"After three weeks we convinced the Marines he was retarded and that they should let him out.”
A young marine at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot sent a desperate letter to the Center for Servicemen’s Rights. It was obvious that he was barely literate. It was also obvious that he was in trouble.
A few days later the center received a letter from the boy’s parents in Hayward, a letter written on the advice of their congressman, pleading for help. According to them their son was retarded and had no business being in the Marine Corps in the first place.
Like Lynn McClure, the young marine recruit who was beaten to death a few weeks ago, this young man had failed the Corps’ entrance test. His resourceful recruiter, like McClure’s, had suggested that he go to another city and take the test over. The second test was either considerably simpler or someone cheated. Because he passed.
Why had he wanted to join up at all? “I think it was because of the uniform. You know, he liked the shiny buttons.” Cathy, the counselor who worked on the case, smiles remembering the incident. “It took us a couple of weeks to find him. They were holding him in a casualty company. I finally got to see him one Sunday. He cried a lot. It was an incredible hassle getting them to admit he was even there in the first place. Eventually they had to. After three weeks we convinced the Marines he was retarded and that they should let him out.”
A soft-spoken, poised, attractive woman, Cathy earns her living as a legal secretary. In the evenings she helps enlisted men fight against what she considers to be military oppression. She has been a political activist involved in servicemen’s struggles since the middle of the Vietnam war.
According to Captain Bill Lynch, commanding officer of the Naval Legal Service in San Diego, there is no need for a sailor to seek civilian counsel. Navy lawyers come from the upper 20% of their graduating classes, and the system, recently revised, makes it virtually impossible for the brass to pressure a Navy lawyer. In his estimate, no more than 10% of sailors in trouble seek civilian legal assistance.
If such is the case, then the number of sailors trying to find a way out of the Navy must be truly staggering. Between 10 and 15 servicemen find their way to the unheated second-floor loft of the Center for Servicemen’s Rights on a typical evening. The vast majority of them are looking for a way out of the military.
Located at 820 Fifth Avenue in downtown San Diego, the CSR offers off-duty sailors and marines services considerably different from those offered at the strip-bars, rub joints, peep shows and adult book stores among which it is sandwiched. The rugs that cover much of the painted red floors, the plants, books, paper lanterns, and secondhand furniture, give the large yellow loft a homey, if impoverished charm.
Tonight in the large center room two sailors are discussing their applications for discharge as conscientious objectors. A young black man in dungarees and a black-and-white striped polo shirt climbs the stairs. Cathy, midway through dinner – “guacamole and the best Mexican chicken soup in town — greets him, “Hi, can I help you?” He nods shyly and says “I have a problem I’d like to talk to someone about.”
“Sure,” she says, “We can talk in here.” She scoops up her tin-foil dinner and the two of them disappear into one of several small rooms.
Two other young volunteer counselors are also eating their dinners in a back room. A third is speaking on the phone. He runs down the list of possible discharges: hardship, disability, general, administrative, undesirable ....
The young man talking to Cathy has just been told that he will not be given an honorable discharge. “Frequent involvement” and too many Captain’s Masts. Most of the incidents involved race. He feels that his Muslim interest has made him a particular target of the command’s animosity. Although they have hinted at an administrative discharge, it is the possibility of the undesirable one that he fears. The job market is tough enough as it is, he says. But with a U.D. ...
She outlines his rights. The center will help him get a civilian lawyer. They discuss the possibility of a witness testifying to the racism.
Later, in private, she tells me that it is not uncommon for blacks to be promised an administrative discharge and wind up with an undesirable one. Racism, she says, is an enormous problem in the Navy. ‘The whole job classification system in the Navy is racist.”
A middle-aged woman is talking quietly but with great intensity to a tall, ruddy-complexioned counselor whose long blond hair is partially hidden by a blue cap. Duffy, an ex-sailor himself, listens quietly, nodding occasionally, as she spills out the long story of her husband’s two suicide attempts and her own frustrated attempts to help him get out of the Navy. Her daughter, a child of four or five, sits beside her playing with her pocketbook.
“ . . . Now they’re trying to blame it on me. They’ve tried blaming it on everyone and everything. They say he’s an alcoholic. Well, for 12 years he was a perfect sailor and always came home with perfect reports .... I brought them all the papers from the psychiatrist. I’ve talked to every chaplain there is. But the Navy’s denying the whole thing. I don’t know where to begin ....”
Testifying before a recent Senate Internal Relations Subcommittee, naval intelligence officers characterized the Center for Servicemen’s Rights as part of an international Communist conspiracy engaged in subversive activity against the military.
