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Riverside, San Diego County, CA March 2, 2004 Election
Smart Voter

Growing up military

By Mike P Byron

Candidate for United States Representative; District 49; Democratic Party

This information is provided by the candidate
My account of how my early experiences have shaped my views with respect to war, peace, and the role of the citizen in a democracy.
Growing up Military--a Personal and an Intellectual History.

My earliest memory is of standing on the balcony of a second floor apartment. The sun was about to set and the transcendent beauty of the moment etched itself indelibly into my consciousness. A red sports car drove up. Out popped a tall man in a military uniform. He didn't look like my father, but the uniform was the same. Somewhat dubiously I called for my mother who was inside the apartment preparing dinner. "Mommy, is THAT man daddy?" I queried. Bemused my mother stated that the African-American man in the parking lot was not my father. My father came home from duty soon afterwards that glorious spring evening of 1959. In years to come, when I would discuss this memory with my mother, she would note wonderingly: "you only saw the uniform." I did not yet know or understand it but we were in Washington D.C., Capital of our nation and of the democratic world in the midst of a long and ever more dangerous Cold War. My father was then stationed at Bolling Air Force Base.

Soon afterwards we moved to the other side of that divided, world, to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. I remember clearly going to a native village outside the base. The village was inhabited by colorfully clad native tribesmen. They were having a market day. I was excited! After much cajoling, and pleading, my father and mother had agreed that I could have a real bow and set of arrows. As the former(?) headhunters [Note: This was 1959-60--almost half a century ago. These folks have long since given up headhunting!] bargained with my father and I, I could feel my excitement mount. I was really going to get my own bow and arrows! Of course when we got home my father carefully removed the very lethal arrow heads from the arrow shafts before handing me the bow and arrowheadless arrows.

From this experience, and others at about this time, I began to learn that such a thing as countries existed. I was from one particular country called the "USA." The people outside that base, along with our friendly Filipino housekeeper Pat, were from a different country called the "Philippines" (or often just "P.I"). So the world was full of countries--THAT was what the colored patches on world maps and globes meant! I understood! One of the older Filipino's at the Riding Academy I went to each Sunday after Church told me thrilling first-hand accounts about WWII and his and his family's experiences under Japanese occupation and the subsequent American liberation of the country. I was astonished to learn that the base where I lived, which seemed so secure had been conquered by an armed enemy only a few years before! So I began to learn that not only was the world divided up into nations, but also that nations often did not get along and fought wars--just like I might get into a fight with some other small boy I reasoned. I also learned that some nations and even groups of people within a nation are much poorer--or wealthier than others.

This observation was brought home to me in dramatic fashion when one day while I was out hunting for tadpoles near one of the base's perimeter fences, I observed a Filipino guard who I knew as Pedro, apprehend a scrawny young Filipino man carrying a sack, after chasing him down. I saw Pedro point his rifle at the man. Pedro said something in Tagalog, the Philippine language. The scrawny man put down his sack and pointed back to our housing area. Pedro then pointed his rifle carefully at the man's chest and shot him. The man crumpled to the ground dead presumably. I ran home crying. My mother told me to forget it--it didn't happen. But of course it did--seeing is believing. [Note: This was nearly half a century ago it is not a portrait of today's Philippines!] So nations, war, wealth and poverty, cultural diversity, and crime and punishment, all entered into my growing awareness of the world during our eventful stay at Clark Air Force Base.

We next moved to Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois near Saint Louis. Here in the American heartland, life was much less eventful than in the Philippines. Still within a couple of years, dramatic happenings would bring the outside world back to my attention. In October of 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out. The base was on highest alert. Everyone-- even us kids--was talking about the unthinkable actually happening--any day! I remember asking my father "Daddy, if the Russians attack us with H-bombs will we all die?" My father tried to reassure me by saying "No son, we'll be fine because daddy will put us all into the car and drive us far, far, away where we will be safe. However I replied: "But daddy you are in the military. I don't think that you will be allowed to leave work when a war starts." He had no answer for me. His silence was my answer. War, I concluded, must be avoided unless it is necessary for self-defense. The following year President Kennedy was assassinated. Then too there were rumors of war; however life on the base soon returned to normal.

The new president, Lyndon Johnson became ever more enmeshed in Vietnam. The growing American involvement in that tormented land led my father to be reassigned to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. This was the rear echelon for the Vietnam War. I never really knew what my father, who has since passed away, did, but based on something which he said to me once, in an unguarded moment: "I know who our spies in North Vietnam are" I understood that it had something to do with military intelligence.

