While on active duty, Lt. Susan Schnall dropped antiwar leaflets over five military installations and an aircraft carrier from a small plane, held a press conference, and lead a mass peace march while in uniform. She’s been resisting war ever since.
“It became more and more obvious to me as I took care of these guys and physically got them better that I couldn’t heal them psychologically, and I certainly couldn’t heal their souls. And I thought, “I’ve become a part of the military. I need to do something about this, and we need to end this war.”
Susan Schnall: It became more and more obvious to me as I took care of these guys and physically got them better that I couldn’t heal them psychologically, and I certainly couldn’t heal their souls. And I thought, “I’ve become a part of the military. I need to do something about this, and we need to end this war.”
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. Susan Schnall is the guest today. Susan served in the Navy as a nurse throughout the Vietnam conflict. As she cared for GIs returning from Vietnam, she quickly became an antiwar activist. Susan began coordinating peace rallies and volunteering at GI coffeehouses. Her activism continues today through her involvement with Veterans for Peace and working towards legislation for individuals exposed to Agent Orange.
Susan, I’m excited to be talking with you this evening and to hear your story and your involvement in the antiwar movement. Why don’t you take us back? How did you come to a place where resisting the war, specifically the Vietnam War, became such a life obsession for you?
Susan Schnall: Let me start by talking about war, because it is an entity that I’ve lived with my whole life. My dad was in the Marine Corps in the Second World War and was killed on the island of Guam, 1944. I went into the Navy as a nurse and felt that I would be taking care of those who were harmed and hurt in a war in Southeast Asia. I was never someone who was for the war, because I went into nursing to heal and to take care of those who were injured.
I joined in 1965 when I was going to Stanford Nursing School. I graduated in 1967 and went to, I guess it was Officers’ Indoctrination School. They had us nurses, and they wanted to teach us how to be members of the military. Then I was sent to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California, where I took care of the guys who were coming back from Vietnam, from Southeast Asia. And I heard their stories, their pain. I heard their stories of how they viewed the Vietnamese and heard how they were trained to be killers and trained to hate people who looked different from the way that they did.
I don’t know why I was so naïve, but I didn’t quite expect that, and I was very much a peace activist before I went into the Navy. I had taken part in antiwar demonstrations. But it seems that that was not important to the Navy, and they heard about my history and still sent me on to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital. It was startling to me, and it was an education to me to hear stories first hand from men who had been to war. They were young; they were 18, 20, 21 years old. They told me their stories, that they had participated in war, how some of them had learned to hate “the enemy.”
And there were other stories I heard from young guys who were in the Navy, who worked with the civilian population, who didn’t have that fear and hatred. But I also heard very much their physical and psychological pain. We had one unit that was called the Amputee Unit, and I will never forget it. It was an open ward that had about 30, 35 young men on it. They all had amputations, whether upper extremity or legs, and what was left, their stumps were hanging by butcher-like contraptions that held their limbs aloft. They were in pain, they were terribly infected, and I would hear their cries from one end of the unit to the next, when they would cry out for pain medication.
I also heard their nightmares when they talked about being careful as they walked through the jungle, and they would call out to another person, to a comrade, to say, “Be careful!” And it became more and more obvious to me as I took care of these guys and physically got them better, that I couldn’t heal them psychologically, and I certainly couldn’t heal their souls. And I thought, “I’ve become a part of the military. I need to do something about this, and we need to end this war.”
I became aware of a GI and veterans march for peace in the San Francisco Bay Area that was occurring on October 12, 1968, and I became involved and organized with my corpsmen and corps WAVEs, and we talked about participating in that march. We put posters up in the hospital in the middle of the night, and they were torn down by the morning. I kept thinking, “You know, we need to do a better job of letting people know about this antiwar demonstration that will be led by GIs, active-duty military.”
I had seen stories on the television about the United States Air Force dropping fliers and leaflets on the Vietnamese in South Central Vietnam that told them to go to “protective strategic hamlets,” where they would be safe from both bombing by the United States, and they would be safe from the chemical defoliation. And I thought, “Okay, if the United States can do this 8,000 miles away, why can’t we do this in the United States?” I had a friend who was a pilot, and we talked about filling a single-engine plane up with fliers about the antiwar demonstration, which we did on October 10, 1968. We flew the plane and fliers over five military installations in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Matthew Breems: Was it difficult to get a hold of a military plane to use for those purposes?
