Dan Gallagher was a farmboy from Charlo, in Mission Valley. His father, a Sinn Fein member and a World War I veteran, died when he was 15. He was the 13th of 13 kids. After his 18th birthday and the work season was through, he joined the U.S. Army. This is part of his Vietnam story.
Update: Dan Gallagher died in December 2016 of a heart attack.
Gallagher: “In the 1960s, we were Irish Catholic Democrats, we were Kennedy supporters, and of course, John Kennedy’s speech when he said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,’ was pretty much an inspiration.”
“It was something I wanted to do (join the Army). I had this belief that I would be trained as a soldier; that I’d have a chance of surviving. But I know that in basic training, when they issued us weapons, I realized what those weapons were intended to be used for, that was a funny feeling that I had. As far as fear, you get shot at, and if you’re not afraid, you’re walking along and you’re worried. You’re walking in the highlands of Vietnam and you’re worried about tripwires and you’re worried about the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese. If you’re not afraid, there’s something sickly wrong. I had the pucker factor as bad as anybody. But you do it anyway. You’re surrounded by your buddies and friends, and your unit and you rely on each other. That’s one of the lasting things about military service especially in war, is that you learn how important your buddies are — your comrades. You realize something deeper than that: You may be called on to die for them or they for you, so there’s a bond that forms that’s incredibly deep.
Gallagher fought and saw combat in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. After coming home, years later, he saw a peace sign painted on mircowave reflector in Missoula. This seminal event polarized veterans and the peace community. For many years, it was a painful symbol, but then Gallagher began a dialogue with those that saw the war and the world differently.
Gazette: Let’s talk about the peace symbol. That symbol is literally in your backyard.
Gallagher: “I separate the peace symbol from the peace sign. The peace sign is usually talking about the thing up on the hill. The peace symbol is the thing with the three lines. Anyway, for me when I came back, and I think most Vietnam veterans when they came back, the peace symbol, it greeted us, but it greeted us by people who were carrying it as sort of their flag. The people themselves were condescending, were insulting, were anything but kind. They were disrespectful. They were the people that called us ‘baby killers.’ I should separate these people from the peaceniks or the anti-war movement. The anti-war movement was sort of anti-Vietnam War movement. The peace movement is a lot broader than that. It was that the peace symbol was the flag they carried. It was their ‘Stars and Stripes.’ When, for example, I came home and was greeted with a protest demonstration, the thing that I remember besides being greeted by an attractive 19-year-old female with long blonde hair calling me a ‘baby killer.’ ... I can close my eyes and have an overview of the scene, and I can see a peace symbol.”
The symbol had been painted into a microwave relay on a hill overlooking part of Missoula. It stood out prominently, like a billboard.
Gazette: It wasn’t the symbol that was upsetting, but the movement behind it?
Gallagher:”Not what it supposedly stood for, because I think veterans want peace as much as anyone. If you’ve been to war, you want peace. It was what it represented ... maybe not what it had come to represent. ... The other thing to keep in mind, Missoula was sort of a ... Berkeley north in those years. It was a hotbed for not just peace movement, but anti-Vietnam War sentiment. ... When the peace sign was painted on the hill, it was in the 1980s, and the war was over by then. ... As you know, the Vietnam veterans didn’t win. We didn’t lose. I think ... militarily, we could have won the war, but that’s neither here nor there. ... The Vietnam veterans were, I think, seen by the older veterans as whiners and losers. We’d talk about delayed stress and Agent Orange, and we were told basically, ‘We had that, too, and we didn’t complain about it.’ Matter of fact, in 1977, the commander of (the) state American Legion had made a statement, and he was World War II and never been out of the country, but he made a statement that the soldiers in Vietnam shouldn’t be allowed to join the American Legion because they weren’t really veterans because we had lost the war. And there was that kind of sentiment that we were dealing with. And, anyway, when the peace sign went up 10 years after the war was over — not quite 10. First of all, there was some idea that the people who put it up — Missoula has a lot of genuine peace people — but there was some people who I don’t think they’re genuinely philosophically committed to peace. I think it was in their minds a game. I think a lot of them were in the peace movement and anti-war because they didn’t want to go. In fact, I can’t say that I blame them, but by the same token, others did go. A lot of the anti-war people — as soon as the draft ended, they disappeared. There were no more parades. There was no more demonstrations the minute the draft ended. I think that says a lot about the depth of the good share a lot of people who were calling themselves ‘anti-war activists’ back then.
