Vietnam specter looms at campus rally UTSA rally

Sig Christenson
San Antonio Express-News (Texas)
October 21, 2004

Tom Wetzler joined the Army a day after he turned 18. Raised on John Wayne movies and a lifetime of having been told America battles the enemies of freedom, he volunteered to fight in Vietnam.

"What I saw was a war and a policy that had nothing to do with American values of freedom and justice and fairness," he said.

Wetzler and other ex-servicemen brought the specter of Vietnam back to campus on Wednesday, but unlike many protests during the 1960s, this was civil. Foes and supporters of the Iraq war shared microphones, applause and a willingness to listen.

The gathering, "Veterans Against the Iraq War," took place at the University of Texas at San Antonio's Loop 1604 campus. The veterans spoke of ideals, disillusionment and anger. They also saw parallels between their war and the one raging in Iraq.

"Iraq is Vietnam on crack," said Wetzler, a 53-year-old UTSA senior history major.

But Andrew Lewis was among several UTSA students who went to the lectern to support President Bush and the war he launched March 19, 2003.

"Every single veteran that I've heard come back from Iraq has been appalled at the attitude in this country," the 23-year-old San Antonian said. "Every one that I've read about in the San Antonio Express-News, every one I've heard on talk radio, has said that what we are doing over there is an amazing thing."

The crowd at the Sombrilla, a campus commons, started small with the first speakers at 11 a.m. but grew to more than 200 by 1 p.m. A hint of the old protest era was seen in a number of placards, one saying, "Death toll rises, so do gas prices. No war for oil."

Still, the passion of the old days wasn't there. Hundreds of students walked past, more than a few talking on cell phones. Joanna Rodriguez, an 18-year-old freshman, snapped her phone off while walking through the commons.

"I can't really be for or against (the war) because my family members have been there, so I have to be in between," she said.

Erin Zayko, 29, of San Antonio and others with the Progressive Students Organization, which put on the rally, saw the event as a duty. Asking veterans to speak made it tougher for anyone to claim that foes of the war aren't true-blue Americans, she said.

The veterans talked of holding high ideals that in time dissolved into ashes as their political beliefs evolved with age. Now 69, one-time paratrooper Tom Keene said he took up arms after graduating from high school but later grew cynical about Washington.

"It finally began to dawn on me that our interventions in Panama, for example, in Iraq now, in Grenada, were really all about extending a corporately driven empire," said Keene, a retired religious studies professor at Our Lady of the Lake University.

"I don't think (Iraqis) are the insurgents," said Joe Rhodes, a 39-year-old classical history major and ex-Green Beret who served in South Korea and Panama. "We are the invaders. That makes us the insurgents."

Freshman international business major Sezan McDaniel, 18, of San Antonio, told a reporter she agreed with Rhodes and believes "we're killing innocent people there."

But Robert Rogers, an 18-year-old mechanical engineering major, took the microphone to back Bush, saying Saddam Hussein and the threat of his chemical weapons had to go. In his turn at the lectern, Lewis said "we are not the Nazis over there" and noted women in Afghanistan now have the right to vote.

"There are good things happening, even if there have been mistakes."

Marie Quintanilla, a 51-year-old graduate student, came up to Lewis and suggested he listen to "Air America," Al Franken's new radio program. It is an alternative, she said, to right-wing talk radio shows. He listened to her.

"We can argue back and forth," Quintanilla said, "but I respect your view."

sigc@express-news.net