist. The sculpture was in consideration for placement at the Wall in Washington, D.C., as a memorial to women. The loving, exhausted face of this nurse, seeming to look to the heavens for meaning and release, embodied my own sentiments regarding that week of activities.

The final program took an enormous amount of work. 1 do not know how we pulled it off, but with the help of Berkeley's students, we did it. From April 27 to May 1, 1987, on the University of California at Berkeley campus, we staged five days of film, video, poetry, music, commentary, and comedy of the Vietnam era. On Monday at noon we had a rally in Upper Sproul Plaza that included placing a South Vietnamese flag at a site where the Vietcong flag had been waved many times during the war years. I was unable to solicit the participation of the ROTC units on campus, but I did make friends with a naval officer who had been on campus the day that the protesters burned down the campus ROTC building. He told me that inside the building they once had a copy of my record with Country Joe and The Fish that included the song "1 Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." It burned with the building.

Monday and Tuesday night, we showed movies of the era in one of the campus's largest lecture halls, Wheeler Auditorium, that covered many aspects of the war, including campus protest, combat, hippies, Agent Orange, welcome-home parades, and Jane Fonda's Free The Army Show. Wednesday night was devoted to women during the Vietnam War. It featured a nurse, a Red Cross worker, a flight stewardess, an anti-war activist, a U.S. Air Force brat, a veteran advocate, and two women (one American and one Vietnamese) who had written poems together. Thursday we had music, poetry, and comedy by veterans and anti-war protesters. We closed the week with a full-blown rock concert with light show in Pauley Ballroom, where dances were held during the 1960s. The week-long event received great local press and made some money for the possible construction of a Berkeley Vietnam veterans memorial.

War memorials come in all sizes and shapes, but most of them are static. They never move from where they are, and they can be very expensive in both money and time. I was not yet computer literate, but it occurred to me that a war memorial could be built on the Internet and could be visited by anyone from anywhere on the globe. I knew people left letters and other tokens of remembrance at the national memorial in Washington, D.C.; such things could just as easily be left at an electronic memorial. The flowers would only be of the cyber variety, but words, images of any kind, even sound files could all be left. Mobility would not hamper the visitor in any way. Old age, infirmity, or poverty would be no obstacle to visiting this memorial. Most important, this type of memorial could be built cheaply. Its construction would be labor intensive, but it required no expensive materials like granite or bronze.

I was talking about this idea during an interview with a reporter in November of 1987. At that time I was showing two Vietnam War movies on Veterans Day at a local theater as a fund-raiser for the memorial. She mentioned that a local group had an interactive, closed-circuit computer system in Berkeley called COMMUNITY MEMORY. She said that it was housed just a few blocks away. I went to their office and met a young woman named Yavette Holts. She said that they could try out my idea for a virtual memorial on their system. At the film showing I asked for volunteers. A group of about eight people came forward. Together we were ultimately able to put on-line the names of those from Alameda (the county in which Berkeley, California, is located) who died in World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam. The closed system had the capability to enter a comment beside each name. There were over two thousand names, and it took many hours of work to construct.

That evening, Veterans Day 1987, a small group of us, including family members of one of our war dead, held a rally on the Veterans Memorial Building steps that was well covered by the press. A woman told the press that she had last addressed the issues of her son's death over twenty years ago at an anti-Vietnam War rally. We then walked to a small lake called Aquatic Park. In the twilight of that evening we pulled nineteen lighted candles stuck in little boats behind a donated rowboat as we said all the names, which at that moment numbered nineteen.

Sadly, the group that formed to spearhead the building of a memorial eventually stopped meeting, and time went by. In 1992 I decided to donate the money that we had raised to Berkeley's Catholic Worker group, the Dorothy Day House, which fed the homeless, because I knew that 25 percent of California's homeless were veterans. By 1995 it had been eight years since my first effort to memorialize the Vietnam dead from Berkeley, and I despaired of ever getting it done. I no longer got negative responses when I raised the issue, but I did not get the kind of positive responses that I needed to get the job done. The times and feelings, however, were changing. Robert McNamara, who was secretary of state during the early war years, wrote a book in which he stated that he had never believed in the war. Everyone was talking about it. Vietnam was on the front burner again.

