Activist to discuss journey to Vietnam

Courtney Kerrigan

Liberal activist and Kent State alumnus Bill Arthrell had just a backpack and his heart as he journeyed through Vietnam.

He was not there as a soldier of war, but rather a soldier of atonement, searching for forgiveness for his country’s actions.

“I’m the Vietnam generation, and I felt tremendous guilt,” he said. “It was my country and it was my taxes — I was part of it too, even though I resisted valiantly against the war. It was still partly my responsibility and I had to do something to rectify it.”

Arthrell will describe his five and a half week trip through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam at 10:30 a.m. today in the Kiva and the reparations he paid for the Vietnam War.

“I hope students listen, and I hope they feel it,” he said. “And ultimately, I hope the U.S. keeps its word and rebuilds Vietnam.”

Arthrell spent his time at Kent State from 1968 to 1973 as a leading activist fighting against the war with various rallies and sit-ins.

“I burnt my draft card on Taylor Hill in the fall of 1970 — I would not go fight in that war,” he said. “I was not a GI or veteran — I was not a veteran of foreign wars, but I was a veteran of domestic wars.”

He was part of the 2,000 protesters hit with shock and confusion on May 4 as the Ohio National Guard turned its guns on students.

“Not only had Cambodia been invaded, but now our campus had been invaded by the military — it was really frightening,” he said.

Arthrell later became one of the 25 arrested and indicted in the fall of 1970 for events related to the shootings.

After graduating in 1973, he returned to his alma mater in 1977 and quit his job to protest the construction of a gymnasium over the site.

“I always said that to put a gym there would be like putting a Pizza Hut on Gettysburg — you wouldn’t tamper with Gettysburg,” he said.

Arthrell quit teaching for the third time in 1986 and, at age 37, travelled around the world for two years living out of a backpack. But it wasn’t until he had lived in Thailand for a year that his life came rushing back to him and he fell apart emotionally.

“Once I was back in the U.S., though, I really wanted to go back to Thailand, but I realized I wanted to go back to Vietnam, meaning emotionally back,” Arthrell said.

He first went to Thailand and Laos before spending his last two weeks of the journey in Vietnam.

Arthrell admitted he was trapped in his hotel room out of fear when first arriving in Vietnam. Once he was out, though, he said every person he met was “completely forgiving, gracious and welcoming.”

He noted that one of the first things he saw was an amputee man pulling himself across the street on roller skates attached to his knees and elbows.

“I will never forget that sight — a victim of American violence,” Arthrell said.

He then spoke with pure remorse as he grabbed his heart and described a woman in a conical hat who had told him, “You Americans, you killed my husband!”

Arthrell explained how he engaged people in conversation and then apologized for the war and took responsibility for it.

“My goal was to do what my government didn’t do, and that was to apologize for the war and then pay reparations, and I paid about $800 worth out of my pocket,” he said.

Arthrell donated to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh, where a picture of Mary Vecchio outstretched over Jeffrey Miller’s body rests, and to the Red Cross in Hanoi.

While in Hanoi, Arthrell visited a hospital filled with people suffering from birth defects as a result from Agent Orange, a defoliant the U.S. Army used during the Vietnam War.

“It was just heartbreaking — there were kids with cerebral palsy and mental retardation,” he said. “There are 600,000 Vietnamese who have died since the war from Agent Orange poisoning.”

He also journeyed along the Mekong River for two days and Mylai, a village where American soldiers killed 504 villagers, ranging in age from six months to 90 years, in 1968.

Arthrell explained one final acquaintance with such passion and appreciation for the Vietnamese as he said, “I also met a veteran of the war and when I apologized to him, he said in perfect English, ‘I love you,’ and then he hugged me.”

Contact student finance reporter Courtney Kerrigan at [email protected].