Vietnam veteran Jack Meagher ’63 brings his mission of restoration and reconciliation to UD.
It’s the war America has wanted to forget.
But John “Jack” Meagher ’63 can’t forget — and he doesn’t want his government or his fellow citizens to forget, either.
Not when he sees Vietnamese babies being born to this day with birth defects caused by the toxic chemical defoliant Agent Orange.
Not when he meets Vietnamese people blinded by land mines, or children with missing or twisted limbs caused by cluster bombs that glitter like colorful toys.
Not when he witnesses the present-day bitterness and divisions among Americans that can be traced in many ways to the Vietnam War.
“Vietnam veterans were supposed to go home and hide their faces,” he told an audience last winter at the Dayton International Peace Museum. “Our country has not acknowledged anything about the war and what we did there.”
Meagher hardly has hidden his face, hardly remained silent, since coming home from Vietnam in 1968. For the better part of three decades the retired judge has been talking about the war’s enduring wounds — psychological as well as physical — and promoting healing for American veterans. “War changes you forever,” he says softly. “You learn to cope with it and deal with it, but a stain is on you. I shut down psychologically after the war.”
His entire life has been a quest for justice, whether in his opinions from the bench or in his advocacy for reparations for the people of Vietnam.
“A U.S. president needs to say that we used chemicals and munitions, including land mines, that continue to injure or kill many Vietnamese,” he says. “Our government needs to change its policies and work with the Vietnamese people to make amends for those wrongs. A lot of people say, ‘Just forget it; leave it alone.’ But in my experience, when you do something that is harmful, you stand up and acknowledge it and make amends for what you did. My mother, my religion and the Marianists taught me these principles.”
“Our government needs to change its policies and work with the Vietnamese people to make amends for those wrongs. A lot of people say, ‘Just forget it; leave it alone.’ But in my experience, when you do something that is harmful, you stand up and acknowledge it and make amends for what you did. My mother, my religion and the Marianists taught me these principles.”
Meagher is so passionate about that mission that he has committed $123,000 to the University of Dayton Human Rights Center to launch the Vietnam Legacies Project, which is exploring the lasting consequences of the war within Vietnam and the United States. Since summer 2019, the project has involved a combination of community dialogues, academic scholarship and field research that culminated Oct. 22–23 in a Human Rights Center symposium on transitional justice, advocacy and the U.S.-Vietnam War.
It’s not only the Vietnamese people who will benefit from a changed perspective on the Vietnam War, he says, but also the American veterans and the American people: “The Vietnamese people are still suffering, but they aren’t saying, ‘When are you going to help us?’ I say it’s our soul that needs healing.”
The term “pracademic” is often used by Shelley Inglis, the Human Rights Center’s executive director, to capture the project’s dynamic. “Our goal is to bridge the academic-versus-practice divide,” she explains. “Too often research is done generating books that aren’t translated into the information that practitioners need to do evidence-based activism.”
The Vietnam Legacies Project fulfills the multidimensional mission of the Human Rights Center, Inglis says: traditional education and research, certainly, but also dialogue and advocacy.
“The center doesn’t have any particular expertise around Vietnam or the historical issues around the conflict, but one part of our thematic focus has been nonviolence and peace,” she says. “So instead we are looking at the conflict in terms of the social and political conflicts of today and advocacy to address the war’s legacies.”
Paul Morrow, a political philosopher, is the John M. Meagher Human Rights Fellow. He’s an expert in the way societies grapple with the ongoing consequences of war, and, like Meagher, he wants the project to bear tangible fruit.
Morrow says Meagher keeps the team laser-focused on promoting social justice and making reparations for wrongdoing: “He really wants to see on-the-ground change.”
“Paul is the right person for the job,” Meagher says of Morrow. “He is an academic, yet very practical, bringing lots of different people together. We aren’t just looking to publish papers. We are looking for the next step.”
Benjamin Schrader, the project’s field researcher, is an Iraq War veteran who has dedicated his life to scholarly research and anti-war activism.
