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Vet Battles For Better Life: Free Ashby Leach
Reprinted excerpt from the the October 1976 (Volume 6, Number 25)
"I stood and looked at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Then I looked up at the Terminal Tower—at that Castle of Capitalism—and I knew what I had to do... The barrel of my shotgun was stuffed with all the letters I've written to change the system for vets."
With these words, Ashby Leach, a 30-year-old Vietnam veteran described his decision to take over the offices at the Chessie system (the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad) in the Terminal Tower in Cleveland, Ohio. Like thousands of veterans all over the country, Ashby Leach had reached a situation which called for desperate action.
Ashby had served as a medic, and received a Purple Heart. He had seen first had how the rulers of this country preach "freedom and democracy"," but then throw away the lives of working people for the holy cause of profit. Following his military service, Ashby had become an apprentice mechanic at Chessie and found out even more clearly how the "system" shows its gratitude to veterans: once they are used, they are just thrown away.
As part of job training the vets were promised, there is a program where, when the veteran is working as an apprentice to learn a job, the government will make up the difference between the apprentice pay and that of a journeyman—in the case of Ashby, something like $1.50 per hour. When the Chessie system and the VA denied him these benefits, Ashby began a letter writing campaign to get these wrongs righted. At one point he even picketed outside the hotel where the Chessie President was staying, demanding to see the President. It was here that Ashby was told that he should go to school.
And he did. But, after he was finished, despite their guarantees, the Chessie system refused to give him his job back. All during this time and after, Ashby had written to company and government officials to protest the kind of mistreatment he was getting. His letters were ignored. Nevertheless, he persisted. This summer he even wrote to each one of the members of the Congress; still there was no action on his plight.
Frustrated by all these dead ends, on August 26th Ashby Leach took over an office on the 36th floor of the Terminal Tower, where the Chessie system has its national headquarters. Among his 9 hostages was R. C. McGowan, vice-president of administration for Chessie, and it was McGowan who negotiated with Leach about his demands. According to the police, Ashby demanded reinstatement of the GI Bill for all Vietnam veterans, and reimbursement of all Chessie System veterans who had been cheated out of the Bill while working for the railroad. Ashby's wife Linda described the event a little differently: "Ashby believes the company broke its promise by not rehiring him after he left to finish his schooling under the GI Bill," she said. "He believes he is doing it for all the other Vietnam veterans who could not find jobs when they returned home."
After 9 hours, Ashby released all the hostages unharmed after McGowan promised that GI benefits would be extended to Vietnam veterans employed by Chessie and that Vietnam veterans who worked for Chessie would be reimbursed for GI benefits. Ashby also demanded media coverage for the demands in order to get the situation of veterans—not just those in the Chessie system, but all Vietnam vets—in front of the American people.
Millions of people watched on nationwide TV. Outside the Terminal Tower when Ashby surrendered, there were thousands of people gathered—many raising clenched fists and cheering. Ashby Leach had made a statement that not just vets, but everyone who's been messed-over and pushed around by the system could take as their own.
Many of Ashby's friends had died on the battlefield. Others, returning to the states, their lives ruined, turned to dope and crime. But most came back seeing that they had a battle to wage right here at home, whether it be in the factories, unemployment lines, schools or VA hospitals.
No sooner had he surrendered to the police than Chessie went back on its promises. The media made him out to be a lunatic, just the same way they deal with Vietnam veterans on TV program after program. The police allege that he harmed several hostages. And the courts indicted him on 16 counts. His bail was set at $450,000. But the fact is that Leach hurt no one—that is, no one except the precious images of the Chessie system and the VA. His demands are just demands. And this is exactly what the big corporations like Chessie and their hired politicians, and administrators can't stand—that their filthy lies and promises have been exposed. Worse they fear that the courage of Ashby's actions will inspire others to stand up too. And that is why they've come down so heavy on him.
The mother of Ashby Leach, talking to reporters, said that after he was laid off by Chessie, her son became very angry. "He's been very upset." She said. "He said they're not treating the veterans right. He doesn't think its right that anybody gives all they can to their country and then gets treated that way."
VVAW stands shoulder to shoulder with Ashby Leach. VVAW will continue to organize and support struggles of vets, whether it's in the schools, in the unemployment lines or whether it's actions such as that of Ashby Leach. We demand that he be released and that his demands be met. We call upon people to join us in a campaign to secure his release and press forward in the struggle.