“This was capped off by four of us from the same platoon deserting together, which is the ultimate military crime … deserting the military is about as political a statement as you can make.”
“The GI resistance was a thing worldwide … through the music scene that was over in Europe at the time or just in GI newspapers that got secretly passed around. They actually passed a rule that you could get an Article 15 punishment for even having a GI newspaper, for example, it got so bad. It was a worldwide thing, and it was very powerful. We all knew it. FTA was the theme, and we all did everything we could.”
“We had tangible victories in the GI resistance in those years. The draft was ended, the peace treaty was signed, and then my personal going away gift was Nixon resigning in disgrace right before I got out. That was just like holy moly. We had tangible victories.”
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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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Ward Reilly: It’s not like we were just being rebellious young people to have fun. I mean, that wasn’t it at all. We were intentionally trying to disrupt the machine. This was capped off by four of us from the same platoon deserting together, which is the ultimate military crime.
Matthew Breems: This is the Courage to Resist Podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. This Courage to Resist Podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace.
Today’s story is about veteran Ward Reilly. Ward served in the military during the Vietnam era from 1971 to 1974 and was stationed in Germany. There he was quickly disenfranchised with the military and began coordinated activity with other GIs to resist military duty. This culminated in his ultimate protest of desertion, but in the end was given an honorable discharge from the Army.
Well, Ward, thanks for joining me this morning. I appreciate your time, and looking forward to hearing more about your story, your experience, your life of activism. To begin with, can you just take us through your time leading up to your military service?
Ward Reilly: I moved to Baton Rouge from the south side of Chicago, so it was quite a culture shock, as you can imagine. I went to Robert E. Lee High School, and they didn’t really like little Yankee hippies there any more than they liked black people, so I guess an activism was destined for me starting in high school. I’ve always been a person that tried to get along and a peaceful person. But anyway, I had a really bad time in high school, so I went during my senior year and signed up for the Army’s delayed entry program. After high school and summer vacation period was over, I went into active duty.
I volunteered for the infantry, even though I probably could have had any MOS, which is a job classification, by volunteering for three years. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “economic draftee”. That was pretty much, we were very, very poor. I knew I was never going to be going anywhere other than shitty jobs or whatever after high school, because I was a terrible student, so I joined the Army to see the world and get out of Baton Rouge.
Matthew Breems: And that was your main motivation, was just the monetary incentive and the excitement?
Ward Reilly: Yeah. At the time, they were offering GI Bill college benefits, and I wanted to go to college, try to better myself. After the Army, I did use the GI Bill to go to college, even though I never did graduate.
Matthew Breems: So what were your first experiences in the military like?
Ward Reilly: Well, they sent me to Fort Lewis, Washington for basic training. We got there on a Friday evening, and our basic didn’t start til Monday, so we had a weekend free, and it was kind of strange, because literally the first thing I saw when I walked into a bathroom at Fort Lewis was “FTA” written on everything. And the same thing walking around, guys yelling, “FTA”, and I didn’t even know what that meant for a short time. I found out pretty quickly it meant fuck the Army, and it seemed to be a theme everywhere at basic training. So that was my first experience. Of course, during basic training, you don’t really have time to be political or an activist. It’s just nonstop physical training, schools, blah, blah, blah. But I was introduced to FTA and the fact that there were GI resisters literally the first weekend of my Army experience.
Matthew Breems: After your time in basic, what were your thoughts about these FTA people? I mean, you just willingly joined the military. What did you think about that?
Ward Reilly: Well, I mean we knew the war was bad. Understatement of the year. It was a tragedy, and by the time I went in, the Pentagon Papers had been released by Daniel Ellsberg, and we saw that several presidents in a row had just flat out lied to the people. So I mean, I had no problem adopting an anti-military stand pretty much from the start, although, like I said, you’re so busy in boot camp and infantry school. It’s so regimented that there’s really no time to be political, and it really wasn’t until I got sent to Germany after infantry school that I was able to start being a part of the program, so to speak.
Matthew Breems: What were some of the things that triggered you to become an activist? Take us through the steps. Take us through that process for you.
Ward Reilly: Well, that’s really not that hard, because literally the first day I got to Germany, I got assigned to the weapons platoon of Charlie Company, 1st and 16th Infantry. So the first day there, a group of guys sat me down, and the first thing they asked me was, “Are you cool?” Which meant do you smoke weed or whatever. And I said, “Yeah.” And the second thing they said was, they kind of gave me one of these “You’re with us or you’re against us” speech. There were a lot of combat veterans in my platoon, as you can imagine. Guys that still had time after they had been in Vietnam got sent to different places all over the world, including a lot went to Germany. There were many, many combat infantry badges in my platoon.