Susan Schnall: It wasn’t a military plane.
Matthew Breems: Okay.
Susan Schnall: We rented the plane, and as I said, it was a single-engine plane. He was a pilot, and that’s really all we needed. We filled the plane with fliers about the demonstration, and we flew over Oak Knoll Hospital, where I was working, and we dropped them on the hospital, on Treasure Island, Yerba Buena Island, on the Presidio, a large Army compound in San Francisco. And then we flew into Alameda Naval Air Station, where an aircraft carrier was docked, and we flew about 100 feet above the aircraft carrier and dropped the fliers on the ship. And then flew back to Oakland, where I held a press conference in my uniform, because I felt it was so important for the American public to hear someone in a military uniform speak out against the war.
Matthew Breems: When you spoke out wearing your military uniform, did you understand at that point how serious of an offense that could be?
Susan Schnall: I understood that there would be repercussions. I really thought that by doing these actions, that it would be able to bring enough attention to antiwar active-duty military people, for the American public to understand that we were also against the War in Vietnam, and to say it was time to bring the troops home. Yes, I understood that there could be repercussions. I didn’t know exactly what the military could do.
As I said, I wore my uniform in that press conference, and then I went back to work at Oak Knoll. I was working nights. I was handed an informational all-nav military regulation that said active duty military were not allowed to wear their uniforms while speaking publicly about religious, economic, political issues. So I knew that was going to be an issue, too. But I went to the antiwar demonstration on October 12th and just felt I had to wear my uniform. I was not a civilian, I was active-duty military, and I had the same rights as General Westmoreland, who some of your listeners may remember spoke to the United States Congress about increasing the number of troops and increasing monies allocated to the War in Vietnam. I thought, if General Westmoreland could speak about the war publicly, why couldn’t I? And that actually was my defense.
I had two charges that were read to me at what’s called a captain’s mast. One was “conduct unbecoming an officer,” and I suppose a gentlewoman, for dropping the fliers on military bases, urging troops to disobey—and this was true, to disobey orders. They claimed to harm the military, and I said, “No, this didn’t harm the morale of the troops. What it actually did was it improved the morale of the troops, because now people in the military could understand that they could do something about the war.” So I was tried, again, conduct unbecoming an officer” for dropping those fliers, and then for wearing my uniform and protesting the war.
Matthew Breems: Okay. What were the results, then, of that trial?
Susan Schnall: Actually, I went back to full duty and to full work. I was still working on the active-duty military unit up until the time of the general court martial, which was the end of 1968, beginning of 1969. The result was a sentence of six months’ confinement at hard labor, dismissal from the military. Because I was an officer, I did not get a general-conduct or a dishonorable discharge. The decision was made because I was a woman that they would send me back to work at the hospital, and they put me on the women’s unit and the pediatric unit, with, I guess, a warning to say, “No more organizing.”
But you know, it was a great time to organize. I had faced the military, and I thought, “Well, there’s not much more they can do to me now.” So we organized an antiwar GI coffeehouse where people come and spoke about the war and about what people faced. And we put together an underground newspaper. Originally it was called “The Underground Oak,” and then we changed the name to “The Oak,” where we distributed information about GI antiwar protests. The protest, the demonstration on October 12th, was led by a couple of thousand active-duty GIs and veterans. There was another person, Airman Michael Locks, who also wore his uniform in the demonstration, and then there were quite a few of the corpsmen I worked with and an Army and Navy active-duty military who took part in the demonstration.
Matthew Breems: So the demonstration was very successful, then? It was incredible, right?
Susan Schnall: Right. I think it was the first time that an antiwar demonstration had been led by active-duty military.
Matthew Breems: You’ve had this court martial, you’ve received your sentencing, it hasn’t slowed you down a bit. Take us into the next phase of your activism.
Susan Schnall: I worked for another six months at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, and then left and moved to New York. In New York I worked with an organization called Medical Committee for Human Rights that was a major part of the civil rights organizing in the South. Some doctors went, and nurses and nurse practitioners, to start clinics in the rural South. Some people went and did medical presence at demonstrations. And I kind of came in a little differently and did a lot of antiwar organizing with MCHR.