One day I was sitting in front of the Berkeley Veterans Memorial Building when I met our city council member, Dona Spring. Her district included the Veterans Memorial Building, so I told her my idea to memorialize Berkeley's Vietnam War dead. I explained that I had collected the names of the dead and had even made a poster displaying the names, which was framed and could be hung in the Veterans Memorial Building. I told her that I was in contact with several of the war dead's families and had gotten very positive responses. I also told her that I wanted the mayor and the city council to sponsor it. Dona, to my surprise, said that she thought it was a done deal. She and the mayor cosponsored a proposal to have an event on Veterans Day 1995 to honor the Berkeley war dead, and the city council approved it!

I tried to locate families of the deceased. I hired my teenage daughter to help me. In the end we contacted about eleven families and discovered a few names that should be included, bringing the total to twenty-two names. I began to visit the families. It seemed that each family went into a closet and got out artifacts relating to their family member's military service and death. I began to know the families on a first-name basis. My house was full of their memories and life stories. I cleaned off medal cases and looked through scrapbooks. It was a side of war that I had never seen before. As a parent it hit me very hard, this cold reality of war. That years had passed in silence for these families was a pain beyond my comprehension. I received nothing but kind words and appreciation from all family members.

I wondered if this might be the moment to resurrect the idea of an interactive, electronic memorial. I looked at the city of Berkeley's home page and found out that a department called Information Systems managed the city computers. A man named Chris Mead headed it. I went to see him. Miraculously, he had attended the dedication ceremony for the on-line Alameda County War Memorial a few years back. He was a visionary, and he assigned a man in the department named Malcolm Humes to do nothing but build the memorial with me. I met Malcolm and explained my concept of an interactive Vietnam War memorial for Berkeley. He seemed to fully understand it and was very enthusiastic. I told him to make its virtual front door look like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and to make every name a hyperlink to the Department of Defense information. I provided him with the names and the Department of Defense information that is given to the public: date of birth, date of death, branch of service, and so on. I asked him to put that on every link and then asked if we could really put up other stuff. He said, "Sure." So I brought in what I had at that time.

I notified the families that the electronic memorial was being built. I told them that we could put up almost any image, and I offered the opportunity for them to participate in person if they desired. Several family members went to Berkeley City Hall and the Information Systems Department. They sat with Malcolm, and he helped them create a page for their loved one. Malcolm was overwhelmed at times, as were the family members. Many a tear was shed at these sessions. Without hesitation the families had given me their precious items. I picked things with Malcolm to put on each page, and day by day the memorial began to take shape. It took a little over a month to build it. It was finished just in time for the ceremony on Veterans Day 1995.

The original Department of Defense list did not list twenty-two names from Berkeley. As the project moved along, in addition to my neighbor's son who was listed as a New York resident by mistake, we found other names. One individual was listed as a resident of Los Angeles because he enlisted while attending the University of Southern California. We also found one individual who went to Berkeley schools but actually lived in a small neighboring town. We wanted to include his name as no rules or regulations hampered us. I asked Malcolm if he could add a name, and he said that he had one more space left! That gave us the twenty-two names.

There were two Japanese Americans, Allen Hideo Harano and Shojiro Yamashita, on our list, and the local Japanese community already knew of them. The Japanese American newspaper for northern California, Hokubei Mainichi, ran a very large article with photos of both families and their lost sons. The local Japanese community was later very helpful in raising money for the bronze plaque that would eventually display the names of Berkeley's Vietnam War dead.

I called the family of one of these men. I eventually met with the man's mother, Mrs. Tae Yamashita, who told me how the family had been put into an internment camp during World War II, where her youngest son was born. After the war the family moved to Japan. Soon after her husband died and was buried in Japan. She raised the family by herself. After finishing school in Japan, her son Sojiro decided to return to America and visit his brother in Berkeley. Six months later he was drafted and put into the tank corps, despite his limited English. He died during Richard Nixon's Cambodian incursion in 1970. She requested that his remains be sent to Japan, but President Richard Nixon himself intervened to prevent it. In his written reply to Mrs. Yamashita's request, the president declared that her son was an American war hero, and as such he would be buried in the United States. His body was eventually interred in Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, California. The whole Yamashita family -- the mother, surviving brother Eugene (who was also a Vietnam veteran), and three sisters left Japan to live in Berkeley and be near the grave of the youngest son.

