March 26, 2004

An Open Letter to Latino/a Vietnam Veterans

One More Reason Why You Should Support John Kerry

By Jorge Mariscal (U.S. Army, 1968-70)

When we first arrived in-country, they told us we were there to defend democracy. Most of us didn’t realize that the South Vietnamese government was so corrupt that not even the Vietnamese people supported it. Do you remember seeing the Buddhist monks on fire in the streets of Saigon? They were protesting the so-called democratic government that had been installed by the United States.

We survived the ordeal but many of our hermanos were lost. Many more came home with tremendous physical and mental damage. Some were so traumatized by what they had seen or done that they succumbed to alcohol, drugs, and violence.

A few of us returned mad as hell. We felt tricked and lied to. We felt that the entire war had been a farce concocted by deluded bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. We came home and joined the movement to stop the killing. Some of you were angry because you felt the bureaucrats had not allowed you to win the war. They tied our hands behind our back, you claimed. Some of you still say that today.

If the overriding issue for you is the fact that all who serve do so honorably, then the politics of the Vietnam War and the on-going war in Iraq may not interest you. To argue that the first war was morally unjustifiable and the second unnecessary, you say, is a betrayal of the good intentions of our young people in uniform.

Some of you have children in the armed forces. Some of them are in Iraq. It is understandable that you would rather not hear that they were used in a war and occupation that thirty years from now might be called a mistake based on lies. It’s an intolerable thought, I admit, but what if it were true?

If you came back from Vietnam to “the World” determined to stop the sacrifice of innocent lives, you understand what John Kerry did. A Navy officer distinguished in combat, Kerry came home to join the antiwar movement and tell the truth about what he had seen and done.

It wasn’t a question of “flip-flopping.” It was a question of taking an intense personal experience, learning from it, and adjusting one’s political views accordingly. The same process is going on today with our troops in Iraq. Witness the case of Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejía who refused to be redeployed after serving honorably for eight years in the Army and the National Guard.

Why should Vietnam veterans support John Kerry for president? Even if you disagree with what he did after coming home or you hate the fact that he briefly met Jane Fonda at a demonstration, you must admit that despite his family’s privileges he did not duck the war. Like you and me, he went and he served honorably.

George W. Bush was in the Texas Air National Guard. Despite long waiting lists to get into the Guard in 1968, he was able to jump to the front of the line. After only five weeks of basic training, he was recommended for a direct commission and became a second lieutenant even though he met none of the qualifications. How many of you went to only five weeks of boot camp and came out a second lieutenant? George W. later trained on F-102s, old fighter planes that were being phased out of combat service, and then went to Florida to work in the political campaign of his father’s friend.

What does any of this have to do with the election next November? John Kerry might not be the perfect candidate and some of you may not agree with his proposals. Like Bush, he comes from wealth and privilege, elite prep schools and Yale. But unlike Bush, John Kerry as a young man chose to not use his family contacts to stay out of harm’s way. It’s a matter of character, pure and simple.

Jorge Mariscal is a professor at the University of California, San Diego. He can be reached at:

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