Military Jailing Vietnam War Resisters 40 Years After They Refused to Serve

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Concerned about growing desertion and resistance within the military, the U.S. government is arresting men who refused to fight a generation ago in the Vietnam War. We speak with Ernest “Buck” McQueen, a Vietnam War resister who was jailed in January for desertion, 40 years after he left the Marines and his attorney, Tod Ensign who is the director of GI advocacy group, Citizen Soldier. [includes rush transcript]

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hinted Tuesday that U.S. troop levels in Iraq may increase slightly in the coming days because of pilgrimages connected to the Muslim holiday of Ashura. He said General George Casey, the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, “may decide he wants to bulk up slightly for the pilgrimage.” There are currently over 130,000 U.S. troops deployed in the country.

Well as the U.S. invasion of Iraq approaches its third anniversary, a growing number of American troops are refusing to fight. USA Today reports that since the war began, 8,000 U.S. soldiers have deserted the military.

Now the military is doing something to try to stop the growing number of soldiers going AWOL: it is arresting and jailing men who refused to fight in the Vietnam War a generation ago.

Just last week, a former Vietnam war resister who has been living in Canada since 1968 was arrested and jailed on desertion charges. Allen Abney quit the Marines nearly 40 years ago to protest the Vietnam War. The 56 year-old was arrested last Thursday at the Canadian-Idaho border.

In January, Corporal Jerry Texiero was released from a military brig after serving five months on charges of desertion.

For more on this crackdown of Vietnam-era war resisters, we are joined on the line by Ernest “Buck” McQueen. In November 1969 McQueen was enlisted in the Marines when he left his North Carolina military base and refused to serve because of concerns about going to Vietnam. He was arrested and jailed two months ago, 40 years after leaving the military. He joins us the phone from Texas. And in our firehouse studio we are joined by Tod Ensign , a lawyer and director of Citizen Soldier, a GI and veteran rights advocacy organization.

  • Ernest “Buck” McQueen, Vietnam war resister who was arrested in Fort Worth in January.
  • Tod Ensign, a lawyer and director of Citizen Soldier, a GI and veteran rights advocacy organization. He is author of the book, “America’s Military Today: Challenges for the Armed Forces in a Time of War”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on this crackdown of Vietnam era war resisters, we’re joined on the line by Ernest “Buck” McQueen. In November 1969, he was enlisted in the Marines when he left his North Carolina military base and refused to serve because of concerns about going to Vietnam. He was arrested and jailed two months ago, 40 years after leaving the military. He joins us on the phone from Texas, and in our Firehouse Studio, we’re joined by Tod Ensign, Buck McQueen’s lawyer and director of Citizen Soldier, a G.I. and veteran rights advocacy group, author of America’s Military Today. And we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Buck McQueen, let’s begin with you. What happened?

ERNESTBUCK” McQUEEN: I think I got educated, and I’ve thought about what I’ve said a few times in life that, you know, as we make our endeavors at a young age to be what we want to be or to grow up, but we join something that we think is for us, and as we get educated through in that process we make decisions that we take on through life. And I think that when I’d seen what was happening, I decided we didn’t — I didn’t want to be a part of it. I had a year and ten months, eleven days of unblemished service. I felt that I was one of the best marines that there was, and I guess my morals just caught up with me, and I decided killing like this is not right, and that’s why I did what I did.

AMY GOODMAN: Buck, tomorrow is the 38th, I think it’s, anniversary of the My Lai massacre. Did that play a role in your decision?

ERNESTBUCK” McQUEEN: Of course. But it might have been the 38th, but do you realize it was underground for ten months or eleven months before the government ever released it? So, you know it — you hear and see many pictures during your — and at 19, the age that I was, I was — you know, I wasn’t perfect nor was I — knew everything there was to know, but we all mature and make decisions as we go along, and I felt that I was doing the wrong thing for God and myself both. I think that had we been invaded on our shores or had a good purpose, I would have had no recourse. I mean, there would have been no doubt in my mind that I would have fought and fought for my country, but as in Iraq, who are we fighting for? What are we fighting for? As in Vietnam, who were we fighting for, and what were we fighting for? I think this country needs a reason to fight, not just because oil or something.

AMY GOODMAN: So what happened to you at the end of last year? Talk about your arrest.

ERNESTBUCK” McQUEEN: Well, it no doubt was a surprise after being gone for 36 years, and I tried to adjust to life and keep a low profile and stay out of the spotlight especially, and it’s kind of like opening a cage to — and you know, let a bird fly. And, but, you know, I was picked up — I’ve seen — my daughter had called me previously two nights before and told me that the U.S. marshals were there and were looking for me on a federal warrant.

AMY GOODMAN: This was in January.

ERNESTBUCK” McQUEEN: January 10th, I got arrested the 12th, and then the next night, I was over at a friend’s house across the street, and I seen the police come to the door, and I’ve told everyone — actually I told everyone that I haven’t told anyone. It was a — it was a deep, dark secret within me that I had to live, and I had to go through just to — just to stay out of jail, and that was like self-preservation, so I did what I had to. I really didn’t want to lie, but, you know, if it’s the option of going to jail or lying, it’s pretty evident, but I never lied about a lot. I tried to stay an honest man. And I have, from what I understand, I have a less criminal record than the past four presidents. So I’m not a criminal, but I was treated like one.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how long were you held?