Mrs. Yamashita went to the closet and brought out some scrapbooks and a dusty medal case. After showing them to me she allowed me to take them. Malcolm Humes and I scanned photos for the electronic memorial. An unexpected twist to her story came when these materials became public. During our earlier effort to build a memorial in Berkeley, I had made friends with Birch Ramsey, a Vietnam veteran. He now told me that he had known Sojiro Yamashita whom he remembered as a sergeant in the tank corps. 1 thought he was imagining it. He wasn't.

I eventually took the Yamashita mementos to Malcolm. Months later at the dedication ceremony for the memorial, Mrs. Yamashita told the audience that "I may not be alive for next year's event so I will tell you now in my broken English the story of my son, the war, and Richard Nixon and why we live here today." She died of cancer soon after the ceremony.

In the Berkeley Veterans Memorial Building there are two beautiful display cases. They are large enough for several people to stand in. These display cases were full of memorabilia from World Wars I and 11 and even from the American Civil War. I asked the janitors if I could put some of our Vietnam material in there. I was told that the cases belonged to the veterans' groups in the building. There were doors emblazoned with the names of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, but I had never seen any of their members in the building. I visited the leaders of these organizations and was told that they once had thousands of members who filled the hall all the time with all kinds of family and veteran functions. But now the active membership was almost nothing. I asked if I could put some Vietnam War-related things in the cases, but I was told that the displays were sacred and could not be touched. We had a meeting with the city manager, and he confirmed that there was a long-standing agreement with the veterans' groups over the display cases. The president of the Veterans of Foreign Wars suggested that I start my own accredited veterans' group and apply for space in the building.

One day, totally frustrated, I decided to do the job myself. 1 went to our local recycling center and asked them to donate a display case. They gave me one with a wooden stand to put it on. The stand was in bad shape, so I brought both home and cleaned them up. 1 painted the stand and cleaned out the display case, which even had a lock. I took them to the Veterans Memorial Building and put them in the Berkeley History Museum, where we were temporarily installing computer terminals for the dedication ceremony. I put the memorabilia in it. Today it sits in the hall of the building outside the history museum for all visitors to see.

At the dedication ceremony I overheard one of the older relatives talking about the case to some small children, explaining that now they could come at any time to see the photo and objects of their relative who was killed in the war. In 1998 1 donated to the Berkeley History Museum the scrapbooks that I had kept from the beginning, which were filled with photos, press clippings, programs, fliers, and other materials.

While preparing for our inaugural event in 1995, 1 noticed that no flag was on the flagpole on top of the Veterans Memorial Building. I heard that during the 1960s the Veterans Building had been closed because of the riots and demonstrations against the war. No one could remember the last time an American flag had flown on that pole, but they remembered that it once had. I thought that we should have one for the ceremony. I inquired into the building's flag protocol and was told that the flag can fly at night only if there is a light on it. The president of the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter donated a flag that had flown at the White House.

One day I met the hall manager of the building and some people from public works. I asked if we might go up on the roof and look at the flag pole. They said that we could. We climbed into an attic space that had a ladder leading up to the roof. Next to the ladder, in a cardboard box, was a tattered American flag. No one knew how old it was. On the roof we discovered a mechanism for hoisting the flag, but saw no light. The engineer pointed to a capped-off terminal box and to the parking lot below. He said, "No problem. For some reason they blocked the receptacle off, but it runs on the same circuit as the parking lot and those lights go on automatically every night. We just have to open up the box and install an all-weather light." In a town notorious for never getting things done on time, this seemed impossible. But we used a flag that day. Soon after the light was installed, the flag went up permanently.

On Veterans Day 1997 I participated in a ceremony to reinstall a Korean War memorial, which was dedicated to five locals from the Mexican American neighborhood who had died in that conflict. I took the opportunity to present the city with a POW/MIA flag, which we placed below the American flag on the top of the building. The prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action issue has been a highly politicized and controversial subject since the end of the Vietnam War.3 The fact is that there are prisoners taken in every war and always individuals who are missing in action. This is probably the worst fear of both a soldier and his or her family. One of Berkeley's Vietnam War dead was initially a missing-in-action case. If you go to the on-line memorial, you can see the comments of the Session family on how they had to deal with their MIA aviator. Their comments reveal that the rancor and pain of this experience is still there after almost thirty years of silence and uncertainty. I debated the pros and cons of displaying the flag, and rightly or wrongly, I decided in favor of raising it as a daily reminder to us that we are all prisoners of war.

