Podcast: “It was easier to kill people than lay down the gun” -Suel Jones
In 1998, Suel Jones went back to Vietnam and met some of the very people he had once fought against. This experience launched him into a life of activism, including starting a chapter of Veterans For Peace in Vietnam.
“I met the enemy, guess who it was? It was me. And it’s always true. And that saved me. That has really saved me. And once I saw hell, started seeing what war really did, not only to the other people, that’s when I said, “I can no longer be quiet. I have got to finally say something.” But it took me a long, long time to be able to step out and make that decision. It was just too hard.”
“Oh, everybody in uniform’s a hero.” They’re not heroes. They’re damaged human beings. And maybe they did heroic things, but they didn’t do it because they were heroes. They didn’t simply have a choice. So this idea that war is heroic, it’s just such a … it’s what every 16-year-old boy wants to believe, that he’s going to be a hero.”
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Suel Jones: Yeah, because here’s what’s interesting, I found that it was easier to kill people than lay down the gun.
Matthew Breems: This is the Courage to Resist podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. The podcast today features Vietnam veteran Suel Jones. Suel fought as a combat Marine along the DMZ before returning to the U.S. In 1969.
In 1998, Suel went back to Vietnam and met some of the very people he had once fought against. This experience launched him into a life of activism, including starting a chapter of Veterans For Peace in Vietnam. How are we doing today?
Suel Jones: Good day. Doing great.
Matthew Breems: Good. I’m excited to be talking with you and hearing your unique story of activism, how you came to a place of really being vocal about opposing war. Why don’t you start us off and just give us a little bit of background about yourself, and how did you end up over in Vietnam?
Suel Jones: Well, I was born and raised in Texas. I’m 76 years old now. And I was raised in a time when we truly trusted our country. I call myself— I was a believer. I believed in my country.
And I had uncles in World War II. I had cousins in Korea. And when Vietnam came, there was just no doubt I was going to go, and I was proud to go. I wanted to stand tall. And so it was just my family tradition, is part of being American at the time. I didn’t even question it.
Now, after I went over there and fought and killed and watched people die, then I did question it. But I was still so attached to my country and my family, I never really could stand up and say, “You’re wrong.” It took me a long time to come to that point. And then probably the hardest thing I ever did— because once I challenged my family and I challenged my church, then I was basically an outsider from that time on. And that’s the hard part, because you get pushed out of your family, you get pushed out of your ring of friends, you get pushed out of everything you know.
I went to Vietnam as a believer and a Christian, and I came back with absolutely no bases. I had no legs to stand on. I no longer trusted my church. I no longer trusted my government. I didn’t trust my family. I didn’t trust myself. That was the hard part. I had to create a life where I could trust and believe in myself again. And it took about 25, 30 years to get to that point, and a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol, going to India, meditating and looking, and living in Alaska in the middle of… But it took a long time until I finally found myself, and I did that by going back to Vietnam, meeting the people I called “enemy,” and finding out who the enemy really, really is.
Matthew Breems: Tell us about your trip back to Vietnam. I know we spoke before the podcast about that being really a seminal moment in your journey to activism. So just describe what you experienced there that was really your awakening moment.
Suel Jones: Okay. I was on the DMZ, combat Marine, and basically all I knew was the DMZ. I never saw a city, never saw a village. I had no idea what Vietnam looked like, and I had no idea what the Vietnamese people looked like. The only ones I saw I was shooting at or they were dead.
So in 1998, after a lot of introspective work, I finally said, “I’ve got to go see this country and meet these people. I’ve got to know what in the hell happened.” So I did. I went back, I spent three weeks traveling, and it changed me as a human, because I started seeing people as people and not enemy. And I started to see in their tears and not just my tears. And I started seeing their pain and their agony and not my agony and pain.
And that’s when I realized that, wow, we were killing people. We were just murdering innocent people over there. So I finally started living over there. I just couldn’t keep away from that place. I started meeting … I have met hundreds of men I fought against—probably even shot at. And we’re friends now and we hug each other, and we cry with each other. And I feel like I’m a human being again. I don’t think I was a human being until I went back to Vietnam and I met the people I called enemy.
And of course when I met the enemy, guess who it was? It was me. And it’s always true. And that saved me. That has really saved me. And once I saw hell, started seeing what war really did, not only to the other people, that’s when I said, “I can no longer be quiet. I have got to finally say something.” But it took me a long, long time to be able to step out and make that decision. It was just too hard.
