S. Brian Willson, a prominent Viet Nam veteran turned peace activist and former resident of Massachusetts, appears at the Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Massachusetts to talk about and read from his psychohistorical memoir, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson (PM Press, 2011). The event begins at 7:00pm.
Willson, who lost both legs below the knee in 1987 when he was intentionally run over by a US Navy munitions train at the Concord, California Naval Weapons Station, kicked off his book tour by cycling from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco on his three-wheeled, hand-powered recumbent cycle. The author said he wanted to demonstrate a mode of personal transportation that reduces dependence upon fossil fuels.
Brian Willson’s long, rich history includes experiences in the Boston area and Western Massachusetts in the 1980s. He served as legislative aide to State Senator Jack Backman (Brookline), working on prison, mental health, and veterans’ issues; he was a worker-owner of New England Country Dairy in Greenfield; he directed the Western Massachusetts Agent Orange Information Project and, later, the Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center in Greenfield. He also co-founded the Veterans Education Project in Amherst. Willson was presented with a special award for his work with veterans by Governor Michael Dukakis. In 1984, he was one of twelve Vietnam-veteran “doghunters” credited with helping John Kerry gain a hard-fought US Senate seat in his first campaign. In his book, Willson details his experience in that campaign, as well as his later disappointment with Kerry.
In 1986, Willson was one of four veterans who staged a 47-day, water-only fast on the steps of the US Capitol in Washington, DC in response to continued funding of Reagan’s Contra terrorist wars in Central America. He was officially recognized by the Massachusetts State Senate for his “courageous participation” in the fast. One year later, on September 1, 1987, he was again thrust into the public eye when he was run over and nearly killed by an accelerating US Navy train while engaging in a well publicized, nonviolent blockade in protest of weapons shipments to El Salvador. “My own government labeled me a terrorist and attempted to murder me,” says Willson. “My story is strongly relevant for activists today in this climate of an unending ‘war on terror.’”
After losing his legs, Willson continued his efforts to educate the public about the true nature of US imperialism while striving to “walk his talk” (on two prosthetic legs) toward “right livelihood.” Among many extraordinary experiences, Blood on the Tracks describes Willson’s meetings with FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador, with US citizen Ben Linder in Nicaragua three weeks before his murder by Reagan’s Contra terrorists, doctors at bombed hospitals in Iraq, and with Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide in Port-au-Prince three months before he was deposed with the complicity of the CIA.
Unique among memoirs penned by Viet Nam veterans, Willson’s book goes well beyond relating the story of his wartime experiences, focusing in large part on his search for a radically different paradigm as a result of the consciousness provoked by that war and numerous other life experiences. In his introduction to the book, Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, writes: “No reader, I believe, will finish this book without a sense of awe at the human spirit that is revealed in it.”
Blood on the Tracks contains a large number of photographs chronicling Willson’s transformation from small-town boy to radical pacifist, as well as hundreds of endnotes, a complete index and recommended reading list. It has captured the attention of many internationally renowned figures, including Noam Chomsky, Cynthia McKinney, Ed Asner and Kris Kristofferson. Media critic Norman Solomon says, “Brian Willson’s memoir boils with alchemy that has turned pain and caring into moral insistence and political resistance.”