For our ceremony on Veterans Day 1995 we did not have the bronze plaque that is now on display. But we did have my framed, hand-lettered poster with the names of the dead, their branch of service, rank, and rate. We decided to put it on the inside wall of the front doors of the Berkeley Veterans Memorial Building. I had another such frame, and I felt it would be balanced to place it on the other side of the entrance. Inside the second frame I put some pictures of the soldiers, taken at different times in their lives. Installing these permanently was not a problem. The architect in charge of the building gladly met with me. We decided on placement, and he mounted them perfectly. On Veterans Day the frames were draped and uncovered at the end of the ceremony. They are still in the same place in the building today.

So much happened at that first event on Veterans Day, November 11, 1995. The hall was full for the first time in decades. In the audience were family members of the war dead from all over California and even from out of state. Representatives of the University of California and its ROTC program were in the audience. The mayor of Berkeley, university officials, and a spokesperson from Congressman Ronald Dellums' office spoke during the program.

Mrs. Liggons came up from Los Angeles to see her late son honored. She stood by the display case with her son's photograph and cried. She continued to weep during the ceremony. At the end, when comments were asked for from the friends and family of the deceased, Liggons's company commander in Vietnam appeared out of nowhere to testify to the good character of Liggons. The commander and Liggons' mother embraced before the tearful crowd. After the ceremony they stood arm in arm, smiling. Later an off-duty Berkeley police officer who was tending the parking lot for family parking discovered that he had been in boot camp with one of the deceased. He joined the family representatives to share their thoughts and feelings.

The people who gathered for the dedication were very diverse. If they had one thing in common that was clearly noticeable, it was their age. Most people were old enough to have gone to Vietnam. A few people looked old enough to have had a child who went to Vietnam. There was a good mix of suits and jeans, men and women. None of the well-known local agitators or hard liners were there, conservative or radical. The atmosphere could not tolerate extremism nor a hidden agenda. We were gathered for important business: a sharing of intense feelings by strangers who were bound together by community. We would finally testify about what happened and about how we felt and still feel about the war.

We had another ceremony the next year on Veterans Day 1996. We found out only a month before that the Berkeley Artworks Foundry had forged the bronze plaque for the memorial without getting paid in full. They have not been paid in full yet and have never complained.

The next year, 1997, Jan Scruggs from the Washington D.C. Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund offered to bring their new, one-half-scale replica of the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial, called The Wall That Heals, to Berkeley. I began to solicit money and sponsorship from the usual sources, but I was amazed to find that the chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley had donated $5,000, which, along with money from the city of Berkeley, covered the program's expenses. The Wall was to be mounted in the very space that had been called Ho Chi Minh Park during a four-day-long anti-war demonstration. The Wall was available there twenty-four hours a day to be visited and viewed by the public.

I thought it appropriate that the community use this opportunity to read the names on the Wall. I had forgotten that the names of those killed in action were often read at peace demonstrations during the war, but Jan Scruggs told me that sometimes people did read the names of the dead from a city, a state, or in some cases all 58,000 names. I hoped that we would read all the names. I formally announced this intention. The mayor's assistant, Tamlyn Bright, would coordinate our campaign to attract volunteer readers. I computed just how long it would take to read the over 58,000 names. It took about three seconds to read each name. I could not help but note to myself that it took nineteen years and weeks of training to make a soldier, but we could afford only three seconds of our time for each one killed. However, I decided that even this was impossible; the logistics of it were a puzzle that I could not solve. I called the effort off, but it had a life of its own.

Tamlyn Bright had a Vietnam War death in her own family. She took the process over, answered every call she could, and assigned each person a time period to read. A local veteran and his wife volunteered to print the entire list in big, easy-to-read print and house it in loose-leaf binders at no cost. After the ceremony that list went with the Wall for other cities to use. Tamlyn told me that in the end, her answering machine had so many calls from people volunteering to read names that she could not answer them all. One group that volunteered to read and help find names at the Wall was the Berkeley ROTC, who came in uniform. Its members were there day and night the entire time. They helped people locate names on the Wall, and they ran errands.