So anyway, that’s what it is. They sat me down and said, “This place is screwed up. The military is screwed up.” It was pretty much all the lifers, the only way they were going to get any promotions or anything like that was to bust people for doing shit or just make people’s life miserable, suck up to the lifers and whatever. So basically, it turned into a us against them thing from the very start. And from then on, we did everything we could to disrupt the system, which we did very effectively.
Like my commanding officer at one point saying that I was bad for the unit’s morale, which that was our point. We were trying to break down the system. He meant it, what he said, but what he really meant was people like me and other guys in my platoon were bad for his morale and the other lifers in our unit. We did everything we could to disrupt. I mean, little things, seemed insignificant.
Matthew Breems: What type of things were you doing while you were on active duty to fight the beast from within?
Ward Reilly: All right, well, just silly little things. Like I said, they seem insignificant. Besides the major things like just refusing direct orders and stuff like that, every platoon had a secret handshake, for example, and for every formation we’d go out and every single person would shake hands with our own special dap, with everybody else in their squad. They were trying to get you to fall in, and we would just not fall in until everybody had done the handshake, something like that.
Haircuts, we wouldn’t get haircuts. We hid our hair as good as we could, so have long hair. At times in the field, we’d just lock ourselves inside our APCs and have hash parties. They’d beat on the outside, telling us to come out, and of course, it’s literally impossible to get somebody out of an APC. It’s an armored vehicle that you just can’t get into, basically. And stuff like that. At one point we all started wearing tie-dyed T-shirts under our fatigue shirts, just in solidarity with one another. So of course, they passed an amendment saying that we could no longer wear tie-dyed T-shirts. And just things like that. But mostly, we disobeyed orders and made their lives miserable as much as possible.
Matthew Breems: To an average listener who hasn’t been through that experience, listening to you describe that, it could sound just like a bunch of young guys just being rebellious and disorderly. What was your thought process behind it? Was there a point to it, or was it just young guys being young?
Ward Reilly: You know, if you haven’t been in the military, it’s all regimented. First of all, disobeying a direct order is just about, that’s just like a guaranteed problem. You’re going to get in serious trouble. So I mean, it’s not like we were just being rebellious young people to have fun. That wasn’t it at all. We were intentionally trying to disrupt the machine. And then this was capped off by four of us from the same platoon deserting together, which is the ultimate military crime outside of serious violent crimes or something like that. But deserting the military is about as political a statement as you can make.
And so four of us did. It was right when the war was ending. The peace treaty was signed, and we just said we’re getting out of here. We’re going to desert as a political statement. The GI movement wasn’t just against the war. By the time I was in especially, it was against Nixon and his administration and the war. Even as the draft was ending and the peace treaty was signed, and for the most part combat troops were pulled out of Vietnam, Nixon was still in power. He had been proven to be a disgrace and a liar, by the Pentagon Papers and then by the infamous tapes. Just all that stuff. It was just basically disrupt the machine.
We were good at our jobs. I want to get that straight, too. It sounds like we were cut-ups all the time, but as far as my job, I was a mortar gunner, and I won top gunner in the Army two years in a row in the European theater. When it came to our job, we took it serious, and we knew if we ever got thrown into a combat situation that we had to be good at our jobs. And that also helped when we got in trouble, like in the court martial I was able to look in the general’s eye and say, “Well, do you want the best mortar gunner in the Army in my platoon, or do you want to worry about my politics?” In my second court martial, I was found not guilty of all charges. They had a list of made-up charges that were just ridiculous, and I was found not guilty in my second court martial, which was a miracle.
Matthew Breems: Again, for folks that aren’t in the military or haven’t had the experiences in those situations, what were some of the possible outcomes to your political statements, such as your having court martials? What could have happened to you? How serious was this?
Ward Reilly: Well, I mean, that’s the thing. You see, it’s a guaranteed prison sentence. Deserting from the infantry in a war zone literally can be a death sentence. You face a serious crime. In my case, we deserted, and they came and found us about 45 days later, 11 CIDs and MPIs kicked in our door at 6:00 in the morning and took us back to the military. We all got court martialed, and it was a special court martial, and we could have faced 20 years in prison for deserting. As it went, there were so many people deserting back then that I guess they just weren’t giving the harshest penalty, because that would have cleared out the military pretty badly.
