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During Mike Felker’s appearance on the PBS series, Veterans Coming Home, he made it clear it’s “not easy being a crazed, queer, pacifist, Vietnam vet.”
And that, he said, sums up what it’s been for the past 66 years.
Felker opposed the war, but he enlisted in the Navy in 1968 to avoid being drafted into the Marine infantry. As a hospital corpsman, he followed platoons out in the field on patrols and night ambushes.
All the while hiding his true self, as many other gay men in the military did, to avoid ridicule and perhaps an “undesirable” discharge from service.
Felker said he returned home from the war at the age of 20 “overwhelmed” by his memories.
The antiwar sentiment was so intense in 1970s San Francisco that revealing he was gay was easier than revealing he was a veteran. But keeping details of his duty in the closet for fear of discrimination was not an option.
Deeply affected by the patients he treated and the casualties he witnessed Felker said, “I felt like I had to take what I had been through and do something positive with it.”
Felker got a job at San Francisco State University coordinating veteran’s tuition benefits through the GI bill. He met other veterans interested in peace through a newsletter called “Stars and Gripes,” and in 1979 they started organizing for peace.
The first time he called the gay pride parade to find out if any veteran groups would be marching, he was told “no and that half the pride committee thinks veterans should be tried as war criminals.”
So Felker said he marched with a group of lesbian mothers instead.
Today, Veterans for Peace is an international organization made up of military veterans, military family members and allies. They accept veteran members from all branches of service. The organization is dedicated to building a culture of peace, exposing the true costs of war, and healing the wounds of war. Their networks are made up of more than 120 chapters across the U.S. and abroad.
Felker said he is still overwhelmed 45 years after returning home from the war. The LGBT veteran activist lives in Philadelphia with his partner, Steve, since 1990. He works as a Graduate Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania.
His life’s mission is to do all that he can to end the epidemic of gun violence in the U.S. despite criticism by more traditional folks and some members of the military. “I am vulnerable no matter how accepting things are. I was asked to do this, so I’m doing it. I’m putting myself out there,” he said.
This was the sixth year Veterans for Peace has marched in the Philly Pride Parade.
“It’s to let the gay community know and the veteran’s community know that there is support on both sides,” he said, adding that the concept of a veteran working for peace is not something many Americans can wrap their head around.
The Veterans Coming Home episode captures Felker and his comrades hearing the news about recent events in Orlando.
“It’s hard to comprehend. I can’t fathom how we can go on like we’re doing,” he said.
When asked how we can recover from the damage done by multiple mass shootings Felker said, “I don’t know. I don’t feel like we are moving forward. On a very basic level, I hope we could have more sensible gun laws.”
In response, Felker drafted an email letter, “A Vietnam Veteran’s Plea for Sensible Gun Legislation,” to members of Congress.
The original letter stated, “This is what happened to victims of the shootings at Newtown, Ft. Hood, Charleston, Roseburg, and now Orlando.” In July, Felker said he had to update it to “This is what happened to victims of the shootings at Newtown, Ft. Hood, Charleston, Roseburg, Orlando, and now Dallas.”
“How many more ‘updates’ will I have to make before I finish?” he said. “Despite the vigils, demonstrations, Democrat’s action, Congress seems so in awe of the National Rifle Association that any progress is impossible. I feel very much at a loss.”
LGBT Efforts Emerge To Take On Gun Control
A new political action committee, PRIDE Fund to End Gun Violence was organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat political candidates at the national level who support sensible gun reforms and LGBT equality.
Gays Against Guns, a direct action group formed post-Orlando, has already attracted hundreds of supporters in the fight for stronger gun control. The group plans to reach out to other gun control groups in an effort to form coalitions.
The Pink Pistols, which under the slogan, “Pick on Someone Your Own Caliber,” urges gay people in the 31 states that allow concealed carry permits to arm themselves and learn to use firearms safely. Some opponents of this group caution against calling on LGBT people to arm themselves stressing that adding more guns into the mix cannot be part of the solution.
Veering from its normal set of priorities, the Human Rights Campaign announced that it would begin pushing for tighter control of guns. The nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group agreed to support limiting access to assault weapons, expanding background checks and limiting the ability of those on terror watch lists or with a history of domestic violence to obtain guns.
Public Media Supporting Veterans
As roughly 2.5 million service members transition out of the military, readjusting to civilian life can present significant stress.
The Kindling Group and Wisconsin Public Television, in partnership with PBS Stories of Service, created Veterans Coming Home, a ten-part Digital-First series that aims to help veterans and communities understand the opportunities and challenges faced during the transition to civilian life and bridge the military-civilian divide.
For many veterans, the transition is filled with complicated and confusing challenges. Some feel isolated and alone. Some struggle to find or hold a job. Many say they feel like they just don’t fit in. Finding and connecting with the right support and services can be overwhelming.
Throughout the spring of 2016, a team of photographers, writers and filmmakers – both veteran and civilian – provided inspiration and support to veterans, such as Felker, who have a story to tell. They crisscrossed the country, creating digital shorts, videos, and other compelling content exploring issues of service, citizenship, and veteran’s lives.