“Your brother’s NVA or VC? If I see him, I’ll blow his fucking head off.” … I started thinking about home, Houston, Texas. I’m thinking, “Yeah, I’m going to be home soon,” and then I started thinking about what I said to that woman. I thought about it, and I went, “God, how many thousands of miles am I away from my home, telling this woman that her son or brother can’t come and visit her?”
“I’m going somewhere to die, maybe, and I don’t even know where it is.”
“I went, I told this guy, I said, “Ray, this is fucked up.” And he said, “Aw, you’ll be okay. You’re just having a little thing. It’ll work out.” And I said, “No, it’s not okay.” I said, “We don’t belong here.””
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This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured.
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Michael Dempsey: The dailies were there. You have these people that come in and work in the day time, Vietnamese, and one of them said, “I’ll be so glad when you go home, so my brother can come.”
I didn’t even think about it. I just said, “Your brother’s NVA or VC? If I see him, I’ll blow his fucking head off.” I got a letter that day, I’m reading this letter from my sister, and again it goes, “When are you coming home?” I started laughing, and telling my partner that was up there with me, “I have to tell her every time I have to spend a year here.”
Later that night, I’m sitting there and I’m looking out and it’s dim, and I started thinking about home, Houston, Texas. I’m thinking, “Yeah, I’m going to be home soon,” and then I started thinking about what I said to that woman. I thought about it, and I went, “God, how many thousands of miles am I away from my home, telling this woman that her son or brother can’t come and visit her?”
I went, I told this guy, I said, “Ray, this is fucked up.” And he said, “Aw, you’ll be okay. You’re just having a little thing. It’ll work out.” And I said, “No, it’s not okay.” I said, “We don’t belong here.”
John Luckenbaug: This is the Courage to Resist podcast. I’m John Luckenbaug. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure Effort of Veterans For Peace.
My guest today is Michael Dempsey, a retired electrician and organizer, and currently the Recording Secretary for Veterans For Peace, Chapter 46. Also on the Board of Directors for Veterans For Peace National. Raised in Houston, Texas, and drafted into the army in 1968 at the age of 20. Deployed to Vietnam in March 1969, under the Americal Division, 25th MP Company, at Chu Lai Base Camp.
John Luckenbaug: Welcome, Michael. Can you give us a brief overview of your life leading up to your drafting?
Michael Dempsey: I graduated from high school in 1966, of one of three all-black, not predominantly black, but all-black neighborhoods … high schools, I mean, in Houston, Texas, in 1966.
I worked in restaurants throughout high school. My mom was a single mom. She provided us with the basics, and she would tell us all the time, “If you want to dress like the other kids, you’re going to have to earn some money and to be able to keep us…”
So I worked in various restaurants throughout high school, and when I graduated, I managed to get a job at MD Anderson Research Institute. I worked there, and then I was drafted. I went into the service, spent my two years, and when I got out, I went back there, to reclaim my job.
And they had tricked me into… I didn’t know at the time, I signed a bunch of papers, and one of the papers said, they didn’t have to give me back my job when I returned.
John Luckenbaug: Wow. What were you thinking when you were drafted?
Michael Dempsey: You know, the only thing I was thinking was, I wanted to stay alive.
John Luckenbaug: Right.
Michael Dempsey: There was just so much going on in the Vietnam War, and actually, I had enrolled in college to try to avoid the draft. Then, after I had spent two semesters, I thought it was safe to drop out, and then I got the letter, and went, “Oh, no!”
But yeah, I was really conflicted. I didn’t know what to think and what to do. It just seemed so far away.
John Luckenbaug: What were a couple of defining moments that led you to later take a stand, and risk prison, to act against the war?
Michael Dempsey: When you have an epiphany, it’s not something that just happened overnight. There’s a series of things that happened that brings you to a conclusion, and one of the things that did that was on the flight going over. There was a National Guardsman on the flight, and we’re back there talking to him, because he’s telling us it’s his third tour.
“Hold on. What do you mean? The National Guard isn’t in Vietnam.” He said, “No, the National Guard is there, and this is my third tour.” And then he told us, he said, “But you guys have to spend a year, whereas, the National Guard only spends six months.” And he said, “After he does so many tours, he’ll be able to get out, won’t won’t have to spend the six years, then.”
He’s telling us, and we’re listening, and I’m sure he’s embellishing some of the stories. You know, you can’t help it, and he’s telling us these stories, and this and that.
Then at the end, he’s sitting there, and he’s looking as us. He goes, “Look at all you dumb fucks.” He said, “I’ll bet half of you can’t find Vietnam on a map. You’re going somewhere to die, and you can’t find it on a map.”