So in the end, we got sentenced to hard labor in prison for deserting, and then they vacated the sentence. Still to this day, I’m not sure why they didn’t send us to prison after we got found guilty, but I think it was because four of us were in the same platoon, and we were all gunners in the same platoon. I think my CO realized that if he took the four gunners out of weapons platoon, he wouldn’t have any gunners left.
So anyway, they basically sentenced us to … they took our money away from us, reduced us to the lowest rank, but ended up sending us back to our company. It was kind of like a probationary period. If you don’t screw up again for the next six months, we’ll drop the prison charge, but in my case, they tried to vacate my sentence, because we continued to resist. In fact, from my platoon leader, Lt. Parmely, he said something I’m very proud of. He just said, “Sometimes Reilly will refuse to do anything,” and that’s just what it was. We weren’t going to comply with them, and it was quite a one-on-one kind of battle by that point.
Matthew Breems: What was the one thing you did while you were in the military that you felt had the biggest impact on your activism while you were in the machine, so to speak?
Ward Reilly: A group of us deserted together, and from a military perspective, that’s about the most radical thing that you can possibly do, outside of fragging officers like they did in Vietnam. We weren’t going to do any of that kind of violent stuff. Deserting was probably the main thing. We did stuff constantly. I would not show up for guard duty, which is a very serious crime. That was in one of those groups of charges from my second court martial. And then in my second court martial, beating it, getting found not guilty and getting sent back to my unit, was just like a major thing. My company was so happy.
Even the lifers, which is like the senior sergeants and stuff like, the combat veterans, they actually wrote statements supporting me for the second court martial. I was really good on my job, and I showed that, and my ratings were always really good. It was just a fight between my platoon leader and my CO, who just hated my guts, basically. They did everything they could to try to screw me, and I did everything I could to try to screw them.
Matthew Breems: What did you feel was the biggest impact that your activism had?
Ward Reilly: The GI resistance was a thing worldwide. Military units are isolated. We still found ways to get together, through the music scene that was over in Europe at the time or just in GI newspapers that got secretly passed around. They actually passed a rule that you could get an Article 15 punishment for even having a GI newspaper, for example, it got so bad. It was a worldwide thing, and it was very powerful. We all knew it. FTA was the theme, and we all did everything we could. Some did more than others. Not everybody was willing to desert, which is putting your freedom on the line in a big way.
It got so bad that they initiated a program in the Army, and it’d be really hard for you to find if you even research, but it was called the Equal Opportunity and Human Relations Program, and it was because things got so bad between the lifers and the enlisted men that they decided they had to appoint a person from each company as like a liaison between the commanders and the troops. I got elected in my company as that. I was very, very, very proud of that, because there were a lot of brothers in our unit. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I beat one court martial and deserted with a bunch of other guys, and didn’t even spend a day in jail. That was pretty remarkable.
Matthew Breems: On the evaluation you sent me, it said, “Supports the Equal Opportunity Human Relations Program.” Why was that so significant?
Ward Reilly: Well, it’s unheard of for the military to lose control like it did. It was unique to our period, I think, and they quit it. They initiated something called VOLAR in 1973, which was basically just a volunteer Army. They did away with the draft, because they realized that the draft brought so many radicals into the military that they couldn’t have it anymore. And that’s why they don’t have it anymore. Even though I wasn’t a draftee, the draft was still the root of … Pulling beautiful people out of their lives and forcing them either into combat or being an occupation troop in some other country or whatever, it was just very unfair, especially when you find out that the war was extended on purpose just for political reasons, for elections. That’s pretty much what that meant. What the Equal Opportunity and Human Relations Program, which ended almost as quickly as it started, because the Army couldn’t let it even be known they were doing something like that. But it just signifies how out of control the military got.
Matthew Breems: Or how successful the resistance was from the GIs?
Ward Reilly: It was, exactly. That’s exactly right. How successful is it when you can desert the military, which is about the most serious crime, like I said, outside of a violent crime? I went AWOL many times and deserted once, and never spent a day in jail. That tells you how bad it was. If you did that now, not only would you go to prison, you’d probably go to prison and then get thrown out with a dishonorable discharge. That’s something else I want to make clear here, I finished my three years and got a full, straight honorable discharge, in spite of all the stuff that I did and my comrades in my platoon did. That’s unheard-of.
