Jack McCloskey: Remembering a Veteran Leader

Author Mary Ciofalo’s book Redemption Stories: Unwasted Pain recounts the life of Jack McCloskey, an instrumental community leader in the wake of the Vietnam War. Swords to Plowshares owes a great debt to Jack as he set us on the right path to effectively serving veterans.

As part of celebrating our 40th anniversary this year, we celebrate the life of Jack McCloskey.

Here is his story:

Jack McCloskey resembles an aging chain-smoking gnome. His is quick-witted, has a wonderful sense of humor, and a gift for story telling. Jack agreed to be interviewed even though his health was poor, and it was an effort for him just to show up. Sometimes his ailments and the memories from the war would overwhelm him and he would interrupt the interview and leave. He told his story over three sessions, drinking coffee at my kitchen table, smoking many cigarettes, and in spite of the discomfort, continuing until he was done.

Jack was orphaned at the age of fourteen, and enlisted in the Navy as soons as he was old enough. Opposed to harming others, he became a military medic. He transferred from the Navy into the Marine Corps and saw combat for the first time in Santo Domingo in 1965. Two years later he was assigned to a marine infantry company in Vietnam. He served in combat from September of 1967 to September of 1968, a period that included the Tet Offensive, the heaviest fighting of the war. As a medic, he went out every day with his unit. He refused to carry a weapon, even after he was wounded twice. He stored the .45 pistol he had been issued in his footlocker and kept battle dressings in his holster.

Jack said that being in Vietnam was like being in a car wreck every day for a year. The first death he witnessed was a soldier in his unit who stepped on a Bouncing Betty, the familiar term for a land mine. Jack dressed his wounds. The dying man was anxious for Jack’s reassurance, “I’m going to live, ain’t I?” Jack said, “Sure, Babe.” The young Marine died, and Jack wept. Jack’s feelings went numb after a few more deaths, and soon he couldn’t cry anymore. He told me that he hated losing his grief because it felt like he had been robbed of his dignity.

There were times in the fighting when many men were wounded at once and Jack had to choose who to attend to first. Treating one man could mean that a couple of others would die before he could get to them. Jack hated having to play God and make those choices. Sometimes he ran out of clean battle dressings and would strip used ones off of a soldier who had just died. Jack never killed a Vietnamese, but he did overdose Marines whose wounds were fatal and painful, and who were begging to die.

Jack was senior officer to both of his best buddies who were also medics. “Doc Wabbit” and “Mike the Mongoose” shared Jack’s feelings that war was unnecessary, and tried to express their humanity in little ways that they could. Doc Wabbit could draw crowds of giggling children with his slapstick antics. Jack described both men as gentle, brave and loving. But those qualities were never talked about face to face. Jack said, “We’d joke and tell each other, ‘If you get blown up I’m going to piss on your grave,’ and all that bullshit. But when the shit really happened, you wanted that buddy to be alive more than you were. I still talk to my two best buddies who died over there. I share my life with them.”

Like many soldiers, Jack “played the dozens” — capping, bullshit, repartee. He said, “It’s a ritual in which men learn to cover their tender places and to stay tough and ready for danger.” Vietnam warriors had to deal with mental, as well as physical wounds. Some saw buddies get killed. Some witnessed  or committed fragging — the shooting of an officer by his own soldiers when his orders would get them killed. Some got Dear John letters. Emotional armor was inevitable, but after the war Jack realized he’d paid a big price for that protection.

When Jack returned home, he was a nervous wreck. His weight had dropped to 105 pounds, and for the first two weeks he barely said a word. The norms that had been imprinted on him by the exigencies of war didn’t apply back home. He was overwhelmed by the collision of two worlds in his psyche: Vietnam and America. Jack fell into periodic but severe depressions. He had a recurring nightmare in which he would reach into his medical bag and pull out a battle dressing that turned into a body bag as he opened it. He was still having that nightmare twenty-seven years after he left the war. His wife, a Quaker, understood what had happened to him, but Jack feels that his experiences in Vietnam ruined his marriage. In the war he learned to be intimate with people only as they lay dying. Any time his wife got close to him he’d push her away. Both she, and the girlfriend he later had a long relationship with, told him it was easier for him to love a Vietnam veteran than it was to love them. He now understands what they meant. He knew how to open up a vet: they knew what it was like to stop feeling in order to survive. Dead or alive, you paid. His war experiences had exiled him from the very people that he fought to protect.

Like many veterans, Jack used drugs and alcohol as medicine. He dosed himself to anesthetize the memory of the horrible situations and the gore that he had witnessed. He said, “I did some dreadful drinking in my day.”