We all went back to our seats, and I’m sitting there, and the plane’s quiet. They’ve turned off all the lights, and I’m sitting there, and I start thinking, “God, I don’t know where Vietnam is on the map. If you put a map in front of me, I wouldn’t even know where to start looking.”
I said, “Shit, I am. I’m going somewhere to die, maybe, and I don’t even know where it is.” I go, “I’m fucking stupid.” That happens, but then, when you hit the ground, and the people are yelling and screaming, and they’re telling you what to do, and this and that, it just all goes out the window, and you just start doing what you’re doing—you know, what you’re supposed to do.
My sister would write me once a month, pretty much, and each one of her letters was, “How are you doing? Home is good, this and that. When are you coming home?”
We had had the massive incoming early one morning. We all, we ran out, we grabbed our gear, went out, got in the trucks, and went out to the bunker line, went out on a sweep of the area, and then came back. While we were unloading, the dailies were there.
You have these people that come in and work in the daytime, Vietnamese, and one of them said, “I’ll be so glad when you go home, so my brother can come.”
I didn’t even think about it, I just said, “Your brother’s NVA or VC? If I see him, I’ll blow his fucking head off.” And so, I got a letter that day.
A couple of days later, I’m up in the tower. That was my real job, was security on the perimeters. I’d sit in these towers that were 85 feet off the ground. I’m sitting in this tower, and it’s just about to get dark, so it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to read my mail,” because you don’t want to turn lights on up there.
I’m reading this letter from my sister, and again, it goes, “When are you coming home?” I started laughing, and telling my partner that was up there with me, “I have to tell her every time I have to spend a year here.”
So later that night, I’m sitting there and looking out, and it’s dim, and I started thinking about home, Houston, Texas. I’m thinking, “Yeah, I’m going to be home soon,” and then I started thinking about what I said to that woman.
And I said, “God, in Houston, Texas, in my home, we live on the northeast side. We don’t allow people from the other side of Houston to come into our neighborhood. They can come there and do work or whatever, if they have business there, but they can’t come and hang out.”
John Luckenbaug: Wow.
Michael Dempsey: You know? Yeah, and I thought about it, and I went, “God, how many thousands of miles am I away from my home, telling this woman that her son, her brother can’t come and visit her?”
I went, I told this guy, I said, “Ray, this is fucked up.” And he said, “Aw, you’ll be okay. You’re just having a little thing. It’ll work out.” And I said, “No, it’s not okay. We don’t belong here.”
There was one other guy in our platoon, he was always like that. Me and everyone else included, we ragged on him all the time about that. And I felt so bad. We spent three days up in the tower.
When I got down and went back, and he happened to be off, I went up to him and told… I apologized to him for ragging on him, and being what I called stupid, and told him that I came to the conclusion that yeah, no, we didn’t belong there, and that we had no right to be there. We definitely didn’t have the right to maim, kill and injure these people.
John Luckenbaug: What did you do to resist the war? What specific actions did you take?
Michael Dempsey: An instance came up where I was supposed to escort a convoy to a little outpost. Usually, the convoys get attacked on the way to that outpost, attacked on the way back, and then when you’re at that outpost, it gets attacked every night.
So I told my commanding officer that I was not going to escort the convoy. He asked me why, and I told him, “I’m not going to put myself in the position where I might have to hurt somebody.” And he said, “Oh, this happens all the time. You’re just having a case of the nerves.”
He said, “Just go back to perimeter watch. We’ll get somebody else to run the convoy.” Then about a week later, they came back and they said, “It’s your turn to run this convoy, and so I said, “Listen, I’m not doing that.” So then they told me, “Okay, again, you’re just having a case of the nerves.”
They sent me on what they called an in-country rest and recuperation. They sent me to Da Nang for three days.
John Luckenbaug: R&R?
Michael Dempsey: Yeah, R&R. So I came back from Da Nang. About three weeks, two or three weeks later, we were supposed to go out. We had incoming, really bad incoming, and we go out and sweep the area, and I told them, “I’m not leaving the perimeter—” I said, “I’m not leaving the base camp.”
They told me, “Well, you either leave, or we’re going to court-martial you.” So I said, “Well, I’m not going on that patrol, so get the court-martial ready.” Then the commanding officer sent me … Because I was working at this other company, they sent me to the MP company.
I told the officer of the day there what had happened, and I tried to explain my situation to him, and he said, “Oh,” he said, “This is nothing.” He said, “Here, why don’t you take a seven-day R&R? Go out of the country this time, and you’ll feel a lot better when you get back.”