Matthew Breems: I saw that in your documentation. How surprising was that to you, to be honorably discharged?
Ward Reilly: Well, and honorably discharged after I completed my whole three years. It was a surprise. It was like, well, when you desert, you pretty much know that you’re giving that up, which means when you desert, the first thing they do is they send a letter to your family to disgrace you and let everybody that you know know that you’re a deserter, you’ve deserted the military. They start that way. It’s a psychological thing. They try to discredit you with your family and your loved ones. To get an honorable discharge after going through all that, I still was able to get my GI Bill and all my benefits. I’m a disabled veteran. I got injured seriously a couple times in the military.
We had tangible victories in the GI resistance in those years. The draft was ended, the peace treaty was signed, and then my personal going away gift was Nixon resigning in disgrace right before I got out. That was just like holy moly. We had tangible victories.
Matthew Breems: What was the social cost to you personally, in terms of relationships with family and friends? Here you’ve taken a strong stance. Was there any pushback from those that were close to you in your life?
Ward Reilly: Well, absolutely. My father was a die-hard Nixon Republican, and in his eyes I was a disgrace to the family and the name. We had military veterans in my family literally all the way back to the American Revolution, every single generation. My sons, I’m proud to say, broke that generational string. But anyway, to your question, they’d disgrace you. They sent a letter saying you deserted, so my father, in his eyes, I was a deserter, which is the worst thing you can be. It was seriously damaging to our relationship, and on the other side, my mother, who supported me. And at the time, my brothers and sisters supported me.
You didn’t have to be a genius to know that the war was a crime. We lost almost 60,000 men of my generation, boys really, and I can’t remember, I think about a quarter million more were seriously wounded. That’s a pretty good piece of a generation. I think all the time about what all of our lives would be like if that war wouldn’t have happened, and the same thing with Iraq now. Anyway, it had a great effect on my life. It didn’t affect my job. Because I got my honorable, I was always able to use my discharge. I ended up working for the government all my life, and so you get points on your original test for being a veteran with an honorable discharge. So that was good, you know.
Matthew Breems: You’ve done your military service, you’re honorably discharged, much to your surprise, take us through the next part of your life. Did you keep up your resistance in antiwar circles? Did you need to pull back? What did that look like for you?
Ward Reilly: You know, I mentioned tangible victories, okay? When I got out, it was literally just right in step with Nixon resigning and the last US combat … I think the last actual casualties in Vietnam were some Marines that got killed at the embassy in March of ’75. I think that was the absolute last US casualty. But I came home and just started working. I wasn’t really involved. Because the war ended, one big mistake we all made, all of us that were part of antiwar, was we kind of went home, you know? And we kind of disappeared into the woods, and I got married and raised my children.
I stayed involved with political-type issues at work. Like when they started instituting random piss testing and things like that, I fought that legally. So in some ways I still did activism, and of course, I joined the National Organization for Women and Greenpeace. I suppose when we started the sanctions against Iraq, my kids were more or less grown up by then, and I could get more involved. I also got injured really bad on the job in 2000, which made me be at home for the first time, all the time, to rehab and stuff. It just happened to be in conjunction with the call to war against the Middle East, and so that injury actually allowed me to become a full-time activist again, like I said to you earlier, which is what I did.
I couldn’t work any more anyway, so I just started using the power of the computer to organize veterans and groups and demonstrations. In Baton Rouge, we probably had 25 antiwar activities before we invaded Iraq, which was pretty significant for the Deep South. We actually did something in Baton Rouge before the war that was unique, and if every community would have done it, we might have actually stopped them. We had a community forum sponsored by Louisiana State University, which is a big war school. It’s literally called the Old War School, and it’s got a huge ROTC thing.
But we put on a community debate, for pro-war and for antiwar, of which I was one. We had a big standing room only at the largest hall at Louisiana State University, and we had a debate on whether we should go to war. By a overwhelming majority, the crowd sided with us, and the crowd was not full of just antiwar people. I mean, it was full of ROTC people, and it was a great open debate. On the pro-war side, we had a US senator and a retired lifer.
Matthew Breems: So the pending invasion of Iraq was really a flashpoint for the antiwar movement to have a resurgence?
