My name is Steve Pitkin, age 20, from Baltimore. I served with the 9th Division from May of '69 until I was airvaced in July of '69. I'll testify about the beating of civilians and enemy personnel, destruction of villages, indiscriminate use of artillery, the general racism and the attitude of the American GI toward the Vietnamese. I will also talk about some of the problems of the GIs toward one another and the hassle with officers.
-- Steve Pitkin, Winter Soldier Investigation, February 1, 1971.
Steve Pitkin never intended to speak at the Winter Soldier Investigation. He agreed to come to Detroit in January of 1971 mostly to support his fellow veterans, but also to see David Crosby and Graham Nash perform and hopefully meet a few girls. He didn't really have any place else to go.
Unlike most members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Pitkin had seen combat in Vietnam. He was caught in a mortar attack shortly after arriving in country as a Private First Class, and suffered minor wounds to both legs. During the months that followed his injuries became infected and "jungle rot" set in. He was eventually medivaced to an Army hospital in Okinawa, where the doctors gave him anti-fungals and antibiotics, and managed to save his feet. Specialist Pitkin would leave the Army with a Purple Heart, an honorable discharge, and a lifetime case of hepatitis C from the transfusions.
Back in the States, Pitkin did not receive a hero's welcome. At Travis Air Force Base in California he was showered with feces thrown by anti-war protestors. Later, while he waited in his Class A uniform for a plane at San Francisco International Airport, people stopped to snarl obscenities and occasionally spit. Even a World War II veteran paused to come over and call him a coward. He went back home to Baltimore, but it wasn't home any more. Steve Pitkin was 19 years old.
"I was in bad shape," Pitkin recalls. "My family was against the war, and so were all my old friends. I had things I wanted to say, but there was nobody to listen. I was angry at our government which should have known better than to let us die in a conflict it had no intention of winning, and I was furious at the American media for making us out to be baby-killers and telling lies about what they saw."
Confused and depressed, Pitkin signed up for classes at Catonsville Community College outside of Baltimore. There he met recruiters talking up a new organization they described as a "brotherhood" of Vietnam veterans. Pitkin started going to Vietnam Veterans Against the War meetings at the campus, hoping to find some people he could talk to about his experiences. Pitkin says he "had no inkling" that VVAW leaders were meeting with North Vietnamese and Vietcong representatives, or that the VVAW consistently supported their positions. He thought the VVAW was just an alternative to older organizations such as the VFW, where so many Vietnam vets felt unwelcome.
In January of 1971, Pitkin was invited to go to Detroit for the VVAW's "Winter Soldier Investigation," a national conference intended to convince the public that American troops were routinely committing war crimes in Vietnam. "I was just going to show support for the guys who were already picked out to testify," said Pitkin. "Fighting in the war was terrible enough -- I shot people -- but I never saw any atrocities against civilians. The Vietcong hung up tribal chiefs and disemboweled them in front of their own families -- they did that to their own people. I never saw Americans do anything like that."
The Baltimore contingent met up with other VVAW members in Washington, where they were loaded into rental vans with no back seats. It was freezing cold in Pitkin's van, and Kerry and another former officer were in the front where all the heat was, which made for a long drive. Pitkin was unimpressed with the tall, aloof Kerry, who rarely spoke to anyone other than the organization's leaders, and tagged Kerry with the nickname "Lurch" after the Addams Family TV character. The ragtag group eventually made it to Detroit, got lost for a while, and then spent the night at somebody's house. The conference was held at a Howard Johnson's motel, in a room Pitkin remembers as having big concrete posts and no windows, with press lights glaring down on the participants. An entourage of VVAW leaders and reporters always surrounded John Kerry, who, Pitkin thought, looked like he was running for President.
Pitkin watched for a day or so while his fellow VVAW members told stories about horrible things they claimed to have done or witnessed in Vietnam. He noticed other people, civilians, going around to the VVAW members and "bombarding them, laying on the guilt," as they told the veterans they had committed unspeakable crimes, but could make amends by testifying against the war.
On the second day of the conference, Pitkin was surrounded by a group of the event's leaders, who said they needed more witnesses and wanted him to speak. Pitkin protested that he didn't have anything to say. Kerry said, "Surely you had to have seen some of the atrocities." Pitkin insisted that he hadn't, and the group's mood turned menacing. One of the other leaders leaned in and whispered, "It's a long walk back to Baltimore." Pitkin finally agreed to "testify." The Winter Soldier leaders told Pitkin exactly what they wanted --stories about rape, brutality, shooting prisoners, and racism. Kerry assured him that "the American people will be grateful for what you have to say."