So I went on R&R. We went to, it was Malaysia, I think it was. We went to a little island. Me and a couple of friends, we went to a little island in Malaysia. And we came back, had incoming again. They was going to go sweep the area, and I told him, “I’m not sweeping the area,” and they said, “Okay, well, now we’re going to court-martial you, because you’re refusing a direct order.”
I said, “Well, you know, go ahead and court-martial me.” I said, “If you court-martial me, you got to send me to Long Binh. You know I’m a military policeman. All the people in Long Binh are military policemen. You can’t lock me up in the general population. You have to put me in solitary confinement.”
I said, “The other police, the other MPs down there, they’re not going to allow me to be in solitary confinement. They’re going to give me a cell all to myself,” and I said, “So go ahead.”
I said, “You can’t take the money away from it, because it’s stated in my records that I’m supporting my mother and sister, so you have to keep giving them the money.” I said, “So I don’t see a downside of being court-martialed.”
So they said, “We’ll give you a dishonorable discharge,” and I said, “You know what? Shoot your best shot, because I’m not participating in this war anymore.”
They sent me over to talk to this colonel, and I was talking to this colonel, and he said, “You know, son, I kind of understand where you’re coming from, and I understand the position,” he said, “but you know, we’re in a war.” I said, “No, this is is not a war. It’s never been declared. It’s a police action. It’s never been declared as a war.”
He started talking to me, and I was telling him, so I started quoting things from the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And he said, “Well, how did you— how do you know so much about this?” I said, “Well, I spent eight months in the States, patrolling Fort Sam Houston,” I said. “So I’m not one of those guys that went through basic, went through AIT, and then went to Vietnam.”
I said, “I’ve spent time in the States, so I know what the rules are,” I said, “and we are here— this war is illegal, and I’m not participating in it anymore.” So he told me, he said, “I’m going to do you and the army a favor.” He said, “I’m relieving you of duty.” I said, “What?” He said, “I’m relieving you of duty.” He said, “You spend the rest of your time going to the beach, or wherever the hell you want to,” he said, “but you don’t have to go out. You don’t have to go on duty anymore.”
I said, “What about the towers?” He said, “You don’t have to work the towers; you don’t have to do anything.” I said, “So are you court-martialing me?” He said, “No. I’m relieving you of duty.” I said, “Well, I don’t know what to say.” And he said, “Tell me,” he said, “Say, ‘Thank you, sir.'” I said, “Well, thank you, sir.”
Two months after that, they tell me that I have to go and apply for a sergeant position. I said, “I’m not doing that.” And they said, “You have to.” So I went— I went to what’s called a sergeant exam. I got promoted to a sergeant E5. I was spec 4, got promoted to a Sergeant E5. A month after that, I was given a Bronze Star.
Then a month after that, I was released from the service, with honorable discharge.
John Luckenbaug: Wow.
Michael Dempsey: Yeah. They didn’t want the problem. They didn’t want the stigma of them court-martialing somebody, but I’ll tell you the main reason they promoted me to sergeant, and I didn’t know this until I was down in Cam Ranh Bay, and we were getting ready— we were in the process of leaving.
We have what they call— In the morning, you do what’s called a police call, where you go out. You line up, in a long line, and then they say, “All right, everyone E5 and above, take one step back.” And I did. And then they said, “Everyone E6 and above, take an additional step back.”
So I’m looking down this line that I’m in, E5, and there’s one Hispanic guy way at the other end. Me and him were the only so-called minorities in this line, and then we start on our police call. So after the police call, I went up and started talking to him, and asking him, and he had said, yeah, he got promoted unexpectedly—he didn’t know it was coming.
But he hadn’t had any adverse reactions or anything with anybody; they had just promoted him to sergeant. So we’re sitting around talking, and then we all kind of grouped. All the black guys hung out together, the white guys hung out together, and a few of those crossed lines, and went, hung out with whoever we wanted to, and I was one of those people.
And I’m sitting there talking to this guy, this white guy, and he said, “Well, you know why they promoted you, don’t you?” And I go, “No, why?” He said, “They don’t have enough people of color with rank.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Look at the police call.” He said, “You’re the only sergeants here, minority sergeants,” and I went, “Oh!” And it dawned on me right then. I went, “Gee, that’s true! Yeah, yeah.”
So the word had come down— I found out later, that the word had come down that all these soldiers were coming back from Vietnam, and that all the minority soldiers were privates. Some of them didn’t even get to the rank of Spec Four. They were all privates who had really low rank. They needed to address that situation and fix it.
