Vietnam horrors fuel vet's rallies for peace in Iraq
(By Bill Montgomery, originally published in the Atlant Journal Constitution, September 1 2006)
Vietnam draftee and combat medic John Zientowski, known as "Z" by fellow grunts in Nam and by current peace activists, figures he has racked up hundreds of hours in the past year protesting the war in Iraq.
He said he does it, in part, in memory of four classmates from a small town in upstate New York who were killed in combat a generation ago.
A data network engineer with Turner Broadcasting for 23 years, Zientowski, 59, said his two-day-a-week peace vigils around metro Atlanta --- holding photos of flag-draped coffins and wounded Iraqi children --- at locations including Colony Square, CNN and the DeKalb Farmers Market are attracting growing attention.
"We have more people every time. They honk, they wave, they give us the peace sign, some give us a thumbs-up. And some give us a middle finger. I suppose they support President Bush or the war," he said.
Zientowski and others spoke at a Friday rally at Colony Square sponsored by the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition. The noon peace rally marked the fourth anniversary of a protest outside the Atlanta office of then-U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat and supporter of the Iraq war and keynote speaker at the 2004 Republican National Convention.
Weekly demonstrations began at Colony Square on Aug. 29, 2002, seven months before the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. led coalition, after Miller refused to meet with an antiwar delegation at his Colony Square office.
"War to me is not the answer, especially today, in a world with nuclear weapons," said Zientowski. "We need to get away from that mentality."
A native of Dunkirk, N.Y., on Lake Erie, south of Buffalo, Zientowski said he was a geology major dropout from the State University of New York and working as a crane operator when he was drafted in March 1969. "I was against the war in high school ... as early as 1965, I didn't believe the North Vietnamese posed any threat to the Americans, 10,000 miles away."
Watching a pro-war rally at SUNY before he was drafted, Zientowski said he found himself admiring a trio of faculty members who verbally opposed the war.
"I was definitely in the minority in that crowd, but I didn't go to Canada, because it would have crushed my parents," he said. Nor did he seek exemption as a conscientious objector. "I didn't know anything about that. Other friends from high school went, and it was just my turn. Our generation's burden."
Four fellow graduates from high school died there, he said.
After basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., he served for a year as an Army enlisted medic in the "Iron Triangle" combat zone northwest of Saigon beginning in September 1969. He survived his tour unscathed physically, but said will never forget the fate of three soldiers "in the rear who volunteered to ride shotgun" in a convoy that hit a mine, killing one and critically injuring the others.
Discharged in the spring of 1971, Zientowski said his Vietnam service sealed his commitment as an anti-war activist, including opposing Operation Desert Storm 20 years later, when Saddam Hussein's troops were booted out of Kuwait in a 100-hour ground campaign.
"Saddam was not a model world citizen, I'll grant you, but we should always first make efforts for diplomatic solutions ... outright war was not our only option."
Terrorism "is a true threat, but by invading Iraq we're going about it wrong," he said. "We're spending $300 million in Iraq, and it remains a country where our president flies in for 5 1/2 hours and then flies out because it's so chaotic there it's unsafe to stay there longer."