I've made over 300 of these tiles so far.

Are you a veteran? I will give you a tile for free. Please contact me: alexirvine@verizon.net

Veteran Returning Medal:
Operation Dewey Canyon III
April 19-23, 1971

5 x 5 x 1 in.
Stoneware, Slip, Englobe, Oxide, Glaze, Underglaze, soda ash, salt-fired, wood-fired

I started making these tiles after taking a course on the Vietnam War in college. My father is a Vietnam War veteran, so I got really into the class. One event during that war really stood out to me: Operation Dewey Canyon III, a week-long protest / demonstration in 1971 held by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Washington D.C., attended by thousands of veterans. The goverment erected a fence to keep them away from the capitol building and on the last day of the demonstration more than 700 veterans lined up, and one by one, said into a microphone why they were repudiating their medal(s, ribbons, prostheses, enlistment papers, etc.), and tossed them over that fence, as a way of returning them to Congress. There is one very iconic photograph of that event:
Photo by Bernard Martell

I made a bas-relief of this photograph and continue to reproduce it as a ceramic tile. I give them to veterans, asking them what it means to return a medal.

Steve Fowle's response makes for a good introduction to the project:

I've recieved several letters from veterans. Below are some things Vietnam War vets wrote in response to the tile I sent them:

"Yes... The event(s) when medals were 'returned' by veterans after 'Nam is terribly significant and stands in American history a warning not to get into misguided adventures." - John Jones, former Green Beret medic
"The act of returning a medal invests it with meaning, even if it had none to begin with. The meaning imparted to the Dewey Canyon III medals would have been one of repudiation, as if to say, 'I repudiate the lies you told me to trick me into serving in your pointless and cynical war, and I repudiate the bad faith in which you told me those lies.'” - Chuck Yates, ex-US Navy Communications Technichian, RVN Service: 11/68 - 3/70
"Yes, the image of the vets at Dewey Canyon throwing back their medals is one for the ages; Rusty's gesture perfectly symbolizes the intensity of that historically charged and unprecedented moment, where veterans recently home from the front organize in protest of a war that their country continues to wage half a world away. The question of what it means to really 'support the troops' was just as current then as it is today." - Michael Uhl, Ph.D., Directer, National Board of Veterans For Peace
"One of the most moving and powerful things I’ve ever seen in my life was vets giving their name and rank, naming the medals they’d received, saying why they were repudiating their decorations and throwing them away. People might not have liked that act but they couldn’t accurately call the people who rejected their medals slackers, draft dodgers, 'hippies,' traitors or cowards. The vets “had been there, done that” and the military had recognized it."
- Horace Coleman, USAF, 1965-70; Vietnam, 1967-68
"Tossing the symbols of death, destruction, and oppression was a liberating sort of Redemption. It meant a lot, then; it means a lot, now. . . . 13,515 days have passed, since we tossed our medals. My rage has NOT passed." - Bill Perry, disabled veteran, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st AIRBORNE Division, Viet Nam 1967 ~ 1968
"I regard the act [returning his Medal of Honor] as a moment of enlightenment, a realization that I participated in something immoral. In the case of Vietnam something gravely immoral, like killing millions of innocent people." - Charlie Liteky, former chaplain (capt.), U.S. Army
"The tile you sent of a Vietnam Veteran throwing back his bronze star is for me the essential gesture. If we can remember the men you rid themselves of the decorations they won at such a cost, we might also remember the war they fought was immoral." - Gerald McCarthy, Vietnam veteran
"I watched a series on Public Television in the late seventies and early eighties--half drunk on beer most of the time and half way or so through the viewings I packed my uniform, beret, medals, jump boots, Combat Medic Badge, Parachutist Badge, etc and took them to the dump the following morning--we had an incinerator there at the time." - John Jones, former Green Beret medic
“I recently have been running poetry workshops for returning Iraq and Afghan vets who are trying to write their way through PTSD. All of them knew exactly who Rusty was when they saw your tile without telling them. They have, to a man, come home feeling the way so many Nam Vets did, abandoned by those who sent them there, suspicious of the reasons why they were sent and many expressed the wish to return their medals.” – David Connolly, Ex-sergeant of Infantry, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, Vietam, 1968/1969
"Many, many years later, during a return trip to Vietnam, I gave my Purple Heart Medal to a former North Vietnamese soldier and my Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal to a former Viet Cong soldier. But I have always regretted not participating in Dewey Canyon III" - Bill Ehrhart, formerly Sergeant, USMC 2279361, Vietnam 1967-68
“The only other decoration I returned to the government was my Rifle Expert badge; I mailed it Dick Cheney after he shot his lawyer, “accidentally.” - Ken Campbell, USMC 1967-1970, Vietnam 1968-1969
“For Vietnam veterans who were against the war—I hardly know any other kind—the nation’s Capitol was rightly perceived as hostile territory in the hands of the generation that had sent us to war. The fact that that earlier generation has since been christened “The Greatest Generation”—by a television news anchorman, of all people—goes to show just how desperately needed your effort is." - Steve Fowle, Editor of The New Hampshire Gazette, Vietnam veteran
"My feelings have not changed at all since I was 19. If anything, they have intensified, as I see our government repeating the same mistakes and sending young men to die in a senseless, absurd war which only benefits the military-industrial complex" - Frank Dunn, veteran
"I've opposed all US wars, both overt and covert, ever since my experiences in Vietnam." - Paul Nichols, former Marine
"It breaks my heart to see that government exploiting another generation of noble young people in another cynical and pointless war, another generation who will spend the rest of their lives trying to understand what went wrong and how they were so completely taken in, trying to put their shattered lives back together." - Chuck Yates, ex-US Navy Communications Technician, RVN Service: 11/68 - 3/70
“If I had been in Washington that day, I’d have hurled them with a vengeance; duct-taped to a brick, perhaps.” – Steve Fowle, Editor of The New Hampshire Gazette, Vietnam veteran
“I was there at the time and it is still hard for me to convey the emotional impact of the medal-throwing protest on those who participated.” – Jan Barry, Vietnam veteran, founding member of Vietnam Veterans against the War
"I was unable to be a part of Operation Dewey Canyon III, but I did eventually get rid of my ribbons at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in November 1982." - Gerald McCarthy, Vietnam veteran
"I know what the vets who “returned” their medals had done to earn them. They had put their bodies and their lives on the line. Incest and killing are two of the strongest taboos that humans have. Those vets had killed." - Horace Coleman, USAF, 1965-70; Vietnam, 1967-68
"The popular media demonized us, the public shunned us and the government wished we’d go away. We went on with our lives as best we could." - Horace Coleman, USAF, 1965-70; Vietnam, 1967-68

This photograph was donated by Vietnam veteran, Steve Sinsley, taken by him at Dewey Canyon III.

Many, many thanks to all the veterans who contributed to this project.

Do you know any vets who I should send a tile to? Please contact me: alexirvine@verizon.net

1 comment:

E. K. Gordon said...

Thank you for your vision and work on this project. I'm working on a poem inspired by that day, which I first read about in Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." But you images and the vets stories add so much more. Thank you.