Veteran finds his voice for peace after he leaves the army
MIDDLEBURY — “Even today, when I stand up at hockey games for ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ the first thought in my mind is Charlie Lee,” said Reg Spooner.
Spooner, 78, has lived his whole life in Middlebury. His dad worked for Monument Farms. Spooner worked there some too. His high school physics teacher encouraged him to go to college and get a degree in engineering. But back in the 1950s, there was little of today’s public funding for students to pay for college. The relatively new G.I. Bill was for vets only.
So Spooner knew college was out of the question. Instead, he enlisted in the Army soon after graduating from Middlebury High School in 1956 to study electronics and to fulfill his obligation to serve in the military.
“There was a boy from Middlebury who went into the service the same day I did,” Spooner continued. “We rode the bus together down to the induction center down in Manchester, N.H. His name was Charlie Lee. Charlie and I sent letters back and forth to each other on occasion. He was in electronics school in the Air Force, while I was in electronics school in the Army. He was in Colorado, not too far from where I was in Texas.
“Charlie got activated and sent to Taiwan, and he was on a radar maintenance crew working on aircraft in Taiwan. He fell off a stepladder, broke his neck, and died. He was not considered a combat fatality because there was no combat going on, even though he was there.
“I helped carry his coffin to the grave the day after Christmas in 1957. Right here in Middlebury. His mother ended up in an insane asylum. His father committed suicide. His brother has never been right since. So it destroyed the whole family.
“If that doesn’t make a peace activist out of you, nothing will.”
For the past 12 years, veteran Reg Spooner has been an active member of Vermont’s Will Miller Green Mountain chapter of Veterans for Peace. If you’ve ever attended the Middlebury Memorial Day Parade — or any of a number of parades around Vermont — you’ve seen Reg Spooner and fellow VFP activists marching in the parade, carrying white dove puppets that flutter in the breeze, wearing their black T-shirts and carrying their black banner, all emblazoned with the signature VFP white dove clutching an olive branch.
With more than 8,000 members nationwide, Veterans for Peace works broadly to end what it sees as U.S. militarism, to support veterans, and to provide information about the human, environmental, economic and constitutional cost of war. It also holds a permanent NGO (nongovernmental organization) seat at the United Nations. According to the ever-whirring counter on the national group’s website, at the time this article went to press, the “cost of U.S. wars since 2001” had risen to over $1.6 trillion.
Veterans for Peace also has an ongoing campaign to reclaim the original meaning of Veterans Day, which was first established in 1919 not only to honor the men who fought in World War I but also to commemorate the moment on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” when World War I, the “war to end all wars,” came to an end. Celebrated for 35 years as Armistice Day, it was changed to Veterans Day in 1954 to honor veterans from World War II, the Korean War and all American conflicts.
PARADING FOR PEACE
The Vermont VFP chapter has over 50 members, representing veterans from all branches and from conflicts as far back as World War II and up to current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Vermont group marches in parades throughout the state, hosts a monthly televised call-in show, does what it calls “truth in recruiting” outreach to high school students to give them a clearer picture of life in the military, opposes drone warfare, has campaigned against bringing the F-35 stealth bomber to Burlington and has spoken out against the militarization of the Vermont police force.
Spooner is particularly concerned about the toll war takes on all soldiers, whether they see frontline combat or not. He thinks Vermonters are lucky to have such a good Veterans Administration hospital. And he mentions the suicide statistics from ongoing conflicts in the Mideast.
“Most people are not conscious of this fact but in Iraq and Afghanistan we’ve lost, what, 4,500 people or something of the sort, but there’s over 13,000 who’ve come back and committed suicide.”
As a Veterans for Peace activist, Spooner said the most important thing “is to let the rest of the people know what it’s like to go through that trauma because everybody who goes into the military has some sort of effect by it. You’re psychologically affected by it just by going in. The fact of being threatened, the fact that you might have to go into a combat zone is a threat. So you have to live that threat every day when you wake up. People who have not ever been through that threat don’t understand that threat. And they can’t feel it because they don’t know what it’s like unless somebody tells you about it.”
In 1956 when Spooner enlisted in the Army, there was an active draft. All young men were required to serve. (The all-volunteer system didn’t kick in until 1973.) But as in the Vietnam War era, your parents’ pocketbook affected your eligibility for deferments. If you went to college, you were required to serve only six months of active duty and could go in as an officer, Spooner said. Regular enlisted men were required to serve three years, according to Spooner, and he said all young men were required to serve a total of eight years of some combination of active, reserve and standby enlistment.