The Vietnam War became part of my personal experience accidentally. Because of a back problem, when I was twelve in the spring of 1968, I spent nearly a month in the pediatrics ward of Tripler Army Hospital, also in Hawaii. While I was pretty isolated in pediatrics, I was allowed to find my own way across the vast hospital complex to attend my physical therapy sessions. Also to go the hospital bookstore and browse while seeking my next book to read--I read voraciously--history, politics, and science fiction. While on these excursions I could not help but notice that the hospital was packed with wounded, blinded, limbless young men. All were casualties from the ongoing, still escalating, fighting in Vietnam. Most were only about six to seven years older than me. Some looked scarcely older than I did. Many of them were undergoing physical therapy around me. They were the "lucky ones" they were alive.

No one would talk directly to me about their Vietnam experiences. I suspected that they generally did not even talk to one another about their war experiences. They would however, with prodding, sometimes talk about why we were at war. Many said that they did not know why we were fighting. Others said the war was a political war and should not be waged. The overall sense I got was that these bloody, wounded, sometimes maimed and crippled warriors generally thought that the war was a mistake. This had a profound effect upon my developing world view.

In the midst of this period, while I was at Tripler Army Hospital, President Johnson came on television and stated "I shall not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President..." I could sense that the Vietnam War had destroyed his Presidency. The link between political leadership and human misery and death became much more tangible in my mind.

Ironically, I was reading William L. Shirer's magisterial tome "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" for the first time as Johnson spoke. The idea that political decisions could have vast consequences was by now well developed in my mind. I understood that going to war for other than defensive reasons was wrong. But, from my reading, as well as my experiences in the Philippines, I also understood the concept of appeasement from the pre-WWII period. I found myself pondering as to where to draw the line? I finally decided that the Vietnam War was being fought for political reasons, that it had economic aspects as well, but that it did not have any real relationship to preserving the national security of the United States. Ultimately, it was just resulting in the killing and maiming of countless Americans and Vietnamese with no concomitant gain in American security. I turned against the war. In an Air Force family living on a rear-echelon base of that war, this was not a very popular decision.

We soon moved in 1969 to March Air Force Base near Riverside. I've more or less been living in California ever since. In 1972 my father was sent to Thule Air Force Base in Greenland. I exploited my relative freedom to convince my mother that summer of 1972 that I was going to stay with friends somewhere out of town for a while. What I actually did was to hitchhike to Miami Beach Florida to participate as a "Counter-Delegate" at the Republican National Convention. I opposed the winding down but still ongoing war and dreamed of somehow making my views on war and peace and civic responsibility known to President Nixon, personally. Arriving late in the evening the day before the convention opened, at Flamingo Park, where the convention protestors were allowed to camp, I slept under a big California State flag, which I had been helpfully directed to by other Californians who were already established there.

Awakening excitedly the following morning, I found that I had slept nearby to an encampment of anti-war Vietnam Veterans. Many were missing limbs, or were in wheel chairs. With a feeling of déjà vu, I realized that these guys were representative of some of the wounded veterans I had known years before at Tripler hospital. If they were not the exact same persons they had had histories and experiences more or less identical to the Tripler hospital veterans who I had known. Here we were together again. In fact, I was there in Miami to protest the war and what I perceived as the unresponsive policies of President Nixon, in part at least, because of these veterans influence on me! Amazing!

Our various demonstrations during the course of the next several days were wholly peaceful--until the night of then President Nixon's re-nomination. We "counter-delegates" were determined to prevent Mr. Nixon from having a quorum of delegates present to re-nominate him. We attempted to block the paths of the Republican Convention delegate's limousines, though no one actually threatened any delegates physically. We were quickly met by hundreds of Miami police and even more National Guard troops. They were swinging clubs and firing a sort of high powered tear gas that also burns your skin called CS gas. I ended up running choking and gasping, blind through dark deserted alleys seeking to escape the patrolling National Guard.