I also worked with an organization called Medical Aid for Indochina that raised money for medical supplies that went to the North and went to the National Liberation Front, because we were healers, and we wanted to talk with healthcare professionals about what was going on in Southeast Asia and have more people work with us to end the war.
I also worked per diem or a couple of times a week at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, in the intensive care unit. I was startled when I first started to work there and had patients who had wounds similar to those my active-duty military had. They had gunshot wounds. They had knife wounds. They obviously were also the victims of war, only this war was in the South Bronx in New York City. After I worked there for six months, I kept organizing and educating people about the wars that were going on in this country against the poor, against people of color, and the similarity between that war and the war in Southeast Asia. And how our government made us identify, or tried to make us identify, enemies, and how we all needed to come together and work together to end both wars.
Matthew Breems: Susan, I know part of the work that you have done is with Agent Orange. Tell me a little bit about the work that you’ve done there.
Susan Schnall: When I retired from the hospitals in 2006, I went to Vietnam and visited a hospital in Hồ Chí Minh City called Từ Dũ Hospital. I saw children there who had been harmed by the United States use of Agent Orange dioxin in South and Central Vietnam. They were born with terrible deformities and birth defects, and I thought, “You know, we need to deal with the chemical companies that produced this pesticide. We need to educate people about how it was used as a chemical defoliant and how it harmed the people who were directly sprayed as well as their children.”
So I came back and began work with an organization called Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign, and also got involved with Veterans for Peace through my Agent Orange work. But we have been working together for the last eight, nine years. We spend time in going to Vietnam, in interviewing people who have been harmed by Agent Orange, and by looking at the current cleanup that’s going on in Vietnam. We also work with an organization called the Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance, who are the children of American male Vietnam veterans, who have been born with birth defects and have never been cared for by the United States government or the VA.
The children of American female veterans are taken care of 100 percent. But the basic importance, I think, of it is to educate the American public. We do have legislation in front of the House of Representatives, HR 326, that was sponsored by Representative Barbara Lee of California. We’re looking for additional sponsors, so anybody who’s listening, please call your congressperson and ask them to be a co-sponsor of the legislation.
We use it both to try to raise awareness, to educate people about what these chemical companies did, and I’ll just segue quickly into: The chemical companies were Monsanto and Dow, and they need to be held accountable for what happened. Monsanto, you may know, was recently bought out by Bayer, and Bayer also has its wonderful past and history of producing the gasses for the concentration camps to kill people during the Second World War. And to me, that is corporate evil. There is no other way to describe it. These entities that make billions of dollars, that continue to be used—it’s used in Roundup—and people continue to suffer from its use. So that is one of the major issues that I’m working on now.
Matthew Breems: What do you feel was your most significant impact and contribution with your activism over the years?
Susan Schnall: I hope it has been education and informing people that you can take a step against the reigning authority or the reigning government, and you can say, “I disagree with you, and I’m going to do something about it.” That you not only will survive, but you’ll survive with your moral conscience intact. I know that we all stray, and I just think it’s so important to understand that we do make mistakes, and sometimes when we’re young— And I’ve listened to a lot of guys talk about feeling guilt for what they did in Vietnam, and I just want to say, they were used. They were used. They were young, and you take an adolescent, and you can get them to do almost anything.
And what they do afterwards, once they have recognition of what they participated in, is what’s so important. So hopefully we all in Veterans for Peace can get that message out. And I think, again, in terms of having been in the military at that time, I felt I had a responsibility to end the war, and I feel as an American citizen I have a responsibility, should I say, now to change the government? But to change priorities and to put human values first, and to have us all understand our work, and work together to make those a reality.
Matthew Breems: So if you were going to be interacting with a young serviceman today, what would you say to them?
Susan Schnall: Or a woman.
Matthew Breems: Or a woman, yes. What would you say to them to try to change their way of thinking?
Susan Schnall: I actually spoke at CUNY with a group of women military officers from West Point, women students from West Point who were there. They obviously had high respect for the women military officers, and the message that I think was so important was to say, “You know, you think you’re going to be under their command, and you think that you’re going to be doing good, but think about whose interests you are going to possibly be giving up your lives for. We’re talking about the people who control the monetary interests in this country, who control industry, who control factories like Monsanto and Dow. They’re the interests that you will be supporting.”