Senator Strom Thurmond, a member of the subcommittee, noted that there have been a number of major acts of sabotage and cited violent and mutinous situations involving the aircraft carrier Constellation and Kitty Hawk in 1972, and this past summer a mutinous situation aboard the guided-missile destroyer Sterett, all three of which are home-based in San Diego.
The Senate subcommittee report suggests that the Center for Servicemen’s Rights is part of a loose federation known as the GI Alliance, which has ties with the Soviet Union. It claims that the alliance was responsible for, among other things, the recent defection of two U.S. sailors to the U.S.S.R.
According to a counselor who has worked with the CSR for several years, the report is nonsense. The “conspiratorial business,” according to Terry, is based on the Olongapo papers— letters confiscated when a center similar to the San Diego CSR was raided in the Philippines after Marcos declared martial law. The counselors, claims Terry, were beaten, jailed, and eventually deported.
“The NIS (Naval Investigations Service) found some letters from us. Which wasn’t surprising. We correspond with groups all over the world. There was never any conspiracy. Their conception of that sort of thing is generally warped. Some of these groups they mention in the conspiracy are pacifist organizations and others have been out of existence for a year and a half. Some of them are Quakers. We’re basically socialist, but anyone can work here who wants to, and we don’t all have one political view.”
“As for encouraging people to defect to the Soviet Union,” Duffy breaks in.“ They’re out of their minds. Personally I detest the Soviet Union. Our newspaper attacked the Soviet role in Angola.”
Originally, the Center for Servicemen’s Rights developed out of an organization founded by the Unitarian Church. In 1967, during the Vietnam war, political activists on the West Coast started GI coffee house projects. At the same time, active duty people, modeling themselves on the SDS, founded the Movement for a Democratic Military. Before long there were chapters in Oceanside, Long Beach, Fort Ord, North Chicago, and Fort Carson, Colorado.
In 1968-69, there were over 100 underground papers being published by military personnel-papers with such colorful names as Grunt Power and Star Spangled Bummer.
Members of the Unitarian Church, seeing the need for counseling disaffected servicemen, organized the Pacific Counseling Services. Although many of the original counselors were ministers, the PCS quickly took on a political character.
In 1971, the Movement for a Democratic Military in San Diego opened the Enlisted People’s Place in Ocean Beach, while the PCS opened the first Center for Servicemen’s Rights across the street from its present location, in a building that is now the Grecian Massage parlor.
The center worked with the Black Servicemen’s Caucus in assisting the 21 black sailors charged with assault aboard the Kitty Hawk. And the CSR became involved, this past August, when 60 engineers from the U.S.S. Sterett CG-31 walked off the ship after being restricted because of an emergency cut-off valve that had failed to pass inspection. The engineers, mainly from the engine and fire rooms, felt they had been subjected to unreasonably long hours and poor working conditions for several months. This restriction, based on unmeasurable standards and an impossible task, was the last straw.
“According to the House Internal Security report, we fomented mutiny on the ship,” Terry says “We didn’t. The men called us up we didn’t call them. They figured they’d need legal assistance and public support. We don’t tell people to walk off ships. The Navy tends to blame their problems on anything but the material conditions on the ships themselves. They’re patrolling more of the world with fewer ships. Old ships. Ships that should have beer decommissioned years ago.
“The U.S.S. Agerholm’s another example. It was supposed to go out for 12 days, but the men didn’t want to because they knew it was dangerous. Three of the fire pumps were cas-repped (casualty reported) and, hell, the fourth one wasn’t working. If a fire had started those men would have been dead. They wanted us to tell them what the legal situation was. What they could do about it.
“Lower enlisted men are treated like animals. People get beat up. Particularly marines. One guy lost a piece of equipment worth about a buck fifty. His sergeant knocked him over a couch and choked him. There were seven witnesses. The captain told him if you file charges, we’ll find something to hang you on. He went U.A. (unauthorized absence). Split for five months. When he came to us we advised him to turn himself in. We always tell them the law requires us to advise you to turn yourself in at the earliest possible opportunity.
“Actually, as freaked out as most of these guys are when they come in from a situation, in order to resolve it they generally do have to go back to the military, and we tell them that.”
Although the Navy takes no official position on civilian organizations such as CSR, Captain Taylor of the Miramar Drug Rehabilitation Center obviously does not think highly of their activities. “All you have to do is take a look at their newspaper to see what kind of disruptive organization they are.”