Many of the vets, particularly the vets participating in this panel, have expressed the fact that they could go on and on for a long time, talking about various instances of brutality, torture, rape, everything that's been talked about here for the last two days. But one thing they felt was very important and which hasn't, in a sense, been done by many of the veterans was to say why this happened. What happens to them that this happens and how these things came about. Steve Pitkin in particular felt the need to try and express something about how these men become animals in a sense. I know several of the other vets on the panel want to mention it very briefly. So Steve why don't you start off?
-- Moderator, Miscellaneous Panel, Winter Soldier Investigation, February 1, 1971 [Note: the moderators for this session were VVAW founder Jan Crumb and Executive Committee member John Kerry]
Pitkin appears several times in the documentary film "Winter Soldier," where he comes across as vague and somewhat stunned, especially while being questioned by John Kerry in a preliminary interview. He seems overwhelmed at having to relive his harrowing experiences in Vietnam. But Steve Pitkin says today that what the film actually shows are his efforts to avoid answering Kerry's questions at all.
During the formal hearings, Pitkin started to slam the press for misrepresenting what GIs really did in Vietnam, but a woman he believes was Jane Fonda shot him an astonished look and started to stand up. Steve could see other members of the group getting ready to cut him off, so he changed course and made up a few things he thought they would be willing to accept. "Everything I said about atrocities and racism was a lie. My unit never went out with the intention of doing anything but its job. And I never saw black soldiers treated differently, get picked out for the worst or most dangerous jobs, or anything like that. There were some guys, shirkers, who would intentionally injure themselves to get sent home, so I talked about that for a while. But the fact is I lied my ass off, and I'm not proud of it. I didn't think it would ever amount to anything."
After the 3-day conference ended, everybody piled back into the vans and headed home. Nobody had much to say to Pitkin. A month or two later he was contacted by a reporter for Life Magazine who asked about war crimes and atrocities. "I didn't tell him what he wanted to hear," said Pitkin. Nothing he said was included in the final story.
In April, Steve Pitkin went down to Washington to check out the VVAW's weeklong "Dewey Canyon III" protest, where he "ran into a lot of guys who couldn't answer questions about what unit they were in." At one point he met up with leftist icon Jerry Rubin, who was wrapped in a Vietcong flag. Pitkin told him to take it off. Rubin shrugged, dropped the flag, and walked away. Pitkin and two or three like-minded veterans formed a patrol, confiscating Vietcong flags and T-shirts from protestors and daring them to start something. Nobody took them up on it.
Pitkin was present for the infamous "medal toss" event on Friday, where VVAW members yelled obscenities and threats against the government into a microphone, then threw military decorations and papers over a fence in front of the U.S. Capitol. A guy with long hair stood nearby holding a bag filled with military ribbons and a few medals, handing them out. Pitkin noticed that most of the decorations weren't right for Vietnam combat veterans -- some, in fact, were from the Korean War -- and overheard remarks that the VVAW had cleaned out the local Army-Navy stores the day before. Disgusted, he grabbed a handful of ribbons and threw them, not at the Capitol, but at the throng of reporters crowding close to the microphone, and stalked away.
After Dewey Canyon III, Pitkin was no longer invited to VVAW meetings or events, which was fine with him. He soon went back into the military, joining the 5/20th Special Forces Group of the Maryland National Guard in 1974, and graduating from paratrooper "jump school" with honors in 1976, but was unable to get back on full time active duty in the Army. Pitkin joined the Coast Guard in 1978 and served there until his retirement in May 1997.
Steve Pitkin wants to apologize to Vietnam veterans for what he did and said at the Winter Soldier Investigation. "The VVAW found me during a difficult time in my life, and I let them use me to advance their political agenda. They pressured me to tell their lies, but that's no excuse for what I did. I just want people to know the truth and to make amends as best I can. I'd hate to see the troops serving today have to go through what Vietnam veterans did."
Note: the original version of this report incorrectly identified Scott Camil as the individual who recruited Steve Pitkin into the VVAW, and who rode with Pitkin and Kerry to the Winter Soldier event. Steve Pitkin recently saw film footage of Camil, realized that he had provided the wrong name, and filed a new affidavit that corrects this error.
-- Scott Swett, September 15, 2004.
Steve Pitkin's Affidavit, September 15, 2004
Steve Pitkin's DD-214 -- September 9, 1970
Transcript of Steve Pitkin's Winter Soldier Investigation testimony -- February 1, 1971
Video clips of Steve Pitkin's Winter Soldier Investigation testimony -- February 1, 1971 (4:16, 1.6MB)
Transcript of Steve Pitkin's remarks at the Kerry Lied Rally in Washington -- September 12, 2004
Video clip of Steve Pitkin's remarks at the Kerry Lied Rally in Washington -- September 12, 2004 (4:12, 1.6MB)
Note: complete video of the Kerry Lied Rally is available for purchase from C-SPAN
Last Updated Wednesday, January 23 2008 @ 02:48 PM EST; 62,774 Hits