Peg Mullen is 88 now. She lives in Waterloo, Iowa. She was the most famous anti-war mom of the Vietnam era. You might not recognize her name, but you may remember “Friendly Fire.” That was the name of the book about Mullen’s activism spurred by her son’s death in Vietnam. In the movie of the same name, Carol Burnett played Mullen.
On Wednesday, the day after U.S. military deaths in Iraq reached 2,000, I found Mullen through the Spokane Vortex. In the newsroom, that’s what we call the idea that almost every national story has some connection to the Inland Northwest. Recently, I was chatting with my buddy Mary Ann Heskett about anti-Iraq-war-mom Cindy Sheehan. I said, “She’s like that ‘Friendly Fire’ mom from Vietnam.”
Mary Ann said, “That’s my Aunt Peg.” Mary Ann lives in Spokane, as does her mother, Betty Goodyear, who is Mullen’s sister-in-law.
And so, thanks to the Spokane Vortex, Mullen and I connected by phone, and she told me her story.
Mullen’s oldest son, Michael, didn’t want to fight in Vietnam. He was in graduate school in Missouri, a biochemist studying ways to feed the world’s starving children. His university deferment expired, and soon he was in Vietnam, writing anti-war letters home to his parents, Iowa farmers.
Peg Mullen was a close friend of the mother of the first boy from their rural area to die in Vietnam. To comfort her, Mullen said, “He died for our country.” The friend said, “Don’t ever say that to anyone again. You can’t justify what is going on.”
Michael Mullen was killed Feb. 18, 1970, by U.S. artillery fire that fell short of its target. When Mullen and her husband, Gene, received Michael’s final paycheck, they felt rage. “That was what Michael’s life was worth – $1,800 from the federal government,” Mullen said.
She and her husband used the money to place an ad in the Des Moines Sunday Register. The ad, revolutionary for the time, featured 714 black crosses, one for each of the 714 Iowans who had died in Vietnam.
The copy above the crosses read: “A silent message to fathers and mothers of Iowa: We have been dying for nine, long, miserable years in Vietnam in an undeclared war … how many more lives do you wish to sacrifice because of your silence?”
News of the ad spread nationwide. “I don’t think there was a newspaperman who didn’t call us,” Mullen remembered. “It was three days and nights. We just sat there and answered the phone.”
Mullen attended dozens of anti-war rallies throughout the United States. She was cursed at and beaten. Writer C.D.B. Bryan traveled to Iowa to spend time with the family. His articles in The New Yorker increased Mullen’s visibility. But she never read “Friendly Fire,” the book that resulted, because when she read excerpts, she felt Bryan portrayed farmers as hicks.
“He was a graduate of Yale,” she said. “There was no way we could connect with someone like that.”
Family members agreed to the 1979 TV movie based on the book, because they felt it important to get their anti-war message out, but Mullen has never watched it, even after chatting by phone with Carol Burnett.
While in her 70s, Mullen attended writing workshops at the University of Iowa so she could set the record straight in a book of her own. “Unfriendly Fire” was published in 1995.
Mullen’s health isn’t the greatest, she said, or she’d be protesting the Iraq war now, lying down alongside Cindy Sheehan in front of the White House.
Mullen’s voice grows edgy when she talks about the mothers of the 2,000 dead in Iraq. “Why aren’t they making more noise? We shouldn’t have lost anyone.”
But her voice softens again when she imagines the present with her son in it. Michael would be 61 now, a research scientist, a loving husband and father, perhaps a grandfather, too.
Mullen outlived her son, and she will miss him until the day she dies. This is a reality she shares with the parents of the 2,000, a number that rises now, every day.
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