Like many men of his era, Spooner enlisted because he was told that that would give him better options and outcomes than waiting for the inevitable draft. He was told that enlisting would give him more choice as to training and less likelihood to be sent close to likely combat zones (the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was slowly gathering steam).
Spooner graduated at the top of his Army electronics school and served out the rest of his enlistment teaching electronics at the same base.
But for all eight years, Spooner felt like his life was on hold because he knew could get sent to Vietnam at any moment.
“At the end of the eight years I got my honorable discharge, and then I could start living a life,” said Spooner. “All the time I was in the military I was a peace-oriented person. And when I got out of the service, I stayed that way, and I finally got married and had kids and bought a house, bought a car and all the things I didn’t dare do because I was afraid I was going to head for Vietnam.”
After leaving the service, he established his own business in Middlebury doing electronics repair, and then worked for 13 years in the research department at what was then a B.F. Goodrich plant in Vergennes, where his defense-related work required a security clearance.
The entire time — his whole working life — Spooner felt silenced and unable to speak out about his true feelings about war and about the defense industry. “I was afraid to speak up all those years because I was working for a military contractor,” said Spooner. “And when you’re in retail business, you can’t say anything because you might ostracize somebody. You can’t say anything because somebody is going to hate you for it. But my life was always around peace.”
Spooner began to end his silence, once he met his second wife’s favorite cousin, Ed Leeper, a decorated Korean War and Vietnam War veteran, former Green Beret, son of a Marine and noted peace activist.
“He was an amazing man,” said Spooner. “Probably the most famous thing he did is he put on all of his medals on his uniform — he’d been double Purple Hearted, he’d been injured twice in Vietnam — and he got his uniform on and everything. And they had a tank in a Memorial Day parade, and Ed went and lay down in front of the tank with his medals on and said, ‘You’re not moving this tank!’ He stopped the parade, and the people were having a fit. He wanted everybody to know that that tank is a killing machine. It’s not something to praise.”
Spooner soon joined Will Miller Green Mountain Veterans for Peace and became a fixture for over 10 years at the Saturday morning peace vigils on the green in Middlebury.
“I was standing on the street corner down here one day and one of my former workers that worked with me at Goodrich came by and said, ‘More power to you, Reg, there’s a lot of us like you!’
“Before that, I couldn’t say a damn word (about my feelings at work).”
Spooner’s friend, 86-year-old Gordon Cawood, an associate member of Veterans for Peace, tells a story that frequently shadows Spooner’s. Older than Spooner, but too young to fight in World War II, Cawood was 14 when his older brother, Victor, was killed in combat somewhere near Emmendorf, Germany.
“It made me want to get in the Army and get a gun and go over there and kill the bastards that did this to my brother,” said Cawood, of Middlebury. “But of course I was too young.”
Cawood was able to go to college and fulfill Spooner’s dream of getting a college degree in electrical engineering. Cawood, too, joined Veterans for Peace after retirement as an associate member. Although a non-veteran, Cawood worked his entire life in defense-related industries and held jobs that, like Spooner’s at B.F. Goodrich, required security clearance.
And like Spooner, Cawood felt similarly silenced.
“My entire career was governed by the Cold War, a total of 40 years, all on war materials for the Cold War,” said Cawood, whose career included working on firing-control and navigation systems for submarines.
Unlike Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which has famously barred Veterans for Peace from participating since 2011, Vermont towns have been more welcoming. One even awarded the group its Fourth of July parade’s “Most Patriotic” award, said Spooner. Both men said that crowds can differ. Some people stand and clap as Veterans for Peace walks by; others just stay silent.
Spooner relates how the group marched in one parade in Morrisville and got nothing but stony silence for most of the route. A local National Guard unit had just returned from Iraq, the unit had just lost a number of local guys, and that very Guard unit was marching in the same parade.
“We were kind of cold shouldered all the time. Lining up for the parade, nobody would come near us. People weren’t clapping or anything when we came down Main Street. We turned the corner to go up to People’s Academy, and as we turned the corner,” said Spooner, “the announcer on the PA system stood up and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, these guys have been there, they know what it’s all about, they don’t want to go there again, and they want peace.’ And the world just erupted into applause. We were totally flabbergasted. And we walked up the hill, I tell you the rest of that parade was easy walking.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at email@example.com.
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