Boston Globe - September 3, 2003, page D1

No retreat, no surrender

Vietnam hero Bobby Muller, a vet who inspired 'Born in the U.S.A.,' soldiers on for a cause, with help from the Boss

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff

WASHINGTON – Bobby Muller figures that at least two people played extraordinary roles in his life. One was the soldier who, in April 1969, dragged him down a South Vietnamese hillside after a bullet had punctured both lungs and his spinal cord, saving Muller's life by probably one minute. The other stares down at Muller from a poster in his office here: rock legend Bruce Springsteen.

''Did you know I'm the `cool rocking daddy'?'' Muller asks, his hands gripping his wheelchair. He is referring to the Springsteen song ''Born in the U.S.A.,'' the sometimes-misunderstood antiwar anthem in which the Boss sings about soldiers sent ''to go and kill the yellow man'' and includes the kicker: ''I'm a cool rocking daddy in the U.S.A.''

Muller is, indeed, the answer to the question: What does a famous antiwar protester do 34 years after returning home? He does not drift away in bitterness. He does not just repackage his message for the latest war. And he does not run for president, like his close friend, Senator John Kerry. Instead, he tries to repair a war-torn world with an arsenal of prosthetics and humanitarian aid, funded largely by a US government he once tormented.

Muller's tale is in many ways the companion piece to Kerry's better-known story. Indeed, Kerry and Muller lived strikingly parallel lives for many years. Both Kerry and Muller were presumed to be future stars when they became officers and served in Vietnam. Both returned with purple hearts and hero status and joined the antiwar movement. Then both failed in 1972 bids to win election to the US House of Representatives. Their parallel lives continued as both went to law school – Muller to Hofstra, Kerry to Boston College. Then, in 1978, they cofounded (with two others) Vietnam Veterans of America, which fought for increased veterans' benefits.

But then their paths diverged. Kerry continued to plot a life in politics and eventually went to the Senate. Muller swore he would never try to go into politics again, believing it would inhibit him from telling the truth, and his work for Vietnam veterans eventually landed him in the orbit of Springsteen, who'll play two concerts at Fenway Park this weekend. Springsteen helped save Muller's organization and made Muller the `cool rocking daddy,' which in turn enabled Muller to help put together a ban-the-land-mines campaign that won a Nobel Peace Prize. But first, this is about war, politics, and rock 'n' roll.Springsteen steps inIt is a stifling day in August as Muller, 58, glides his wheelchair through the offices of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, an unusual hybrid organization that provides humanitarian assistance in 14 countries while lobbying Congress on a variety of war-related issues. Muller's face has the wizened look of a hip oldster, or an old hipster, handsome and lightly wrinkled, swept by white hair.

''Listen to this,'' Muller says, as he slips a live concert CD into his stereo. Springsteen's voice fills Muller's office, echoing down the two decades since Springsteen performed the benefit show in 1981. Then Springsteen introduces Muller, who tells the crowd that ''rock 'n' roll, the very symbol of our generation, will promote the healing process'' for Vietnam veterans.

In understanding Muller's story, it is essential to know that Springsteen himself once seemed destined for Vietnam. The son of a World War II veteran, Springsteen received his induction notice. It has been variously reported that Springsteen avoided service because he had a brain concussion or an ankle injury from a motorcycle accident, or that he pretended to be crazy. In an interview nearly 20 years ago with Rolling Stone magazine, he recalled getting on a bus to take his physical, and ''I thought one thing: `I ain't going.' ''

In that interview, Springsteen said that the drummer in his high school band in Freehold, N.J., had gone to Vietnam, and ''he never came back. And the guys that did come back were not the same.''

Combat, up close

Around the same time that Springsteen avoided service, Muller volunteered for Marine officer duty straight out of Hofstra University's business school. He recalls being told that experience as an officer would help him get a job on Wall Street. ''Combat would be even better,'' Muller says he was informed. A native of Long Island, Muller excelled at sports and exuded leadership. He wrote this request on his Marine form: ''Front line Infantry; Duty station – Vietnam.''

On his first day – in his first 90 seconds after being dropped off by a helicopter on a ridgeline – he saw his first dead body. He watched in awe as US gunships dropped tons of ammunition on Viet Cong sites, figuring all resistance would be squelched. Just as he was pumping his fist in victory, he watched in further amazement as the enemy returned fire and downed a helicopter.

Eight months later, on April 29, 1969, Muller was leading a group of US and South Vietnamese soldiers on a mission to take a hill held by the Viet Cong. After the hill was hammered by US air power, Muller ordered three tanks to the front, got a seat aboard the first one, and headed up, even as some of the 500 South Vietnamese troops accompanying him fled.

Suddenly, Muller felt an incredible pain in his chest, which he describes as a combination of a shattering and ringing effect, as if someone had broken a windshield and hammered a bell in the same instant. Then the pain subsided, replaced by a warm feeling, and he assumed he was dying. He remembers thinking that his girlfriend would be mad and recalls what he thought would be his last words: ''I'm going to die on this [expletive] piece of ground. I don't [expletive] believe it.'' Then he lost consciousness.

After everything had gone so wrong on the battlefield, everything went right in his rescue. A fellow soldier risked his life to drag Muller down the hillside. A helicopter whisked him away within minutes. A hospital ship just happened to be nearby. When the doctors opened him up and found his punctured lungs and severed spine, they were amazed he was still breathing.

Campaign leader Muller's answering machine says it all. ''Bobby Muller!'' the voice says, as if he can't wait to talk to you. In person, Muller is pure passion, not anger. This is because, he says, he has never grieved about being a paraplegic. ''If you can open your eyes like I did, and you wind up [surviving] through a series of miraculous events,'' the feeling is euphoria, he says.

