How a Model Soldier Becomes a Vietnam Protester: The Barry Romo Story (Part I of II)
In this installment of Rediscovered Radio, you’ll meet a soldier who was deeply changed by what he saw and did in the Vietnam War. Barry Romo spoke at Antioch College in 1973, when students around the country were involved in anti-war activities. And a warning, this story contains language that some listeners might find disturbing.
A Model Soldier
Barry Romo went to Vietnam twice during the war: once as a soldier and once as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He volunteered on both occasions.
On the first trip, Romo earned medals and promotions before his tour was cut short. On the second, he delivered mail and packages to American POWs who were being held by the North Vietnamese—and he was on the ground in Hanoi when that city was bombed by American B-52s.
Rediscovered Radio spoke to Romo, and he reflected on both experiences. This is the story of Romo’s first trip to Vietnam. He was nineteen years old at the time.
“I graduated from high school,” Romo says, “and I volunteered for Vietnam, and I wanted to kill communists. And I killed at least six people. I mean people that I shot.”
In Vietnam, Romo led men into battle, earned a bronze star for valor, and was promoted to First Lieutenant. He would also have a family member join him in Vietnam. Romo’s nephew, Bobby, was drafted and wound up in the same Brigade.
Four decades after the fact, Romo remembers his last days in Vietnam in detail.
“I was coming back on a patrol,” he says, “and my platoon sergeant stepped on an American bouncing Betty mine, which blew off his intestines and his stomach. And I called in a Medevac… I don’t know whether he lived or he died, but he probably died.”
When he returned to base, Romo was told to report to the helicopter, where a major was waiting for him. The major didn’t get out of the helicopter or invite Romo in. Instead, he “held up a sign written on a piece of cardboard. It said, ‘Your nephew Robert has been killed. Your brother Harold requests that you escort the body home.’"
“He didn't say any of that,” Romo recalls. “He didn't write he was sorry. He just wrote it on a piece of cardboard, just like you see homeless people do on the expressway or the freeway or whatever.”
On the advice of a staff sergeant, Romo had his nephew’s casket sealed shut before it left Vietnam. His nephew had been shot in the throat. Troops weren’t able to recover the body for some time, and it was bloated.
While Bobby was Romo’s nephew, the two were born only a month a part and were raised side-by-side in a large, Catholic family. The funeral was especially hard on Romo. He says that one group of relatives would mourn his nephew, crying over the casket, while another group of relatives would hug Romo and celebrate the fact he returned alive. Then, the two groups would switch roles.
After the funeral, Romo didn’t have to return to Vietnam as his tour was almost up. He spent his last days in the Army training soldiers, then he says he spent some time trying to forget. Until the war grew, and he felt the need to do something.
“Nixon invaded Cambodia,” Romo recalls, “and I talked to some of my friends. And we said, ‘Shit. He’s not ending the war. He’s just killing. You know, invading Cambodia.’ So, we joined the peace movement and started working with active duty GIs.”
A Model Protestor
Romo would quickly go from grassroots organizing to a national stage, becoming the first West Coast Coordinator for Vietnam Veterans Against the War and leading a group of veterans to Washington, DC. They gathered in front of the Capital, which had been fenced off. Then, they introduced themselves one-by-one, each stating his name and rank, and threw their medals over the fence, toward the Capital.
Romo also served as a moderator during Vietnam Veterans Against the War’s Winter Soldier Investigation, which gathered testimony about alleged American war crimes in Vietnam and gained national attention.
During a 1973 speech at Antioch College, Romo explained how he went from model soldier to avid Vietnam war protestor.
“Prior to going to the military,” Romo said, “I believed that the US was right, that the communists were invading the South, that they were committing atrocities. But after I came back and started thinking about the things I’d seen and the things I’d done, I realized that the United States Army was the enemy.”
What may be most notable about Romo’s organizing efforts in the early 70s is that he didn’t let civilian audiences separate themselves from their country's military actions. He made it clear that in a democracy responsibility has to be shared, and the climax of his speech served as a call to action:
“All my brothers and sisters in Vietnam Vets Against the War went over to Vietnam, and they pulled the triggers and they dropped the bombs. They did the actual genocide. They did the actual ecocide. They removed people from their ancestral homes. They stole food. In other words, we were a bunch of gangster punks.
“But, one thing that has to be remembered is that we were nothing more than a trigger finger for the American society.”
If Romo was a good solider, he may have been an even better protestor. In January of 1973, he challenged the audience at Antioch to take responsibility and do whatever they could to help end the war and bring service men and women back home. And Antioch was just one of his many speaking engagements.
Three days later, he was in Washington, DC, speaking out against the war as thousands of Americans protested the Second Inauguration of Richard M. Nixon.
Next time on Rediscovered Radio, we’ll follow Barry Romo to Hanoi during the war, when that city was bombed by American B-52s as he delivered mail to U.S. POWs being held by the North Vietnamese. And we’ll hear recordings of that trip that were made by one of Romo’s fellow travelers, folk-singer Joan Baez.
Rediscovered Radio is made by possible by generous support from Ohio Humanities.