Community

Bill Distler: A veteran of peace

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Bill Distler was my friend, and it will never feel right to think of him in the past tense. He died much too soon this week, succumbing to glioblastoma in his sleep. It was the first time I had ever seen him at peace.

This 70-year-old peace vet entrapped me in his web of anti-war activism a dozen years ago. As alter egos, we shared the same guilt and moral injury, cringing when we were thanked for our service. After all, we didn’t serve, we were used. We were also two Vietnam vets that became great listeners. In one of our first conversations he relived the fear and confusion that shredded his point man Willie Earl Granger in the hedgerows near Cu Chi Base Camp, Vietnam. I didn’t deserve to hear that avowal but he needed a sounding board. It wouldn’t be the last time, for either of us.

We always admitted that we were stupid cowards for ending up in Vietnam. From the day he returned to the United States, he knew he had to do something about it. By the time he saw an anti-war demonstration in D.C., after returning stateside, the seeds of peace activism were sown.

There were Americans who recognized the futility of war and they were in the streets. He never looked back, on an odyssey to convince everyone that war was never the answer.
It was mostly about the children. Bill recently wrote, “Forty-seven years after returning from Vietnam, I became aware that there is always a film playing in the back of my mind… I see a line of children sitting on the ground, crying. Behind them, from the knees down, I see their parents standing there, helpless. They cannot comfort their children. They have nothing to comfort them with. Their countries are being destroyed by war. It is our job as adults to stop these wars.”

He was tenacious. During the Reagan and Bush years, Nicaragua and El Salvador were Bill’s righteous obsessions. He was justifiably concerned that region could become the next Vietnam, ravaged by U.S. militarism.

For more than a decade, he and other peace vets rode a wave of solidarity in support of revolutionaries through Central America, born through a prism of combat credibility. This breakneck pace—including arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience protesting U.S. interventionism—took a toll.

During the 1990s Bill deserved a respite, and took it. He often spoke about shifting his focus to nature and the great outdoors—volunteering at San Juan National Historical Park, marrying and starting a family, and trying not to think about war too much. But Bill had never left Cu Chi. And children were dying, again, by U.S. bombs.

As the War on Terror was trending, Bill described the national malady that drove his passion as a spiritual disorder—a syndrome that convinces Americans “that God doesn’t mind if we kill some children, as long as it is for a good cause.”

Angry, and new to the anti-war fray with a son in Iraq, I met Bill at a Veterans for Peace chapter meeting in 2004. By that time, this “spiritual disorder” was morphing into a global pandemic.

Bush I and Clinton had already facilitated its incubation; and Bush II was priming the metastasis of endless war. And Bill was still on the frontline of opposition, for the children’s sake.

Speaking, writing, running for Congress as a peace candidate in 2008, he knew he was planting shade trees for future generations but never lost hope.

In support of the VFP Vietnam Full Disclosure Campaign, Bill wrote a letter to the Wall. Last week it was placed beneath Willie Earl Granger’s etching on Panel 49W and read in part:

“Willie, I think about you and have thought about you every day since the mine went off that killed you. I think about your family and I hope they have peace.

“Even though we were arguing on the day you died, I think your family should know that you were so loved by everyone in our unit, that men were crying when the word came back to us that you had died in the field hospital.

“My purpose in writing this is not to stir up painful memories for your family, but to hope that these words will comfort them…Willie, every day for 44 years, as if you were an angel, I saw your face behind my left shoulder, watching over me in a helpful way. It seemed like you were always asking me: What are you going to do to make this right?

“Thank you, my friend. I hope you are satisfied with what I’ve tried to do.”
Historian Howard Zinn once said, “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” And Willie always watched as Bill did more than his share.

Gene Marx is an honored member of Veterans For Peace Chapter 111. A memorial fund has been set up to assist the family of Bill Distler, http://www.gofundme.com/distler-medical
funeral-fund.

Past Columns
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May 6, 2020

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April 1, 2020

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An Artist's Universe

10:00am

View painter and mixed-media master David Syre’s latest installation, “An Artist’s Universe,” hanging throughout the corridors, lobby and dining room of Hotel Bellwether and the Lighthouse…

McKnight and DeLacy

10:00am

Mixed-media works by Bainbridge Island-based artist Aaron McKnight and sculptures by Marceil DeLacy can be viewed from 10am-5pm Fridays through Sundays through April 25 in Edison at Smith &…

Briggs Shore at Good Earth

11:00am

Vases, planters and drinking vessels by Briggs Shore will be on display and for sale from 11am-5pm Mondays through Saturdays (closed Tuesdays) and 12pm-5pm Sundays through April 30 at Good…

Whatcom Art Market

11:00am

Works by as many as 45 Whatcom Art Guild members can be viewed from 11am-5pm Tuesdays through Sundays at Whatcom Art Market, 1103 11th St.

Tulip Poster Artists, Past and Present

11:00am

The fifth annual “Tulip Poster Artists, Past and Present” exhibit can be seen from 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday through May 2 in Anacortes at the Scott Milo Gallery, 420 Commercial Ave.…

Scatter Sunshine

11:00am

From 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday, visit La Conner’s Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum, 703 S. Second St. Currently on display are “Scatter Sunshine: La Conner in Bloom…

The Work of Jesus Guillén

11:00am

“The Work of Jesus Guillen: An Artistic Legacy of Love and Courage” can be seen from 11am-4pm Fridays through Sundays through May 2 in La Conner at the Skagit County Historical Museum, 501 S.…

Rock, Paper, Paint

11:00am

“Rock, Paper, Paint” shows from 11am-4pm Fridays through Sundays through April 25 in Edison at i.e. gallery, 5800 Cains Court. The exhibit features new “drop” oil paintings by Allen Moe, rock…

Sculpture Northwest Exhibit

11:00am

The works of 15 Sculpture Northwest artists can be viewed both indoors and out from 11am-5pm Fridays through Sundays (and by appointment) through April 23 on Camano Island at Matzke Fine Art…

A Road Well Traveled

12:00pm

“Max Benjamin: A Road Well Traveled” can be seen from 12pm-4pm Thursdays through Sundays at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art, 121 First St. The solo exhibit featuring the work of the…

Seeds of Culture at Whatcom Museum

12:00pm

View “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Voices of Native American Women,” “Fluid Formations: The Legacy of Glass in the Pacific Northwest,” “Jac Trautman: The Specter of the Indigenous,”…

Art-iversary Exhibit

10:00am

From 10am-5:30pm Mondays through Saturdays through April 30, celebrate 20 years of ownership for Sheri Wright of Fourth Corner Frames, 311 W. Holly St. A wide variety of works are for sale as…

Seeds of Culture at Whatcom Museum

12:00pm

View “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Voices of Native American Women,” “Fluid Formations: The Legacy of Glass in the Pacific Northwest,” “Jac Trautman: The Specter of the Indigenous,”…