From Vietnam Veterans Against the War,

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Letter to VVAW

By Joseph Guastella

April 4, 2014

44 years ago today, April 4, 1970, I was on an airplane headed to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to report for basic training. I had lost my college deferment for the draft after leaving school, having decided that 2 1/2 years of alcohol and drugs was not a good foundation for the future. I had hoped that the new draft lottery, which began in December 1969, would allow me to circumnavigate the issue of the Vietnam War. I won the lottery, birthday #1 - September 14.

My plane trip that day was the beginning of my active duty stint for the National Guard. It was my side step around the war. In those days, the Guard did not go overseas. We stayed at home. It was not like really being a soldier, I thought. I was going to be a clerk-typist. Then, while I was in basic training, 4 students were killed at Kent State University in Ohio by National Guardsmen. I had 2 friends from school who were in the process of applying for, and ultimately received, status as conscientious objectors. They were serious about it. Both went to work in the Peace Corps. They asked about the feeling among those of us who were active duty Guardsmen, what was the consensus about the killings at Kent State. Inwardly, I thought it was a tragedy, but I was relieved that I was going to be a clerk-typist.

While I feigned opposition to the war, I did not take any action or even participate in anti-war demonstrations. When my draft number came up, I was terrified. I believed that fear would get me killed. I had seen enough war on TV and in the movies to know that is what happened to cowards. That is the truth.

I finally got out of the Guard a few years later, before my 6-year-enlistment was finished. I simply stopped going. I received a phone call one day from a career sergeant at the Armory in East Orange, NJ. That is where my unit was. As a sidebar, today that building is a Mosque. The sergeant told me that he did not feel like going through all the paperwork that was required for me - AWOL and eventual court martial. He offered me a deal. Turn in my equipment, and he would get me processed out with a general discharge. I thought I outsmarted the Army. I was wrong.

I will continue to carry a good deal of shame because of my failure to stand up for either side during the Vietnam War. I will always admire the real courage of the young men and women who served in Vietnam, whether it was by choice or not. War is the worst of all wrongs. But soldiers do what they are told. They do not get to choose. Some that I know who went believed in serving. Some were killed in combat. Some came home and do not talk about it.

Those of you who served in Vietnam went there so that I did not have to. You stood in front of me and shielded me with your limbs and your lives and your sanity and your youth and your innocence. I can never know the suffering you endured on my behalf.

My letter is prompted by an article I read in The Veteran on the VVAW site. It is from Fall 2012; Volume 42, Number 2. It is entitled, "Thank You for Your Service." It was written by Bill Ehrhart, an honorably-discharged former Marine sergeant with a Purple Heart Medal, a Navy Combat Action Ribbon, and two Presidential Unit Citations. At the end of his letter he says, "Instead of thanking our servicemen and women for their service, perhaps we ought to be asking less service from them and more service from ourselves." I believe he is correct.

It has taken me 44 years to acknowledge my complicity in the Vietnam War and the debt I owe to those who served in my place. I do not expect that a letter or a thank you will change anything, but it is a beginning.

Joseph Guastella is not a veteran. He joined the National Guard in April 1970 and received a general discharge about 5 years later. He has lived in Bergen County in New Jersey all his life.

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