Disbelief was clear on Mike Felker’s face as he heard the news about the mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub last month.
“I was telling somebody the other day it felt like November 1963, when Kennedy was shot,” Felker said about the news. “I just thought, That didn’t happen.”
Felker’s reaction to the news happened to be caught on camera by a film crew following him for a PBS.org series called “Veterans Coming Home.” The 10-part digital series — spearheaded by Kindling Group and Wisconsin Public Television, in partnership with PBS Stories of Service — focuses on the transition back to civilian life from military service. New episodes are being posted twice a week to PBS.org through July 4; Felker’s piece premiered last week and can be viewed at http://ow.ly/jPp4301IMSZ.
The crew interviewed Felker for several hours last month, attended a meeting of the local chapter of Veterans for Peace and covered the club’s participation in the Philadelphia Pride Parade, which it has marched in since 2010.
“It’s just a given now that Veterans for Peace participates in the Pride parade,” Felker said. “It’s almost all straight vets participating, but they really want to do it and they like doing it.”
The group handed out wristbands with the organization’s name on it to cheering crowds at the June 12 event. The LGBT community’s reception of veterans wasn’t always that warm, Felker noted.
Felker, 66, a Philadelphia native, entered the Navy in August 1968, primarily as a means for paying for college. After boot camp, he intended to enter the Navy’s journalism school but was ultimately assigned to its hospital corps, which focused on medical training and patient care. Although he didn’t support the Vietnam War, the military ordered him overseas at the end of 1969. Felker spent eight months as a medic with an infantry unit, largely performing first aid for Marines injured by land mines and booby traps. He also spent time doing mine sweeps with Marines and sick calls in local villages.
While Felker wasn’t yet out, he said his fellow servicemembers in Vietnam didn’t pressure him for not conforming to masculine stereotypes.
“I wasn’t the most macho person,” he said. “I wasn’t military-minded. I was issued a .45 but I didn’t want to carry a weapon; I considered myself an undeclared conscientious objector. But the Marines were very supportive and took care of me. They showed me respect.”
That was harder to attain once he returned from Vietnam in December 1970. He served out his remaining 18 months on a naval base in San Francisco and later settled in the city — where he said he felt comfortable being out as a gay man, but not as a veteran.
“I was taking a class about homosexuality as a social issue at San Francisco State University — and this was one of the first gay classes offered anywhere — and someone brought up Vietnam. The instructor said something about how American mothers weren’t raising their sons to be murderers, killers, and it kind of turned the whole class against me.”
In 1980, he contacted organizers of San Francisco’s Pride parade to inquire about veterans groups participating.
“They told me no and that half the Pride committee thought that every Vietnam vet should be tried as a war criminal,” Felker said.
Undeterred, Felker marched with a group of lesbian mothers, wearing a shirt stating that he was a Vietnam veteran against war.
Felker said stigma around being a Vietnam vet began to fade in the early 1980s.
“I think people started to see that people were dealing with the draft, dealing with limited options,” he said.
When Veterans for Peace formed in the mid-1980s, Felker joined, and later got involved in the Philadelphia chapter when he moved back from the West Coast in 1990.
The organization is comprised of vets who served as far back as World War II and up through the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The concept is, we’ve seen what the military is like and some of us have seen what combat is like,” Felker explained. “So we want to use our experiences to speak out against militarism, against war, to try to promote peace issues.”
Because of his particular experiences, Felker has worked around a campaign to ban land mines and cluster munitions.
The group’s message was unintentionally timely the morning of Philadelphia Pride, as the crowds began hearing about the attack in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
Before the group set off in the parade, Felker requested a sign that said: “Every day, 90 Americans die from gun violence. We must stop the carnage.”
“It was unfortunately too appropriate for that Sunday morning,” he said. “It was horrendous but we felt like we had to go on; everyone was expecting a parade, and I’m glad we did it. The vets who marched with us really enjoyed it and I feel like we really got our message across.”
For more information about Veterans for Peace, visit www.veteransforpeace.org.