DEER ISLE, Maine — It’s been nearly half a century since Dud Hendrick crawled through the jungles of Vietnam searching for unexploded bombs to detonate.
“Have you ever seen the ‘Hurt Locker?’” Hendrick asked recently, referring to the film about the grueling task of safely detonating unexploded bombs in Iraq, as he described his mission with the U.S. Air Force explosive ordnance disposal team he served with in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967. “That’s what I did.”
In 1998, Hendrick returned to Vietnam, joining a bike trip with about 100 U.S. military veterans and Viet Cong guerillas who had fought on opposing sides during the war.
He pedaled from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City — formerly Saigon — beside a blind veteran who rode on the back of a tandem bicycle, with paraplegic and quadriplegic veterans navigating hand bicycles, and many others equally scarred from their years in battle.
Every night, they gathered to share their experiences. Most night the stories brought tears.
“It was an incredibly emotional experience,” Hendrick said. “A real irrefutable introduction to the humanity of it all, to the brotherhood that we all shared. I saw the damage, first-person, that had been done to so many people — Americans and Vietnamese alike. I feel like I really did find my humanity during that experience.
Hendrick, now 73, describes the trip as “my transformation” — from a lawyer to a self-proclaimed “peacenik.”
“I needed to dedicate my life to the destruction of the mythology that so many Americans embrace — that we are the exception country, that we are a force for good,” he said.
Hendrick is a longtime member and former president of the Maine chapter of Veterans for Peace, which claims thousands of members in more than 140 chapters around the country.
The controversial group was founded in Maine in 1985 “in response to the global nuclear arms race and U.S. military interventions in Central America,” according to its website. During the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the group claimed more than 8,000 members.
Veterans for Peace is Known for peace walks and public protests. The group also marches annually in the Brunswick Topsham Memorial Day parade, sometimes prompting other veterans to turn their backs.
But Hendrick, who said he can no longer tolerate the “glorification of war and military service” at such events, said, “Those veterans we would describe as glorifying war and military service cling to this notion that it was in the interest of democracy and freedom — both ours and other people. We don’t subscribe to that notion.”
After high school, Hendrick attended the U.S. Naval Academy. “I was recruited as an athlete and seduced and flattered by their attention,” he said.
Later, he joined the U.S. Air Force and served for four years.
He volunteered to go to Vietnam after his best friend was killed there.
“When I reflect on those reasons, it was grief, and vengeance for the loss of a dear friend, and in part, out of patriotism,” he said of his decision to volunteer. “In part, I just wanted to find out what was going on over there.”
Hendrick said that as he searched for and detonated bombs, he watched the U.S. treat the Vietnamese — both the enemy, the Viet Cong, and allies, the South Vietnamese — as “lesser.” And he saw “a great waste in terms of both lives and material resources.”
Hendrick returned from the war and resumed his life.
“Like many Americans, I was immersed in my career and finding my way through adulthood,” he said.
But as he learned more and reflected, he said, he became “incensed” by the the U.S. military involvement in that war, and feels “duped” into what he describes as the glorification of the military in the name of doing good around the world, but which only benefits the defense industry and “wealthy elite.”
“In retrospect, I came to the conclusion that volunteering and participating in the war was not an honorable, praiseworthy act, but one for which I am now ashamed,” he said. “I knew nothing of Vietnam’s history, its people, its culture, or the etiology of war. When we take stock of the consequences of this dark period, we learn that 58,000 Americans were killed, that 2 million to 3 million Vietnamese lost their lives, that more bombs were dropped on North Vietnam than on Germany, Italy and Japan combined during World War II, that 20 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed on South Vietnam, and today 1 million to 2 million Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange are institutionalized, unable to take care of themselves.”
He sees little justification for U.S. military action since Vietnam.
“I don’t think the U.S. sending troops in the last 20 to 30 years has done any good whatsoever,” he said. “Other than perhaps for representatives of the defense industry and the wealthy elite in our country. … That’s really what compels us to go to Iraq, to go to Afghanistan, to drop bombs on Somalia and Yemen, to kill people in Pakistan with drones. It’s serving the interest of the elite.”
But when anyone criticizes the paradigm, he said, it is interpreted as not honoring the military — “the sacred cow”— and not honoring veterans.
Referring to the Memorial Day parade, Hendrick said Veterans for Peace is seen as “absolute America-haters” or naive. But he argues that they are “not just a bunch of angry old men out there protesting.”
Instead, he said, members work with Korean counterparts on disarmament and the demilitarization of South Korea, on a water project in Iraq, and on trying to pass legislation that would help the victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam.
“We’re trying to amplify the message that there are great consequences to our wars,” he said.
He advocates for intensified efforts at diplomacy, even with countries the U.S. considers enemies.
“We don’t even have any diplomacy with Korea or Cuba, to speak of, or any official diplomacy with Iran, yet we declare these countries to be our enemies,” he said. “We won’t even sit down with leaders of other countries to talk.”
As members of Veterans for Peace age, Hendrick worries that the group’s momentum will fade, but he is hopeful that groups such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, made up of younger veterans, will take up the cause.
“We are certainly radicals, not just liberals, but radicals,” he said. “This is radical thinking we’re embracing. These are 25-year-olds who have come to the conclusion that something is desperately wrong here and they need to work toward a more peaceful resolution.”