My Don Duncan — And Ours

by Fred Gardner, June 1, 2016

The NY Times ran Don Duncan's obituary May 9 — seven years after he died in a Madison, Indiana nursing home. The belated obit by Robert McFadden shows that somebody at the Times understood the importance of Don Duncan's life. It was a long, respectful obit, with two photos, one of him in uniform on the glossy cover of Ramparts Magazine, Feburary, 1966, the most highly decorated enlisted man in the US Army, wearing his Special Forces beret, arms folded to show all those chevrons, looking sad and serious and saying "I quit!" The sight of him was like a trumpet blast of hope for everyone who thought "we" should not be supporting the South Vietnamese regime.

This is his article in Ramparts,

Don Duncan in Ramparts

Soon after Master Sgt Duncan retired (keep your silver star), he went to Fort Jackson to testify in support of Captain Howard Levy, MD, who was being court-martialed for refusing to train Special Forces troopers in the healing arts. Duncan confirmed Levy's claim that the medical training would be used with an ulterior purpose — to gather intelligence that would be used by killers and torturers. In the fall of '67 I moved to Columbia, South Carolina with two friends and set up a coffeehouse called The UFO to provide GIs stationed at Fort Jackson a respite from the military scene. We were acting in solidarity with Levy and so were some of the GIs who frequented the coffeehouse. Duncan moved to the East Bay and we became friends when I worked briefly for Ramparts in '68. When Levy got out of Leavenworth we all worked in concert for a while. By the winter of 1970-71 I had split with the fake left and so had Levy. I think Don Duncan did, too, but not loudly. I heard he had wound up in Indiana and figured I'd look him up if and when I made it to the midwest. But when I was in Chicago I was too busy covering a medical marijuana conference. It wouldn't have mattered —he was gone.

"But I always thought I'd see you again..." 

This is from Howard Levy, MD:

Last Saturday evening I had a long telephone conversation with a professor friend in Upstate NY. He served in Nam and the subject of the Green Berets came up.

After the call I got the number I had for Don Duncan in Indiana and was set to at last make the call I'd so longed shamefully put off making. But somehow I thought it wise to first Google Don and lo and behold there was the next day's obit staring at me.

It took a while for me to understand exactly what I was reading given the weirdness of reading a 7 year-old obit published that day. When reality did sink in I experienced the sadness you have expressed, which has not yet left me.

Donald was there for me at Ft Jackson but he was also there when I needed advice and guidance on subsequent political matters. He was a companion and a stable reference point for me when I visited the West Coast. We shared ideas, dinners and, as I recall, Scotch and whatever else.

I loved the guy and never forgot the meaning of his commitment to the anti-war effort.

ASA's Don Duncan

In 2002 a man named Don Duncan, now 40ish and proprietor of a dispensary in Los Angeles co-founded Americans for Safe Access (with support from the Berkeley Patients Group, in which he had a stake, and a few other dispensaries). When I first met him at an event in Berkeley, I told him I knew the real Don Duncan. (I hope I didn't phrase it that way, but it might have popped out.) He had no idea who I was talking about. I had to explain and I sensed that this new Don Duncan wasn't very impressed. It drove home that whoever had divided the movement of the '60s into a thousand single-issue groups had succeeded beyond repair.

Your Don Duncan, hard-working and soft-spoken, is still a honcho in ASA but overshadowed by the charismatic leader, Steph Sherer. When Steph hit town in 2002-03, one of her key tactics was to organize rallies in front of courthouses where marijuana activists were being tried. I often responded to her calls, and would provide background info, informally, for any reporters who showed up at the rallies.

I wrote a song that I don't think I ever played for Ms Sherer and now probably can't remember. Something like this:

Who am I to suggest? Who am I to give advice? Every so-called bargain, I paid for it twice. F is for Failure. Why am I on your list? Who am I to be asked? Who am I to resist?

Who am I to have hopes of joining the troops when I never fit in in meetings or groups? Camejo and Nader are warning of war —I’m still passing leaflets out outside the door

Who are you to call rallies with pre-arranged busts? You pass yourself off as deserving our trust. Have you stated your interest? What’s your real goal? Do your tactics jibe with your heart and your soul?

Why am I suspicious? Why should I get involved in somebody else’s case that’s unsolved? Who am I to keep coming to the plaza at noon and find myself hoping it’s over with soon?

Who am I to draw lessons? Can’t draw worth a damn. And I watched them erase what’s called Vietnam. Not just civilians got hip to the lies, that war was deplored by US GIs.

Now your Don don’t know the Don Duncan I knew not that long ago, in Berkeley, too. Don Duncan (them both) have plenty to share. It once was one movement. Who knows and who cares?

Who am I to go there? Who am I to advise? Who am I to ask when will the party arise? Who are you to say now? Who are you to say go? Who are you to say yes? Who am I to say no?

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