Ned Kelley: Vermonter, Vietnam Veteran & Anti-War Activist

Mr. Kelley, 65, is now retired. In past years he worked as a logger, commercial fisherman, sailor, marine biologist, and teacher. During the 1960s Ned served in the U.S. Coast Guard in Vietnam. When he returned stateside, he worked in opposition to that war, and continues to work against the war in Iraq through the Veterans For Peace organization, of which he is a member. His son is currently in the Army and is presently stationed in Iraq.

Interview With Vermonter, Vietnam Veteran & Anti-War Activist Ned Kelley

By David Van Deusen

Moretown, Vermont

While recent poles indicate that more than 70% of Vermonters are now in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, U.S. President George Bush has unveiled his plan to send more than 20,000 additional troops to the battle zone. In response, an estimated 500 Vermonters marched in Montpelier against the war on a cold January 19th. On January 26th, hundreds of Vermonters left the Green Mountains, by bus, to join a massive demonstration against the war held the next day in Washington DC. Among the more than 500,000 protesters was Fayston, Vermont, resident Ned Kelley.

Mr. Kelley, 65, is now retired. In past years he worked as a logger, commercial fisherman, sailor, marine biologist, and teacher. During the 1960s Ned served in the U.S. Coast Guard in Vietnam. When he returned stateside, he worked in opposition to that war, and continues to work against the war in Iraq through the Veterans For Peace organization, of which he is a member. His son is currently in the Army and is presently stationed in Iraq. Mr. Kelley was interviewed by phone about the war and about his activities in opposition to it. The interview was conducted 24 hours before he departed for the march on Washington.

Interviewer: Let us talk about the war. Why are you going to the demonstration in DC?

Ned: The war started for me during Vietnam. I wasn’t up for killing anybody and I could see the war escalating, so I went into the Coast Guard [because] I had so much boat experience. Instead of killing, I was saving people. Three months after I got out our ship was sunk over in Denang –well not Denang but one of the river tributaries in Vietnam. It was an 85 footer.

I’ve always been a peaceful kind of guy. I just feel that what we’re doing now is fighting George’s war. We’re in a situation where there is a civil war and an unstable government and there’s no reason why we should be in there.

Interviewer: This is quite a long trip you’re taking to demonstrate your views on the war. Will you be taking one of the busses being organized by the anti-war coalition?

Ned: Bio-diesel. Three bio-diesel busses are leaving from Vermont. Two are leaving from Burlington, and we filled a third that is leaving from White River Junction [stopping in Brattleboro].

Interviewer: Have you been to other anti-war demonstrations outside Vermont?

Ned: Oh yeah. To New York twice. [I’ve also demonstrated] in Montpelier a bunch of times [most recently last week]. Also, every Friday I try to get to the Montpelier post office where we have a one hour [peace] vigil. There are some people up there who have been there every week of the whole year and we’ve been doing it three or four years now… They are a wonderful group of beautifully hearted people who are really doing their best to bring the troops home.

Interviewer: Are you in opposition to this particular war, or are you opposed to the notion of war in and of itself?

Ned: I’m opposed to aggressive nations. I think we should have a system as they do in most European countries where you don’t have a draft but you have a required two to three year military service which maintains military troops for your protection… [On the other hand] we have been an aggressive country. Wherever there is something that we get our noses into we send a group of troops over. We did it right from the start with the American Indians. I believe that is wrong. I believe that we should stay home and protect our boundaries and try to make a good life here on our own soil.

Interviewer: Why do you think we’re in this war?

Ned: Oil. Oil and ego. Ego being W. Bush’s aggression, his wanting to get back at those who faulted his father… and we’re in bed with all the oil over there.

Interviewer: You mentioned your service in Vietnam. Do you see parallels between the Vietnam experience, and what is now going on in Iraq?

Ned: It’s not a traditional war like World War I or World War II. It’s hard to tell who the enemy is, which causes great stress and frustration for our solders. [This] exacerbates the Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome because they’re over there and don’t know what they’re doing in many cases in terms of why they’re fighting and who they’re fighting. It was the same in Vietnam. It’s terrible. It’s truthfully terrible. I have a son over there.

Interviewer: What branch of the service is he in?

Ned: He’s in the Army.

Interviewer: Do you know what city he’s in? What area?

Ned: I don’t think you ever [really] know. They don’t tell you when they actually go over, they don’t tell you very much. The address is Baghdad, but I don’t know where he is. They can’t tell you. They’re not allowed to say a lot of things.

