History and the people who make it: Scott Camil (Part 3)

This month, we continue highlighting a Gainesville activist, veteran, honored hero, and friend of SPOHP, Scott Camil. Scott is a member of the Gainesville Eight: the group of seven Vietnam War veterans and one civilian who were caught in a conspiracy by the FBI, who attempted to frame them for terroristic threats. 

In this 2005 interview with John Aversono (A), Camil (C) shares about his upbringing, his time in the Marine Corps from training to combat, and how he became an antiwar activist. Be advised that there is profanity and graphic descriptions of war. 

Transcript edited by Donovan Carter. 

A: Once you got back to the States, what did you do?

C: I reported back to Camp Lejeune, to India Battery, 3rd Battalion, 10th Marines. I became a platoon sergeant, [a] senior NCO. My job is to wake people up, make sure the barracks are cleaned, get them their chow, have them at morning formation, make sure everybody is here, find what they are supposed to do for the day and get them off to do that. 

I went to nuclear, biological and chemical warfare school. We went on a med-cruise to the Middle East, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Malta, Sardinia, Germany and played war games with different countries and spent liberty, got souvenirs, got laid and got drunk. It was an enormous experience for me because they did not like Americans anywhere we went. 

I also taught for the 10th Marine regiment riot control. We were on standby all the time to go to demonstrations. 

In the service, all the news you get is letters from your family and what you read in the Marine Corps newspaper, really the Navy Sea Tiger. You don’t get any outside news, anything contrary to U.S. policy.

When you are in the Marine Corps and are stateside, you are really thinking about going home for the weekend and getting laid. Friday you get off and you have to be back by Monday morning. 

But all the time we are getting put on standby and we can’t go home because some asshole demonstrators are having a demonstration in Washington. Not only were these people un-American, but they were fucking with my weekends. So I didn’t like them. 

The rules are when we go into a city we’re not the judge, not the jury. Our job is to protect lives and property. We are not authorized to kill people, only to shoot to wound. I am hardcore, two years of combat, what’s this shoot to wound shit? I shoot people in the head. 

So on standby, I say look, if one person throws a rock or a bottle at us, I want everybody to empty one magazine into the crowd. My commanding officer found out and I was removed from that duty. At the time, I meant it. Fuck these people, they are un-American, they are communist sympathizers, they don’t like our country. They’re going to fuck with my weekend, we’ll teach them.

A: What made you do a complete 180 by changing your support for the war to against it?

C: Number one, I have direct knowledge of what Vietnam really is, and I read the newspaper and they aren’t saying the truth. I listen to radio and TV, they don’t say the truth. But I’m thinking the people in charge have access to secret information, you have to trust your government. There must be a reason. You shouldn’t question that. So I didn’t think about it. Then I started learning things that blew me away. Howard Zinn’s book, “The People’s History,” opened my eyes so much, seeing a different side.

All these things started coming together in my brain. I graduated from Miami-Dade and transferred up here to the University of Florida, and I read [in] the Alligator that Jane Fonda was coming to speak. I wanted to see what a movie star looked like. She struck a chord — basically she said that we are lucky to live in a democracy. A democracy cannot function if the people are not concerned. 

War was being carried out in the people’s name and the people’s money, and they weren’t being told the truth. It was the duty of every patriotic Vietnam veteran to make the truth known. Without truth, it is just symbolic democracy, you’re pulling the lever, but it doesn’t mean anything. I believed that the public had the right to know the truth. I also wanted recognition for my sacrifices. When I was growing up, you go to war, you have medals and big parades, everybody is thankful and you’re a hero. That didn’t happen to me. I got two Purple Hearts, I was wounded, I killed lots of people — where was my thanks?

I agreed to participate in a forum called the Winter Soldier Investigation. I met people from the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an organization based in the northeast, and after three days of testimony, they said let’s make this a national organization. I go testify in January, January 31 and February 1 and 2 [1971]. We drew up the constitution, the bylaws and divided the country into twenty-eight parts. I had the southeast United States and went to work against the war.

A: When you came to my class, you talked about how the FBI tried to kill you. Could you explain that?

C: We start demonstrations. We had the Winter Soldier hearing. And all of a sudden I’m in trouble. In January of 1972 I was arrested for kidnapping. I was put in jail, I had no bond and I was facing the death penalty. I spent ten days in jail and a lawyer comes, Larry Turner. I got bonded out. In February I got arrested for sale and possession of marijuana. Then in June, I got indicted by the Grand Jury. In a six-month period I had three busts.