John Luckenbaug: Just so it looks good?
Michael Dempsey: Yeah, yeah, just so it looks good, you know?
John Luckenbaug: Tell me about the time you were court-martialed.
Michael Dempsey: Oh, okay, now that was at the sentry dog school. Okay? So I went through basic training at Fort Bliss, in Texas, and then I went to Georgia, to go to Military Police School. Then after I graduated from the Military Police School, they sent me to Lackland Air Force Base, to train sentry dogs.
During the training, I ended up with the worst, the meanest dog in the school. So, one of the ones that was the most difficult to train, and I know they did it on purpose. Well, anyway, me and his dog, we never did get along. Every day, I could not walk into his kennel, and put a leash on him, and take him out. They had to tie him down, muzzle him, so I could put a leash on him, and then once we got out in the training facility, the area where he was trained, he was fine.
You could take the muzzle off of him, and he would do what he was supposed to do. But when he was in his kennel, he wouldn’t allow anybody to come into his kennel. Even though I had to feed him and stuff, he wouldn’t let me come into … I had to take his food and throw it to him, and they berated me for that, telling me, “Aw, you’re not going to graduate from the school, because you can’t control your dog.”
Anyway, one day we’re out on the problem course, where they help you to … the dogs find things. So, anyway, we roused him, and it’s time for his break. So, the dogs get a break—you don’t.
John Luckenbaug: Huh.
Michael Dempsey: So I take the dog for his break. Well, he liked chasing rabbits, and so he’s chasing rabbits. He’s on a leash. We’re chasing rabbits, and then it’s time to go back to work. Well, he doesn’t want to go back to work. And when I pull on him to go back to work, he attacks me. And they keep him on a choke chain, so you can choke.
I’m holding him up and choking him, so he won’t attack me. And then, every time I set him down, he attacks me again. So, we’re out away from everybody, and they can hear the scuffle that’s going on between me and him, and these sergeants, they start to come over to me, and I’m choking the dog, and they tell me, “Set him down.”
When I set him down, he attacks me again. And I mean, I have these big welts on my neck, where he’s tried to grab me by the throat. It’s just that my neck’s so big, he can’t close down on me. Then, I don’t know if you know how thick fatigues are. It’s not these fatigues that they wear today, but back then, really thick fatigues.
He ripped, my shirt, ripped it, the jacket. He ripped it open, goes down, and then he grabs me by the crotch. But because the fatigues are baggy, and he rips the crotch right out of these fatigues. And so now I’m choking him again, and they’re telling me to set him down.
This time, when I set him down, and he attacked me again … well, then, I freaked out. And there was a tree close by, and I grabbed him, I picked him up, and I ran into the tree with him, and knocked him out.
John Luckenbaug: Wow.
Michael Dempsey: And I took the leash— Well, they have the leash that’s tied to your arm, because these dogs are trained to kill. It’s not a scout dog.
John Luckenbaug: Yeah.
Michael Dempsey: It’s not a dog that anybody— you can’t— no one can pet this dog but the owner.
John Luckenbaug: Okay.
Michael Dempsey: The person who’s handling him. They’re trained to kill people, and so, you have a leash, it’s looped to your wrist, so he can’t get off. That was another part of the training was, you had to release him to go and attack something, and then get him back. Well, I could never release this guy, because the one time I did release him, and the guy’s in an attack suit, he attacks the guy, knocked him down.
Then, when I try to get him off the guy, he turns on me, and because I can’t get to his choke collar, I have to back off of him, and he goes back and starts attacking the guy in the suit. And I told him, I said, “You know, this dog, something’s wrong with him. You need to get rid of him.”
They said, “Oh, you’re just afraid,” and I said, “You’re damn straight, I’m afraid of him! Look at him!”
John Luckenbaug: Yeah.
Michael Dempsey: Well, anyway, after I knocked him out, and took the leash off of me, and I started walking back toward the compound, and the sergeants come back, and grab me and drag me back over to where the dog is. And they say, “You’re the only one that can control him, and you have to put that leash back on him, and when he comes to, take him back to the compound.” I said, “I’m not touching that dog.”
So we’re standing there, arguing back and forth, and then they started pushing me around. When the dog comes to— When nobody’s noticing, he comes to, and they’re pushing me around, and he sees them pushing me around. And he attacks them. And then, while he’s attacking them, I’m backing away, and then he sees me, after he gets them. And then he attacks me again.
