Forgotten Casualties of the Vietnam War

Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500.
– Apocalypse Now

Over the past ten years, I’ve developed a friendship with Commer Glass, a 67-year-old African American man serving his 37th year of a life-without-parole sentence at Graterford State Prison outside Philadelphia. Glass fought as a 20-year-old combat infantryman in the thick woods west of Pleiku in the famous 1965 battle of the Ia Drang Valley. It was in the Ia Drang that US troops first went mano a mano with the North Vietnamese Army.

An NVA commander described the battle from the Vietnamese point of view this way: The order went down to the North Vietnamese soldiers to get close enough to the Americans to “grab them by their belt buckles.”

It was a horrific battle by anyone’s standards. There was a Mel Gibson movie made from a book about the battle titled We Were Soldiers Once … And Young by retired General Harold Moore and journalist Joseph Galloway.

To me, Glass is a casualty of that battle and of that unfortunate, tragic war just as certain as night follows day and rain makes things wet.

Left to right, Vietnam combat vet & Reverend Dwight Edwards, Commer Glass, Director of the VA Regional Re-entry Program Otis Nash and the author.

Left to right, Vietnam combat vet & Reverend Dwight Edwards, Commer Glass, Director of the VA Regional Re-entry Program Otis Nash and the author. (VVA466 inmate photo)

The story is complicated by a number of things. One, Glass is a black man in prison for first degree murder involving the killing of a woman, and in Pennsylvania, especially in the cover-one’s-ass political climate of Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, he is a hot potato. There are not very many profiles in courage in Pennsylvania when it comes to someone like Glass. It’s much easier — and safer — to just let him rot in Graterford.

I’m involved with a grassroots group working with the Pennsylvania Prison Society seeking the release of Glass and other Vietnam veterans like Glass who are serving life-without-parole sentences in Pennsylvania, one of the rare states in the union that has absolutely no parole for lifers. You die in lock-up unless your sentence is commuted by the governor.

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell could have commuted Glass’ sentence as he left office in January 2011, but he declined to do so. He did commute several others. Rendell worked as a Philadelphia district attorney in the 1970s and began his political career by running for District Attorney in Philadelphia two years after Glass was convicted under DA Emmett Fitzpatrick. Rendell ran on an anti-corruption platform and called for getting tougher on murder cases by pursuing death sentences and, of course, life-without-parole.

Rendell is now a paid TV commentator on politics and NFL football; he works with his old law firm, is a senior adviser with the Greenhill investment bank and an operating partner with Element Partners, a Philly investment group. He also just published a book called A Nation of Wusses: How America’s Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great.

I’m not a politician, so I certainly don’t understand the subtleties of power like Ed Rendell does. But over the years I photographed Rendell several times and actually had two short conversations with him. He is eminently likable and a rough-and-tumble kind of guy. But I also know about the Vietnam War from reading a lot and serving as a radio-direction finder in the same area west of Pleiku where Glass served earlier than me. Plus, living for years in Germantown in Philadelphia under Mayor Frank Rizzo at the time of Glass’ crime, I have some sensitivity as to what it means for a black man like Commer Glass to be a hot potato in Harrisburg politics.

Given all that, I think it’s fair to say Governor Rendell is a first-class political “wuss” when it comes to assuming the risk required to see justice done. His wussdom in this case becomes clearer when you consider the Glass case involves race in the Philadelphia criminal justice system at a time he was a district attorney in that system. Adding more heat to that already hot potato is the fact the case involves the patriotic image of the Vietnam War in the popular American mind.

In Pennsylvania, interestingly, we had a previous governor — Tom Ridge — who was a Vietnam combat veteran. Ridge ran on a pro-death penalty platform and once literally said, since he had killed people in Vietnam, he would be able to sign death warrants.

The reason the Glass case is interesting to me is because it is such a hot potato and focuses the mind on issues of killing and murder, especially who can kill and who can’t? What kind of killing is acceptable and what kind is not? And, finally, once one sinks into this moral gray zone, who gets the mitigating breaks and who receives the aggravating demonization?