Ward Reilly: Yeah, absolutely. We literally had the largest demonstration, like I mentioned. February 15, 2003, an estimated 15 million people worldwide said, “Don’t invade Iraq,” 200,000 in New York, 600,000 in DC. In cities all over the country, there were hundreds of thousands, and it was especially bad for the Vietnam era veterans, because it was people that had buried old wounds. All of a sudden, it was just déjà vu. Here we go again. And look how right we were, I mean, 19 years almost we’ve been in Afghanistan now. I guess 18, actually. And what, 16 years in Iraq? Come on. Isn’t the purpose of war to end the war and have peace?
These aren’t wars anymore, they’re criminal occupations that are intended strictly to control resources in that part of the country, wherever they happen to be. It’s gotten to be where we’re the bad guys now, and it’s horrible, and the world will turn against us. If we don’t stop it ourselves, the world will turn against us, and we become an occupied nation, and the rest of the world will say, “It’s your own fault. You were belligerent in all of your foreign policy, and your bulliness with your military, and holding the world hostage with 20,000 nuclear weapons.”
Matthew Breems: So living down in Louisiana, Ward, there’s obviously a lot of people from other political persuasions in your area. What would you say to those people to convince them that resisting war in all of its forms, resisting US imperialism, is a necessity? How do you have that conversation with them?
Ward Reilly: Well, I’ll give you an example. We were organizing a demonstration that was going to take place March 29, 2003, which turned out to be 10 days after the invasion started, okay? While we were organizing it, a local radio station, literally on the air, encouraged citizens to go out and stomp antiwar protestors. And when we got there at our protest, there was a biker gang that turned out to be a biker gang of cops called the Iron Warriors, and they were there to harass, threaten people that showed up. They literally stopped some people, including some veteran friends of mine, from even attending. And they revved their motorcycles to try to drown us out. And they carried signs that I have pictures of to document, that said, “Protesting our wars while we’re in war is a crime, and you should all be shot.”
So here we have policemen advocating that protestors, including veterans, be shot for protesting. We have a radio station advocating stomping protestors, on the air. And my point of telling you all this is, two or three years after all this happened, the guy named Condon, I believe his name was, the radio guy, he apologized on the air for doing that and said we were right. Rumsfeld and those people sold the war was going to be over in two weeks. We’re going to go and crush them like we did during Desert Storm, and it’ll be over in just a matter of days. And of course, here we are 16 years later. We’re still there. After a few years, even the pro-war people were able to see that wow, we should have listened to those people.
Matthew Breems: The irony to me is, every time people talk about America going to war, it’s to protect our freedoms and encourage democracy. Isn’t a critical component of democracy our freedom of speech, our freedom to protest and to hold public gatherings?
Ward Reilly: Yeah. Well, absolutely. It’s fascism defined when you have a radio station advocating stomping protestors, on the air, police showing up, literally threatening you with death for protesting. And I mean, one of the guys that was involved with organizing was a native Syrian from Damascus, a good friend of mine, and they were literally about to stomp him. I stood up in front of him, and I asked, “How many of you guys are infantry veterans?” And these were all these cops and other redneck-type guys. And none of them were. And I said, “How dare you?” I said, “We’re out here exercising the very reason that veterans serve, and you’re threatening us with death.” And it pretty much stopped them from stomping this guy. It was just one of those moments you had to be there.
Matthew Breems: Ward, any other final words of wisdom for us today?
Ward Reilly: Obviously, my whole intent is to end our militarism, you know. I have children, and I’m worried about them being able just to live a nice free life. If we end it, stop spending all our money on militarism, we could actually have a nice country here. We could have nice things. We could do like some other countries that put their money into their people and not into war. Germany’s a perfect example. We told them they couldn’t have a military after World War II, so they put all their money into social programs, and they have free healthcare for life, they have free education for life, they have the best transportation system in the world. Mothers get six months off when they have a kid, fathers get four months off when they have a kid, and they’re a happy and peaceful country. And they were the most warlike country on the planet for 100 years. And so my message is just that. End our militarism, or we will end, and we’ve been warned.
Matthew Breems: Thank you so much, Ward. That’s amazing. I really appreciate you sharing your story with us, your wisdom with us. Thank you so much for your time today.
Ward Reilly: Well, thank you, Matt. I appreciate what you all are doing. I love this country, and I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t.
Matthew Breems: This Courage to Resist Podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance to the US war in Vietnam, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. This episode was recorded and edited by Matthew Breems. Special thanks to Executive Producer Jeff Paterson. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.