And these officers are kind of an interim. “So first think about it. Is that what you want to go to war and fight for? Understand that that’s what you will be doing, and understand that the only interests you’re going to be preserving are those of the corporations.” That’s part of the discussion that I have, and the rest is, “I’m a military veteran. I’ve taken care of people who have returned from war. War is not what you see on television or in the movies. War is extraordinary pain and suffering, and it will be for you if you decide to go to battle and if you decide to go overseas. And it will be for you when you lose people who you dearly love. And it will be for you if in some way you pick up a gun and you kill another human being, because you’re going to live with that the rest of your life.”
Matthew Breems: What kind of feedback have you gotten when you did speak with those female officers? Was there receptiveness to that message?
Susan Schnall: You know, the primary issue actually was rape and violence against women and men in the military. And part of my talk was to say, “If you think anything has changed”—and this was five years ago—“forget it. There still is rape and violence towards women and towards men in the United States military. And the women standing here are aware of it.” One of the women officers, who obviously I didn’t reach, mentioned that she in fact had been out in the field and had been raped by a friend. And she would never report it, because it was her military. And my response to that is, “And we’re human beings, and we need to understand that violence against one is violence against all people. So to not report it because somehow you think that was supporting the military, it wasn’t. It was supporting violence against other human beings. And if we want to change them and change what’s going on in this country and in the world, we need to understand our participation in this violence.”
Matthew Breems: Going back to the GI coffeehouses that you mentioned previously, could you just speak to that a little bit to maybe those of us who weren’t as familiar with them? How widespread were these coffeehouses? I mean, is this like sitting down at a Starbucks, or is it widely different?
Susan Schnall: A little different. They were places near military bases, a number of them in the Southeastern part of the United States, some of them on the West Coast. They were an alternative place, where GIs could go and hang out and talk with people, civilians and other military and veterans, who would talk about what was going on in the war and say, “This is my experience.” So you would have one-to-one or group discussions. And because we had been in the military, we could talk about now being a veteran, and this is what we learned during the war and during our participation in it.
And you know, the folks that came in primarily were younger GIs, a lot of draftees, or maybe young guys who had volunteered, had never had an experience in the military, and now were just beginning to have theirs. So it was a discussion, to say, “This is what you’re facing; this is what will happen.” We had GI coffeehouses. I actually visited a number in Fort Bragg, in Columbia, South Carolina. We also did some work at that time at Camp Pendleton and joined forces in an antiwar demonstration with Angela Davis and the Panthers. So it was a time of extraordinary collaboration, of community groups, and again, of dealing with the war in communities with people of color, and to say that violence has to end, and that we all stand together on this.
With 50 years behind me, I’know I’m not going to see the changes I struggled for 50 years ago. I know I’m not going to see the ending of poverty and racism and a better quality of life for people. But hopefully I will leave stories that people will remember, and I’ll leave an energy in the atmosphere that is positive, that will have an impact at some point in the future and really create the change that we’ve all been working for. So it’s now your responsibility, Matt!
Matthew Breems: Passing the baton.
Susan Schnall: Absolutely. I think it’s important for us to figure out how to do that.
Matthew Breems: Yeah, and in talking with a number of the veterans, that concept of that question comes up frequently, “What do you think is the right way or the most powerful way or the most effective way to pass that baton to the next generation to become very active and vocal in creating the change that we want to see in the world, specifically in stopping and reducing war?”
Susan Schnall: Right. Right, and for me it is … I’ve thought about it a lot, because I used to think, “Oh, I need to organize millions of people.” But I think the work that everybody does for peace and social justice is important and is a piece of the greater whole. So for me, it’s talking with my students and talking about their experiences and caring for other people. It’s also talking to groups and community groups and young people, and saying, “This is what our experience was. And what I’d like you to remember is that you can be a part of that change, that positive change, so go do it.”
Matthew Breems: Susan, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Very inspired by your many, many years of staying with it and not giving in to discouragement or not giving in if you’re not seeing the change that you want, and being that positive change.
Susan Schnall: Thank you, Matt.
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 U.S. 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.