Matthew Breems: So you stated earlier that after the Vietnam War, you ended up in Alaska really as a place of introspection and just refuge for you. What were some of the things that you were just wrestling through internally while you were up there over those years?
Suel Jones: That’s one of the hardest questions. I’m not sure I could vocalize it, really tell you. I just felt like I didn’t want to be around people. I had had all the people that I could tolerate, and I just needed to be out alone and just use my brain to think about, I don’t know, whatever.
So I got this cabin on five acres of land, no water, no electricity, burning wood. And so it was pretty rough. But the people I met living around me, who are an incredible group of people, and they helped me grow— But I think I just needed to get away from all the noise so I can think on my own and make decisions without having family involved, having anything involved. It was just me and the mountains out there.
And it was very beautiful. It was also killing me. And that’s when I decided to move out of Alaska and move back into a city, because I needed to be around people again. Of course, it took 35 years. But then I wanted to be … Now, I’m very happy. I’m around people, not isolated anymore. I have a beautiful state to live in, and I’m feeling really, really good about being here, and more active now, and more peaceful with my activity also.
Matthew Breems: So you did 35 years of soul searching and introspection, started going to Vietnam, having your perspectives change as you met the people you fought against.
Suel Jones: Right.
Matthew Breems: How did this affect some of your family and friend relationships, people that didn’t take kindly to your views when you got back from Vietnam?
Suel Jones: Well, they pretty much ignored it, and I pretty much allowed them to ignore it. I had two lives. When I was living in Houston and working, it was crazy as hell. That was one. And I’d go home. I was still like the old boy from Texas that they knew. So I really had a split life until about I’d say 20 years ago. And I said, “Well, here’s the real me. You either take it or leave it.” And they just don’t know what to think, because I was such a little born-again Christian type family and Southern Baptist. And now, they just think I’m a wacko.
And they don’t really think I’m a wacko. They just don’t really know what to think, because I won’t let them off the hook anymore. I won’t be nice about it anymore. I said, “Look, you’re killing people. Now, get off your Christian ass. Quit killing people.” And of course it caused controversy, but I’m just not going to be silent. I’m not going to do it.
Matthew Breems: It’s just such a paradigm shift that some people can’t see what they can’t see.
Suel Jones: It’s too fearful. And to make a shift like that, it’s really fearful. There’s a good friend, Chuck Searcy, and Chuck and I started a Vets For Peace chapter in Vietnam. But Chuck became antiwar when he first went back, and his family threw him out for two years, wouldn’t talk to him or anything. So when you have to face— go into combat and come back and what you want is some security, you want something that you can believe in, you want something that you can not feel hurt all the time, and then your family throws you out, rejects you, it was just hard to do. It took a lot of guts.
Yeah, because here’s what’s interesting. I found that it was easier to kill people than lay down the gun. It was just easy. It wasn’t a problem. Of course, you’re in combat. You’re killing people. You don’t think of it. It’s not like maybe where you murder someone. You’re out there killing people, but it wasn’t a problem. The problem was laying down the rifle and saying, “I can’t do this.”
In the Marine— when you’re a Marine, you are so dedicated to being a Marine. And when you’re in combat, we were always taught this from day one: “There’s only three people in the Marine Corps, the man on your left, the man on your right, and you. And that’s it.” And so you are taught never to break this chain. So to lay down the rifle would put your brothers in danger, and you can’t. I just could not do it. I was such a good Marine, I said, “No, I couldn’t do it.” So I knew it was wrong and I kept doing it. That’s how deep that— that— when you’re in combat to protect and love each other.
Matthew Breems: You get back from Vietnam, and you start becoming more active, more vocal in your antiwar activism. Describe some of the activities that that led to.
Suel Jones: Well, really the first thing I did, I joined Vets For Peace. And in doing so, they got me involved. But then I started speaking out, doing interviews. I’ve done interviews all over Germany and Russia and Australia, and talking about antiwar and cleaning up what we did. We did— You know, and around town here, we’ll do our strikes and work within our city and our town. So I keep it really local. That’s what I do. I mean, there are times to be national, but I really like working local.
Matthew Breems: Do you find that keeping it local is the most effective method of protest?
