-- Steve Pitkin, Winter Soldier Investigation, February 1, 1971.
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.
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."
-- 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]
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.
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."
-- Scott Swett, 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)
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