Being young and foolish, I then took part in a second attempt to march back into downtown Miami Beach to "rescue" a large group of demonstrators who had taken refuge in the Fontainebleau Hotel on the main drag there, Collins Boulevard. This attempt was broken up well short of the Fontainebleau. I remember during this rout, seeing a cop smash a CBS or NBC journalist's camera and begin beating the unfortunate reporter with his nightstick. I ran. At one point on my retreat back to Flamingo Park, seeing a Miami cop ahead, I hastily stuffed the wet handkerchief that served as my "gas mask" into a front pocket of my jeans. Seeing the motion, the officer and several others raced up to me and encircled me. One of them placed his pistol at my left temple (I recall this because I'm left handed) and said to me "listen carefully, reach into your pocket slowly and take out whatever it was that you jammed in it, out for us to see. If you try anything stupid, you die." Slowly, ever so slowly, I removed my wet handkerchief for their inspection. After they had patted me down to ensure that was really all that I had, I was asked by an astonished officer: "Why did you attempt to hide THAT from us"? "I didn't want you to take my gas mask officer" I replied. The police officers looked at each other incredulously. Finally one asked me "Son, how old are you"? "Fifteen, officer" I replied. "In God's name" replied the officer, "I don't have time to take you in--PLEASE get the hell out of here son, people are getting hurt here!" This time, I was ready to call it a night. The next morning I left and began my hitchhiking journey back across the vast breadth of America, home to Moreno Valley, California.

Our nation's direct involvement in the war ended the following year when the Paris Peace Accords were signed. I had by now learned that opposition to government policies can take the form of direct protests. Such protests can indeed be effective; however, one must be non-violent. Even so, you have to expect that being gassed and possibly beaten and arrested is a real possibility. Still, if one has convictions, I concluded, one should act upon them. As a deeper insight, I learned reflecting on things later, that "patriotism" is often used by the most unscrupulous elements (President Nixon for example) to stifle First Amendment authorized debate and political protest. Sometimes public protest is as patriotic, as it is necessary.

Several years later, I left home at the age of seventeen. After the passage of a few months, when I had turned eighteen, growing tired of washing dishes in a restaurant (I had after all just dropped out of High School) wanting adventure, and technical knowledge, but not wanting to see any more air force bases, I joined the US Navy. South Vietnam fell while I was in boot camp. Now only the Cold War still stubbornly remained in place. The following year, after extensive training (Navy technical schools are quite good by the way) I joined my assigned ship the USS Long Beach, (CGN-9), the most powerful warship ever built, while it was already deployed at sea in the Pacific Ocean on WESTPAC. The ship was docked at Subic Bay in the Philippines. En route to the Philippines our chartered plane stopped at several places from my childhood: Hickam Air Base in Hawaii, and also in Guam for refueling, and finally landed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.

Riding on a military bus through the Philippine countryside between Clark and Subic, I saw once more the Philippine villages of my early childhood even as I mulled over my short stay at Hickam--another part of my childhood. Life, it appeared had come full circle. Only now I was the one wearing the uniform. Serving as a guided missile Fire Control Technician on board the Long Beach soon found me face to face, with a nuclear trigger in my hand, with the armed naval might of then still powerful USSR. Soviet warships of this period were packed with antennas, guns, and missile launchers. Their design philosophy seemed to involve using every possible area of space for some lethal purpose. Now it was my job to be prepared to fight. I was the warrior.

One day in early 1977 my ship was on patrol the Indian Ocean. Being off duty and bored, I was observing a Soviet Kinda or Kresta class destroyer which was shadowing us about a mile or so away, through binoculars. Onboard the Soviet warship a crewman, who had been similarly observing our ship, spotted me observing him. We looked at each other for perhaps thirty seconds, before going about our normal duties. While this encounter was brief, it was important to me, for after all these years, all other intervening wars and rumors of wars, I had now actually seen and been seen by "the enemy" on the high seas, onboard our respectively lethal warships. My enemy looked just like me! I thought back to the wounded young warriors I had known at Tripler hospital all those years ago and felt more deeply than ever that our nation should never go to war except to preserve our security from a direct and immanent threat.

A dozen years later Soviet domination over Eastern Europe, which had once appeared immutable and eternal, ended peacefully during the span of only a few months. Two years later once-mighty Soviet Union itself dissolved. No aggressive war was necessary to accomplish this purpose. Indeed, the one aggressive war our nation fought during the Cold War period proved to be a disaster. Let us learn from our personal experiences and our collective national history.

In the event that our government does go to war for reasons other that direct national defense from attack, we as citizens, if we disagree with these actions, have a patriotic duty to protest. It's the American way. Ironically, my growing up military led me to this conclusion.

Michael Byron, despite dropping out of Moreno Valley High School at age seventeen is now a Ph.D Professor of Political Science at Palomar College and elsewhere, in Southern California. He is running for Congress as a Democratic candidate in California's 49th Congressional District.

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