Interviewer: At the recent demonstration against the war in Montpelier there were a number of speakers who where military vets who served in Iraq who are now in opposition to this war. This is something that we have started to see grow, a GI resisters’ movement. Of course there was a huge GI resisters’ movement in Vietnam. Do you think this is going to play a big role as to whether or not we escalate or get out of Iraq?

Ned: It will make a big difference, yes. In terms of stopping the Vietnam War, the vets that got so vocal… we’re a big [part of why] we got out eventually. As a population, be it as mothers of vets, vets and families of vets, or just straight citizens of the United States we have to get off our buts and start demonstrating. Because sitting back and complaining doesn’t do anything. Getting out there and demonstrating shows [something] to the rest of the population. [But] obviously it doesn’t show [anything] to our President because he won’t listen to us, he won’t listen to his politicians, he won’t listen to the rest of the world. It’s his war, but if we all band together we will stop this war.

Interviewer: The Vermont Workers’ Center, the Vermont AFL-CIO, the National AFL-CIO, for the most part all of organized labor is on the record against this war. Now when the war started there were a lot of unions in Italy who refused to load ships that were sending supplies to support the invasion. Is this the type of activity, combined with resistance from within the military itself that could end this war?

Ned: It definitely could. I think that is a no brainer… This resistance [within the service branches] is small but it’s getting more publicity… With some media coverage, if we can ever get it, to really cover what the statistics are [concerning how many military personally are against this war] I think we’ll find that the statistics are much higher than the politicians, want us to know.

Interviewer: But as far as mass protests are concerned, just prior to the war, and just after the war started 3000 people marched Montpelier, thousands marched in Burlington and Brattleboro. Now polls are showing that more Vermonters are against this war than probably any war that Vermont has ever fought in. Yet there were only 500 people at the demonstration in Montpelier last week. Why do you think that the number of protesters, in Vermont, is going down, while the number if people against the war is going up?

Ned: I don’t know. It worries me. Because as [the war] escalates, and we see that we’re not getting anywhere, and Bush is more adamant about staying in and all this BS about ‘we need to stay in and we’re going to loose so much if we loose this war’ –[well] what did we loose when we lost Vietnam? I mean how did it affect us? A few say steadfastly that ‘if we loose in Iraq, it’s going to destroy this country.’ That’s a lot of BS rhetoric.

Getting back [to the question], I don’t know why people aren’t getting more active. Why the numbers [in Vermont] have diminished, I have no idea. It’s bothersome.

Interviewer: With that being said, what kind of message do you hope to send the President as well as the troops by protesting in DC?

Ned: It’s very important for us to be together as protesters. It fulfills a need for us to show our support for the troops, and our lack of support for where Bush wants us to go.

[Even so] a big problem is that the [large] media is controlled. A lot of these protests are on the twelfth page of the New York Times, not on the front page. That happened the last number of protests. The media doesn’t give it good coverage. And very interestingly there was an anti-abortion demonstration a while ago… and you heard about it. If that had been a… abortion [rights] rally, you wouldn’t hear about it. Because [with] the media, there is money there, and there is politics there. So consequently these demonstrations, even if we have half a million strong, it might get the front page, but it probably won’t.

Interviewer: So do you contend that there is corporate interest behind the big papers in relation to the military-industrial complex that affects their coverage?

Ned: Yes.

Interviewer: OK. But let’s assume that if not at this demonstration than at the next one million people march against the war. And again, we have already seen demonstrations with over half a million people in the streets. Do you think that such huge numbers in and of itself has the power to stop this war?

Ned: No. It’s a headset. And that helps turn the headset to the point where the majority of the people wont put up with it anymore, and finally the politicians will go ‘oh, maybe they don’t want this war. Maybe we should not do this.’

Interviewer: Yes, but in the mid-term elections, Democrats took both the US House and Senate. A lot of political analysts contend that had much to do with popular discontent against the war. However, the new Speaker of the House, Nancy Palosie seems to be back peddling from her initial comments that the legislator may consider withholding the necessary funding for Bush’s proposed troop serge. So, do you think that this is something that we will be able to pull out of based only on the politicians we elect?

Ned: It’s going to be a big combination of the people and the politics. You know the politicians have to eventually hear the voice of their constituents. They have their own agendas; they have their own people they need to keep on their side and all that. But eventually I think we will persist and overcome. I know it sounds like Martian Luther King, but you just have to be steadfast and plod along and eventually you will bring [forth] what you are fighting for.

