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Vietnam Stories: Alternative service proves gratifying



For the Monitor
Saturday, September 30, 2017

I was raised a Quaker. My parents founded a Quaker school in Rindge and later served in Washington, D.C., as lobbyists for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Not surprisingly, I chose not to participate in the Vietnam War but, rather, engaged in anti-war protests throughout the war from 1963 to its end.

I was classified as a “conscientious objector.” However, after the Kent State killings, I turned in my draft card as a protest against the draft. The draft board ignored my protest and reclassified me I-A. I would be drafted for military duty soon after graduation from UNH in 1970.

My options for avoiding fighting in Vietnam seemed grim: time in prison or leaving the country. I eventually decided to ask the draft board to reinstate my “conscientious objector” status. I met with two retired majors who headed the N.H. Selective Service in Concord. They treated me with disdain and accused me of being a coward but honored my request. They then assigned me to work at the New Hampshire State Hospital in Concord for “alternative service” to the military.

I worked for two years in the hospital as a psychiatric aide. My first year I worked in the Dolloff Building in the men’s geriatric ward. I worked the 3-11 shift taking care of 20 or so elderly men with various disabilities who were unable to care for themselves.

I entertained them, shaved them, gave them baths, fed them dinner, put them to bed, wiped their bottoms, cleaned their beds, and kept their ward clean and as comfortable as possible. Although it was probably not what the retired majors had in mind, it was surprisingly rewarding work. I felt appreciated by the geriatrics, the nurses and my fellow employees.

My second year I was fortunate to transfer to the adolescent boys ward in Tobey Building. I helped young “lost” boys who had been committed to the State Hospital for a wide spectrum of causes. For example, autism, juvenile delinquency, mental illnesses or just plain old childish behavior. Again, this turned out to be a gratifying experience as I discovered ways to support these young males in ways that improved their lives.

My choice “to protest the Vietnam war” in this fashion was respected and never questioned by the people I worked for and with. My experiences there greatly influenced my later tenure as a teacher, providing me with patience, insight and compassion for an individual’s particular circumstances.

I continued to attend many anti-war protests, Quaker silent vigils and peace marches in New Hampshire and Washington, D.C. I believe my actions and those of millions of Americans helped end the Vietnam War. I never disrespected soldiers coming home from Vietnam nor saw any instances of that occurring around me. I have visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington many times and experience a great sadness when I do.

Though my name is not among those on that wall, my face is reflected in the black granite.

(Jerry Bliss is professor emeritus at Colby-Sawyer College.)