Again, I get my hands on him, and I’m holding him up, and they teach us that if you can’t get to his collar, then it’s easy to get their wind— their thorax, their windpipe. You squeeze it between your thumb and your forefinger, and you just squeeze it, it has the same effect as the choke collar.
I choke him down enough to get him back on the ground, and then, they get a rope— a couple of ropes around him, and are able to restrain him. I told them, “See? That dog was crazy,” and we get back to the compound, and this and that. They tell me, they say, “We’re going to court-martial you, because you should have never taken that— you should have never released him.”
John Luckenbaug: What?
Michael Dempsey: I said, “After all that you guys saw, and that dog did, you’re going to tell me that I’m …” And they said, “Well, you …” And then they said, “Well, you ran into the tree with him. You deliberately tried to hurt him.” And I said, “Well, what he was doing to me?” I said, “He was— That dog was trying to kill me!” The good thing was— so I’m dressed— This is about a week later, I’m dressed for my court-martial.
I’ve got on my dress uniform, to go to the court-martial court, and two MPs … This is on Lackland Air Force Base. Two NPs show up, and they say, “We’re looking for Michael Dempsey.” I said, “That me.” And they say, “Get your gear, and let’s go.” I said, “What? To the court-martial?” They go, “No, get your gear. We’re going to Fort Sam Houston.”
So I’m thinking, “Okay, they’re going to court-martial me at the— they’re not going to do it here on the army— on the air force base. They’re going to do it at the army base.” So I get my gear on, and get in the car, and the guys are asking me questions about what happened, and this and that, and I’m telling them, and this one guy says, “Yeah,” he said, “that dog attacked me, a year ago.”
John Luckenbaug: Wow!
Michael Dempsey: I go, “You’re kidding!” He goes, “No.” He said, “I had troubles with that dog too.” He said, “So they kicked me out of the school, though.” I said, “Yeah, so, well, I’m being court-martialed …” And he said, “No, you’re not.” I said, “Aren’t you guys taking me to a court-martial?” He goes, “No, we’re taking you to Fort Sam Houston. You’re going to be an MP with the rest of us.”
So I get to this fort, and the Colonel comes out, the Provost Marshal comes out, and he says, “Are you a military policeman?” I go, “Yes, sir.” He said, “You went through the MP School at Fort Gardner, Georgia?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “And you have a certificate?” I said, “Yes, sir, I am a military policeman.” He said, “Well, I’ll be goddamned if a bunch of fly boys are going to court-martial one of my MPs.”
He said, “Don’t ever go back to that base, for whatever reason.” He said, “If you have to do prisoner escort, don’t go to Lackland Air Force Base.” I said, “Yes, sir, I won’t.” So that got thrown under the rug, that was let go, and I was fortunate, because there was animosity between the Army and the Air Force.
John Luckenbaug: Wow, that’s crazy.
Michael Dempsey: Yeah. So a couple of times, I was threatened with court-martial, and managed to get out of it.
John Luckenbaug: That’s awesome. Vietnam Veterans Against The War sponsored the Winter Soldier Investigation. In what ways does the policy of the military create abhorrent behavior?
Michael Dempsey: It has to do with the school. I mean, they saw that dog attacking me, and they didn’t care. They have a set policy, and they don’t deviate from it. They don’t take into account things that happen. They don’t take in account your background, where you’re from, what your education level is or isn’t. They just, they have a set of rules, or they establish a set of rules, and they just go by them, and they don’t alter from them at all.
John Luckenbaug: What would have stopped the war?
Michael Dempsey: What would have stopped the war sooner? The military realizing that you can’t defeat someone that’s fighting for their very life.
John Luckenbaug: Right.
Michael Dempsey: You know, I saw this movie once, and it was about the conscience of something, and the guy said, “You can’t defeat— If you’re paying your soldiers to fight, and the people that you’re fighting against are not being paid, they’re fighting for their existence, you cannot defeat them.”
John Luckenbaug: They have no idea.
Michael Dempsey: It’s like, yeah, the people at the top don’t know what’s going on. Because they’re above the fray. They don’t have boots— what we call boots on the ground, and when they are boots on the ground, they’re in a very secured area. Like John McCain said, “Iraq was safe. Oh, yeah, you couldn’t go to Iraq, there’s nothing there.” And then, they show him with a flak vest on, a steel pot, Cobra helicopters are circling above him, and armed guards all around him.
And he’s in the Green Zone, a protected area, you know? Yeah, and it’s the same with rich people. I’ll say that about rich people, these super rich. They don’t know anything about common people. They fly first class. They’re transported in limos. As close as they come to any, what would be a regular person, is the doorman or the maid at their hotels, and stuff. But they don’t have a clue as to what’s really going on.
