“Blood on the Tracks”: Brian Willson’s Memoir of Transformation From Vietnam Vet to Radical Pacifist

Today we spend the hour with a man who put his life on the line twice: once when he served in the Vietnam War and again when he came back. On September 1, 1987, Brian Willson took part in a nonviolent political action outside the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California. He sat down on the train tracks along with two other veterans to try to stop a U.S. government munitions train sending weapons to Central America during the time of the Contra wars. The train didn’t stop. Willson suffered 19 broken bones, a fractured skull and lost both of his legs. “Before, I had spent many months in Nicaragua in the war zones, and I had been to El Salvador talking to guerrillas and talking to human rights workers, understanding the incredible extent of murders that were going on and maimings and displacements, because of fear of being murdered,” Willson said. He decided, “I have to at least escalate my own nonviolent occupation, if you will, of the tracks.” In retrospect, Willson added, “I regret that I lost my legs, but I don’t regret that I was there. I did what I said I was going to do… Following orders, I discovered, is not what I’m about.” Today, he is traveling the country visiting solidarity protests with Occupy Wall Street, where some of his fellow protesters are also veterans. He’s also been talking about his new memoir, “Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson.” On the West Coast, he completed much of the tour on his handcycle.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with a man who put his life on the line at least twice: once, when he served in Vietnam, and again, when he came back. It was September 1st, 1987. Brian Willson took part in a nonviolent action outside the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California. He sat down on the train tracks along with two other veterans, trying to stop a U.S. government munitions train from sending weapons to Central America. The train did not stop. Willson lost both of his legs.

Well, Brian Willson joins us in our studio. He came to us yesterday. He’s traveling the country visiting Occupy sites, where some of his fellow protesters are also veterans. He has also been talking about his new memoir, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson. On the West Coast, Brian completed much of the tour on his handcycle. Now he’s on the East Coast.

I started by asking him exactly what happened on that day in September 1987, when he carrying out this act of peaceful resistance on the train tracks outside Concord Naval Weapons Station in California.

S. BRIAN WILLSON: It was a Tuesday, September 1st, 1987. And, of course, it was planned by me in advance after spending much time in Nicaragua and El Salvador witnessing the carnage of U.S. policy.

AMY GOODMAN: What was happening then there?


AMY GOODMAN: Nicaragua and El Salvador?

S. BRIAN WILLSON: Well, of course, President Reagan was—had his war on—war of terror and what he called the terrorists in revolutionary Nicaragua, that was—had overthrown Somoza, and the revolutionary process in El Salvador, trying to oust a very repressive, feudalistic government. And so, he was—Reagan declared there was a Soviet beachhead being formed in Latin America, which of course we all know is absurd, just another excuse for putting down self-determination processes in other countries.

So we knew the weapons were coming from the Concord, California, Naval Weapons Station, 25 miles east of San Francisco, and we decided to go there, after many efforts of trying to get Congress to stop the funding—this whole process of petitioning Congress, which is now pretty much an oligarchic institution representing corporations. We decided we would directly try to obstruct the flow of munitions that move on trucks and trains at Concord to the ships in Sacramento River. And so, it’s a three-mile track from the bunkers to the ship. It crosses a public right-of-way, highway. This is where we were vigiling. We had been vigiling for three months. Many arrests had taken place. I had only been a jail support person. And I decided on September 1st, 1987, which was an anniversary of the Veterans Fast for Life the year before on the steps of the Capitol, that two vets and I would do a 40-day water-only fast between the rails to obstruct, at least temporarily, the movement of the train.

So, I had watched these trains move all summer, with flatbed cars full of crates of white phosphorus rockets, 500-pound bombs, mortars, millions of rounds of ammunition. And it was just getting to the point where I said, I have to at least escalate my own nonviolent occupation, if you will, of the tracks. And we told the base what we were doing, why we were doing it, when we were going to do it, and asked for a meeting with the commander, and he refused.

So, at 10 of 12:00 on September 1st, we, the two other veterans and I, took our position on the rails, starting our 40-day water-only fast, knowing we would probably spend much of that in jail. There was a big sign next to our vigil that said, “Penalty for blocking federal munitions trains is a year in prison and a $5,000 fine.” So we knew what the consequences were. I actually—and the first train was coming just before noon, first train that day. And the next thing I know, I woke up in a hospital, four days later.

I have no memory of what happened. Of course, I had 40 friends there who were witnessing it. The other two veterans just barely got out of the way. The train was speeding. The FBI, in looking at the one video, said the train was accelerating to more than three times its five-mile-an-hour speed limit at the point of impact. We found out later that the train crew that day had been ordered not to stop the train, which was an unprecedented—basically an illegal order. Why? Because they said I was going to hijack the train, which of course—there were 350 armed Marines to protect the base. There was usually local police present when we were present on the tracks. I had never envisioned it being a dangerous action.

And then, while I was in the hospital, an FBI agent was fired. And after almost 22 years, he was fired for refusing to investigate me and three other veterans as domestic terrorist suspects. So this was all shocking to me, just shocking that I, this all-American kid that grew up in upstate New York, even though I kind of shifted after Vietnam to being a dissenter, or my father would just say a marginal person—I just never imagined this happening. Of course, this government will do anything. We know that. But I would imagine it doing it to people in other countries, but not to me in this country. So it was a very interesting experience.

AMY GOODMAN: When you woke up in the hospital four days later, what did you understand happened?

S. BRIAN WILLSON: Well, initially, I saw a lot of plants at the base of my bed, green plants. And my partner at the time was sitting next to me. And I blurted out, according—well, this is what I remember, my first words: “Wow! I’m in a jail cell with plants? And my family is next to the bed?” And my family explained to me, “Honey, you are in a hospital. You got hit by the train.” And I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it.

And then I was watching the replay on the wall television for several days. They were playing it on the news, and I was watching myself be run over by the train and was like, “Why just like” — this is what happens to people, of course, all over the world who obstruct the Yankee mad train that’s trying to repress people who want to have self-determination or what have you. So it was just another part of the U.S. policy coming home very personally to me viscerally.

And the day I woke up, 9,000 people showed up at the tracks and ripped up 300 feet of the tracks and stacked up the railroad ties in a very interesting sculpture. And from that day, for 28 consecutive months, day and night, 24 hours a day, there was a permanent occupation of the tracks of sometimes 200 people, with tents, blocking every train and every truck. Twenty-one hundred people were arrested. Three people had their arms broken by the police. This was all 24 years ago. Occupation of the tracks. The police were abusive. However, the trains, of course, did stop after that. It’s just that they had to stop and wait for massive numbers of arrests. And it was amazing.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you understand then, as you watched the video of yourself and the train rolling over you? As it rolled over you, it sliced off both your legs?

S. BRIAN WILLSON: It sliced off one of my legs and mangled the other one. I had a huge skull fracture. In fact, I have a plate in my skull right here. A piece of my skull the size of a lemon was completely dislodged from my skull and driven into—and destroyed my right frontal lobe, which was the—which is why the doctors were concerned that I might die in the operating room.

AMY GOODMAN: Brian Willson, telling his story, September 1st, 1987, telling us today, as he talks about his memoir, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson. We’ll be back with him in a minute.