All testimony concerning Glass as a youth in North Carolina suggests he was a decent, friendly, law-abiding kid who just wanted to fit in and belong. He followed his older brother into the Army and was thrown into the life-or-death brutality of the Ia Drang and Vietnam. Motivated by fear in a firefight, he saw movement in some bushes and inadvertently killed a woman and child with an M79 grenade launcher. Outside of Pleiku, he killed a prostitute who he claims was planning to kill him and his friend. Personally, I know the general area of laundries and peasant houses this occurred in. When I was in Pleiku two years later it was off-limits and reputed to be sympathetic to the Viet Cong.

Glass says he does not remember stabbing Billie Ann Morris the night of October 12, 1975, in the Germantown area of Philadelphia. (I arrived in Germantown in Fall of 1975 from Tallahassee to pursue a graduate degree at Temple University in journalism.) No one argues that Glass was not an unholy mess at that juncture in his life. That night, as he was roaming the streets cranked up on methamphetamines, he ran into Morris, whom he had been involved with on and off. After the stabbing in a parking lot, he recalls picking her up and driving her to the Germantown Hospital Emergency Room, where she died. While Glass may not remember the stabbing for a number of psychological reasons, he unambiguously concedes he did it.

Glass’ son James told me that at age seven his father took him down into the cellar in his house in Germantown that he often retreated to. It was full of tropical plants, a caged python and pit bulls running around. The kid was terrified.

Glass’ case was exhaustively explored in a 1994 federal habeas corpus lawsuit. On the last page of the ruling, District Justice William H. Yohn, Jr. wrote that Glass “has suffered a fundamental miscarriage of justice in that a constitutional violation, ineffective assistance of counsel, has probably resulted in the conviction of petitioner of murder in the first degree when he is actually innocent of that crime and guilty of murder in the third degree.” He ordered the City of Philadelphia to retry Glass or for the state to release him.

Then, in a four-page opinion, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Yohn’s ruling. The judges said, “there was sufficient information in the mental health literature about PTSD that the condition could have been diagnosed and presented at Glass’ trial.”

Of course, the whole point of Yohn’s ruling was that Glass had “ineffective assistance of counsel” that had failed to do exactly what the Third Circuit said should have been — and could have been — done. “Sufficient information” on PTSD certainly existed then. Would it have mattered to the Third Circuit if his attorney had been drunk or had fallen asleep during the case? Probably not. As it turned out, Glass’ pitiful attorney later snitched on the mob to save his tail and disappeared into the witness protection program. He’s now dead.

Killing and the Vietnam War

I like to describe my view of Commer Glass’ case this way: If there was any real justice in this world, instead of sitting around Duncan Donut shops with poor ex-cons and other committed, but powerless, citizens engaged in an uphill battle to establish some kind of past-due PTSD mitigation for the crimes of Glass and other lifer Vietnam veterans, the grassroots group I’m working with would, instead, be discussing the extension of mitigating compassion to release Henry Kissinger from prison after a conviction for war crimes two decades earlier.

I don’t mean to pick on poor Henry Kissinger, except to use him as a symbol for those responsible for the Vietnam War and the profound havoc it caused. (When I speak in high schools I ask anyone to find anything that the Vietnamese ever did to us to justify what we did to them. In fact, all they did was be our ally against the Japanese in WWII.) My larger point is expressed nicely in a bumper sticker:

Kill one person, it’s called murder. Kill 100,000, and it’s called foreign policy.

I have regularly attended Veterans Day and Armed Forces Day events put on by the Graterford inmate Chapter 466 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Although now virtually blind, Glass is still president of the Graterford VVA chapter that he helped found. The veteran inmates work hard to put on a good show of snappy honor guard drills with flags and precise commands.

I go as a representative of Veterans For Peace. I have been asked several times to speak and get to express some of my views critical of US wars alongside the patriotic utterances of right-wing veterans and prison officials. For the veteran inmates, it’s a feel-good event in a long year of boredom, frustration and grief. To me it’s an irony that, on one hand, Glass publicly refers to himself as a “junkyard dog” misused and abandoned by his country, while on the other hand, he and his fellow veterans are inclined to wave the flag to emphasize their service to America.

It’s something I’ve grappled with and have come to terms with. I understand completely why they do it; anyone in their right mind would do the same. I’ve taught writing in the Philadelphia prison for 11 years and have been in and out of Graterford and other state prisons many times. Prison systems in America are fortresses of assumptions very alien to “liberal” people like me, and if you want access, you have to march to their drum. After while, you get to know working class corrections officers and others in the prison system and you realize many of them are just as trapped by an insidious system as the inmates.

