The black-and-white footage shows a line of young men. Some are clean-cut and boyish, others have shaggy hair and dark glasses. One by one they step up to a microphone, say a few words, turn around, and hurl something over a fence.
It was April 23, 1971, and 2,000 members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War had gathered in Washington, D.C., for three days of protest. Dubbed Operation Dewey Canyon III, the protest took its name from two secret U.S. invasions of Laos. The vets marched, staged a sit-in at the Supreme Court, and were turned away at Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon, where some tried to turn themselves in for war crimes. In a climactic ceremony, 1,200 vets threw their military medals onto the steps of the Capitol.
Chicagoan Barry Romo was there as a leader of the group. At its height the organization boasted 50,000 members who returned home to denounce the war, dealing a serious blow to the conflict’s political and moral legitimacy. “When we were at the front of the march and always there to speak at a rally, there was no question that this war was wrong.”
Romo, like a lot of early Vietnam veterans, enlisted to fight. Fresh out of high school, he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming an infantry lieutenant in 1967 and ending up as a company commander before the age of 20. In 1968 his nephew was killed in combat, and Romo accompanied the body home. He enrolled in classes at the University of California at Riverside, where his old friends had become part of the antiwar movement but still gladly welcomed him back. “No one spit on me, contrary to all this shit on TV,” Romo says. “They used to ask me, ‘Barry, what was it like?'”
Romo’s feelings toward the war were already changing. “I went over right wing, and I came back confused,” he says. In early 1971 he joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and helped organize the group’s Winter Soldier hearings in Detroit. The event was staged to let veterans set the record straight–many felt the media portrayed My Lai as an isolated incident. But this kind of intimate truth telling didn’t come easy. “It was possible to be antiwar and still not deal with your experiences,” Romo says. “VVAW meant that we had to actually use our experiences and bring them to the public. It meant taking all our anger and our pain and our sorrow and saying we can use this to save people’s lives.”
Shortly after leaving his Bronze Star for Valor on the steps of the Capitol, Romo was elected to the national committee of the VVAW, and he moved to Chicago in 1973 to work in the organization’s headquarters. But after the war ended, the struggle continued. The group has remained at the center of the battle over Agent Orange and it’s publicly opposed subsequent U.S. military ventures. Today members give presentations at high schools and colleges, promote reconciliation with Vietnam, and try to help homeless vets (Romo cites estimates that nearly half of Chicago’s homeless are veterans).
Romo’s now a postal worker and head of the mail handler’s union at O’Hare Airport, but the war remains a part of his life. “The hardest thing for Vietnam vets to overcome is that they have killed people and their friends have died for a worthless cause. To verbalize it and campaign on it is very hard. So when you realize how many thousands of vets marched with VVAW, it says something, I think, about the caliber of the American people.”
The 30th anniversary of the VVAW will be celebrated this weekend at the United Electrical Workers Union Hall, 37 S. Ashland. Tonight at 7:30 there’ll be a premiere screening of the documentary Citizen Soldier: The Story of the VVAW by Chicago director Denis Mueller. Saturday’s festivities take place from 11:30 to 5 and feature panel discussions, speeches, and an open mike. Memorabilia will be on exhibit and for sale. Call 773-327-5756 for more. Mueller’s video will be shown again at 7 on Sunday at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division; call 773-384-5533.
VVAW’s annual Memorial Day program, “Honor the Dead, Fight for the Living,” will be held at 11 AM at State and Wacker on Monday, May 26. –Curtis Black
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Barry Romo by Randy Tunnell.