by Howard Lisnoff
March 23, 2010
WHEN THE bus carrying military resisters and others entered the gates
of Fort Dix, New Jersey, in July 1973, I had plenty reason to be
frightened. Reports, both published and rumored, had circulated for
years about the bald-faced torture that had been carried out at the
stockade on the base.
Decades later, I addressed that issue in "When Torture Was Practiced
on U.S. Soil" (ZNet, July 2008) in detail. The only reason I was
saved from being thrown in the stockade in 1973 was that I had a good
civilian lawyer who was able to argue on my behalf before the company
commander of the detention barracks located outside the gates of the stockade.
Nonetheless, I was discharged with bad paper from the Army, and it
would take the "amnesty" instituted by President Jimmy Carter in 1977
for me to receive an upgraded discharge.
In fact, both so-called amnesties of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy
Carter fell far short of providing meaningful relief to those who
resisted the Vietnam War in the military--instead granting far more
lenient terms to those who had resisted the draft. Only about 28,000
men out of the hundreds of thousands (about 500,000) of military
resisters received any relief at all for their opposition to the
Vietnam War, while their counterparts who opposed the draft got off far easier.
Of the several thousand resisters who applied through both amnesty
programs for relief, only a few thousand (I am one of them) received
upgraded discharges. Even more punitive, many soldiers (those who had
not opposed the war) who had bad discharges were able to get
veterans' benefits after discharge, while the vast majority of those
who were granted amnesty were denied benefits. So in the end, many
veterans who opposed this unpopular war were made to pay a stiff
price for their opposition.
Late in the 1970s, I wrote the FBI asking that the record of my
arrest for my opposition to the war be expunged. The response was
"not a chance!" Once you've got a record, you've got one for life was
the unstated return message the FBI had sent me.
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I DIDN'T think much about the issue for over two decades, until I
applied for teacher certification in Florida in 2005.
Following the terror attacks of 2001, a new security apparatus was in
place in the U.S., and I don't know if that is why education
officials momentarily held up my application for teacher
certification. They wrote that I would be investigated by the state
teacher fitness board due to my arrest by the FBI that came to light
when the state completed a background check of me as part to the
It took months to process my appeal (with a favorable result), which
consisted of enlisting the aid of a U.S. senator and providing a copy
of my upgraded discharge to the certification board. Had it not been
for Carter's partial amnesty, I would have been out of luck in this
new national security environment. The message seemed to be that
those who oppose war are suspect.
The next test of my record left over from the Vietnam era was when
the opportunity arose to take a position as a census worker during
the 2010 census. I had applied to the local Census Bureau for the
job, taken the written test and provided all the necessary documents
to apply for the job.
Once again, the U.S. Census Bureau flagged my application because of
the FBI arrest record. And once again, it took the intervention of a
U.S. senator and supplying my discharge papers to put the application
for work back on track.
Disgusted, I inquired of the same senator's office (who I had
coincidentally worked for during the 2004 presidential campaign) and
learned just how to go about attempting to get the record of my
arrest expunged. I had to file a motion for expungement at the
federal district court that had jurisdiction over the geographical
area where I was originally arrested by the FBI. It wasn't an arduous
procedure, and now I wait to learn whether or not I will get the
relief that I believe is long overdue from the federal government.
The Vietnam War came to be a hugely unpopular war by the late 1960s.
Who knows how many millions of Southeast Asians were ultimately
killed, and how many tens of thousands of Americans were killed and
maimed by the war?
It took the far right about a decade to put a positive spin on that
war by way of the "noble cause" rhetoric on the part of the Reagan
administration. Not a single soul lost in that war was brought back
to life by that slogan.
For those like myself who became more and more disenchanted as the
war dragged on and who resisted military service, the price the
nation exacted often continues today.
Amnesty means forgiving and forgetting. Unfortunately, in the case of
the U.S. government, a full and complete amnesty never took place
following the Vietnam War.