Hospital Days


 #1       Jeff was very ill in the spring of ’69 with a problem that first surfaced during his Vietnam tour five years earlier. He was in a VA hospital in Miami, and the illness had become serious. He didn’t have long to live, but that wasn’t widely known. Dozens of his friends and comrades in the GI antiwar movement sent him get-well cards and letters.

           Donna Mickleson wrote Jeff several encouraging letters. She was a co-founder of the first GI antiwar coffee house, the UFO, in the town near Fort Jackson SC. Other coffee houses followed outside large Army bases in Texas and Missouri. Donna was now on the West Coast, considering opening another one near Fort Ord in Monterey CA. She wrote Jeff again:

Lie in the Sun and Smoke Dope

          Sure hope things are going well. Am thinking of going down to set up a coffee house in Monterey myself and living out in the Carmel Valley. You can come and lie there in the sun and smoke dope, and I’ll tell everyone you’re a long lost third cousin who spent the past six years doing an archeological dig in the Sudan. 

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#2      Susie Rosenberg, aka Susie Creamcheese, a good friend of Jeff’s, has eluded me for years. Part of his circle in Chicago, she occasionally lent a hand distributing Vietnam GI (VGI). Her friends told me she was from a well to do Chicago family in construction, didn’t work or attend college, and was generally considered a zany, free-spirited flower child. She was nicknamed Susie Creamcheese after Frank Zappa’s fictional Valley Girl, but thought of herself more like Janis Joplin.

            I met many of Jeff’s contemporaries, but never Susie. We spoke once in mid-’69 during Jeff’s last days in a Miami VA hospital. She and blurted out, agitated, “They’re killing Jeff, you’ve got to get down here.” Jeff died the next day.

            I had no idea who was calling until nearly 40 years later researching Jeff’s memoir. I wanted to speak with her about Chicago and his last days but no one has been able to find her.

            When Jeff fell ill and died Dave Komatsu, VGI deputy editor, was unable to keep the paper afloat. Absent Jeff as grand strategist, principal writer, and chief fundraiser – as Dave put it, as the “soul” of the operation – he couldn’t pull it off. A long time left activist, Dave and his wife Kit decided to move on, establishing a paper directed at factory workers, a beat more familiar to them. As Susie wrote to Jeff at the hospital, she hoped to work with them on Wildcat.


Jive Attitude Really a Front

March 24, 1969

Dear Jeff –

          … Oh guess what – it’s still up in the air, but I’ve been rapping to Kit and Dave and I think I’m going to work with them on the working class paper. As a matter of fact, I’m starting job-hunting tomorrow for assembly line work. We’ve had a lot of talks and I guess they’re finally realizing that my jive attitude is really a front. …

           All My Best to One of the Grooviest Comrades I know, Susie

           Word reached me 35 years later that Susan Rosenberg would be speaking at Hamilton College. I assumed that Jeff’s old friend Susie had at last surfaced. It didn’t seem out of line that she joined Weatherman – the violent spin-off from SDS – went underground, got caught, served time.

            I contacted a colleague at Hamilton and made arrangements to meet Susan/Susie, who’d apparently become a writer. A picture of her turned up on the Internet. I sent it to an old Chicago hand to let him know I’d finally found Susie; he shot back it wasn’t. The photo was of a tall slender, dark-haired woman. Susie was short and blonde.

            Meanwhile, a great deal of adverse publicity was swirling around Hamilton’s invitation. Rosenberg had been sentenced to 58 years– at the time the longest sentence for such charges – and served many years in maximum security, much of it in solitary, until pardoned.

Clinton Pardons an Ex-terrorist

New York Times, January 22, 2001

             Ms Rosenberg served 16 years in jail after she was found… unloading 740 pounds of dynamite and weapons, including a submachine gun, from a car. She admitted her role in the New Jersey case, in which she had planned to supply others with explosives for politically motivated bombings.

          Susie Creamcheese, where are you?     

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#3         Despite his illness, Jeff kept in touch with friends around the country. A number of them made the long trip to Miami to visit him. He corresponded with others, and he kept in touch with a few by phone. Late spring ’68, he called an old college girlfriend. She was glad to hear from him and said, “How are you?” To her great surprise, Jeff replied, “I’m dying.”

