Barry Romo, Decorated Vet Who Turned Against the VietnamWar, Dies at 76 - The World News

Barry Romo, Decorated Vet Who Turned Against the VietnamWar, Dies at 76

Barry Romo, whose combat experiences in Vietnam led him to become a leading antiwar activist who threw his medals onto the Capitol steps during a demonstration by veterans, died on May 1 in Chicago. He was 76.

His death, in a hospital, was caused by a heart attack, said Roberto Clack, a friend and colleague.

Mr. Romo was a strong supporter of the war when he arrived in Vietnam as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1967 — but within four years, he was a leader of the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He earned a Bronze Star for his heroism in a battle in Tam Ky Province in November 1967 when he exposed himself to enemy fire to reach a squad that had been separated from the platoon he was leading. In early 1968, he fought during the Tet offensive.

But he was crushed by an event that happened that May in Dong Ha, a village close to what was then North Vietnam: A North Vietnamese sniper killed his nephew Bobby Romo, who was a month younger and in the same brigade, while he was trying to save a friend.

The intensity of enemy fire kept Bobby’s body sitting in the sun for 48 hours until it could be retrieved.

“A staff sergeant said, ‘Why don’t we seal the body permanently?’” Mr. Romo told Story Corps, the oral history project, in 2015. “‘That way your family, they’ll remember him as he looked like when he graduated from high school.’”

Mr. Romo escorted his nephew’s body home to Rialto, Calif.

“I had my ticket punched by my nephew’s blood,” he said. “And I felt that I failed him, I failed my family. And I still feel guilty to this day.”

Mr. Romo remained in the Army stateside, serving as the commander of an infantry training company at Fort Ord, Calif., until January 1969.

Then, more than year later, on May 4, 1970, his antiwar sentiment was heightened when members of the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State University who were protesting the United States invasion of Cambodia.

By then, he was enrolled at San Bernardino Valley College and had joined an antiwar group on campus.

He became aware of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971 when he learned that it was holding a three-day event in a Detroit motel, where about 100 veterans would testify about the atrocities they had committed or witnessed in Vietnam. Known as the Winter Soldier Investigation, it was the subject of a 1972 documentary, “Winter Soldier.”

“For the first time in history,” Mr. Romo, who attended and testified, wrote in The Veteran, the organization’s newspaper, in 2005, “war veterans got together to expose their government while the war in which they had fought was still going on.”

Soon after the investigation, he was named the organization’s California coordinator. In the spring of 1972, he was elected one of its five national coordinators, then the group’s highest position. He remained in that role until 2011.

Mr. Romo traveled to Hanoi in mid-December 1972 to deliver Christmas letters to 535 prisoners of war and bring back their letters. Two days after he arrived, he and his companions — the singer Joan Baez; Telford Taylor, the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nazi war crimes trials in Nuremberg; and Michael Allen, associate dean of the Yale Divinity School — were caught up in intense U.S. bombing raids of North Vietnam.

For nearly two weeks, they alternated between seeking the safety of bunkers and witnessing the results of the so-called Christmas bombings.

“I was freaked out because here I am in the center of Hanoi, and I killed Vietnamese, and now not only that but the United States is trying to kill me,” Mr. Romo told Richard Stacewicz for his book “Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War” (1997). “So where do you go from there?”

Long after the war ended, Mr. Romo was involved in veteran-related causes. He worked to get compensation for victims of the defoliant Agent Orange and to increase veterans’ benefits; supported homeless Iraqi war veterans; and advocated for the treatment of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

When Jane Fonda, who helped fund the Winter Soldier investigation, won the 1972 Golden Globe Award for her performance in the movie “Klute,” Mr. Romo appeared at the ceremony in his uniform and accepted the award on her behalf.

Barry Louis Romo was born on July 24, 1947, in San Bernardino, Calif. His father, Louis, who was Mexican American, was a meat cutter. His mother, Lillian (Burnham) Romo, who was British, managed the home.

He volunteered for the Army when he was 19 “because I was a dedicated anti-Communist,” he said in the 2019 audio documentary “Soldiers for Peace.” “I’d grown up in the ’50s. I thought the world was being controlled by an international Communist conspiracy.”

He left the war changed forever and quickly became a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. During his decades as an activist, he also worked for many years at the United States Postal Service, where he was a union official.

“He was very knowledgeable about the war, was very smart about politics, charismatic, and had a great sense of humor,” Ed Damato, a former national coordinator of the organization, said in a phone interview. “He always knew what to say, and he was able to win people over.”

Mr. Romo is survived by his daughter, Jessi O’Reilly-Jones, from his marriage to Alynne Kilpatrick, which ended in divorce; his son, Kyle Copeland, from another relationship; and two grandchildren.

One of his early missions at the Vietnam Veterans organization was helping to organize Operation Dewey Canyon III, a weeklong demonstration in Washington in 1971 named for U.S. and South Vietnamese military operations into Laos. Veterans set up encampments on the National Mall; some testified at a Senate hearing about their experiences in Vietnam; others were arrested during a protest on the steps of the Supreme Court.

On the final day, about 700 veterans hurled their medals over a fence erected in front of the Capitol. Most of them landed at the feet of the statue of Chief Justice John Marshall.

Mr. Romo joined in, tossing away his Bronze Star and combat infantry badge.

“As vets threw their medals away, we made statements,” he told The Veteran in 2011. One said, “If we have to fight again it will be to take these steps.”

A spokesman for the American Legion criticized the veterans for throwing away medals earned for meritorious service. But, Mr. Romo wrote, “it wasn’t the ‘merit’ that made the medals of value — instead, it was the memories of friends bound up with those medals.”

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