“If we want to make the world a better place, we can’t stay holed up in our rooms,” he says. “Academia without activism is heartless, and the reverse is mindless.”
Meagher was 11 when his father, John Michael Meagher, died from heart disease, leaving his mother, Ethel, to raise five children on her own. His youngest brother was 18 months old.
Ethel had been raised by the nuns at St. Joseph’s Female Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn, New York, and Meagher said her faith sustained her after the early loss of her husband.
“I would call myself an Irish Catholic Democrat Dodgers fan — not necessary in that order,” Meagher jokes. “My mother instilled in us a basic love of the faith. It was the main thing in our lives, part of the fabric of our lives. During my senior year at Holy Trinity High School, I came very close to signing on to become a Marianist brother. Instead, I went directly to UD.”
Meagher participated in ROTC and graduated from UD as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. He earned a law degree from the University of Cincinnati before being stationed overseas, first in Germany, and later — from 1967 to 1968 — in Vietnam.
“I had no thought of going to war,” he recalls. “I planned to do my service in Germany, but the Army needed more officers in Vietnam. I was confronted with the choice between violating my personal beliefs or refusing to serve, with all the consequences that would entail. I made the difficult decision to go to Vietnam, and I have lived with that decision to this day.”
Before long the young officer began to ask himself, “Why are we in Vietnam?”
“More and more, it made no sense,” he recalls. “We were killing farmers and peasants and being killed and wounded in ever-increasing numbers.”
After the war Meagher eventually returned to Dayton, serving first as a trial lawyer, then a Dayton Municipal Court judge and finally a Montgomery County Common Pleas Court judge for 20 years. After retiring he started a second career as a mediator in Dayton and the San Francisco Bay area, where he now lives with his wife, Kathy.
“Judge Meagher spent almost a lifetime on the bench doing the right thing, doing what was fair,” says his friend Chuck Searcy, who runs the nonprofit Project RENEW in Vietnam. “Jack’s embrace of justice as a lifetime passion has carried over to his compassion for the Vietnamese who, most of them, suffered under years of injustice in a war they did not want, and which was tragically unfair for them.”
Meagher went back to Vietnam for the first time since the war as part of the first delegation of Americans to travel there since the normalization of relations with the United States in 1995. The Americans volunteering with the nonprofit group Peace Trees worked side by side with Vietnamese locals to plant 6,000 trees and to remove land mines from Quang Tri Province in central Vietnam, one of the most heavily bombed areas during the war.
Initially Meagher felt apprehensive about how the Vietnamese would react to the American veterans. Would they be greeted with hostility? Treated as the enemy?
“I found out the Vietnamese had no animosity toward the veterans,” he recalls. “It was amazing. Here were people who had every right to be angry with us, yet they were not. Westerners like to hang on to things, but the Vietnamese had moved on. They had a country to rebuild.”
During the course of his research, Schrader has heard the same account from countless veterans. “Every story I have heard is that the Vietnamese people have welcomed veterans with open arms,” he says. “When you return to the scene of the trauma, healing can take place. You are relieved of that burden; you are able to release that pain. And it’s even more healing if you are able to give back and to have a reciprocal relationship with the people of Vietnam, as Jack has done.”
One of the deepest of those friendships blossomed during that first return trip in 1995. Meagher and his fellow veterans had just returned from a day of planting trees when a group of high school students approached them, hoping to practice their English.
It became a daily ritual. “Jack, your kids are here,” his friends would announce, and he invariably lingered to talk with the children. Their English wasn’t much better than his non-existent Vietnamese, but Meagher soon realized that one of the students, Dang Quang Toan, was particularly keen on learning English.
As a thank you for the English lessons, Dang took Meagher on a motorbike tour of the nearby city of Dong Ha.
“I will never forget that day,” Meagher says. “I was the center of attention. He introduced me to all his friends, who asked me many questions about America. I was meeting the future of Vietnam.”
