In 1963, Gene Stoltzfus went to Vietnam as a Conscientious Objector with IVS (International Voluntary Services.) Six months later, when Gene unintentionally wandered into a Special Forces camp, he was welcomed as a fellow American. He asked two men who had come in from patrol where they had been. When they would not tell him, except to brag that they had made several kills, he found himself wondering, “If I speak some Vietnamese but can’t tell who are the VC (Vietcong), how can these men, who speak no Vietnamese, tell?”
By 1966, several IVS volunteers had been killed in ambushes and by other means. When one of his colleagues, David, was killed in the delta under strange circumstances by soldiers dressed in VC black, he received messages suggesting it might not have been the VC.
The following spring, someone from the American Embassy amiably described to Gene his highly confidential work, including training and supervising teams of soldier VC lookalikes. Gene did not sleep that night. He gradually decided that this war was actually a massive underground operation that included assassination and terror on both sides, and that his friend David had been killed by one of those U.S. secret teams in the delta.
Massacres like My Lai were occurring regularly. Other volunteers working in Vietnam began to encourage Gene and others to go home and speak out. Dozens of IVS volunteers resigned in 1967. When Gene chained himself, in protest, to the gate of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, many Vietnamese began to trust him, and to share their experiences and details about relatives who were either killed or had disappeared.
When Gene got to Washington, DC, he began speaking out and eventually, decades later, became the founding director, and a guiding spirit, of Christian Peacemaker Teams, where I got to know him.
In 1966, Lance volunteered with Vietnam Christian Service (VCS). I met him for the first time in January 2012, at the Small Arms Trade Treaty conference here in Bangkok. Lance had been born Quaker. In Vietnam, Lance had lived, with nine other volunteers, in an old French village hotel. But one year later, after the Tet Offensive, he had decided it was time to move on to Thailand. He had fallen in love with and married Elizabeth Chamnan Panyathiwat, who graduated with my wife Lacksana from St Joseph High School in Bangkok.
After exchanging stories for three hours, I asked, “Did you get to know Gene Stoltzfus?”
“Did you know that Gene suspected that US Special Forces assassinated some of the IVS volunteers?”
Lance paused a long moment, then finally began, “A year after I left Vietnam, one of the other volunteers in my old French hotel was assassinated. His name was Studebaker. [A Church of the Brethren volunteer.] As usual, there were no witnesses. I was haunted by this, and finally decided to write a story about it. It was published by one or two of the churches who were sponsoring me.
“Many years later, I went on a spiritual retreat. I was sharing a room with a PhD student in Psychology, who had also served in Vietnam. I mentioned that I had written this story about Studebaker. He asked to read it.
“After an hour or more of silence, he suddenly started shouting, ‘I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it! I didn’t kill Studebaker!’
“He did, however, admit that he had been part of the Phoenix Program, and that it did assassinate Americans [and more than 26,000 Vietnamese].
“It was very hard to share a room with him for the rest of that week.”