            I had been up north at the time, so when I heard her story decades later, I too was surprised. Although my father had been in denial and my mother determined to be optimistic, however illusory, I had been under the impression that, though very ill, Jeff’s condition was stable. In our correspondence and occasional telephone conversations, Jeff had never given me reason to think otherwise.

   With my parents long gone, there was one person who would have known the truth – my cousin Lesley Sharlet Barden. At the time, she lived in Miami and was Jeff’s closest companion as he lay dying. I wrote Les, “Did he ever talk about his impending death with you?”


                                He Knew He Was Dying

  To answer your question, YES Jeff knew he was dying. It got really hard for me to visit him toward the end because of the way he kept losing weight and because of your mother. I had to keep lying to him. I’d tell him there was a new medicine they were going to give him.

 He was mentally very strong and never felt sorry for himself. 

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#4      Jeff had been an SDS leader during university days. When he graduated in ’67 and moved on to Chicago where he founded the GI antiwar paper, Vietnam GI, he was closely associated with the SDS national leadership in the city.

          As the war wound on in spite of vast protests, grand marches, and outsized demonstrations across the country, frustration mounted and divisions over strategy widened within SDS. The organization gathered for what would become its final national convention in June ’69.

   Jeff had died just a few days before, and the tragic news flashed throughout the antiwar movement. As the SDS convention got underway, it promised to be a wild affair as the two implacable factions vied for the soul of the organization. Yet there was a moment of unity, albeit brief, at the opening session.

           As John Maher remembered:

A Minute of Silence

          The chair asked us to rise for a minute of silence in memory of my friend Jeff Sharlet, editor of Vietnam GI.

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#5           I’m not sure my father ever got over the loss of Jeff, his youngest. When my mother died five years after Jeff, she said to me in her last hours that she was at peace about Jeff. She had a similar illness and had tried every conceivable life-saving therapy to no avail, but the knowledge that she had exhausted the medical possibilities gave her peace of mind that she had done everything to save her son.

           My father lived on another eight years, and I thought maybe he got over it. But one time we were summering on Cape Cod and having dinner with a friend and her son, then about Jeff’s age at the end. In some ways the young man resembled my brother, which my father recognized, and was as ecstatic over it as if Jeff had come back to join us for the evening.

    Although my father had never fully understood Jeff’s deep commitment to dissent against the war, like the mother of a GI killed in Afghanistan years later, he would have shared her sentiment upon her loss, ‘He didn’t shirk any of his years. I felt honored that he was my son, and I was able to be part of his life’. 

Long After the Guns Go Silent

            Long after the guns go silent, time passes, rights and wrongs fade – the parents grow old, the young widow remarries, children grow up, move away, but the boy who went to war remains, forever young, in the silver frame on the mantle.

           The strange poetry of war obits, the military fanfare at graveside, the heartrending notes of Taps closing a life – all become distant memory. Pain dulls, but never goes away. The young men in those picture frames remain unchanged, the boy who went off to war remains as we last remember him.

            And so it was with my brother Jeff, who served in Vietnam, was possibly exposed to something harmful there – perhaps Agent Purple, we don’t know – and died several years later at 27.

          For our parents, now long gone, as for all those North Country families as well, as for the mother of the Afghan GI, in spite of reaffirming sentiments, nothing could have been worse than losing a child.

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#6       Dick Boris, an IU grad student, described hearing the news of Jeff’s terminal illness.

I Got Dead Drunk

           In February ’69 I received a job offer from Dickinson College. On returning to Bloomington, friends threw a party for me. In the middle of the party someone arrived with the news that Jeff had just been operated on and found to have a terminal condition.

           The news had a depressive effect on the festivities. I got dead drunk. We were all ‘horribly impacted’.
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#7            As Jeff was trying to fight the disease taking his life, he received many dozens of get-well cards, notes, and letters. Many were from his extended family as well as his friends and comrades in the Movement.

But a number of others were from total strangers who had read of his illness in the underground press. Some of these people were GIs, others civilians opposed to the war.