After returning home to the States, Meagher sought out the most comprehensive English-to-Vietnamese and Vietnamese-to-English dictionaries and mailed them to his new friend.
“The day I received the Oxford dictionary from him, I was so happy,” Dang recalls. “The dictionary was a big help for my English language development. My friendship with Jack was a good motivation for me to continue my studying and choose English for my bachelor’s degree.”
Meagher encouraged Dang to persevere with his studies, offering financial as well as moral support. In the end he influenced Dang’s choice of career as well. Since 2004 Dang has worked as a victim assistance specialist for Project RENEW, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the number of deaths and injuries caused by cluster bombs and other munitions remaining in Quang Tri Province.
“Jack’s love and his readiness to help war victims are the motivation for me to join hands with him helping the unfortunate people affected by the war,” Dang says.
In addition to surveying and clearing unexploded ordnance, Project RENEW provides advocacy, victim assistance and risk education, particularly for children, who are taught how to identify cluster bombs.
“I have hands-on experience helping families, usually the poorest and most disadvantaged who face a lifetime of injuries, disabilities and illnesses,” Dang says.
Dang and Meagher hadn’t seen each other in nearly 25 years when Meagher and Schrader embarked on a 16-day tour of Vietnam in September 2019, organized by Veterans for Peace. (Schrader presented his research findings from the tour at the Vietnam Legacies Symposium’s panel on reparations and healing.) Beginning in the north, in Hanoi, and finishing in the south, in Ho Chi Minh City, the veterans visited orphanages and hospitals that treat children born with complications caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
“People ran across the street to talk to the veterans, and at the veterans association of Vietnam, everybody was joking and laughing,” Schrader says. “Some of the North Vietnamese military told them, ‘You did what your government asked you to do. It wasn’t your fault.’”
The two friends planned to reunite in Hue City, close to Dang’s hometown, but instead encountered each other entirely by chance. As Dang stepped into a hotel elevator in Hanoi, he saw a face that seemed strangely familiar. Touching the man’s arm, he cried out, “Jack? Are you Jack?”
“You can’t know how happy I was at that moment, to see my close friend after more than 20 years,” Dang says.
The friendship has been just as enriching for Meagher, he says: “Meeting Toan and other Vietnamese people has enabled me to make amends for what my country did there during the war.”
The feeling is mutual, Searcy says: “Jack has returned the generosity and forgiveness the Vietnamese have shown to us with his own measure of generosity and compassion toward them. The Vietnamese have seen that; they appreciate it, and they will never forget it.”
Meagher’s reach extends beyond just words, Searcy says, embracing practical actions that help those most in need — not only his work with the Vietnam Legacies Project, but also his support of Peace Trees and the rehabilitation work Dang is doing with Project RENEW to help victims of bombs and mines in Vietnam.
“Jack is one of the most decent human beings on the planet, with a keen understanding of human nature and humanity,” Searcy says. “Yet he carries the pain of the war and the sorrow that more than one generation of Vietnamese and Americans suffers from the war’s continuing consequences, even today.”
Meagher has transformed the profound lessons of his wartime experience into something positive, Searcy says: “He has reached out to the Vietnamese people, to other American veterans and to U.S. citizens sometimes divided by the politics of the war. He has brought people together to understand the tragedy of what we did in Vietnam so that we would not let such a thing happen again. Jack has led the way to greater knowledge and understanding through discourse and examination of hard truths, so that we can learn from the pain of the past.”
That remains a high hurdle, as Morrow and Schrader learned from a winter visit to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton. The researchers found only the most glancing reference to Agent Orange, the toxic chemical sprayed throughout Vietnam — an estimated 13 million gallons — to clear foliage around bases and military routes. “It was mentioned in a brief description of Operation Ranch Hand, but it doesn’t discuss the health effects,” Morrow says. “That’s an insult to the American service members and the Vietnamese people who have been affected by Agent Orange.”