“We knew when the peace sign was painted on the reflector, we kind of knew there had been verbal run-ins with ... a handful of people who were rather smug and arrogant and belligerent about the whole war thing. So on the hill north of Missoula was U.S. West microwave reflector. It bounced a signal from Missoula to Hamilton for the telephone company, the Bell system. It was just a big plain flat-looking thing. It was neither attractive nor unattractive, just there. The north hills around Missoula, the people always talk about how beautiful they are, but frankly, they’re always very dry and a lot of rocks. ... But the hill was open space. This microwave stood there, and while it wasn’t really ugly, it was just another sign of technology on nature. But these handful of anti-war people, again the smug, the arrogant and belligerent among them, and we knew some of them, they decided to paint — not to improve. They could have painted a picture of a Norman Rockwell sign or something if they were really trying to improve it. They could have painted a picture of green grass. They put the peace sign on there as an in-your-face sort of thing. This is after the war was over. ... They put a peace sign up there on the hill where everybody in Missoula was going to have to look at it. There was no way of escaping it. If you drove on the interstate, you were going to have to look at it. If you were downtown, unless you were behind a building or tree ... you were going to have to look at it. It was an in-your-face-thing. And after it was painted, there was a lot of smugness among some of the anti-war people about that sign. So the Vietnam veterans to whom the peace symbol had already become the flag that represented the animosity and disrespect and hurt and foul language and all the things we had come back to ... now all of sudden was being put on the hill almost as a victor’s monument. It was almost as their equivalent of the Rosenthal picture of raising the flag on Iwo Jima. It was like a statement of victory over Vietnam veterans. It wasn’t that what they meant it to be, but to Vietnam veterans it was almost a raised flag ... on Missoula that they had won the war. That, of course, meant that if you have a winner, you have to have a loser, and we, Vietnam veterans, because we were on the other side of the issue, were the losers. ... They were flipping us the finger. I honestly think that many of the people involved put it up there just for that reason, and I am not being paranoid. They weren’t doing it to say, ‘Now let’s celebrate peace.’ They were doing it to say, ‘In your face. We won.’”
Gazette: Do you think they were trying to provoke some kind of reaction? Almost as if to say, ‘Let’s see what these people in war are really capable of?’ Was it a direct challenge?
Gallagher:” I don’t think they were trying to provoke warfare itself. I don’t think they figured Vietnam veterans would organize an attack with rifles. A lot of Vietnam veterans, myself included, would talk semi-seriously about going up ... being a demolitions person, I used to talk with the other demolitions persons about how much C4 (a plastic explosive) it would take to blow the sign to pieces. I don’t think they really figured provoking that kind of reaction, but they wanted to rub in our face. ... To my way of thinking, it was kind of like: That’s what you get for investing yourself in the war, for going to war, for putting on the uniform in the first place. ... A lot of them did it because it was an adventure ... it was civil disobedience. I have trouble with people who in this case never went to war and then like to talk in terms of guerrilla theater and guerrilla war when all they did was take some cans of paint and paint this big piece of metal. That hardly compares to going out on a nightly patrol — climbing the hills and using a can of paint. They weren’t taking any real chances. They’re turning it into almost this military adventure. Not by the entire peace community, certainly. And probably not by very many people, but the actual doers were doing it so that they could be cool and it was an adventure and it was definitely a ‘We won’ statement.”
Gazette: You were home, and this was in your face. This seems pretty hurtful.
Gallagher:”It was very hurtful and there was nothing we could do about it. If there was anybody who was hoping to provoke action for some kind of weird reason, it wasn’t going to happen. One of the things at that time, Vietnam veterans were trying to play catch-up with people of their same age group and were dealing with problems of (post-traumatic stress disorder) and Agent Orange. ... We learned to not even give our status as veterans for filling out a job application so they knew all that and they did it anyway. ... There are a lot of bullet holes in that sign. ... Those bullet holes had to have been fired from town and up the hill. Those bullet holes were fired by A) people doing target practice or B) Vietnam veterans making a statement.”
Gazette: Tell me about how you bridge that gap, because you went through some reconciliation?
Gallagher:”You know, it’s tough, and I am not sure it’s across-the-board possible. But it is indeed possible to chip away at that animosity. What it takes is that veterans and peace people — and this is true of all people in all situations — but what separates us, and God knows we were separated by the rhetoric of the time, separated by the theories of foreign policy and military policy ... but we had one major common denominator — the genuine peace people and the veterans — that is the desire for peace. You can’t go to war and not be for peace unless you’re a real wacko. You can’t possibly want a world where there’s another war and you have to send your kids to face the same crap and to sleep in the rain, and get shot at and maybe die. You can’t possibly want that. The genuine peace people who have arrived in their own way at the same conclusion, that peace is always right. Whether it’s the teachings of Jesus or Buddha, but that there has to be a better way. Just a common sense thing. It really doesn’t make sense killing each other’s kids, and we have that common bond with the peace people. ... As the rhetoric and emotions cooled a bit, it was possible to start thinking — for example, when the Iraq war started, there were and are a lot of veterans who were opposed to that war. I think it was a mistake, and I think the Iraq War was a screw-up and wrong. There were an awful lot of veterans who were Vietnam and older who didn’t like the belligerence of the American government tend to show, and other governments, too. The same was true for the Russians when they were in Afghanistan.”