You’ve Certainly Done Your Share

Jeff

I was sorry to hear of your illness, but do hope that you are fully recovered and back in action before too long. The prospects for ending the war don’t seem overly bright, but you’ve certainly done your share and should feel some satisfaction.

Fort Hood

        I read about you in the Fatigue Press. I was stationed in Thailand and only saw one issue of Vietnam GI, but I enjoyed reading it. It answered a few of my questions about the real Nam. Good luck and get well soon.

Miami

        Sorry to read in the Veterans Stars & Stripes for Peace about your misfortune. Wish I had only known a few days ago that you were out there at the VA Hospital because that place has practically been home to me. I was just out there less than a week ago for a check-up.

        I’m a paraplegic and it’s a bit hard for me to get out there. Anyway our local ‘Veterans for Peace’ commander knows you are out there so he will try to get by to see if he can do anything for you. He’s a retired Chief Petty Officer; real nice guy.

Shalom

        I just learned about your illness from the current issue of Movement. Of course, you don’t need a bourgeois get-well card to help you, but it beats the shit out of a draft notice. May the devil which haunts you be exorcised and settle on Ellsworth Bunker or some similar pig. FTA
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#8        Jeff continued to receive get-wells from strangers who read about him.

Appreciate What You’ve Done with Vietnam GI

Dear Jeff

           You don’t know me, but I read something in the Movement how you were sick. I really appreciate what you’ve done with Vietnam GI both in the States and abroad.

   The struggle against imperialism has been immeasurably helped by sowing the seeds of reason and humanity among the ranks of the Praetorian Guard of the Empire.

   If you’re in New York, you can stay with me and my girl if you need a place to stay.

Santa Cruz

           If you ever feel that you might like to talk to someone, this stranger will be willing to listen.

  P.S. Enclosed is the San Francisco Chronicle article on yesterday’s GI-Civilian March. It was really successful – it’s always such a good feeling to be at the top of a hill and looking back seeing so many people who came too.

New York

         Get well soon – a Guardian reader.

El Centro

        I read about you and your Vietnam GI in the San Francisco Express Times. I hope that you’ll get well soon and continue the struggle against war. You sure have a lot of people joining you, including me.

        This nation sure needs more people like you Jeff.

West Seneca NY

        As someone who still mourns playmates killed in the 1st imperialist war of 1914-18, I identify with your spirit and integrity. NEVER SAY DIE, JEFF. 

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#9        Still more get-wells received by Jeff at the hospital.

You Are a Very Valuable Member of Society

Minneapolis, KS

          I got one copy of your paper, Vietnam GI, and I was so pleased with it. I read about your operation in Veterans Stars & Stripes for Peace. I am so concerned about this war and our military extension over the world.

          My older brother was in the Spanish and Philippines trouble – another was in WWI. All my long life (almost 79 years old), I have worked against the war system.

           I went to a meeting in Leavenworth, Kansas last week. Some of the prisoners from the Presidio of San Francisco have been sent to prison there.

           You are a very valuable member of society – we need you. May God preserve you for many years.

New Rochelle, NY

           While we don’t know you, we write with great affection for you and your friends, for your ideals and your efforts to help put things right.

Evanston, IL

          I read of your illness in Veterans Stars & Stripes for Peace. Get well fast, Jeff. We need your strength and courage and ability in our cause.

Stockholm

           HANG ON! Joy & Revolution. Red Greetings from Sweden.

Miami

          Jeff also received flowers sent by friends, including Sonny and his family. Sonny had a 7-11 and check-cashing store next to Jeff’s father’s in Miami. He was a Florida redneck and a wonderful guy.

          On one occasion, Sonny got a tip that he was going to be held up on payday when he had the most cash on hand. He set up a defensive perimeter. His brother, Vern, back from Nam, somehow with his M-16, took a position behind the potato chips while Sonny with his .45 hid behind the meat counter.

  The hold-up men entered, Vern opened fire, and they ran like hell with Sonny firing at them as they took off down the street.

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#10      As Jeff was slowly dying in a Miami hospital, the GI opposition to the war, which he had done so much to engender, was mounting.

Many Soldiers in Peace Activity for the First Time

             April 5, 1969 witnessed a large turnout of GI and civilian demonstrators in several of the nation’s major cities. Roughly a hundred thousand people marched in New York, 40,000 in San Francisco, and 30,000 in Chicago.