But the euphoria came with a hard reality. He went to Veterans Administration hospitals for months of rehabilitation and was appalled by the conditions. Like Kerry, Muller became an outspoken opponent of the war, appearing at rallies and on national television shows, but with the added bona fide of being a paraplegic. Muller also contributed a chapter to Kerry's 1971 antiwar compendium, ''The New Soldier.'' Years later, Gerald Nicosia, in his history of the Vietnam protest movement, ''Home to War,'' wrote that no one, ''not even John Kerry, would prove more important to the future of the Vietnam veterans' movement than'' Muller.

Just as Kerry ran and lost his campaign for a congressional seat in Lowell, Muller tried to become a congressman from Long Island. But Muller says he lost his chance at getting nominated after he told party leaders that he couldn't support a Democratic presidential candidate who supported the war.

Instead, after graduating from law school, Muller devoted himself to securing more benefits for veterans. Muller, Kerry, and two other veterans cofounded Vietnam Veterans of America. ''As far as I'm concerned, Bobby Muller is one of the great heroes of the veterans' efforts in the country,'' Kerry says.

When Time magazine in August 1979 compiled its list of 50 future US leaders, it picked Muller along with such notables as Senator Paul Tsongas. (Kerry, a private attorney at the time, wasn't on the list but went on to replace Tsongas in the Senate.)

But even as Muller was trying to help veterans, he angered many of them. In December 1981, a few months after Springsteen's benefit concert, Muller went to Hanoi as part of his campaign to get the United States to normalize relations with Vietnam. At the request of his hosts, a wreath was laid on his behalf at the mausoleum of communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Muller says that the Vietnamese included a card with it that said: ''With Respect, Vietnam Veterans of America.''

The visit ''caused a firestorm back here in the States,'' recalled John Terzano, who was with Muller on the trip and is now vice president of the foundation. Some veterans called Muller a traitor who should be tried for treason. But Muller thinks he was just ahead of his time; this was long before Kerry returned to Vietnam and 14 years before President Clinton normalized relations.

In any case, the VVA and its 1981 offshoot, the foundation, were more stable financially because of the Springsteen concert. ''Without Bruce Springsteen, there would be no Vietnam veterans movement,'' Muller often says. (Today Muller heads only the foundation, which is separate from the VVA.)

A couple of years later, Springsteen began thinking about a song titled ''Born in the U.S.A.,'' a dark and deep tale about a recruit going off to war. The disillusioned vet comes back with ''nowhere to go ... I'm a cool rocking daddy in the U.S.A.'' Springsteen later confirmed in a television interview that Muller was the man behind the phrase.

Springsteen invited Muller to the Hit Factory, a recording studio in New York City, to hear the song. Springsteen later wrote that Muller ''sat there for a moment listening to the first couple of verses, and then a big smile crossed his face.''

As Muller recalls it: ''Bruce said, `Did I get it?' I said, `You got it, man.' ''

But many people didn't get it. The Reagan White House used the song to introduce President Reagan at political rallies, and Reagan himself mentioned in one speech how admired Springsteen had become. The song's thumping beat and catchy chorus sounded jingoistic if a listener ignored phrases such as: ''I had a buddy at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong/They're still there, he's all gone.''

The land-mine ban

Just as ''Born in the U.S.A.'' was coming out, Muller took a trip to Cambodia that changed his life once again. The country was filled with victims of genocide, including many left limbless by land mines. After so many years focusing on US veterans, he was increasingly concerned about victims of war everywhere. He started by setting up an organization to provide prosthetics to Cambodians. Then, concerned about the millions of land mines still buried around the world, he worked to establish a campaign to ban land mines. The campaign seemed quixotic, but several groups signed on to the cause, and Muller hired an activist named Jody Williams to help run the operation, which would later be called the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines. Muller's veterans foundation would eventually spend $5 million on the effort.

For years, the foundation survived on rock benefits and donations, including regular contributions from Springsteen. Until 1992, Muller says, he refused to take federal money because ''it just was inconceivable that we could be in bed with the government.'' But Muller rationalized that with the end of the Cold War and the passage of legislation that provided money for land-mine victims, it was time to change. ''I had been drowning in righteousness for years, and it was time to get smart,'' Muller says. Though he has regrets ''every day'' about working so closely with the government, he keeps telling himself it is the smart thing to do. Today, three-fourths of the foundation's $13 million budget comes from the US government – a government that Muller notes regretfully has not signed the international treaty to ban land mines.

One day in 1997, a representative of the Nobel Peace Prize called Muller with the news: The Nobel had been awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, with Williams as a co-recipient. Muller wasn't named in the prize. Kerry, like many friends, regrets that Muller was not singled out. ''In my judgment, Bobby Muller was one of the co-winners of the prize,'' Kerry says. ''If there could have been a way for him to be named also, he should have been.'' (Williams did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.)

On this August day, however, Muller is concerned about the US involvement in Iraq. ''This is Vietnam all over again,'' he says, arguing that the Bush administration has repeated the Vietnam-era practice of misleading citizens about the difficulty of winning the war and the peace in a foreign land.

But Muller is working within the system now, not dwelling on protest, and his view is again being channeled by Springsteen. A few weeks ago, Muller was in the audience at a concert when Springsteen made an unusual public statement about the Iraq war: ''The question of whether we were misled into the war in Iraq isn't a liberal or conservative or Republican or Democratic question; it's an American one.'' Then Springsteen dedicated the next song to a man few people in the audience were likely to know: Bobby Muller.

Muller didn't mind the lack of recognition from the crowd. He was thinking the same thought as when Springsteen first played him a tape of ''Born in the U.S.A.'': ''You got it, man.''


Michael Kranish can be reached at

© 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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