It’s the same thing with the leadership of the military. They do not have a clue as to what’s really going on.
John Luckenbaug: What nonviolent action could or can be done to reach the GIs?
Michael Dempsey: They had these programs, and I wasn’t aware of them when I was in, but they have these, these coffee shops, where these activists would go and speak with [the servicemembers]. And they would hand out literature, and explain things to the soldiers, on this and that, and protest. Constantly writing letters, and getting in your local, state and federal politicians in this.
You have to constantly be on their case, and you have to constantly remind the public, the general public, of what’s going on. And the money that’s being spent! We spent over $6 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan. And those places, they look like war zones. For $6 trillion— What could you do with $6 trillion? You know?
I mean, they could have schools, pave the roads, if they want to pave roads. Water treatment facilities, wells, houses for everybody, even in… they could do that around the world, with $6 trillion, you know? There shouldn’t be any– No one should go to bed hungry, no kids should have any type of disease or anything.
And it is the weapons manufacturers. That’s who we need to focus on, because they’re the ones that’s getting all the money—the majority of the money, I guess I should say.
John Luckenbaug: It’s big business.
Michael Dempsey: Yup, it’s the corporations, the heads of all the corporations, the media. They could stop— the newspapers could stop the war. But they don’t want to stop the war, because they get to sell more newspapers. The more bad shit they put out, and get people to— so people will read their papers and stuff, you know?
John Luckenbaug: Control it from the media perspective. Make it look like a movie.
Michael Dempsey: Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you this. There has never been a movie made that comes close to what war is. The closet thing that I’ve seen was “Saving Private Ryan,” and I have yet to watch that movie, because that opening scene, where they’re getting off, they’re landing on the beach, and those bullets are hitting?
It’s like, that brings everything back to me, and I can’t stand it. I can’t. I’ve tried to watch that movie three times now, and I’ve even tried watching it, like, from in the middle. And I’m watching it in the middle, and that guy is standing in that window, and that sniper shoots him? You know, and it’s like, yeah. I go, “I can’t watch this.”
I would say, that is the closest thing to reality about war that I’ve seen. Yeah. This laborer said to me one day, he said, “Are you seeing a psychiatrist?” And I said, “What the fuck are you talking about?” He said, “You have post-traumatic stress disorder.” I said, “What the hell are you talking about? And how do you know that?”
No, I didn’t. Actually, I had a longtime girlfriend for like seven years, and one night, she told me, she said, “I can’t do this anymore.” She said, “I wake up in the middle of the night, you got your alarms, you got your hands around my throat, you’re yelling and screaming.”
And she said, “Sometimes you’re fighting with people while you’re sleeping, you’re throwing punches and kicking,” and she said, “I can’t do this anymore,” and she left me.
I still— Again, I didn’t realize what was going on, and it was actually 30 years to the day that I got out of the service that I was diagnosed by a psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration. He told me… He talked to me for… He interviewed me for 15 minutes, and said, “You have severe post-traumatic stress disorder.”
John Luckenbaug: Wow.
Michael Dempsey: I told him the same thing I told that guy, I said, “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” And he said, “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.” He said, “You’re just seething. Right below the surface, you are just seething. You’re looking for any excuse to go off on someone.”
And I sit back in my chair, and I went, “Damn! You know, that’s kind of true,” and he said, “How many times have you been arrested for assault?”
“Well,” I said, “twice.”
He said, “Um-hm.” He said, “How many times have you been in jail?”
I said, “Well, I’ve only been to jail twice,” I said. “Both of the assault charges, they dropped.”
John Luckenbaug: Were you prescribed something, to treat your PTSD?
Michael Dempsey: Well, I smoked a lot of pot, and the psychiatrist asked me that. He said, “You’ve only been arrested twice?”, and said, “How do you deal with— How have you been dealing with this?” And I told him, I said, “Well, I smoke a lot of pot.” I said, “I get up in the morning, I smoke.”
He said, “Do you smoke at work? You go to work affected?” “No, I never smoke on the job, and I never smoke while I’m at work,” I said. “But sometimes, I’d get so angry at some of the people there,” I said, “that when I got to my car after work, I would smoke before I drove home sometimes.”
He commented that, “You get behind the wheel of a car?” I said, “How many martinis do you have at lunch?” He just kind of laughed. He just kind of laughed a little bit, and I said, “I’ll say that, I know,” and said, “I have to do that to calm down.” I said, “Otherwise, I’ll get out on the freeway and play bumper cars with people.”
