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Oral Histories: Randy Rowland

Randy Rowland was raised in a conservative military family, and after dropping out of college in 1967, he joined the army and was stationed at Fort Lewis near Tacoma, WA. Trained as a medic, Rowland found himself taking care of paralyzed and severely wounded men without a convincing explanation for all of the suffering he was seeing. Rowland’s early experiences as a medic were just the beginning of a long process of questioning and political transformation that would lead him, throughout the course of the Vietnam War, to a life of activism.

After deciding that the war was wrong, Rowland decided to file an application for conscientious objector status and was served, instead, with orders to ship to Vietnam. On leave in Berkeley in 1968 before being sent overseas, Rowland—inspired by the atmosphere of protest and antiwar politics in California—decided to go AWOL. Rowland’s decision was one of a number of individual acts by soldiers that were beginning to coalesce into a powerful GI antiwar movement.

One of the flashpoints of the early GI movement was the mutiny of soldiers in the Presidio stockade in San Francisco, CA. On October 11, 1968, guards shot and killed one of the prisoners. Rowland turned himself in and managed to be transferred to the Presidio in time to help organize what would be termed the “Presidio mutiny”—a sit-down strike of twenty-seven prisoners who demanded an end to the war and better prison conditions.

In a trial that became a lightning-rod for antiwar protest, particularly among servicemen, Rowland was convicted of mutiny and served a year and a half jail sentence in the Leavenworth penitentiary, where discussions with other prisoners led to further political transformations. Once out of jail, Rowland and his wife worked with the Pacific Counseling Service (PCS), a service for draftees and GIs who were considering refusing or going AWOL.

Rowland and his wife started a chapter of PCS in Tacoma, and quickly met a number of GIs and movement activists around the Shelter Half coffeehouse in Tacoma. Out of this group came a new organization of soldiers and family members, the GI Alliance, and a new underground paper, the Fort Lewis-McChord Free Press.

After the peak of the GI movement, Rowland continued his activism, as a union organizer in Seattle, by working with radical veterans, and as an independent media activist with Pepperspray Productions. His story was told in the acclaimed film by David Zeiger about the GI movement, Sir, No Sir!

Click here to go to a special section on the GI movement, and to read a history of the GIA or see copies of theFort Lewis-McChord Free Press.

Randy Rowland was interviewed in Seattle on September 9, 2008 by Jessie Kindig and Steve Beda.