A poem from Susan Yates of Oneonta, New York, who witnessed the historic 1971 protest by Vietnam Veterans Against the War at the U.S. Capitol:
It’s April, 1971. I walk by the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.
I notice barricades on the steps of the Capitol.
Although I am really busy, I am intrigued.
I am busy because I am an organizer for May Day,
The largest Vietnam War protest ever held.
I have already been in jail that week.
Protesting in front of a federal building.
Federal workers passed money through the gates to help with bail,
tears streaming down their faces.
And, there was the Vietnam Vets Against The War
Bona fide badass men ready to take on the government.
My favorite kind.
I did not know at the time
I would be arrested again in a few days.
Tears would be streaming down my face,
From mace and billy cubs.
But on this day, I am running errands.
No time for inconsequential moments.
But something draws me to the Capitol steps.
A small crowd is gathered
Not allowed to go past the barricade
to go on the steps of the Capitol
There is a single microphone on a stand, that’s all.
An odd assortment of people has gathered
Normal older people wearing ties or dresses with matching shoes.
Wild-haired young men in tie dye shirts and tattered fatigues.
I approach and notice many of them are gripping something
In their hands.
They are holding medals.
Purple Hearts, Silver Stars, Bronze Crosses
One by one, they walk to the microphone
And pour out grief as they fling the medals
on the steps of the capitol.
Grief that is solid, anger that is palpable, tears that are deep
Anguish contorts their features
as they hurl these hard won medals
back at those who sent them to Vietnam.
Parents are holding medals instead of their child.
Wondering why their sons and friends died.
For no logical reason, they are gone forever.
Instead of graduating or fixing cars,
They are gone forever.
Veterans who risked their lives
Trying to save sons and friends,
Who had lived with extreme terror,
crawled through leach infested swamps
And Agent Orange encrusted fields.
Throwing the medals with such vehemence
They are releasing demons.
I, who was so busy, stopped for 1 minute and stayed for 2 hours.
I couldn’t leave, my instincts told me to stay
Be a witness. They need it. They deserve it.
So I stay
And, I am rocked to my core.
For 46 years, I have held on to this memory
I tell people what I witnessed
On the steps of the capitol.
No one has heard of this event.
But over the years,
I couldn’t let this important moment disappear from history.
I wrote about it, talked about it.
Then, last week …
I am watching Ken Burns’ film. “The Vietnam War”.
For almost two weeks, I have been immersed in memories.
I was at the Moratorium, at the large protests
Had friends who went to Nam and never came back.
Friends who came back
with shattered bones, minds and souls.
Heroin from Laos came with them
And ran into LSD in our streets.
I am watching The Vietnam War
documented like never before.
Proving we weren’t the crazies.
Then, there it is.
The ceremony on the steps of the Capitol.
Wild-haired young men flinging their medals.
Working class parents fiercely throwing medals
from behind the barricades on the steps of the Capitol.
Ken Burns recognized this moment for what it was.
One of the veterans from that day
Says it was a turning point.
“That got their attention”.
A private moment
that altered the course of history.
And I was there.
Another veteran says:
“How dare they erect barricades against us, their warriors”.
And I was there behind the barricades with them
On the steps of the Capitol.
“Throwing those medals away was harder than fighting in the war”, he cries.
I cry as I watch… as I did then.
On the steps of the Capitol
1 thought on “Poem: “A private moment that altered the course of history””
Thank you, Lawrence. It has now been 50 years! I am humbled to see this in print. Thanks beyond words for what you are doing to resuscitate this important event/era and for your prodigious research.