           The Easter GI-civilian demonstrations, coordinated at the national level, ‘involved many soldiers in peace activity for the first time’.

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#11     Bill O'Brien hitchhiked to Miami to visit Jeff when he was on furlough from the VA hospital.

I Realized How Sick He Was

           When I saw him, I realized how sick he was. I remember the sun room at the house. I met his father. but not his mother. He was very weak and could only see me a couple of hours a day. I had hoped to stay with him, but his parents wouldn’t allow it, so I ended up sleeping in a nearby park for two days.

           There was a very good music festival going on so the cops were showing a little leeway. I remember bringing Jeff up to date about all our friends in Chicago who his other visitors didn’t know too well. Too bad we can’t find Susie. She spent a lot of time there. I hitchhiked home.

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#12     As Jeff lay dying, US troop level in VN reached its apex on April 30,’69 – 543,000 troops.

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#13     When Jeff died, his obit appeared in the various places the family had lived, including Glens Falls, Albany, and Miami. Many obits also appeared in the underground press, including one written by Jim Retherford of IU in the National Guardian (7/5/69).

Jeff Sharlet Dies of Cancer

        There exist, in America, many kinds of cancer: poverty, hatred, war. Jeffrey James Sharlet, who struggled so that others might not be forced to view the manifold malignancy as he saw it – as a GI in Vietnam – died June 16, the victim of only one cancer, a cancer confined to his own body. His age was 27.

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#14     In October ’69, someone sent me a note of condolence, a kind of epitaph for Jeff.

How Really Foresighted He Had Been

           I have always thought of Jeff when I was confronted with our young radicals and how really foresighted he had been when he began that so early before it spread all over the country.

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#15      When Jeff fell ill, several underground papers urged people to send money to help him with medical bills. Typical was the piece in The Movement in April ’69. 

Movement People Owe a Lot to Jeff

            Jeff Sharlet is sick and he needs bread.

           So what else is new? Who isn’t broke these days, especially in the Movement, and who hasn’t been down with the flu? The difference is that Jeff, who is 27, was just operated on for cancer of the kidney; though he appears to be convalescing as well as could be expected, he’ll be bedridden for a month and certainly unable to work for a long time after that.

           Movement people – and especially those working with GI’s – owe a lot to Jeff. He started THE VIETNAM GI, which many agree is one of the best GI newspapers, with money he’d been awarded as a Woodrow Wilson academic fellowship after returning from his own tour of duty in Vietnam. Surely it was the best use one of those grants was ever put to.

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#16     In the summer after Jeff’s death, his old Academy friend Jeff Albert dedicated a poem to him.

Your Anger Was Pure

You took a look around the world
and, with a melancholy smile, rebelled.
Your anger was pure,
The gentle soul of rage.
You were romantic,
Restless and sincere;
Now your courage
And your gentleness are ours.

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#17     In printing Jeff’s obit, the Miami Herald ran it side by side with the obit of a local combat GI whose fate was the raison d’etre of VGI. 

Hialeah Soldier Killed in His First Combat

         Army Pfc Ricardo J Gomez, 21, was killed in Vietnam June 10 – his first day of combat.

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#18      The Old Mole, a radical bi-weekly associated with Harvard students, ran a black-bordered announcement of Jeff’s death. At the time, staffers included Nick Egleson of BDRG, with which Jeff had worked, and Joe Lieberman, a future US senator.

We Regret to Announce

We regret to announce the death from cancer of

JEFF SHARLET

Founder and Editor of Vietnam GI

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#19      The Berkeley Barb paid tribute to Jeff in an effort to raise money for his medical bills.

GI Editor Seriously Ill

 Movement people – and especially those working with GIs – owe a lot to Jeff. He started THE VIETNAM GI. Inside a year, the paper had grown into both ‘Stateside’ and ‘Nam’ editions that gave GIs all over the world a heavy dose of the truth about the Army and the war, told in the words of men still in the jungles or recently returned.

        And though THE VIETNAM GI was no monolithic ego trip, its success can be measured in the countless miles Jeff drove to isolated bases to rap with soldiers and the months of 18-hour days spent putting the paper together and raising enough money to get out one more issue. 