Jack was totally disillusioned with the peace movement. He thinks it couldn’t distinguish the war from the warriors. He said, “I consider myself patriotic, but I also know my country can do wrong. I’ve seen it. I believe in the Bill of Rights and that’s how I like to see my country operate. I’ve made promises to dead people that I would do everything in my power not to let war happen again. I swore that when I first came back.”

Jack was in the States less than two weeks when the first major anti-war march was held in San Francisco. It was 1968. Jack spoke at the event, but when he stood at the podium, identified as a soldier, people in the crowd shouted, “Killer!” He was confused and affronted by this reaction.

At other peace demonstrations Jack saw men on the sidelines wearing fatigue jackets. One of them was Lee Thorn. They met and formed Veterans for Peace, which became a chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Eventually the VVAW blanketed over 1,000 vet self-help groups around the country. Jack thinks the network was successful partly because of the desperate need of many veterans to bond to a group where their experiences were shared and accepted.

At that time the Veterans Administration was not helpful to many soldiers returning from the Vietnam conflict. Jack me with the VA’s chief of Psychiatry back in 1971, trying to get him to create specific treatment programs for Vietnam vets. The psychiatrist’s response was, “Jack, the only difference between Vietnam veterans and other veterans is that Vietnam veterans are dirtier, have longer hair and like different music.” Jack said there was no way to relate to that attitude, just like there was no way to relate to older veterans who said, “Hey, you guys lost your war”, or to their peers who had not gone to war, some of whom called them baby killers.

Some vets were obviously troubled and having difficulty coping: coming to VVAW meetings drunk or high on drugs, beating on each other or fighting with their spouses at home. Jack was taking some psychology courses in school in order to learn how to help his fellow vets. When one of their VVAW group members killed himself in 1972, Jack, along with Rob Boudewyn and Chester Adams, started a group called Twice Born Men — the first veteran-led group to address the emotional and psychological problems of Vietnam veterans.

Another five men who became frustrated frustrated working for the Veterans Administration sat down with Jack and established the organization called “Swords to Plowshares.” Jack said that working for that organization was his way of redeeming his soul. He steeped himself in work to help the soldiers still in Vietnam, and the veterans who had returned to their homes but were still at war with themselves, their experiences and with people who couldn’t relate to them. Jack thinks these programs saved a lot of lives.

Swords to Plowshares absorbed Twice Born Men and broadened the services they provided. They held rap groups, set up job programs and helped vets upgrade the status of their military discharges. Some vets who completed duty in Vietnam had come back angry, and done something impulsive like assaulting an officer. Their behavior resulted in a type of discharge from the military that disqualified them from veterans’ benefits. Their “bad paper” would stick with them for the rest of their lives. Swords to Plowshares had a good record for reversing those discharge decisions. They also created services to deal with the family problems faced by veterans. Jack saw the veterans’ anger, alienation, and frustration as signs of sanity — natural reactions to their war experiences and to the lack of understanding by the society and families they had returned to. Jack said that the problem was that the men were so angry that they acted in self-destructive ways, and that’s what his organization tried to change. One of the most effective questions Jack asked trouble veterans was, “How do you think your buddies who didn’t make it would want you to live now?” The Vietnam War continues to kill soldiers years after they leave the battlefields. Three times more veterans died by suicide after they returned than actually died in combat. Jack counseled hundreds of vets; eight eventually killed themselves.

The ostracism that VVAW vets felt was extreme. An example was the San Francisco Veterans Day parade in 1971. The VVAW obtained a permit to march. Their contingent of 250 vets was approaching the viewing stand when a group of policemen attacked them. Someone else had been throwing bottles at the police, but since the VVAW was the only anti-war group in the parade, the cops came after them. As a result of the fracas, five vets had to be hospitalized; one of them was Jack. The wounded vets successfully sued the city government for reimbursement of their medical expenses. Although many acts of violence were committed against them, the VVAW never sanctioned any violent actions towards others.

Some people were sympathetic. After the VVAW (in protests to get attention for their needs) occupied the South Vietnamese consulate in San Francisco — at the same time other vets had taken over the Statue of Liberty in New York, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, and the Gateway Arches in St. Louis — they went on trial. The judge, who was Asian, allowed each of the veterans to explain why he was against the war. He also allowed sociologists and psychologists to testify on the veterans’ behalf. The jury found the vets innocent of all charges against them, including treason and trespassing. The foreman of the jury, a retired Navy captain, joined the VVAW after the trial. Most of the jurors came to the defendents’ victory party.

