Vietnam War Veteran Rejects Violence, Embraces Peace
Scott Camil said he wanted to be a hero.
He spent four years in the U.S. Marines fighting the North Vietnamese and four decades trying to make peace.
The 68-year-old veteran sergeant is one of 2,709, 918 Americans who fought in Vietnam. He was featured in “The Winter Soldier,” a documentary based on the investigation of United States policy in Vietnam.
He is also co-founder and president of the Gainesville chapter of Veterans for Peace, which partners with other organizations around the area to promote peace. Some of the projects include the John A. Penrod “Brigadas” Award for Peace and Justice, two Peace Scholarships of $500, the annual Memorial Mile event during Memorial Day weekend, the Peace Poetry Contest for Alachua County students and protesting American militarism around the city.
Camil was also a member of the Gainesville Eight, a group of anti-war protesters taken to trial on charges of conspiracy to violently disrupt the Republican National Convention in Miami in 1972. The Eight were eventually found not guilty.
On April 30, veterans around the country will be filled with solemn remembrance on the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam War's end. This, in part, is what has fueled Camil's activism.
The war in Vietnam officially ended on April 30, 1975, when the city of Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and the last American soldiers were evacuated by helicopter. But in Camil's eyes, the U.S. has only been repeating Vietnam in new places. He has been active in anti-war movements since the 1970s.
“You can’t export democracy at the point of a gun,” he said.
The Bully's War
Camil graduated from Hialeah High School in 1965. Three days later, he entered boot camp and began the process of becoming a U.S. Marine. He said he looked forward to doing what he called his “duty as a man” and fighting for democracy.
After completing basic, infantry and jungle warfare training, he volunteered to ship out right away.
“I spent my 20th and 21st birthdays in Vietnam,” Camil said.
Camil said he followed orders just like any soldier should.
He saw his friends become men, he said, and he saw them die.
Despite seeing Vietnamese civilians tortured, raped and mutilated, he volunteered to stay for a second tour.
Camil said he had gone into the military wanting to defend his country, believing the U.S. had a right to overthrow communism, so that people could be free. He said he wanted to fight for the democracy that he and other Americans enjoyed.
“I was proud of what I’d done,” he said. “I believed the war was right.”
College changed that perspective.
After he returned to the U.S. in 1967, the future University of Florida graduate first enrolled in Miami Dade College with the money he received from the GI Bill of Rights. For his American History class, he read a required text called “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. He said at first, he disagreed with the book, which approaches U.S. history through the eyes of minorities who were abused, massacred and oppressed from the colonial era all the way through the Vietnam conflict, according to Zinn.
Camil said he went to talk to his professor about the book, and the professor gave him more material to read. The more he read, the more he said he believed Zinn's thesis was correct: America is a bully.
Camil now feels that he and his friends were used.
“I killed people in hand-to-hand combat,” he says, his voice cracking. “I murdered people who were defending their homes.”
He now calls “A People’s History” the most important book he owns.
A Hero For Peace
Camil left the Marine Corps with 12 medals: two Purple Hearts, a Combat Action Ribbon, two U.S. Presidential Citations, a Good Conduct Medal -- of which he was particularly proud -- a National Defense Service Medal, a Vietnam Campaign Ribbon with three stars, a Vietnam Presidential Citation, a Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star and another with Palm Leaf, and a Vietnam Service Medal.
In 1971, he threw them all away.
Camil, along with other members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, marched on Washington, and he said he cast his medals over a fence toward the steps of the U.S. Capitol building.
Decades later, his wife Sherry, 64, requested replacements for some of his medals. She said she wanted him to have them.
“It was an honor of a sort even if he didn’t agree with the policy,” she said.
Now, he wants to be a hero for peace.
In 1987, after a fact-finding trip to Central America, he said he became enraged at what his country was doing in other parts of the world. When he returned, he founded the Gainesville branch of Veterans for Peace, which has more than 100 chapters across the nation.
Pierce Butler, an associate member of Veterans for Peace, has been a close friend of Camil’s for more than 20 years.
Butler, 61, befriended Camil during a nonviolent standoff with anti-abortion protestors outside the Gainesville Women’s Health Center, which Butler said had requested help escorting potential patients inside due to the large number of protestors harassing them. Butler and Camil were joined by civil rights activists, labor activists and even environmentalists, Butler wrote in an email.
The Gainesville Veterans for Peace stayed on for more than a year after that to help provide security for the center.
“As a friend, he's totally loyal, helpful and generous,” Butler said of Camil, “but as an organizer he doesn't put up with laziness, unfilled promises or avoidable mistakes.”
The intensity Camil handles projects with inspires some people, but it also makes others, the thin-skinned people, pull back, he said.
“You just can't talk about Scott without saying 'but' because, without being two-faced at all, he creates a contradictory response in almost everybody,” Butler explained.
Camil is Jewish, but he supports Palestine. He is a proud Marine, but he opposes any and all wars.
Even when he fills out forms and is asked for his race, he always marks “Other” and writes in “Human.”
“I’m not an American first,” he said. “I’m not Jewish first or a white man first. I’m a human being first.”