A veteran’s view of war
Joe D’Amico shares his Vietnam experiences and what they taught him
Historians write about wars. Veterans lived them.
Veterans are not just men and women who have fought in wars. Veterans are gateways to living history who are often overlooked.
Chico resident Joseph D’Amico was drafted at the age of 19, and with conviction and a sense of patriotism, he went into the Vietnam War. Over time his political views changed, but his commitment to helping people has remained the same.
He saw a version of the Vietnam War that most history books will never describe, and it changed the way he thought of patriotism.
“It started created questions in my mind: Why are we here, hunting and killing these people when they never did anything to us?” said D’Amico.
D’Amico is currently a volunteer for Vectors–an organization where veterans volunteer to help needy veterans—and is active with the Peace and Justice Center. That’s a long way from where he started.
D’Amico described his childhood in Chicago, Ill., as average. This Sicilian-American started helping others even then. While in Boy Scouts, he volunteered once a month to go to a veteran’s hospital to visit and help out the veterans there. As a boy he knew it felt good to help others, but couldn’t explain why. Now he has a word for it: karma.
With his mix of grey, blond and brown dreadlocks, solid blue flannel shirt, jeans and flip flops, he sits on the edge of a blue couch in the middle of the downtown Chico Vectors office on an October afternoon, taking his time to articulate what he wants to say.
After growing up in Chicago, he moved to southern California with his family to attend high school. He was in high school when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It brought more to his life than a change in American leadership.
“When Kennedy was assassinated it made me start questioning and it made me start creating questions in my mind about this country and questioning the leadership of this country,” said D’Amico.
After graduation he moved back to Chicago only a short time before he was notified that he was drafted. Though in its early stages, the draft was a part of life, and draft-dodging an option. But D’Amico entered the service believing that going to war to stop communism was the patriotic thing to do.
“I went with a patriotic attitude that we were there on behalf of the Vietnamese people,” said D’Amico. “I did what I felt I was supposed to do.”
After months of basic training, advanced infantry training and jump school, on March 28, 1966 D’Amico left Oakland destined for Saigon. He stepped off the plane into Vietnam one week before his 20th birthday. What he saw changed his life and how he lived it, completely.
“Some things went down in that country in 10 years that you would not believe,” said D’Amico. “A result of seeing, experiencing, everything around me … it created the change within.”
What he saw as a combat veteran in the 101st Airborne Division made it clear to him that he wasn’t there for the reason he originally thought.
“One of the things I learned early on, the Vietnamese people did not want the United States military in their country,” said D’Amico. “North, south, it didn’t matter.”
He spent six weeks in a hospital in Vietnam for malaria, but even escaping major injury couldn’t change his mind. He felt the war was represented wrongly to the American people, and this belief led later to his activity in the anti-war movement.
“I was one of the many who was able to question it and be able to say this is not patriotic … real patriotism is defending your nation within your nation when the need comes along,” said D’Amico. “I went from being a combat vet to being active in the anti-war movement.”
D’Amico came back to America after a year of being deployed, and finished out his service with the 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg, N. C.
In 1967 he was finally out, and found that getting on with his life and going to school was the best way to deal with the memories Vietnam imposed on him.
“I didn’t have to go through some major readjustment,” said D’Amico. “I was able to put quite a bit of that behind me and move on.”
He found America different from the way he left it.
“The country in ‘67 was well on its way to being divided,” said D’Amico, “as it is today.”
In the spring of 1968 he needed to take action.
“I got to a point where I really said, ‘This war is completely bogus, this war is completely unnecessary and I can stand here and say this because I was there,'” said D’Amico.
So in early summer of that year he started to march in protest to the war. Once again witnessing history, he was a part of the demonstration of thousands during the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago.
After taking a break or two and changing schools, he got his college degree in Environmental Science and Community Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz. D’Amico went on with his life to become a union journeyman carpenter, and to have two children.
D’Amico arrived in Chico by way of hitchhiking. First arriving in Chico in 1970, he came because Chico had a reputation of being a “progressive” town. And he has been in and out of Chico ever since.
His “philosophy” on life has been to give to others. He did that as a child helping veterans. He tried to help in Vietnam. He has worked for peace as an activist. Now he once again helps other veterans in the Vectors center on First Street.
“I feel that a large part of the purpose of life is to do well upon others … to treat other human beings as human beings, to treat humans good,” said D’Amico.
His experience has helped him see parallels between today’s combat in Iraq and the war he fought almost 40 years ago.
D’Amico has experienced things that the generations after him have only read in books. He may not be a celebrity or a TV pundit, but he has a view of history that is not in any textbook, or history lesson.