During the Vietnam War in the mid 1960s, Jonathan B. Robison was a self-described conscientious objector and peace activist. But he joined the Army National Guard anyway, serving in the Reserves for over six years but never on active duty. Despite serving honorably and at the ready should the nation need his service, the government does not recognize his veteran status. Denial of veteran recognition and benefits for many dutifully serving National Guardsmen is a little known fact of government bureaucracy.
In mid 2013, Jonathan Robison contacted our oral history project because he was interested in sharing his life story as a long-time political activist, lawyer, and advocate for public transit and people with disabilities. Military service? “No, I’m not a veteran,” he said, “but I did spend six years in the Army National Guard during the Vietnam War. According to the government, I was never called up to active duty and so I’m not a veteran.”
We beg to differ, of course. Bureaucratic labels are most often meaningless. What matters to us is one’s story of military service regardless of era, branch, or number days on active duty.
We wanted to hear more of Jonathan’s service during America’s most unpopular war as an army reservist—duty that is still commonly maligned as petty and politically privileged. So, we asked Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh associate audiographer Anna Samuels to meet with Mr. Robison and get his story.
Setting up oral history interviews is always a logistical challenge, but in this case finding the right location was critical. Despite complications from multiple sclerosis, Jonathan is quite active, mobile, and independent. However, we needed to accommodate his wheel chair and travel to our interview by city bus. After a considerable search for a suitable location, Anna was able to arrange a meeting on April 26, 2014 at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
“This is such an amazing story,” Anna said after the interview. “Jonathan’s commitment to peace activism and social justice issues is such an inspiration. Despite all that he endures, his attitude about life is remarkably positive.”
I was as I am still
As the draft called young men into active military service to support US military strength in Vietnam, enlistment in the Army National Guard became widely known as a way to avoid combat service. Enlisting in the Guard was for many a proxy for being an official C.O., conscientious objector. Despite the low risk of being called up to active duty, about 13,000 Army National Guard members were, in fact, sent to Vietnam. For many years after the war, Guard reservists—often called “weekend warriors”—suffered accusations of favoritism in enlistment and “easy” service. This reputation, admits Jonathan Robison, was well deserved. “Joining the National Guard was very safe.”
It’s Just Me . . . an Activist
Jonathan Robison, a self-proclaimed activist and peacenik, has been involved in the push for public transit reform in Pittsburgh since the late 1960s. Robison’s tenacious spirit in the face of adversity is a testament to his unwavering optimism. “I have a hard time imagining not being an activist,” he admits. “It’s the strong personal belief that we can change the world.”
This interview was conducted and edited by Anna Samuels in conjunction with the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative. Recorded: April 26, 2014 at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Photo by Anna Samuels, edited by Kevin Farkas. Music: Will Riding, “Malhamdale” (SoundCloud), Rocky Logue, “Your First Song” (ReverbNation), Chris Zabriskie, “The Temperature of the Air on the Bow of the Kaleetan.”