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#20     Of the many tributes and obits for Jeff, his fellow editor and good friend Dave Komatsu’s in the August VGI, was the most eloquent. 

Jeff Sharlet Dies

          Many good men never came back from Nam. Some came back disabled in mind. Jeff Sharlet came back a pretty together cat – and he came back angry. Jeff started VGI, and for almost two years poured his life into it in an endless succession of 18-hour days trying to organize men to fight for their own rights.

          On Monday, June 16th, at 2:45 pm, Jeff died in the Miami VA Hospital. There was no way to save him. He was only 27 years old.

          After two years of endless traveling, fund-raising and writing, Jeff’s drive started to fade. That restless energy that had brought him countless miles to base after base wasn’t there. After his last trip to Ft Hood in the fall of ’68, Jeff complained that he was really beat, burnt out. We all agreed that he should go ‘on leave’ and take a rest.

           Jeff was a truly rare man. He was our friend and comrade, and those of us who came together in this fight will never forget him. VGI, the paper that so many readers called ‘the truth paper’ will go on fighting.

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#21     Dave Dellinger, titular head of the Mobe, dedicated the July ’69 issue of Liberation to Jeff. Barbara Webster, who worked closely with Dave, penned an obit run on the inside of the cover. 

He Could Do Better than Anyone Else I Ever Met

          Jeff was uniquely qualified to work with soldiers. He had solid political sense and an extraordinary ability to relate through VGI and in person with GI’s from all backgrounds. He not only put out the paper, but traveled to bases as much as money and time would allow.

          Working in the GI field was what Jeff wanted to do and what he could do better than anyone else I ever met. But it was a constant strain on him, for in additional to all of the expected and accepted pressures and problems, there was the debilitating, never-ending struggle for financial survival. Nine months after the paper’s first issue, he was forced to take a job in a factory to help keep himself and the paper alive.

          Everyone who saw the paper realized how effective and important it was; and when we needed someone who worked the GI field, we always thought first of Jeff.

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#22      The final para from Barbara Webster’s obit.

He Cared Too Much About the War

          There came a time when Jeff really wanted to take a year off to read and write, but he cared too much about the war and where America is going, and he knew the paper was an exceptional organizing device.

          He went through hell trying to work out the relationship between his own needs and those of the movement. He agreed that if it was really necessary he should take a year off or two, but it seemed like such a long time when things are so bad.

          Today Jeff died of cancer.

Barbara Webster
June 16, 1969

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#23     Lincoln Bergman, an editor of The Movement, was also a poet and dedicated ‘Seeds of Revolution’ to Jeff.

He Was a Quiet, Vital Guy

He was a quiet, vital guy
Who thought before he spoke,
Looked into peoples’ eyes
And those who listened learned...

He traveled many miles
Into the valley of the people
Always learning
Planting seeds of revolution.

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#24     Jeff felt strongly that the essentially middle class movement had to get rid of its class hang-ups and relate to working-class GIs. Lincoln Bergman expressed it well in his poem, ‘Seeds of Revolution’. 

Take a Step into America

He told us
That people in the movement
Had to overcome their backgrounds
To take a step into America.

Told us that to plant the seeds
People had to change
Change through their experience
He spoke the truth.

Courage from his courage
Example of his deeds,
For Jeff is dead …
Like Johnny Appleseed.

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#25     Tom Hayden, who had initially scorned GIs, made his final peace with the GI movement in an article written just before his death in ’16. 

The War Was Finally Ended by Vietnam Veterans

          Disparate groups triggered a huge movement, but the war was finally ended by Vietnam veterans, the civil rights leadership, and a congressional bloc that woke up and took action.

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NEW CONTENT
#26     Bill O’Brien remembered Jeff’s discomfort when he lived in Chicago.

A Lot of Time in the Bathtub

            I do remember that he spent a lot of time in the bathtub. The warm water seemed to relieve the pain.

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NEW CONTENT
#27      Bill O’Brien visited Jeff twice in Florida.

How Sick He Was

           When I saw him, I realized how sick he was. He was pissed at the world and in particular the VA and the Army.

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