The kidnapping charges were thrown out. The jury found me not guilty of the drug charges. The jury found us not guilty on the Gainesville Eight charges. 

A cab driver taking the prosecutor to the airport and the FBI guy, after the trial, heard the FBI guy and the prosecutor talking about “we’re going to get Camil.” Federal agents come into town and shoot me. I’m charged with sale and possession of marijuana, and sale and possession of cocaine, assaulting federal agents [and] resisting arrest with violence. I survived the shooting. Not only did the jury find me not guilty, but they recommended the agents be indicted for attempted murder. Nothing happened to them.

A: Does it upset you to see the same thing as Vietnam happening again in Iraq?

C: It upsets me more than I can say. I’m a counselor for the G.I. Rights Hotline. I take a lot of calls. We believe that people being enlisted into the military have a right to informed consent, to know everything. 

They don’t know when they join, that once their contract is over they can be kept in against their will.​ 

They don’t tell you about stop-loss. They are not going to tell you about the downside of the military. They are going to tell you about all the pay, money for college and all these benefits. You will be able to see the world and drive a tank, shoot a machine gun. They are not going to tell you what it is like to see your buddy lying there, bleeding to death. 

They are not going to tell you what it is like to come home without legs or arms. They are not going to tell you what it is like to listen to people screaming because they are burning to death, because you just torched their fucking place. 

They are not going to tell you that they changed the rules and [won’t] give you the things they promised you. 

People have a right to know what they are getting themselves into.

A: What advice would you have for someone who just graduated high school, and wanted to join the Army or Marines, and go fight in Iraq?

C: I’d want to know why. If their [reason] was weapons of mass destruction or 9/11, then I would explain how Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. If they talked about wanting a job, there are other kinds of jobs. I would recommend you go to college or junior college and get an education first. That’s really, really important. 

I might talk about who is over there fighting, it’s the poor kids. Why is it that those guys went over there without the body armor, the armored vehicles they needed? Why is it that there was no fucking plan? 

You can get everything out of life that you really need without having to do that. 

I am really not against the military, [it] made me grow up. Military benefits put me though college. But, you have a right to know the truth about it, and the way politicians use the military — illegally from my point of view.

Once you go to war, you are not going to be you anymore. The person who comes back is going to be different and you are never going to be able to not have these ugly pictures in your brain. There are such a large amount of guys that have psychological problems from war. 

As a parent I tell my kids, solve your problems like an adult. [War] is organized murder. And we are going to beat you into submission. We are going to kill your husbands and your fathers and your sons, until you do what we say. 

A: With your time in Vietnam, have you suffered a lot of post traumatic stress?

C: Oh, for sure. I have bad nightmares, obtrusive thoughts. And I have worked on them for a long time. The talks that I give are really hard to give. But I do it because I think that is the only way people are going to learn, from direct experience. 

When people see the pain in me when I give my talks, I think that reaches something in them that they don’t get out of a book. A lot of people have what is called survivor guilt. Why did I live and other people die? I feel that I was allowed to live and it is my job [to] make sure people understand what is going on in war. I owe that to the future.

A: Any projects you are working on?

C: I am very involved in electoral politics. I am on the executive committee of the Sierra Club. I am a very strong environmentalist. War causes more environmental destruction than just about anything. 

But to me, all parents have in common [that] they want their children to have it better than they had. And they want to leave the world better than they found it. We have to protect the land, and the air and the water if we want life to continue.

We fight in the Sierra Club, as environmentalists, against the people trying to destroy the fucking environment. All they care about it money and it is incredible to me the shortsightedness of Americans. We’re really bad. The environment is very important to me. 

I am a counselor for the G.I. Rights Hotline. In the military, I would have wanted someone to call and help me. To me, it is not really about the war, or the military. It is about, this person is in a jam and if I was in their shoes I would want somebody to help me. They need to know what their rights are. So I am very involved in that kind of stuff. I just focus on what I am best at. And I am best in the environment, peace and justice, civil rights, anti-war and electoral politics.

For the full interview, see tinyurl.com/Iguana1734.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy.

SPOHP needs the public’s help to sustain and build upon its research, teaching and service missions: even small donations can make a big difference in SPOHP’s ability to gather, preserve, and promote history for future generations.

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