For over two and a half days dozens of citizens of Berkeley read all of the names on the Wall. The mayor came with her family and read names at 3:00 A.M. The reading of names took place within a three-foot circular wall that was decorated with individual hand-painted tiles, each inscribed by a citizen of Berkeley with a wish for peace. Called "The Peace Wall," it was installed two hundred feet from "The Wall That Heals." The reading provided a background environment for other activities, which included a visit by students from Berkeley High School, which is located on the opposite side of the park. Teachers and students from that school, from which most of the Berkeley war dead had graduated, mingled all day with the veterans and the friends and families.

One night during the reading of the names, the power went out in the area of the Wall. Volunteers from Vietnam veterans groups were there in a matter of minutes to rewire something. They explained that compared to the problems that the war presented to them, this was nothing. In no time the name reading was continued with the lights and sound restored.

The reading of names certainly had its own magic. Berkeley firefighter and Vietnam veteran Kim Larsen knew one of the deceased from his tour in Vietnam. He met a sister of his fellow soldier who worked at the university. He found that the sister, Charlene Darden, still felt the loss deeply. They talked with each other, and he met the family. They laid twenty-two roses at the Wall, and he requested to read the names of the twenty-two Berkeley dead.

The Darden family has used the electronic memorial regularly since its dedication. They make entries on every birthday and holiday. This is also the case with other entries. Relatives of the Berkeley dead who are too young to have known the deceased use the memorial to discover their family history on-line and to get to know each other. E-mails and snail mails have passed from the deceased's comrades to their war dead's gold-star parents. Family members express pride and communicate to the deceased their efforts to live by his or her example of self-sacrifice. Happily, the success of this first interactive, on-line memorial has inspired similar sites in the city of Beacon, New York, and at the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Kim Larsen asked to read other names from the Wall. He was assigned a list of names and a time to read. While reading the list, he came across the name of someone with whom he had come back from Vietnam. He had last seen him at his parent's house after their discharge. They said their good-byes, and the friend took off to his home in California to enter civilian life. When that name appeared, he realized that his friend had reenlisted and gone back to Vietnam, where he was killed soon after his return.

A Vietnam veteran visiting the Concord California Veterans Administration Outreach Center tent became offended at something that Tamlyn Bright had said while acting as master of ceremonies for the day. He kicked something over, yelled, and ran off- A few minutes later he returned and confronted Tamlyn, who was exhausted from all her duties of the last week. She stared into his sunglasses, listened to him yelling at her, and then burst into tears. The veteran stopped yelling and looked stunned. Then he apologized and asked her not to cry. It ended with them hugging and consoling each other. He then went back to the vet center tent and booked an appointment with a counselor. Tamlyn went back to her chores as MC.

Many veterans and anti-war activists were afraid that the coming of the Wall would lead to divisiveness. Many remembered the ugly confrontations that had happened during the war years in the city. Yet the atmosphere proved to be one of reconciliation, not confrontation. Within the Veterans Memorial Building across from the park and "The Wall That Heals," a member of the Berkeley Historical Society had set up a display of her own collection of Vietnam antiwar memorabilia and objects from the GI movement against the war. She had gone to Vietnam during the war as a civilian tourist just to see for herself what the war was about. She had been determined to display these things but was almost terrified of the response she would get from Vietnam veterans. Two Vietnam veterans, dressed in bits of their old uniforms, were among the over seven hundred people to pass through the museum that day without issue or objection. In fact, those two ran errands for her all day, becoming her best friends and helpers. "They were like family before day's end," she told me with pleased amazement in her voice.

