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Page 16
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<< 15. 1964: From "Spookville" to the Tonkin Gulf17. Nam >>

How I Joined VVAW

By rg cantalupo

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(Haiphong Harbor Blockade Protest, May 8th, 1971)

I don't like being followed. And I don't like anyone listening to my conversations.

But this is the FBI, and I'm a terrorist. No, that's too strong. I'm just an angry Vietnam vet.

Yesterday, my photograph was on the front page of the Monterey Herald. I was holding a billy club poised to smash down on the head of the police officer lying in a crumpled heap at my feet.

That's when a reporter snapped my picture; the rest is history.

So be it. I am who I am. Or who I came to be.

Yesterday, I was a wounded war hero.

Today, I am a danger to society.

Two years ago, I was flying home in a wheelchair from a war I didn't want to fight, flying home to see my wife and mother, who I couldn't remember.

Such was the result of the shrapnel that was extracted from my brain.

Such is who and what I am.

I loved Janice.

Her image kept me alive through the hard days of humping the jungle—her image and "the world" I imagined I would come home to after serving my tour.

Imagining her while the rat-tat-tat of M-16s punctuated the dark and flares lit up firefights three clicks away helped me to survive.

But coming home was different.

I wasn't who she remembered; I wasn't who I was; I couldn't remember who I was.

I was lost in a world of night terrors and night sweats. I would wake up shaking from a recurring dream of walking into an L-shaped ambush the night Lonny and I ran back to the perimeter, dodging fire both from our own company and the VC chasing us.

Fucking Listening Posts. LPs.

Suicide missions to lure the Viet Cong out in the open. Bait. Chum. To keep the rest of the company safe. Some general's strategy was to put LP's all around the firebase so the battalion was protected from an enemy surprise attack.

Except you never knew what you would encounter.

It could be an NVA regiment out there, and no one would know till some two-man LP blew their claymores and flares, and hundreds of VC would appear low-crawling over rice paddy dikes in the dark.

Grey-green shadows in the starlight scope crawling toward you like ghosts.

I still have nightmares.

Recurring over and over, like reliving your death night after night.

Dreamt, but not dreamt.


Real. Real real.

The night Lonny got shot and bled to death in my arms—that night.

I couldn't help him. I couldn't stop the bleeding.

Neck wound. Nothing I could do. Put pressure on with my palms. Stop the bleeding.

But I couldn't stop the bleeding, and we couldn't stay where we were. VC coming to get us. Crawling over the rice paddy dikes.

So I quick-released my radio and threw Lonny over my back, carrying him as I ran to the perimeter, screaming, "Don't shoot! Don't shoot. Friendlies. Don't shoot."

And then I dropped on my belly into the mud as arms came to carry us, drag us back inside.

Home. I'm rolling down the ramp in my wheelchair at Travis Air Force Base. I'm holding Janice, kissing, and trying to love again.

Hugging my mother.

We reunited for an hour, and then it was time to leave, time for me to go onto another C-130 to take me to San Diego Naval Hospital, my new home, till the doctors deemed it was safe for me to leave.

I didn't know when that would be—when the headaches would stop, when there was no more fear of seizures, when my right leg could be walked on, or when the wound on my left arm closed completely so no blood or pus oozed out.

No, that's an exaggeration.

My left arm no longer oozed pus and blood.

But it was still useless. I couldn't bend it. I couldn't stretch it straight out. I could barely lift it, eat with it, or write my name.

And now I have to go.

We say goodbye.




They visit me in the hospital. In San Diego. They drive down on Sundays. Stay all afternoon. We go outside. Sit at a picnic table. I sit with my back facing the hospital wall. In a defensive position. A grass clearing in front of me.

We talk.

No, that's not right. They talk. I listen. I focus all my attention on being here.

But I'm not here. I'm not here, so I don't know how to answer.

I'm home, but I'm not.

I hear their voices from a distance, from the other side of a rice paddy, through the blades of a medivac. I'm hovering above them, and they're waving at me and calling my name. I'm listening to them through the static of a PRC-25, the squelch, and the absence of sound.

Something always takes me away: some movement out of the corner of my eye, a bird fluttering, a grasshopper jumping, a car crossing my plane of sight in the distance, someone walking, someone talking, something.

They don't know how to deal with me. I don't know how to deal with myself.

They come. They visit. They go.

Hello. Goodbye. We'll see you next week.

Yeah. Yeah.

And then I'm alone with my half-thoughts and my half-memories.

With my recurring terror dreams.

But San Diego gives me a lot of time to think.

I couldn't justify what I'd done in the war.

I couldn't justify the deaths of my friends nor the deaths of the Vietnamese I killed.

I couldn't justify the many lives ruined by the war.

So I became a radical, an anti-war protester, a member of VVAW, and I left my wife.

And that's where I was when my photograph was published, and the FBI started listening to my phone conversations and following me.

Before I spent the next four years underground.

rg cantalupo (Ross Canton) was an RTO (Radio Operator) for an infantry company in the 25th Infantry Division, 1968-69. He was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with a Combat V for Valor for courage under fire.

<< 15. 1964: From "Spookville" to the Tonkin Gulf17. Nam >>