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Home to War

By Gerald Nicosia


Of all those who worked for the Vet Center program, none was more uncompromising than Jack McCloskey. A pioneer of PTSD theory, a member of the Vet Center Advisory Board, and the team leader of San Francisco’s Waller Street center, McCloskey was at the top of every VA hit list, and respectably high on quite a few other government hit lists besides. Yet if ever there was a veterans’ advocate who was not in the game for money, fame, or power, but really and simply just to help his fellow veterans, to be there for them day and night, whenever they were in need, it was Jack McCloskey. Said Ron Bitzer, who helped McCloskey found Swords to Ploughshares, one of the nation’s first Vietnam veterans’ self-help groups: “McCloskey represented the purest feeling we had that we got raped, we signed up once too often, and we were not gonna compromise again ... He served to keep many of us honest because he reflected the Vietnam experience as a combat medic, he reflected the early organizing effort against the war and for veterans’ rights, and he reflected a consistency in speaking out for over twenty years.” In McCloskey’s obituary, in 1996, Bitzer said it even more succinctly: “Jack was our beacon of what was needed to help disaffected and disadvantaged Vietnam veterans.”

Born in 1942, raised in a Catholic orphanage in an Italian and Irish ghetto of Philadelphia, McCloskey joined the Navy at 21, asking to be trained as a corpsman in emulation of his older brother. Since the Marines use Navy medics (called corpsmen), McCloskey ended up wearing a Marine uniform for 5 years. He first served under hostile fire when the Marines invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965. In 1966, he got out, returned to Philly to tend bar across from the University of Pennsylvania, where he audited classes, and started living with a young Quaker woman named Lydia. On July 4, 1967, he received a government telegram announcing that he had been “reactivated” because of the Marine Corps’s need for corpsmen in Vietnam. Despite Lydia’s pacifist objections, and despite his own moral feelings against the war, McCloskey returned to Camp Lejeune, and accepted his orders to serve at a fire base north of Da Nang. He arrived in-country in September, 1967.

His unit, 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marines, patrolled around the Haiphong Pass on Highway 1, taking heavy casualties almost every day. He never forgot the first kid he treated, an 18-year-old Marine who’d stepped on a land mine. He asked, “Doc, Doc, I’m going to live, ain’t I?” McCloskey had replied, “Sure, Babe,” and then the kid died in his arms. McCloskey cried like a baby. And he cried daily until the losses so overwhelmed him that he was forced to “totally shut down” his emotions, he said, “for survival.” But he was still “being torn up inside.” Forging his own kind of protest, as he was to do all his life, he soon refused to carry a weapon, even on combat missions.

His work counseling veterans began in Vietnam. He was 25 years old, and many of the guys, who were a good deal younger, came to him to talk about Dear John letters or their buddies getting hurt. Then the Tet Offensive blew up, and he went down to Hue, where he was overwhelmed with casualties, both physical and psychological. In early March, he met Lydia in Hawaii on his R & R, and they had a huge fight. She tried to get him to desert, saying her upper-middle-class family could help him escape to Sweden, France, or Canada, and would support their life together in exile. McCloskey felt he “had to go back to Nam,” because a lot of young Marines depended on him to keep them alive.

He was hit twice himself later in March, by mortars, and the second time took a lot of shrapnel in his knee. Because he risked his life to treat the wounded, while wounded himself and under heavy fire, he was awarded both the Bronze Star and Silver Star. Sometimes, when he needed to calm himself, he would recall images of the Summer of Love on Haight Street, where he’d walked in amazement only hours before shipping out for Vietnam. But he also fell into the habit of using marijuana, as well as the morphine syrettes he carried, to deal with his own physical and mental pain, after a battle was over.

When he returned Stateside in October, 1968, he was still suffering from his wounds (he walked with a cane all his life), and was given light duty at the Hunters Point Naval Base in San Francisco. He still wore his Marine uniform, because his seabag with all his belongings had been blown up by a mortar. They threatened to punish him unless he bought a new Navy uniform, but he refused. He let his hair grow long too. “What are you gonna do,” he asked, “send me back to Nam?”