Suel Jones: Yeah, I do, because you get to know your senators, you get to know your congresspeople, you get to know your city. Going to the city council and talking is just as important as going up to Washington. And then educating people down here. We work with homeless people, just a lot of different things that maybe not be part of war, but it may be!
But it’s about compassion and giving and loving, and that’s what we need. I’d tell people this and I’d truly mean it. Because we need 21st-century minds to find— to solve the problems that we face today. And my 20th-century mind won’t do it. I really encourage you, young guys, young women, to get out. And they become active and take over. And that’s, I think, really what needs to be done. You can use me for my wisdom, and you can use me for my knowledge, but it’s their turn to decide where this world is going, not mine.
Matthew Breems: Tell me about the chapter of Veterans For Peace that you started over in Vietnam. How receptive has that been over there?
Suel Jones: Actually, it’s been really, really good. And because we started one in Vietnam, there is now several around the world. So it’s starting to spread a little bit more. But at first, they didn’t quite know what to think of us. And Vietnam is a kind of place, it’s… you have to be there, they have to know you, you have to build trust. It takes time. And once they know you, then the world starts changing. And once they understood what we wanted to do, they’ve been nothing but receptive, the Vietnam government and the people, and helping us.
What we’ve learned over there at the Veterans For Peace is, we come up with projects, and we may even fund them, and then step aside. It’s not mine to run. It’s theirs to run. It’s their country. And basically, we do landmine removal projects. Real issue with Agent Orange and trying to get people for 20 years to finally recognize it because they … When I first went over there, the embassy was not allowed to say the word Agent Orange, were not allowed to even mention the word. So we’ve spent 20 years educating even the embassy over there, and it’s changed a lot.
Matthew Breems: Yeah. Elaborate on some of your work with Agent Orange. What type of people and places have you done educational work there about that?
Suel Jones: What we did originally was just trying to make people aware of Agent Orange, because people didn’t talk about this 20, 25 years ago. But we were seeing— You go down to a placed they call … In the middle part, around Da Nang and above, you just see hundreds and hundreds of thousands of disabled kids everywhere. That’s because that Agent Orange was sprayed so much over there, and we just denied it, you know, for 50 years.
But even today, you go into places and you’ll see kids, newborns, that are disabled. Now, can I say that’s Agent Orange? I’m not a scientist. I can’t. But all you have to do is look at the history in that area, and it’s just rampant over there, and very, very little being done about it. Most of the bombing and most of the landmines and whatnot have been removed somewhat. There are safe areas, but there will always be those bombs over there, and there will always be some effect of Agent Orange in Vietnam because of what we did.
We support schools, we support clinics, we support a hospital in Hanoi. One of the best things we do is work with a group. And write this down. It’s called R-E-N-E-W, Renew, and they do the landmine removal type program. And they are just so, so good. And what they do, they go into schools, and they have a full-day program on landmine removal, what to look for, who to call, and they educate kids not to touch them. It just almost doesn’t happen anymore. But they’re still everywhere, and they’re still working. And now they need to do this in Cambodia and Laos as well.
Matthew Breems: Any estimate on how many landmines were initially laid during the Vietnam conflict and how many still remain, or is it just a total mystery?
Suel Jones: It’s just a total mystery. There’s no, no idea. The landmines were maybe 16 inches underground. Most of those have been found. They’re easy to get rid of. During the flood times, they get washed away. So most of the landmines are gone.
The biggest problem today are the big bombs, the 500-pound ones, the 250-, the thousand-pound bombs that landed and didn’t explode. Almost twice as many tons of munitions dropped on Vietnam than all of World War II combined. We saturated that little country with bombs. And they figure 10, maybe even 15% didn’t explode. So they’re in the ground.
And so you might be clearing your field and burning a little brush pile, and next thing you know, you set off a 500-pound bomb. And that’s the problem they’re going to have to deal with forever, which is not … Because even Germany and France today, and England, they’re still finding bombs, and we dropped twice as much over there.
Matthew Breems: So when you’re speaking with your city councilmen, your state representatives, what are some of the things that you share with them? What’s your goal when you’re speaking with them?
Suel Jones: When I speak with them, I’m usually speaking about homeless people. I talk to a lot of vets on the streets. And that was my issue: get these vets off the streets and getting them in. That’s what I always talk about. You know, you start the damn wars, and then you put your kids on the streets. And that’s what I— that’s my big, big issue right now, is getting these vets off the streets.
