VVAW Statement Read Outside Trump's American Legion Speech in Reno
By Anthony Shafton
As soon as we learned that President Trump would address the American Legion on August 23 in Reno, a coalition of local activist groups geared up to stage a protest. We had five days. At the final planning meeting, we honed our message for the press and social media. The title for the demo became "We Stand with Our Veterans — Nevada Rejects Hate."
The fatal white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville and the president's despicable performance in response were still fresh in everyone's mind. Even so, the coalition leadership held that our message had to be positive. That's the common wisdom now, it seems, the PR approach, to keep the "messaging" positive. Mine was the sole voice to say that everyone who came to the demo (on our side) would be there against Trump and against his shameful behavior. Maybe this observation helped bring about the addition of "Nevada Rejects Hate" to our title, the thrust of which, the meeting agreed, had to be that we on the left "Stand with Our Veterans."
Of course, stand with our vets. But following the abuse of soldiers in connection with Vietnam and the conservative backlash, much of the progressive community, in my opinion, has reacted defensively with a kind of knee-jerk honoring of veterans which too often slides over into timidity about questioning the rightness of wars. But I suppose it's a national condition, the rarity of public conversation about our ongoing wars.
At the planning meeting, one of our members who had served in the Navy was tapped to address the protest during a "Veteran Recognition Ceremony."
"So, I guess," I chimed in, "we won't be inviting anyone from Iraq Veterans Against the War to speak." That sally earned a nervous titter and a change of subject. I was being sarcastic, but afterward I thought, that's not a bad idea. A google search turned up no trace of IVAW or VVAW in Reno. Then I thought of someone I used to know during my anti-war days in Chicago and Northwest Indiana, Barry Romo. Through him I got to Jeff Machota, who emailed to say there's no one in Reno on the VVAW roster. So, then I thought, Barry was always a brilliant off-the-cuff speaker, why not ask him to write a short speech for me to read? Barry agreed. It was gratifying that no one in the coalition leadership voiced an objection, quite the contrary, when I circulated my own remarks with Barry's text.
"Hello," I introduced myself to the crowd of 1,000 nonviolent protestors, "my name is Tony Shafton, with Indivisible Northern Nevada. I served in the Army before the Vietnam War, and during that war I was in Vietnam in the Merchant Marine. I'm going to read a statement written for today's event by Barry Romo. Barry was a National Coordinator of Vietnam Veterans Against the War for 40 years. Barry wrote:
'Under the Obama Administration veteran homelessness was cut in half. Trump promised to treat the veterans so much better. But he and his Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin have done nothing, and are scheming to do even less. They complain that disabled vets are going to bankrupt the country, so they want to privatize the VA and cut back services — this while the military is fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, not to mention who knows how many other missions! A vet is too often treated like a liar when asking for help, and there is a giant waiting list because they won't hire more staff. 20 to 22 vets kill themselves every day. We need help, not platitudes! We certainly don't need cutbacks. My father and brother were World War II vets, my nephew and I served in Vietnam. I brought my nephew's body back home. We're of proud Mexican heritage. Trump never served in the military and no one in his family has served in our military.'
"Barry Romo wrote this statement," I continued, "before Trump's pronouncements about the Afghanistan War. I'm sure Barry would have something to say about Afghanistan. But I can't speak for him. So, I'll just close with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War motto: Honor the warrior, not the war. Peace."
The motto got applause, which is encouraging.
I thought about taking my own shot at Trump's Afghanistan program, but decided not to push it. I would have said that looser rules of engagement sound like more civilian casualties; that claiming a share of Afghanistan's wealth supposedly to defray costs is naked imperialism; that additional troops or mercenaries would have to be committed indefinitely as security guards for the mines of American corporations; and that pitting India against Pakistan would stir up a hornets' nest between those two confrontational nuclear powers.
As I made my way through the crowd back to the perimeter to resume marshaling duties in my yellow safety vest, a fair number of veterans in the crowd thanked me for the speech. I passed those thanks along to Barry Romo and VVAW.
Anthony Shafton is an author who lives in Reno, Nevada. His forthcoming book is "The Nevada They Knew: Robert Caples and Walter Van Tilburg Clark."