So this is great, because some of the vets I talked to told me that they had to detox before they would allow them to go into the program. And he wrote on my records, that I had been self-medicating for over 30 years, and it seemed to be working, and that I should continue to do so. And I was one of the few people I know of that they allow to continue to use pot, and qualify for VA benefits.
John Luckenbaug: How do you deal with your PTSD now?
Michael Dempsey: Well, so, he convinced me to get into a talk group, which I resisted for a couple of years, because I told him, I didn’t want to go sit in a room with people crying, whining about what they did or didn’t do. I was beyond that. And he kept reminding me, he said, no, I was not beyond that. And that I had buried all of these feelings, and that they needed to come back to the surface.
So finally, I convinced— he convinced me to go into a talk group, and the first day I was in that group, I’d sit there. And it was like— I think there were like 12 people there, and when they would start telling their stories, I recognized myself in just about every one of their stories.
It was like, “God, that’s me! I do that. Yes, I’ve done that, yes.”
John Luckenbaug: Wow.
Michael Dempsey: That’s me. And that helped me. Then he convinced me to start taking two antidepressants. Yeah, so, I started doing that, and that helped me a lot. I didn’t like taking them, though, because they’d mess with my memory. But he told me, he said, “It’ll take a while, but once they’re thoroughly in your system, and your body gets used to it,” he said, “Your memory, it’ll come back. It won’t be the same, but it’ll come back.”
So I told him, I said, “Well, it sounds to me that my body’s trying to reject these drugs, so I don’t think I’m going to continue taking them.” But he convinced me to take them, and I did, and I kept taking them. And my wife noticed that I was better, when I took those drugs.
And then, the thing that helped me the most was, I went back to Vietnam on my own. I just went there. I was … The MP company that I was in, the group, some of the guys would go back to Vietnam, like on a pilgrimage, and I didn’t know these guys, but we were in the same unit. I didn’t know it, because our unit … We were spread out all over what’s called I Corps, which, in the Americal Division, and doing security for different companies.
And when I say “companies,” I mean, artillery, those kind of things. MPs do security for that.
John Luckenbaug: Yeah.
Michael Dempsey: So I didn’t know these guys, but two of them went back to Vietnam every year. So we were conversing back and forth via e-mails, and they told me what month. They would go back and stay three or four months. So they told me when they were going to be there, so I decided to go back, on day … I think it was, what was it? Thirty years to the day that I had been there, that I had been relieved from Vietnam, I went back, and stayed three weeks, I think?
That was so good for me. I went back to one of the main villages that I was associated with, and I found a couple— it was kind of strange, but a couple of the people remembered me from the village, and—
John Luckenbaug: Wow.
Michael Dempsey: We’d sit around and talk, and when I came home, my wife told me, she said, “You’re different.” I had pretty much calmed down, and I did. I had a different outlook. And then, the next year, I took her. And a friend of ours, she’d turned 80 while we were there, and we went back, it was Hanoi’s 1,000-year-old anniversary. So we went back to celebrate that.
Then I went back again, three years later, with a Veterans For Peace group, I went back. I’m planning on going back, probably next year, probably, if I can.
John Luckenbaug: When you go back to Vietnam, how are you treated?
Michael Dempsey: The people are so, they’re so friendly. This last time I was there, with the Veterans group, their trip was like, three weeks. I went back and I stayed five weeks. And after I’d separated from them, I was in Saigon, and I was walking through this park, and these young Vietnamese people were sitting around.
One of them approached me and asked me if I would be willing to— if they could ask me some questions, it was for their college course. And I said, “Oh, sure,” so they asked me, same thing like we’re doing there, asking me about my service, and what I did, and when did I get out, and this and that and the other. And why had I come back, and …
When I told them that the group had spent a day in Saigon, at the big hospital there … They knew about this hospital, and we told them that we had spent a day there, working with disabled kids—their parents or grandparents had been expose to Agent Orange.
This thing has a terrible thing. I mean, it jumps generations, and it’s still affecting kids, you know?
John Luckenbaug: Right.
Michael Dempsey: And I told them that, and they were surprised and thrilled that I was doing that work. And at the end, after we got done with the interview, they gave me a scarf. And they said, “This is for being open with us,” she said. “And we want to tell you something.”
She said, “We want to tell you that you need to forgive yourself, and you need to tell your friends that you— that they should forgive themselves.” She said, “You were a soldier. You had a job to do, and you did it. But now, you’ve become a veteran for peace.” She said, “And that makes all the difference in the world, and we want you to know that we as Vietnamese people, we’ve forgiven you for what you’ve done.”
