By 1967 I had served two tours in Vietnam as a Sergeant in the First Batallion, First Marine Division. I had been wounded a couple times with bullets to the chest and multiple shrapnel wounds to the back. Lastly, a bullet wound to the leg ended my career as a Marine. Well, almost. I intended to stay in the Corps and return to Vietnam to rejoin my remaining brothers left behind. I worked through the pain and managed to come back to being some sort of physical animal capable of leading men in combat.
Words like Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) had not even been coined yet. I did not realize the extent to which I was suffering because of the images the war kept playing over and over in my mind. All I felt was the need to return to the war to perhaps purge the images or to make up for what I felt was a betrayal to my comrades by getting wounded and leaving the arena.
I was at Bobby Rogers' house in Jamaica Plain one day, listening to his record player. He had stacks and stacks of records. I came across two by Phil Ochs and placed them on the turntable. There was a lot of commotion going on in Bobby's house. People smoking and drinking and all trying to out-talk one another. I tuned them all out and sat alone in the corner with Phil's words resonating in my very soul. The poetry! The Truth! I was initially resistant to the words because they were contrary to what I felt were my truths. I wanted to argue with this man. I wanted to tell him the war was necessary in order to stem the fall of the dominoes. I was told that if Vietnam fell then so would all of Asia. I was told that we were there to protect the farmers from the mean old communists. What I had personally witnessed however was something different: We were there to kill people we did not even know and to destroy a culture thousands of years older than our own.
Phil Ochs saved my life. By extension, he saved the lives of all the people I might have gone back and killed in the name of democracy.
I kept playing his songs over and over in my car on 8-track tapes (Remember them?). I learned the words and sang along. I was a Marine Corps recruiting Sergeant in Brockton, Mass. at this time. A good one. I won awards for being the best recruiting Sergeant in the Marine Corps two years in a row. But the more I listened to Phil Ochs, the less I felt like going back to war, and more importantly, the less I wanted to send anyone else to war.
One day a Brigadier General came to my office on a surprise inspection. He had a Sergeant Major with him. This General did not like the way I had "slacked off" in my production of "fresh bodies" to serve the Corps. Because of Phil, I had the courage to say to him how I really felt. I could no longer send men to die or to kill. I could not go back myself.
The general looked at all of the medals on my chest and was shocked by my defiance. I had been decorated on many occasions but knew the medals all had blood on them. I remember his exact words to me when I opened up about how I felt, how Phils Ochs caused me to feel. He said, "Well Sergeant, if that's how you really feel, why don't you just retire from the Marine Corps, smoke marijuana and grow your hair long?" I smiled in his face and said, "Thank you, General. That's sage advice." I got out of the Corps on a medical discharge retirement, smoked marijuana, grew my hair long, went to college and wrote my own poetry.
None of us ever knows fully how we will touch the lives of those we meet by accident along the pathways of our travels. We never know how their words, music, poetry and love will change our way of thinking. I became a better man because of Phil Ochs and never got the opportunity to thank him for saving my life.
Listen to the songs in your heart and listen to the songs from the hearts of others. Be joyous at sunrise. Smile at the days. Love with intensity. Honor the space around you . . . and change.
Joe Labriola, Somewhere in prison