By Kevin Fagan at the San Francisco Chronicle
The Vietnam War left a terrible mark on Lee Thorn, searing him with post-traumatic stress disorder from guilty memories of loading bombs onto jets to rain fiery death upon Laos. So he left a mark in return.
After mustering out of the U.S. Navy in 1967, he co-founded Veterans for Peace and then devoted his life to trying to heal the impoverished nation he helped devastate all those years ago.
Throughout decades of tireless campaigns, Thorn uplifted poor villagers in Laos by installing pedal-powered computers and supporting jungle coffee farmers, medical clinics and bomb-clearance campaigns. Just before he died of cancer at 77 on June 25 near his San Francisco home, some of his final words were about the country he had come to adore.
“I tried to do the best I could to make up for what we’d done there,” he told The Chronicle by phone from his hospice bed at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, where he died. His voice was barely perceptible, weakened by the disease. “I wish I could have done a lot more.”
When reminded of the efforts he’d made and how he had overcome the homelessness and alcoholism he sank into after the war, he managed a chuckle.
“Yeah, it’s been a pretty good ride, hasn’t it?” he whispered.
Thorn made his first stride into activism after his 1967 honorable discharge from the Navy when, as a student at UC Berkeley, he co-founded the Veterans for Peace group. A forerunner of the veterans anti-war movement, the group grew to 65,000 members by 1972, as Thorn combined efforts with fellow Vietnam veteran and future Secretary of State John Kerry and activist-singer Joan Baez. When it later merged with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Thorn settled into a career as a community organizer for peace, disability rights and anti-poverty causes.
Read the rest of the obituary, which also includes an audio interview with Lee and other news articles about his life’s work, at the San Francisco Chronicle.
Lee was gentle and generous and thoughtful, and completely committed to righting the wrongs of our wars in Southeast Asia. He as been in hospice at the SFVAMC for the last few weeks suffering from dementia and lung cancer. I am sorry to see him go. – Paul Cox, Veterans For Peace-SF Chapter