Interviewer: Do you foresee a time in the near future where the troops will be compelled to be taken out of Iraq?

Ned: I would hope so, but it is very difficult politically to compel the Commander & Chief, who wants this war, to get them out of there.

Interviewer: Prior to the war there was a large movement against free trade that seemed to be reaching some level of success. This movement used civil disobedience as one of its primary tactics at demonstrations. However, we are yet to see such tactics used on a mass scale in the anti-war movement. Do you think that civil disobedience will be a growing component of the anti-war movement locally and nationally?

Ned: I really feel that a peaceful demonstration, in the end, is more positive. However, the media loves the disobedient ones. But I don’t think we are there. I don’t think we have enough people who are willing to put their lives and/or their jobs and/or their way of being on the line. We are too complacent. We’ve got it too good. We’re getting soft in terms of demonstrations. We’re not even out their having peaceful demonstrations to the point we should be.

Interviewer: So you’re saying that there is more work to be done with the internal organizing?

Ned: Yes.

Interviewer: I’m only 33 myself, so I wasn’t there, but it seems that in the 60s, clashes at protests such as in Chicago in 68’ were brought on by police attacking protesters. Is this a dynamic you have seen in the modern anti-war movement? Is this a problem at the demonstrations?

Ned: Yeah. New York [at the outbreak of the war]. It was scary. The use of the [police] horse troops… There was no need at all for being aggressive. [The police] had all the streets blocked off and they were doing serious crowd control and there was no need for that. The crowd got aggressive because the dam cops were using their horses and those horses are trained in a nasty aggressive way. And I was right up [front]. As a matter of fact I wanted to experience it. So I stood fast when I saw them coming down the street… I had a buffer zone between me and them. But there were kids. Ten [and] twelve year old kids in there. The cops are so lucky they didn’t [seriously] hurt anybody because I have a feeling there would have been hell to pay… The cops went a little waco.

Interviewer: Is this something that is in the back of your mind or that worries you about the demonstration coming up in DC?

Ned: No. I’m not worried. I come from a non-worrying family. All my family knows where I’m going and they all say ‘be careful, be safe’ and all that stuff [but they also say] ‘thanks dad for what you’re doing.’

Interviewer: When you get back from DC, how do you plan on bringing the experience to your neighbors in Vermont?

Ned: Word of mouth. I’ll be talking about it; I’ll talk to a few people.

Interviewer: Vermont National Guard troops have been being killed at six times the expected national average of other state guard units. Per-capita Vermonters are being killed in Iraq more than any other state. At the same time, polls indicate that Vermonters are more against this war than any other state or group of people in the US. What are your thoughts on this?

Ned: As you know, Vermont stands out politically. We have for generations… Environmentally, politically, it is one of the best states in the country… But why Vermonters, per-capita [are being killed at such a high rate] I have no idea.

Interviewer: I was embedded with the Vermont National Guard during Katrina, in Jefferson Parrish. I interviewed some folks about that question who did ten months of service in Iraq, and they said that the Vermont National Guard has such a good reputation, going back to the US Civil War and WWII that they are consistently put in hot spots by the Generals. It’s a rough situation to be in I suppose.

Ned: Yeah. Because you’re good you have a better chance of getting killed. Jesus. That sucks. I think I’ll go to bed!

Interviewer: President Bush is now asking for billions of additional dollars to fund the war. Of course this money is paid by us through our taxes. So, if not the war, is there someplace else that you feel the money would be better spent?

Ned: Oh my god! Ha! There are so many needs. First of all, when were you last in New Orleans?

Interviewer: I was down there last winter.

Ned: OK. From what I gather New Orleans is still a disaster area… What about our country? What about our American Indians? What about our medical situation? Our environmental situation? …But oil is the thing.

Interviewer: One more question. An idealistic question. Given the growing social movements, especially in Vermont, how do you see Vermont and the rest of the nation in 50 years? How would you like to see it?

Ned: The only thing I dream for is respect. For people to respect everything. There is an interconnectedness… Love comes with respect. Respect is love… It’s the way I try to live. I try to respect everything, and in turn bring a smile to peoples’ faces.

David Van Deusen is a freelance journalist from Moretown, Vermont, and member of the National Writers’ Union/UAW Local 1981