One day in the Graterford lobby waiting with a regional VA representative to get inside for a meeting of veteran inmates, I got to chatting with a ranking white-shirted Graterford corrections officer who was an Iraq veteran. I told him I was a vet and about the two trips I had made to Iraq during the war. We compared places we’d been and shared a few laughs. At one point, I said I’d been inside Graterford a number of times before. He looked at me and a bit ominously said: “Oh, we know who you are.” I felt a little like Joseph K. waiting to find out from some mysterious entity who exactly I was.

Some years ago, a fellow photographer and I had hopes of making a film about incarcerated veterans. Show something of their lives in prison and listen to their stories in their own voices: Humanize them a bit. We attended meetings, and prison officials considered our request. In the end, we were not permitted to film in the prison. Then, a few weeks later, Oprah Winfrey strolled in with a camera crew. Apparently, it had to do with the theme of our film and that we were loose cannons lacking corporate sponsorship. Loose cannons without an institution behind us. It’s possible the climate is changing; we’re hoping a short film will be possible soon.

My only foray into the state political arena in Harrisburg came when we first thought a film might be possible. A Philadelphia activist friend had a job working for Governor Rendell. She had excellent contacts. I emailed her and described the veteran lifer Commer Glass, his case as a veteran and the film idea we had focused on incarcerated veterans. Would she run some interference concerning permits etc with the Department of Corrections? Sure, she said; she’d get back to us.

Then I got an email with no greeting or salutation at all; it just said: “He’s a lifer?”

I e-mailed back: “Yes. As I told you, he’s a Vietnam veteran lifer.”

I never heard a word from her again. Nothing. It was as if I’d extended a deadly electrified rail into her office and had tried to ruin her political career.

But thanks to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the climate may be changing. The issue involves Veterans Courts — like the very fine one operating in Philadelphia — and efforts to encourage veteran status and PTSD as mitigating circumstances in current and past criminal cases.

There are two opposing arguments at play in the issue. One argument is noted for patriotism and waving flags and service to the country, while the other is noted for antiwar protests and the more unpleasant aspects of war and what it does to people. The two strains are usually totally incompatible, and the former is obviously the one most politicians flog heavily.

During the last Armed Forces Day event at Graterford I had an interesting exchange with a 23-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department who was now a high security official at the prison. The man was not a veteran, but he had publicly delivered a moving, patriotic homage to Commer Glass and other veterans of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.

After the ceremony, as everyone was eating the delicious pineapple upside down cake given out to all attendees, I went over and initiated a conversation with this security official. I noted what he had said and that I thought it was appropriate to release Glass after 37 years; wasn’t that enough time for the manslaughter charge a federal judge said he should have been charged with? He nodded. We agreed there is always a risk to letting anyone out of prison and that, as I joked, there was even a risk he or I might run amok violently later that day. He smiled. Sure, life is about risks.

He said he didn’t wish to be quoted, which I understood. He would, he said, allow me to say that cases of veteran inmates like Glass should be “scrutinized” for the purposes of possible release. He said that was a “liberal” position, something not usual for this man. I disagreed and said it was a “smart” position. Again, he smiled.

The point is, we’re in an economic depression and it costs upwards of $50,000 a year to keep an aging man like Commer Glass in Graterford Prison. That’s my tax dollars. Upon a full scrutinization, there is no good reason why officials in Pennsylvania can’t, as Governor Rendell prods them in his new book, get over their past “wuss” behavior in the area of Vietnam veterans with PTSD serving life-without-parole. Allow them fair parole hearings.

The 1975 death of Billie Ann Morris is, to me, a case of delayed collateral damage from the Vietnam War. Paying $50,000 a year until Commer Glass dies in prison will not bring her back. Nor is the issue about excusing or exonerating Glass of that crime; the issue is mitigation and, belatedly, charging him with the right crime. It’s a matter of forgiveness versus vengeance.

Glass, for instance, has family members and other support individuals (like me) quite willing to work with him to get beyond the Rip Van Winkle Syndrome suffered by long-serving inmates upon release to the outside world. Our leaders need to stop being such moral wusses and move this issue along.