VFW: Woodstock Wasn't the Only Thing Happening 40 Years Ago

While some in the media have been dusting off their love beads, bell-bottoms and broomstick skirts in an effort to wax nostalgic about Woodstock, the VFW has reminded its members that the world did not stop for those four days in August 1969.

In fact, for 109 American soldiers, the world ended that weekend.

VFW Magazine honored those soldiers in the August 2009 cover story, “While Woodstock Rocked, GIs Died.”

Much has been made over the “half a million strong” that flocked to a dairy farm in rural New York to celebrate music and peace. Richard K. Kolb instead compared the coverage Newsweek and Time gave to the festival while shortchanging American efforts in Vietnam.

“Newsweek described them as 'a youthful, long-haired army, almost as large as the U.S. force in Vietnam,” wrote Kolb. Time claimed Woodstock “may well rank as one of the significant political and sociological events of the age.” The same article referred to the Vietnam as the “meaningless war in the jungles of Southeast Asia” and cited sociologist Amitai Etzoni, who stated that “the young need opportunities for authentic service.”

As for those that gave the ultimate sacrifice in the name of “authentic service” Kolb reported, “The casualties they sustained over those four days were genuine, yet none of the elite media outlets were praising their selflessness.

But unlike Woodstock's audience, labeled by Newsweek as “the nation's affluent white young,” Kolb wrote that the soldiers killed that weekend “mirrored the population of the time.”

Kolb offered statistics to prove his case:

A full 92 percent were white (seven of whom had Spanish surnames) and 8 percent black. Some 67 percent were Protestants; 28 percent Catholic. A disproportionate number – more than one-third – hailed from the South. More than two-thirds were single; nearly one-third married. Not surprisingly, the vast majority (91 percent) were under the age of 30, with 78 percent between the ages of 18 and 22.

Kolb also poignantly noted, “Of the four days, Aug. 18 – the last day of “peace and love” in the Catskills when the 50,000 diehards departed after the final act – was the worst for the men in Vietnam. Thirty-five of them died on that one miserable day.”

Thirty-five died. Hundreds more were wounded. On August 9, 2009, The Washington Post ran a story about a man who figured prominently if briefly in the legend of Woodstock. As Post staff writer Neely Tucker described it:

It was like the second day of the festival and Rodgers, 6-foot-5 and about 120 pounds, all of 19 years old, staggered out of the Port-O-San portable toilet, marijuana pipe in hand, and wow, there were guys with cameras, making what became the iconic film "Woodstock." Rodgers's blue shirt was open, he was unwashed and unkempt, his brown hair was an unruly wad on top of his head, and he was about 17 tokes over the line.

"Want some? Want some?" he says to the filming crew, offering hits. He's got this goofy grin. He says "Far out!" and "Out of sight!" For lo these many years, the lovable pothead scene has been a fan favorite.

Tucker's article caught up with Rodgers, forty years on, using nearly 1,500 words to sketch the unremarkable life of an unreconstructed hippie. It is perhaps too much to ask that the Post spill even a fraction of that ink to chronicle the life of one of the hundreds of Americans who were wounded that weekend on the other side of the world. It doesn't fit the self-congratulatory nostalgia.

The sacrifice and service that ultimately changed and, in the case of 109, ended the lives of many young Americans is not the defining notion of that summer weekend in 1969. They are overshadowed by the 500,000 people that crowded onto a farm for three days of self indulgence and … entertainment.