Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Interview with Tom Weiner ’71 on Vietnam draft experience

 Lydia Kay ’13

Features Editor

Tom Weiner, graduate of the class of ’71 will be hosting a common hour event this upcoming week, on Thursday,  April 19, to discuss his recently published book entitled, “Called to Serve:  Stories of Men and Women Confronted by the Vietnam War Draft.”  Weiner experienced the draft for the Vietnam War in 1971 just after graduating from Trinity. Though he didn’t end up enlisting due to medical reasons, the process of being called to the draft had an extreme impact on him.  He currently resides in Northampton, Mass., where he has worked as a sixth grade teacher for the past 25 years. Weiner enthusiastically agreed to participate in an interview for the Tripod in order to create more awareness within the Trinity community about his book’s message.  He is a social justice activist who is adamant about addressing issues of fairness in his work and community.  After seven years of research and attaining upwards of 61 interviews, 30 of which are included in his book, Weiner’s final publication includes commentary on the fundamental issue of the draft in our country and its emotional and social consequences.  His hope is that the book will help educate high school and college students about the repercussions the Vietnam War has, and continue to have, on our older generation.  
LK: What motivated you to write this book in the first place?
TW: I had experienced the war and draft first hand while at Trinity from ’67-’71.  My political and moral awakening was occurring through participation in the issues of the day at Trinity: protests to get more black student scholarships and demands for African-American Studies, the push for co-education, making changes to the curriculum and requirements and, perhaps most significantly, anti-war efforts.  My experience [with the draft] definitely had a major effect on my psyche and spirit–creating a conscientious objector application, pursuing possible medical deferments, the stress and anxiety of the uncertainty of the lottery, watching a best friend two years ahead of me at Trinity enlist in the Marine Reserves and suffer the humiliations of basic training, seeing a veteran of the war at Trinity and what a shell of a person he’d become, and then receiving a low number which meant I would be called to serve even before I graduated.  What happened, which I write about in the introduction, has had a significant impact on me in many ways.
LK: How was the process of interviewing others who were affected by the draft?
TW: I was able to make the necessary time and the even more necessary connections to find upwards of 61 interview subjects.  Early on I realized that the book needed to be inclusive of all of the kinds of experiences possible to young men of my generation.  I did not find any books that brought the varied decisions into one volume.  Because of this, there are chapters entitled: “Those Who Served,” “Those Who Left,” “Those Who Resisted,” “Those who chose Conscientious Objection,” “Those Who Beat the Draft and, since I came to realize that the stories of women who the draft and war effected also needed to be included, “Those Who Loved, Counseled and Supported.”  When I found someone who I had heard had enlisted to escape the draft with his low lottery number, I knew I needed those types of stories in the book along with those who were drafted and chose to serve.
LK: What was the most satisfying part of the writing experience?
TW: Conducting the interviews was definitely the most satisfying part of the process as my subjects invariably shared their memories, their choices and decisions, their feelings about what they did then and now and their awareness of the role the war and draft played in their lives.  There were almost always tears.  I encouraged them to tell the story in its fullness so the reasons for the choices they made would become apparent to the reader.  I felt honored to be the recipient of such powerful and moving tales from a time, the 60s, when there was so much turbulence in our society.
LK: What aspect of the process surprised you the most?
TW: One of the big realizations was how alive the memories still were for virtually all of my interview subjects. Whether it was telling about getting the draft notice or losing a girlfriend, about the de-humanizing effect of basic training or having to take someone’s life in Vietnam, when re-told the impact was intense and knowing that the events I was hearing occurred 35- 40 years ago and still had such power was remarkable. One man spoke of feeling that the decision to go to Canada was the one of which he was most proud in his entire life.  Listening to those who served also gave me the opportunity to understand how important it was for these veterans to find a meaningful way to re-integrate themselves into society.  
LK: Why do you believe it’s imperative that others read your book and learn about the stories you share?
TW: We need to be paying more attention as a society than we are to those who have fought in the two wars our country has been waging for over 10 years.  That there are stories to tell, that these stories need to be heard, that we need to listen with open hearts and minds, are all incredibly important realizations that I believe this book can promote. In the conclusion of the book, I write about this idea of a form of truth and reconciliation that has never taken place with respect to this war and it is my hope that this book can aid in that process.  I am very pleased that a playwright who read and appreciated the book is now working on a script in the hopes of bringing forth the stories in the form of a play, which will hopefully reach a wide audience of people of different ages.
LK: What is the typical response you receive from your audience?
TW: I have on numerous occasions heard individuals from my generation make comments about how the reading has brought them back to those days and times. Some tell their story. Some simply express appreciation for keeping the stories alive. Younger audience members often share stories about family members who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan and are struggling with rebuilding their lives.  
LK: Were there any preconceived notions you wished to challenge by writing your book?
TW: I believe the biggest pre-conception is that we’re finished with the War in Vietnam.  I believe it haunts my generation still and the interviews I conducted affirm how powerful it remains. 
LK: How do you feel about coming back to Trinity to discuss your work?
TW: It feels utterly appropriate to come back to the place where my consciousness came of age. Trinity afforded me the opportunity to encounter the major events and challenges of those times amidst a significant number of like-minded students and professors and I have deep gratitude for that as well.  
For more information on Tom Weiner and complete access to the other interviews not included in his book, visit www.calledtoservevietnam.com/blog. 

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