Lydia had already moved to San Francisco; and after his discharge in June, 1969, they married and went to live in a cheap two-bedroom flat on 26th and Castro, in a poor, racially mixed neighborhood, adjoining the gay Castro district and just up the hill from the street action, bars, and drug connections in the Mission. McCloskey started drinking a lot, and continued smoking pot, though he quickly got off the morphine. He went to City College, but isolated himself, stayed drunk in the evenings, and never talked about Vietnam. Lydia had tried to drag him into the peace movement, but he was turned off immediately when he heard peaceniks calling Vietnam vets “killers” and cheering at film clips of American planes being shot down. Then Kent State happened; and like so many Vietnam vets, he was outraged that “the guns were being turned around on us now.”

In response to the nationwide protests, an “experimental college” was set up on campus, and it was there that McCloskey met his lifelong mentor, a Mexican-American named Carlos Melendrez. In the early 1960’s, Melendrez had been in the Army Security Agency, running spy operations against the Communist government in Cuba. With a little pushing from Melendrez, McCloskey found himself speaking to an audience of 5,000 students at City College. And like so many other Vietnam vets, he found that when he talked about his pain and guilt and anger, his own healing began. Within a few days, he started organizing other Vietnam vets on campus into a group called Vets for Peace, and soon he linked up with a similar group organized in Berkeley and Oakland by Lee Thorn. By the end of the year, they had affiliated with VVAW. Then Lee Thorn went to New York and brought back Mike Oliver, to form the nucleus of one of VVAW’s most dynamic chapters.

McCloskey served as president of VVAW-San Francisco, as California state and regional coordinator, and even as president of the national organization for two months, in the interim after John Kerry resigned. He was quickly becoming, as Bitzer said, “almost a mythical figure, a walking classic representation of that era.” There was, to begin with, McCloskey’s unforgettable appearance. A short but sturdy man, who always stood with military erectness, McCloskey’s most striking feature was his large, brown, almond-shaped eyes--at times, extraordinarily sad, frank, and wistful; at other times, sparkling with merriment. His slow walk and slight limp added to his dignity. Then there was the flattened boxer’s nose, the walrus moustache, and the near-shoulder length wavy hair (worn long till the day he died), which was all silver by the time he reached 40, and white in his 50’s. His hands were always covered with a mix of psoriasis and chloracne blisters, shedding white scabs; and his whole body aged so rapidly (another possible Agent Orange effect) that his vet friends used to have fun in bars introducing him as their father. None of this was as striking as the McCloskey voice. Loud, resonant, and distinctly lower-class Philly, it rasped, barked, and trembled with emotion. But the most outstanding thing about him was his heart. Any vet who needed a place to sleep could claim a section of his living room or kitchen floor, and at one time in the early ‘70’s he had a dozen such guests in his cramped apartment--putting more than a little strain on his already shaky marriage.

He started leading rap groups in VVAW. Then in 1973, the RCP drove him away from VVAW and politics; and under the influence of a psychologist, Dr. Steve Pennington, he turned seriously to counseling. Together with a Dutchman named Rob Boudewijn (who had joined the American Army to become a veterinarian and ended up a medic in Vietnam instead) and draft resister David Harris, he founded Twice Born Men, which extended the rap groups to ex-prisoners. The idea for Twice Born Men came from antiwar priest Daniel Berrigan, who had been imprisoned and later forced underground for both real civil disobedience and imagined conspiracies against the government. In a letter later published, Berrigan had equated people who had gone through the prison system with people who had gone through the military, saying both groups had had to face their fears and learn to work through them, and that both were thereby “twice born”--not in a religious sense, but existentially, in the sense of having come through a harrowing crucible.

By this time, McCloskey had his own degree in psychology from Antioch College’s San Francisco branch, but his approach to counseling was anything but academic. Using his apartment as “storefront,” and Harris’s Fresno farm as a retreat, Twice Born Men did outreach to the Tenderloin, the Mission, and other places where the down-and-out roamed the streets or congregated in bars. Many times they would get a 2AM call from some vet or ex-con who had nowhere to go when the bars closed, and usually McCloskey would go down in person to counsel the guy. Besides the rap groups, Twice Born Men provided individual and family counseling. Then, when five VISTA workers--three of them Vietnam combat vets, one a Korean combat vet, and Vietnam-era vet Ron Bitzer--complained about the botched outreach program they had been assigned to at the Fort Miley VA, McCloskey was paid to come in and “retrain” them. In the end, they agreed with McCloskey that the VA program was unfixable; and all of them, together with the core group of Twice Born Men, incorporated as a multi-service veterans’ organization called Swords to Ploughshares. Ironically, McCloskey, who claimed his Catholic faith “had gone out the window” in Vietnam, had again chosen to operate under a religious slogan.