At the trial they showed a film called Only the Beginning that documented a VVAW demonstration in 1971. The protest was called the “Dewey Canyon III,” named after sequentially after two of the biggest military operations conducted in Vietnam. In this demonstration thousands of Vietnam veterans converged on Washington, D.C., took the medals they’d been given for injury and bravery in the war, and threw them away on the White House lawn. Some vets testified before Congress. Thousands camped out on the mall outside the White House for two days. When the police came to arrest the leaders, the entire encampment voted to stay and be arrested. The police backed off.

Jack said, “We were challenging them. In the beginning people would say we weren’t really veterans, just a bunch of agitators. So we showed them our discharge papers, and there we were decorated for bravery and wounded in combat. I think that’s what freaked them out. The warriors were coming back questioning them.”

There were many ironies about the veterans’ resistance movement. Jack led a demonstration against a veteran’s hospital that a week later hired him as a consultant to set up a post-traumatic stress unit. The Veterans Administration changed as a result of pressure. The biggest reversal happened when President Carter broke with tradition by naming a disabled Vietnam veteran, Max Cleland, as head of the Veterans Administration — formerly led by veterans of other wars.

For twenty-five years Jack counseled Vietnam veterans. In the mid-90’s a member of his family was assaulted by a stranger and almost lost her life. Jack was retraumatized. He found he couldn’t counsel any more. He had helped many vets, but he had never dealt directly with his own wounds, never completed his own homecoming, and the assault on a family member brought that fact clearly to his attention. As a result of his and others’ efforts, the VA was finally conducting therapy groups that could now benefit Jack. He got some helpful therapy there. At the time that I spoke with him, he said that he didn’t want to be a professional Vietnam veteran for the rest of his life, and he was currently dong a lot of soul searching. His body was not in good shape and he didn’t know what he wanted to do next.

Jack talked about redemption as a continuous process. He said, “You don’t just experience it and then it goes away. It’s something you have to follow within yourself. I think there’s goodness in everybody at the same time there’s evil. I look at my hands. I’ve had this skin rash ever since Vietnam. Agent Orange, jungle rot — I don’t know — but it’s my stigmata. It reminds me every day of the dead. The individual redemption I can deal with, but I want redemption for my country. Because I love my country, I want the government to admit that we made mistakes. I’d like to see think tanks set up to discuss peace instead of war because once you’re on the battlefield the only choices you have are what you’re going to do for survival. The choices you make on the field can haunt you for the rest of your life.”

Twice since he’s been back from Vietnam Jack’s been declared dead. Once from a gunshot wound in 1974 when someone mugged him, and once when the muscle tissue of his heart became infected. Both times Jack’s two dead buddies appeared to him saying, “Jack. It’s not your time. Go back.” Jack said, “I had an incredible sense of anger at having to come back because I wanted some peace and I felt such joy in seeing them.”

Jack McCloskey died on February 15, 1996, only months after this interview was completed. I read about his death in the paper and attended his memorial service. Arranged by Jack’s ex-wife, the service was held in a room that could seat over 500. Far more people attended than could be accommodated, and the overflow had to stand. More crowded in the open doorways. For several hours family members and friends and veterans stood and told story after story about Jack, most of them funny, and many very moving. I learned that he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. That he struggled with drug addictions at the same time he worked to create programs to help veterans with the same problem. I listened to people tell how Jack had touched the lives of thousands of veterans, and the hearts of hundreds of friends. The room filled up with the humor and emotion of people who clearly loved the man. This is an excerpt from her thoughts on purple paper, handed out by a woman friend at the funeral. She said,

“In the obituary in yesterday’s paper, Country Joe said it best: Jack shouldn’t have died. He was right, Jack shouldn’t have. I’m still mad at him for it — damn it, McCluck, we still need you!
So many of us have needed him and so many times he’s been there. He’s not the first one to take care of everyone except for himself, but I think he perfected the art.
Durn your hide McCloskey, who’s going to call me in the middle of the night from New York to get someone’s phone number who lives in New York? Who’s going to keep the floor covered with ashes and newspapers? Who’s going to make us all laugh — and who’s going to be there when another Viet Nam vet can’t make alone through a long dark night?

As I left, I thought about Jack’s generosity. I think Jack had redeemed the part of his heart that gave, but hadn’t been able to restore the part of his heart that received. I hope he was hanging out there at the service, taking all that loving in.

Source: Redemption Stories: Unwasted Pain, published in 2009, by Mary Ciofaflo; note: in the book, Swords to Plowshares is spelled “Swords to Ploughshares”