ERNESTBUCK” McQUEEN: I was held six days in this county jail or actually it’s a federal holding facility. It’s just a holding facility. But being who I was, I guess, I was selected to have a little different treatment, and then I spent six days, but I set a record in Camp Pendleton. I guess I was considered a hot potato there, and I went in in record time and out in record time. I mean, I set a record as the time from the day I hit the gate to the time I left the gate. So —

AMY GOODMAN: And why did they tell you you were arrested and jailed?

ERNESTBUCK” McQUEEN: Because I was absent without leave on a charge from the Marine Corps.

AMY GOODMAN: Did they say they were looking for you for the last 40 years?

ERNESTBUCK” McQUEEN: Oh, yeah, or that’s what they say, but I’m sure there’s intervals that came and gone.

AMY GOODMAN: Tod Ensign, you are Buck McQueen’s attorney? How uncommon is this?

TOD ENSIGN: Well, there appears to be a unit within the Pentagon called the AWOL Apprehension Unit, and they have been going out and actively searching for people like Buck and Jerry and others, and when they find them or locate information, they send local police after them. So they’re very aggressive in finding people and prosecuting them. Jerry was actually under court-martial charges down at Camp Lejeune. So it appears to us that what they’re trying to do is say, look, these guys have been gone a long time. They’re obviously of no use to us as soldiers, but we want to let young people in Iraq know that if they leave now, we will pursue them and criminalize them for the next — for the rest of their lives. That’s the message I believe they’re trying to send.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it happening more now than a year ago, than five years ago, than before the invasion?

TOD ENSIGN: Well, the Pentagon says that the desertion rates are lower than they were before we invaded in 2003. I don’t have other figures. I would really question the accuracy of those figures. They claim it’s lower, but it’s definitely growing now, as the U.S.A. Today story said. There are more people deciding, “I just can’t go back.” There was a story just yesterday that some people are facing their fourth tour over there. That’s an incredible amount of combat burden on people.

AMY GOODMAN: But are the people who are being picked up for having resisted 40 years ago — is that number increasing?

TOD ENSIGN: Well, according to this AWOL unit, there are about 70 people in that category that have been gone as long as Buck or Jerry, and they said that they’re looking for them, and they’re going to do what they can to prosecute them, because any crime like this must be vigorously proceeded with.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re the head of Citizen Soldier.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the issues that you’re dealing with right now?

TOD ENSIGN: Well, we, like other groups, we hear from soldiers all the time and their families who want to know what are their options. What could they do? Do they have to go? Do they have to go back? That sort of thing, and so we tell them that if you don’t go, you will be facing criminal prosecution. These are fairly serious charges. They can give you five years in prison. The most severe charge we know of — sentence recently, was Kevin Benderman, who got 15 months. Camilo Mejia, you recall, got a year. So they are definitely prosecuting at least the public cases. Now, other people that go back, if they’re quiet, probably a lot of them are being processed out administratively, but nonetheless, you’re leaving the military with a dishonorable discharge; it forecloses all veteran’s benefits. It’s — it definitely is a stigma to be a deserter today.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Tod Ensign, lawyer and director of Citizen Soldier. We’re also joined by Buck McQueen who was arrested in Fort Worth in January. Buck, are you sorry that you left the military, what, some almost 40 years ago?

ERNESTBUCK” McQUEEN: No, I’ve thought about that decision many, many times, and if you can’t stand for something, you can’t stand for nothing. I look back at 36 years ago when I left — over 36 years ago when I left and, you know, like again I say, I spent a year and ten months thinking about the situation and living in the situation and taking everything the Marine Corps had to give me, and I think I took it well, but I think that if you don’t stick with your convictions, I think that if you don’t stand up for yourself and your beliefs, then you’re just going to go through life and just exist. People shouldn’t live their life, not exist it. And I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t try to get in the spotlight or anything. I was content on passing this earth as a — real quietly and nothing but, I — I did stick with my conviction, and I thought about it. It was then. I just decided that I didn’t want to be a part of this killing, this crazy killing that was in Vietnam, and I took the measures that I had to take to avoid it, and am I sorry I did it? No, because I’d do it again.

AMY GOODMAN: Tod Ensign, what advice are you giving to people, both today, resisters, and those who resisted years ago?

TOD ENSIGN: Well, the ones that resisted years ago, there’s no question. They should just be processed out. It’s insane to be spending these kinds of resources.

AMY GOODMAN: How does amnesty — didn’t Carter give amnesty for resisters?

TOD ENSIGN: Well, not exactly amnesty. He set up a program — he gave amnesty to the draft refusers who were more — tend to be more white and middle class. The soldiers, he gave what was called “clemency,” and you had to actually go to a military base and apply for it, and then you were given what was called a “clemency discharge,” which in some ways was a stigma also, because it told the employer that you were a Vietnam refuser. At any rate, only about 8,000 people actually applied for that program, so it was not a very large program. Remember, there was half a million desertion cases from the Vietnam War, so that was a very large number.

The advice I give people that call is, look, it’s a complicated situation. But you have to realize if you go to Iraq, and if you participate in these kinds of tactics that we use over there, shooting civilians, killing children, this sort of thing, you will pay a price for that, too, in terms of post-traumatic stress, in terms of your life being changed. So it’s not as though just going to Iraq is a win-win situation. But on the other hand, people have to realize they probably will be prosecuted, and they may serve some prison time, and people have to make an individual choice.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Tod Ensign, for joining us, head of Citizen Soldier, and also Buck McQueen, for talking to us about your own experience. Tod, you mentioned Camilo Mejia, who is one of the war resisters who applied for conscientious objector status, was denied, court-martialled, spent almost a year in prison. He’s heading off to a walk that we caught up with yesterday.

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