According to Captain Taylor, CSR complaints that the drug program locks men in gear lockers as punishment “are basically not true. 93% of the people who’ve passed through our program have reported that it benefited their lives.”
As for servicemen with other kinds of problems, there is a unique Navy chaplain’s organization located in San Diego to assist them. Credo, begun in 1970 in response to the mounting drug problem among returning vets, is the only U.S. military organization of its kind in the world. Men suffering from loneliness, boredom, stress, family, drug, and alcohol problems participate in group therapy and workshop experiences both at Credo House on Harbor Drive and during four-day retreats and workshops at Camp Pinetree.
According to lieutenant Commander Vincent W. Carroll, one of the chaplains involved in the program, organizations such as the Center for Servicemen’s Rights, “which encourage people to remain angry, and to direct that anger at the military, are probably counterproductive.”
‘The enlisted man today has a lot of rights. The whole general attitude has changed in the past several years,” adds Senior Chief Journalist Filtz of the Navy’s Public Information Office. ‘There are plenty of lines of communication open to the enlisted man today.”
In a small room at the Center for Servicemen’s Rights, a bearded sailor in a denim jacket is discussing a paper that men from the Naval Investigations Service have asked him to sign, a statement to the effect that he used dope before entering the Navy. Once it’s signed, they have suggested, the way is clear for the administrative discharge he’s been hoping for.
“You have to do what you think best, of course,” the counselor says quietly. “But our experience has been that the NIS doesn’t help enlisted people. They work strictly for the command. And they love to bust dopers. They get something on one guy and then they pressure him to rap on his buddies.”
“Then you don't think I should sign it?”
“My personal opinion is that the NIS is the scum of the earth. Tell them very politely that you have nothing to say to them. You don’t have to sign a goddamn thing. Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice gives you the right to refuse to make self-incriminating statements.”
A young man who had filed C.O. papers in December has come up to the center to counsel others. His papers have been approved by his commanding officer and he is waiting now for final approval from Washington. He is hoping that it comes quickly. Since filing his papers he has refused his paychecks.
His conscientious objection to war began when he realized that he was not being taught Russian to participate in the new friendship between the United States and the Soviet Union. “In plain English, they were training me to be a spy.” He had asked to be reassigned to a ship in San Diego.
“My ship had been involved in the evacuation of Vietnam. The way people talked about the Vietnamese, how they were just gooks, they weren’t people, just things, talk about shooting them down and all this other stuff, it just turned me off. I realized at that point I wasn’t protecting anything. I realized that my belief that we were protecting peace wasn’t true. That we were more the violators of peace than the protector.”
“There’s a pretty large sentiment in the military not to get involved in another war like Vietnam,” Duffy says. “We don’t see that wars overseas are in the people's interests here.” He says that he sees a good chance of the U.S. military getting involved in South Africa and Rhodesia in order “to protect American business interests.” Within the past two years the Seventh Fleet has moved into the Indian Ocean. He claims that U.S. Green Berets are presently fighting in the Philippines, protecting the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. “When you’re not fighting a just war you get desertion, rebellion, fragging, men sitting around smoking dope, the slaughter of civilians."
At the top of the stairs three counselors are talking together in hushed voices. A brown briefcase has been sitting downstairs near the front door since they opened this evening. No one knows how it got there. One of them suggests removing it wth a wire hanger. “Just open the door and set it outside, gently.”
There has not been a great deal of harassment directed at the Center for Servicemen’s Rights since the days of the Vietnam war. But ever since the recent Senate Investigations Subcommittee report, they’ve been expecting more trouble.
“Up to eight or nine months ago the Naval Investigations Service concerned itself pretty much with dopers and homosexuals. But it looks like they’re starting to hassle us a little now. It’s hard to say.” For a moment there is a pregnant silence. “Obviously there’s a certain amount of risk in what we do.”'
By now it’s late evening. Cathy is talking to a young man who has brought her several closely written sheets of legal-size paper, the first draft of the statement setting forth his objections to war.
Duffy asks the wife of the sailor who twice attempted suicide if she’d like someone to walk her to her car. She thanks him but says she’s been in rough neighborhoods before. She takes her daughter’s hand. “I’ll tell you this, I feel better knowing someone is helping me get him out— if just for moral support.”
A lanky, sandy-haired man in baggy dungarees and sneakers, stands in the middle of the large center room browsing through a recent copy of Up From The Bottom, the newspaper that the Center for Servicemen’s Rights publishes when they can afford it. He chuckles quietly to himself, then suddenly grins up at no one in particular, shakes his head, and exclaims, “Boy, I didn’t know places like this existed!”