Swords got a free office in the YMCA building on the Embarcadero, just off Market, in a part of town that was then close to Skid Row; and almost immediately, McCloskey began reaching vets that had fallen through every other social net. Swords became a model for almost every other self-help group that followed it. Meshad, who’d met McCloskey at the first major delayed-stress conference in St. Louis in 1973, was influenced by Swords’ example in shaping his Vietnam Veterans’ Resocialization Unit--and many of McCloskey’s innovations eventually found their way into the Vet Center prototype, based on the VVRU. The ‘70’s were hardly a good time for McCloskey himself, however. The more active and visible he became, the more determined grew the government (or so he felt) to persecute and punish him. In early 1973, San Francisco police broke into his apartment, carrying a warrant to search for a fugitive. They opened McCloskey’s nightstand and seized his diarrhea medication, and also claimed they found a lid of marijuana--which Jack, though he smoked, was never stupid enough to keep in his home.

By the mid 1970’s, McCloskey had become deeply involved with the National Council of Churches’ Vietnam Generation Ministries, not only pushing the recognition of PTSD but helping to found the NCC’s Incarcerated Veterans Project and beginning to explore Vietnam veteran health problems due to chemical exposure (even before Maude DeVictor’s revelations in Chicago). His phone bill was sometimes $900 a month--from calling doctors, lawyers, and psychologists around the country--at a time when his rent was $200. His work with Swords was bringing him national prominence too, as he laid the groundwork for filing the first post-Vietnam syndrome claims against the VA. In San Francisco, in May, 1976, he was about to expose a bogus alcohol-treatment program at the Fort Miley VA--a ward which was set up on paper only, funneling VA funds into someone’s pocket, but treating absolutely no one.

McCloskey had just finished counseling a vet and was standing at the bus stop on 29th and Mission, when a white guy, about 40, in a suit and tie, crossed the street and made a funny quick step as if to get behind him. Wondering what he was up to, McCloskey started to turn, just as the guy fired a .44 caliber pistol at his mid-back. Because of the move, the bullet just missed his heart and went through his stomach and liver instead. Most crazies talk to their victims, but the shooter had said nothing, nor did he try reaching for McCloskey’s wallet; he vanished almost instantly. McCloskey was hospitalized for three months, during which time several loyal Vietnam vets watched over him day and night. He suspected that “somebody in a federal agency tried to do me in.” The police came up with nothing.

For a long time after that, McCloskey couldn’t fall asleep till the sun came up. Like Scott Camil, who had recently been shot in the back and nearly killed by a DEA agent, in what he (Camil) claimed was an assassination attempt, McCloskey felt himself a prime target in the government’s “war on Vietnam veterans.” Increasingly, that war began to seem as real as the one they’d fought in Vietnam. But once out of the hospital, McCloskey never slowed a beat in his activist work. In part, that was from the soldier’s fatalistic sense that you can’t hide from hurt; but it also came from McCloskey’s contempt for his own suffering, a dedicated medic’s attitude that it would be “selfish” to worry about his own wounds when so many other wounded people needed his help. Not that his own wounds weren’t significant and daily growing worse. Despite the birth of two daughters, whom he dearly loved, his marriage continued to fall apart. He admitted the truth of his wife’s accusation: “You know, Jack, it’s easier for you to love a Vietnam veteran than it is to love me.” Like a lot of vets who’d seen friends die in front of them, McCloskey had trouble “accepting love without feeling that people are going to be hurt.” The only allowable intimacy in such perilous circumstances was the shared bravado of a soldier’s manhood. McCloskey liked to quote a vet who had been in one of his rap groups: “I learned about sex without love through a prostitute, and I learned love without sex through my squad.”

Not surprisingly, with so much stress piling up on him, McCloskey’s health deteriorated. His skin infections worsened, and he developed liver and heart problems. It didn’t help that he chain-smoked almost every waking minute--a habit he’d picked up with the Marines--wolfed down an endless diet of Philly cheese steaks, French fries, and other junk foods, and drank like a fish. He was, as Bitzer said, the quintessential Vietnam vet, fighting to get through one day at a time, scornful of fleshly infirmities and broken rules that “don’t mean nothin’,” and refusing to look beyond his immediate circle of companions for the values that defined his life.

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