In 1966, Howard Petrick's number came up, and he was drafted against his will into the Army. During his years of service, he actively spoke out against the war to fellow troops, to the general public, to anyone who would listen. When he was threatened with a court martial, his case became a civil liberties cause concerning the right of free speech for GIs. More than forty years later, he shares his story in his show Breaking Rank!
NUVO: How was your case as a reluctant draftee different from others?
Howard Petrick: I was the first guy to go in and actively organize against the war without breaking the rules. Some other guys, previously, who were opposed to the war would eventually refuse an order to do something. Then [the Army] would just arrest them and throw them in the stockade after a court martial. I consciously decided that I would be like the good solider; I would do everything I was told to do, but I would insist on being able to speak about the war when I was off duty and on my own time.
NUVO: To whom did you speak?
Petrick: I spoke at a national antiwar conference. I spoke to guys in the barracks and all over the base every chance I got. I found out some guys were receptive to antiwar stuff, and I just kept going from there. I went to college campuses and spoke too.
NUVO: Did you do this independently or as part of a group movement?
Petrick: Well, I was involved in the anti-war movement before I was drafted. I was becoming political. I had joined the Young Socialist Alliance. I had always been involved with civil liberties and the civil rights movement. I didn’t do it as a conscious thing with other people. I was drafted, and I just went.
NUVO: How did you decide to turn this into a theatrical piece?
Petrick: That happened pretty much by mistake. The short story is I took a class from a playwright and director in San Francisco, who is a real genius at finding the story in people. I did it because I was a documentary filmmaker several years ago, and I wanted to see how he talked to people. I thought that would help me to interview people. He told me I had to get up and do something. We talked about my Army experiences, and he said to write that up for next week. From that, I went on and eventually I had about over three and a half hours of material. So far I’ve performed it at different Fringe festivals and had an eight week run at The Marsh Theater in Berkeley.
NUVO: And what do you feel is the message of this piece?
Petrick: I’m just hoping that people sort of take this to heart and understand that they have to go out and constantly fight for their rights. I’ve learned a lot of people remember what happened in the '60s and '70s — fighting for women’s rights and gay rights and against the war and in the civil rights movement. Even though [these rights] are constantly being attacked and in some areas eroded, I think there are still people who want to do something.