John Luckenbaug: Wow.
Michael Dempsey: And I just started crying and couldn’t stop.
John Luckenbaug: That brings a tear to my eye as well. I have chills.
Michael Dempsey: You know? And that was just— because I’m sitting there crying, I’m thinking, “God, you know, we still— Americans still hate the Vietnamese people, you know?”
John Luckenbaug: Yeah.
Michael Dempsey: Some of the guys in the groups that I were in would complain about, and still had hatred for them, and I would tell them— You know, they said, “Well, they killed my friend, and they shot me.” And I go, “What were you doing when they killed your friend, and they shot you? What were you doing? We were invaders. We invaded that country,” and that’s what got me turned around, in the war.”
John Luckenbaug: What would you say to change the opinion of someone who hasn’t had firsthand experience with war, and they’re indifferent about the military?
Michael Dempsey: I would tell them to watch “Private Ryan,” the rescue of Private Ryan.
John Luckenbaug: Okay.
Michael Dempsey: And tell them that that’s a minute amount of things that happened, when you’re in war. And I’d also tell them to watch Democracy Now and Free Speech TV.
John Luckenbaug: Yeah?
Michael Dempsey: And look at some of the photos of some of the people left, that have been maimed, and what some of the buildings look like. Then the other thing I would tell them is, to go and visit a veterans hospital, or a veterans facility, and see these guys in wheelchairs, on crutches. Some of them can’t walk. And say, “This is what happens in war.”
Then I’d like to take them to some— You can tell them, “If you can afford it, go to an area that a war has been in, and see the destruction.” Because you don’t build anything. You’re destroying stuff. That’s what war is.
It’s total destruction and annihilation. And I’d also tell them to read history, what happened to Native Americans, and go back and visit those areas, and read actual newspaper accounts of how they tell you how these people, they don’t deserve to live.
You’re in their country, telling them that they don’t deserve to live. And it’s the same mindset that gets you to go to war and go to a foreign country. You’re brainwashed.
John Luckenbaug: Walk us through some of the things you’ve done as an activist, after the Vietnam War.
Michael Dempsey: When I first got out, I tried to educate people about the war. I tried to tell them the truth about it, and things that were going on, and about the destruction, and the weapons, the weaponry. And I went to lots of demonstrations, tried to talk to politicians. Most, they didn’t want— most of them don’t want to hear it.
I’d go to college campuses, and try to talk to people. I’d stand out in front of the recruiter’s office and tell people, “Don’t go in there; you don’t need to go in there,” and I’d try to tell them my story. And then, let’s see, I think in 2008 or 2009, I discovered Veterans For Peace, and I said, “That’s me.”
I was at a friend’s house, and a friend of hers was one of the founding members of Veterans For Peace.
John Luckenbaug: Okay.
Michael Dempsey: And he started telling me about the organization, and I asked him, “How can I sign up?” I said, “Because I am a veteran, and I am for peace.” So he just happened to have a card. I filled it out and sent it in, and it’s been a— like a lifeline to me, really. And going to the conventions, and seeing all these people that are dedicated to peace, and all the poems that they write, and the workshops that they put on.
And then, just the intelligence of these folks, it’s like— it’s amazing, you know? We’ve got so many smart people, how are we still in this same situation? It just doesn’t make sense.
John Luckenbaug: No, it doesn’t.
Michael Dempsey: I think the people need to pay more attention. They should write the newspapers and the TV stations, and ask them, “Where are the pictures from the wars?” Because that’s another thing that helped stop the Vietnam War. It was the soldiers refusing to fight, massive protests around the world … and then, in the— on the evening news, every night at dinnertime, this carnage was brought into your living room.
People started seeing that, and they started realizing what was going on. And then they,– you know, the country, was awake for a couple of years, yelling and screaming, and saying, “Stop this!” And finally, they didn’t have a choice but to, because they couldn’t get people to buy into it anymore.
But now, you’ve got, what is it, six corporations and families that own 90% of mainstream media? And people need to get in touch with mainstream media, I call it “lamestream media,” and demand that they report on the wars and stuff.
John Luckenbaug: Yeah, I agree. Michael, thanks for your time today, sharing your experiences of the Vietnam War, your thoughts on resisting, and your continued activism. You are an inspiration to us all. Thank you.
Michael Dempsey: Well, thank you. I appreciate that, really.
John Luckenbaug: This Courage to Resist Podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure Effort of Veterans For Peace.
This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many involved with this campaign, to speak truth to power, and keep alive the antiwar perspective on the US war in Vietnam.
Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for more information, and to offer your support.