You know, when I came back from Vietnam as a combat Marine, like I said, I was wounded twice, and I was pretty screwed up. We didn’t have PTSD. They didn’t have a clue what it was, didn’t have any counseling. But we just didn’t have anything to come back to, and then of course the politics were against us. It was a tough time. It was a really hard time, because most of us went into alcohol and craziness.
Matthew Breems: What would be the most important message that you would want to relay to this 21st-century generation that’s coming into adulthood and leadership, whether it’s in politics or business? What’s the most important thing you would want to share with them to change their perception of war in the Vietnam War?
Suel Jones: One thing, there are no heroes in war. People are always, “Oh, everybody in uniform’s a hero.” They’re not heroes. They’re damaged human beings. And maybe they did heroic things, but they didn’t do it because they were heroes. They didn’t simply have a choice. So this idea that war is heroic, it’s just such a … it’s what every 16-year-old boy wants to believe, that he’s going to be a hero.
And we’ve got to understand that these are damaged human beings when you come back. And I just want people to understand if you can possibly understand—and it’s taken me years and I’m still probably wrong about it—try to stop and sit yourself outside and look back at where you’ve been and what you’ve done, and are you satisfied? I finally had to change my whole life. I changed everything, my whole belief system, and it took 50 years to do it. But I absolutely had to do it or die.
And that’s where I think we are in our country right now. We’re at that point, We are going to have to get back to being a caring country or we’re going to die. It’s that simple. And the young people, I think, are scared enough to understand we must make major changes really, really fast. Old people like me are too scared to make the changes. We need young people to get in the front and say, “This is our world now. Back up, mothers. Here we come.”
Matthew Breems: Why was going back to Vietnam so therapeutic for you?
Suel Jones: I think when I met the people and they didn’t hate me. I was terrified they were going to hate me. And when they didn’t hate me, maybe I didn’t need to hate myself anymore. This happened, and I still don’t believe it happened. I know it did.
My first day I was in Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, and I had never been there. And I was sitting in my room and I said, “Look, just walk outside.” I was terrified. I was really afraid. “Walk outside. Just walk around the block one time and look at.” So I did. And I’m walking around this block and this guy stopped me, bad English, and he says, “You Vietnam before.” And I thought, “Oh my God, here it comes.” And I said, “Yes, I was here. I was a Marine in Vietnam.” And he kind of wagged his finger at me and he said, “You the enemy. You the enemy!” I said, “Yeah, I was the enemy over here.” And he threw his arms around me, gave me a big old hug, and he says, “Welcome to Vietnam.”
Matthew Breems: Wow.
Suel Jones: And I mean, talking about breaking down a human being. That was my first day. They just got better after that. And I walked back to my room and just sat there and just bawled like a baby for a while. But the people just treated me with such respect and honor, which I didn’t get when I came home.
Matthew Breems: Did you really feel like it was a genuine form of forgiveness and just the power of that?
Suel Jones: It– It took— When I first, I said, “Yeah …” No, it was bullshit to me for a while there. And then I just … I kept hearing it, and I kept hearing it, and I kept hearing it. And I said, “Well, maybe they know something I don’t know.”
And I was speaking one night to a bunch of old North Vietnamese veterans, and they were hardcore fighters. And I was talking, with an interpreter of course, and this one old gentleman stood up and he said, “Sir, when you came the first time, you came with your rifle in hand. We’ve met you with rifle.” He said, “Now, you come with an open hand. We’ll meet you an open hand.” And when you hear it over, you just realize these people have a different way of looking at life than we do.
But it’s also a very practical thing. They have to survive over there. They had to rebuild the country. They didn’t have time to be mad and feeling sorry for themselves. We left them in a hell hole. And so they’re very practical for them to learn to forgive, so they could get on with their life. But they truly meant it. Yeah, there’s no doubt in my mind about it. I’ve been there too long now.
Matthew Breems: Well, Suel, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation today and hearing your journey and your story of activism and just your personal testament to the process of that. Thank you for sharing that with us and just being so vulnerable about it. I really appreciate your time today.
Suel Jones: Well, my pleasure. And if I can do anything else, I’d be glad to help. And thank you for allowing me to speak.
Matthew Breems: This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of G.I. resistance to the US war in Vietnam, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. This episode was recorded and edited by Matthew Breems. Special thanks to executive producer Jeff Paterson. Visit VietnamFullDisclosure.org and CouragetoResist.org for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.