Still, no one from any of the traditional veterans groups were present, and none volunteered any help to me on this project or the previous events. For that matter, there was a great absence of anti-war or conservative groups and of officials who should have been there. All the memorial events in Berkeley were attended chiefly by citizens, friends, and neighbors. In other words, those present were the workers, the often faceless rank and file upon whom falls the task of fighting or opposing wars and suffering the consequences of their leaders' actions. The often vocal advocates of the masses from the Left and Right were, however, not much missed. For example, one day before "The Wall That Heals" came to Berkeley, the president of the Bay Area Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America became upset. He pulled out the Vietnam Veterans of America color guard from our ceremony in protest over a speech on the program that was to be made by an anti-war protester. They also withdrew from the laying of a wreath for civilian women who were killed in the Vietnam War. But the local Boy Scout troop filled in admirably. They played taps and lowered, presented, and retired the colors.

At the ceremony that opened the visiting of the Wall, all those present were respectful. People of all ages came to visit and participate in the ceremonies and in the reading of the names. Jan Scruggs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund addressed the crowd with words of peace and healing. A bagpiper played "Amazing Grace," and we read the names of the civilian women and merchant marines who died in the war. No one who was there was the same when they left. It may be irrational to do so, but one could not help thinking that had Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon been able to envision such a ceremony thirty or forty years ago, their policies would have been different.

At times I have resisted my connection to the Vietnam War. It has been consistently bad for business, and many of my peers have cautioned and warned me about constantly bringing up the Vietnam War in my songs and in my talks to my audience. Over the years I have accepted this as my fate. I sang the song "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" at Woodstock. I also sang at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Veterans Day 1992, the tenth anniversary of the Wall, because of forces beyond my control. Both performances occurred because I happened to be there as a spectator and was asked to fill in for others! Whether or not I chose to make Vietnam a focus of my life, it seems to have chosen me.

My efforts to help veterans and the country heal from the war have been both reviled and honored, just like the war itself. There were times when I felt as if 1 would lose my mind. The worst of times for me came during the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua when extremists on the political Right and Left of the country were infatuated with regular or irregular military personnel (depending on their political viewpoint). Meanwhile, Vietnam veterans suffered in VA hospitals, on the streets, and in their homes. Their families shared their burdens with little outside help or support. But to our nation's credit we seem to be finally healing and accepting the fact that while the Vietnam War, as McNamara now suggests, may have been a horrible mistake, it was certainly not the fault of those who fought the war or those who resisted it. The new American soldier and citizen is increasingly demanding the right to ask, "What are we fighting for?" But our evolution as responsible citizens is not yet complete in a democracy and it never is.

Because the process of healing from the war may advance this evolutionary process, it bears close examination. Berkeley has struggled to come to grips with its past and has attempted to reach a lasting peace. Many American cities have done the very same thing; other cities have not. Perhaps like the Vietnam War itself, in which so few Americans served directly, only a fraction of the population will participate in the healing from it. It would be a terrible thing for the country and the world if America does not make this peace with itself. The world-renowned expert on death and dying, Elizabeth Kubler Ross, tells us that in cases of unnatural, violent death, which describes all war deaths, the corpse must be touched or else the sadness turns to anger and then a lust for revenge. I have seen this evidence with my own eyes: those individuals who have participated in the memorial events in Berkeley seemed to have each touched the corpse symbolically and made the journey from anger to acceptance. I have also seen this process at work in the record of the on-line version of the memorial. The healing and closure that such actions can bring is our greatest hope for recovering from the war.

Of course, such hopes can be fragile. In 1999 the interactive aspect of the on-line Berkeley Vietnam Veterans Memorial ( comm/vvm/default.htm) went down because of a scripting problem and stayed down for eight months. I do not know who will replace the flags on the building when they wear out. I cannot even be certain that my hometown of Berkeley, California, will ever celebrate Veterans Day again with the meaning that I hoped to instill in that celebration. I do know that what has happened here these past few years was only possible because the citizens of Berkeley -- the campus, the town, the veterans, and the anti-war protesters -- wanted it to happen and helped to make it happen. We have a new respect for our community and for ourselves. The Berkeley Vietnam Veterans Memorial gives us a chance to promote healing, gain more respect for life and for each other, and take both a real and a virtual small step toward peace on earth.


1. The site resides at It is also possible to access it through the city of Berkeley home page. From the menu selection, you can select "Local Links." Under the title "Community," select "Berkeley Vietnam Veterans Memorial" to visit the site.
2. Robert S. MeNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1995).
3. See, for example, H. Bruce Franklin, M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 1993).


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