“I fear we will end up with little more than an orgy of ‘bubble patriotism’ and some short-term introspection. Worse, yet, I fear possible knee-jerk ‘bomb ’em back to the Stone Age’ thinking that would only invite further acts of terror, and leave young Americans spilling blood that soaks up Afghani sand, and the sand of other Middle East nations whose destruction would provide only temporary catharsis.”
—Dan Gallagher, “Veteran’s Viewpoint,” KUFM, Sept. 25, 2001
When Dan Gallagher returned from serving as a foot soldier in Vietnam’s central highlands in 1967, he didn’t have to deal with much bubble patriotism or public catharsis. After being caught in some of the war’s bloodiest pre-Tet offensive fighting, he wasn’t welcomed home with waving flags and yellow ribbons. He remembers clearly, just off the plane that carried him home, not long on American soil, an attractive young girl waving a sign that read “Baby Killers.”
Gallagher doesn’t fear that modern U.S. soldiers returning from the second Gulf War will have to deal with the vitriol he suffered. Instead, he believes they will receive a hero’s welcome full of tickertape parades and tears. These veterans’ problems will come later. Five or ten years down the road, the United States will be preoccupied with another conflict, while the second batch of Gulf War veterans will be fighting for medicine to combat the fallout from a more deadly form of Gulf War syndrome. That, or still searching for the jobs they left behind, or struggling to manage post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he says. This is the fear—the bursting of the patriotism bubble and the quick (and quickly forgotten) catharsis—that will dominate Gallagher’s “Veteran’s Viewpoint” radio commentary on KUFM in the coming months and possibly years.
Gallagher doesn’t fit the stereotype of the Oliver Stone ’Nam vet. With his tiny cell phone and classic tie tack, he doesn’t even fit the Missoulian stereotype. But strip him of his attorney role—Gallagher got a University of Montana law degree in 1993 to practice veterans law, but more often handles divorce suits and family law cases to pay the bills—and he embodies the belief that once a veteran, always a veteran.
For most of his post-war life, Gallagher has been an advocate for veterans. When the onset of what he calls delayed stress (now known as PTSD) arrived while he watched dramatic footage of Vietnamese climbing through razor wire into the U.S. embassy during the fall of Saigon, he looked for support. What he found was a Department of Veterans Affairs that wouldn’t help and wouldn’t acknowledge that his problems were rooted in his combat experience. He eventually found help at UM with a therapist who was a POW in World War II. His relief from his distress made him realize that he wanted to help others struggling with their “readjustment.”
In 1983, Gallagher began “Veteran’s Viewpoint,” which celebrated 20 years on KUFM’s airwaves last month. What began as a weekly commentary and interview segment with early guests including then-Governor Ted Schwinden and then-Congressman Pat Williams was eventually whittled down as KUFM-KGPR expanded its range of on-air commentators. For a while, Gallagher’s war and its veterans seemed to become less and less relevant. But since the military build-up in the Gulf began, Gallagher is finding more and more listeners responding to his broadcasts.
“Moms and dads have kids who are in Iraq now,” says Gallagher. “The show is somewhat academic between wars, but now talking about veterans’ issues is up-close and personal.”
“Veteran’s Viewpoint” last aired on March 11 and won’t run again until April 8, so Gallagher has yet to publicly comment about this second Gulf War, but long-time listeners know he was against it before it began. Unlike some veterans who stand at political extremes–either wholly supporting U.S. wars or wholly against them–Gallagher picks his stances carefully, saying he doesn’t follow the sway of popular opinion.
He believed in the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam, believed that the United States was right to defend the world against fascism and communism. And he was behind the first President Bush and the first Gulf War. But he was loudly anti-Kosovo and says that the current U.S. campaign is “neither right nor necessary.”
He knows that some of his peers are critical of him and label him anti-patriotic—possibly a symptom of bubble patriotism, he notes.
“We went to war to defend liberty and one of those liberties is freedom of speech,” he says.
But it’s unlikely that Gallagher will focus much on the plight of the modern soldier or the morals behind this war. Rather Gallagher is concerned with what will become of the soldier when he or she returns home and becomes a veteran.
In Vietnam he was exposed to Agent Orange–something the still worries about–and he fears the biological weapons and petrochemicals this set of GIs will be inundated with.
“They don’t simply need to see blue stars or yellow ribbons when they get home,” he says. “They need to come back to medical treatment they need.”
A few years ago, Gallagher did a commentary on the VA admission that Agent Orange was linked to the birth defect spina bifida. After the commentary, Gallagher received a call from a woman in tears thanking him for the show.
“Her ex-husband had been a Vietnam veteran and he had been exposed to Agent Orange,” says Gallagher. “They had a child in perfect health then he went off to Vietnam. When he came back, they had another child who had spina bifida. Eventually, the stress of it all broke the family apart and for the last 20 years she had thought that something she had done [while pregnant] had caused her baby’s problem.”
It wasn’t until she heard the commentary that she realized it may not have been her fault.
This is the type of feedback that motivates Gallagher to continue pounding at the same issues for years. He knows that he won’t have the public’s ear for long. Soon the war will be over, the troops will return and the national catharsis will be spent.
“This bubble patriotism and catharsis can be bad,” he says. “People will say, ‘I went to two parades and cried for you on Veterans Day. I’ve done all I can do.’”
Gallagher’s goal is to take advantage of this time, when his voice seems most relevant to many.
“Hopefully my show is always significant,” he says. “But I know that it’s more significant now. Now is the time I can get the public’s attention.”