The omission is a telling example of a broader American tendency to look away from painful periods from our past, Morrow says: “You hear the phrases, ‘The U.S. doesn’t lose wars,’ and, ‘For Marines, there are only battles won.’ That’s why nobody wants to talk about Vietnam. We would like more acknowledgement from the U.S. government of our historical responsibility for the lasting effect of our involvement with the war.”
Meagher has a ready answer for those who contend it’s unpatriotic to speak out against the Vietnam War or other U.S. military actions: “I honor the veterans for doing what they were asked to do, but opposing a war that was wrong is not anti-veteran. More than 58,000 Americans were killed and hundreds of thousands were wounded, all because of a war based on false premises.”
It’s not easy to conduct an honest conversation about war, particularly this war, one of the most divisive chapters in recent American history. Yet that’s the miracle that happened when the Vietnam Legacies Project convened a community forum at the Peace Museum in Dayton, titled Peace Across Borders: Human Rights Activism in America and Vietnam Today.
Meagher set the tone with an urgent appeal: “Let’s stop going to war! Let’s think about the people we kill and the damage we do to our souls. It’s abnormal. It’s against our human natures.”
He continued with a candid assessment of the Vietnam War as a catalyst of much of the political strife in America today. “What gets forgotten is what the Vietnam War did to separate this country,” Meagher said. “Up until then we were one country. During the Vietnam War, parents and children stopped talking to one another. In many ways we have never recovered from these divisions.”
The narratives surrounding veterans have shifted dramatically, Schrader told the audience: “Veterans were scorned during Vietnam yet put on a pedestal after 9/11 to the point where it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about why war is wrong. Vets would never tell people they had been in Vietnam. By contrast, after 9/11 the response became hyperpatriotic that I became sick of being told, ‘Thank you for your service.’”
Criticism of military action should not be viewed reflexively as anti-military, Schrader said: “We need to be able to have critical conversations about the way the military operates and the expansion of the military-industrial complex.”
High school sophomore Katie Montgomery, age 15, attended the forum hoping to learn about a war that is rarely talked about in her history classes. “It’s weird because our U.S. history class is primarily about wars, but we never talk about the Vietnam War,” she says.
Montgomery, too, fears she risks the accusation of being anti-military if she speaks out against a specific military action.
“If you want to be for the troops, don’t support harming the troops,” she says. “But our country 24/7 is talking about how great our military is; we are unwilling to talk about the way that war can be wrong and harmful. We need to find the right balance between being thankful for our veterans and truly helping them.”
She says she wishes every student at her high school could have heard the presentation.
“Jack Meagher has an important story to tell,” Montgomery says. “You can tell that he comes from a space of total caring and empathy.”
UD music major Katie Schreyer met Meagher during her work as a student researcher for the Vietnam Legacies Project. With Morrow and Inglis as her research supervisors, she interviewed those who were students and professors on campus during the Vietnam War era.
“Before starting my research, I only knew basic facts about the Vietnam War,” she recalls. “I’ve learned a lot about the war’s social and cultural impact, such as how protesting the war led to protests and activism about other social issues.”
Meeting veterans such as Meagher is invaluable, Schreyer says: “Hearing his story and all of the activism he has done since his time in the service was really inspiring, and it made me think about the ways in which I can contribute to the causes I am passionate about.”
That’s exactly the kind of impact that Kevin Kelly, the Peace Museum’s executive director, is hoping to achieve.
“Activism is critical for young people, because they will be leading the country soon enough,” he says. “If they had peace education at a young age, kids could grow up making huge changes in our society.”
Inglis ended the evening at the Peace Museum not with a scholarly summary but with a challenge, a call to action. “How does our society come to terms with long-term accountability and the repercussions of our actions? And what practically can the people of Dayton do to foster reconciliation?”
Despite these difficult conversations, the Peace Museum forum felt ultimately uplifting, forward-looking — much like Meagher himself, who has found a measure of peace in seeking justice for others.
“Peace is not just the absence of war,” he told the audience. “It’s a deeper, richer experience around education, health and living life with dignity. We do struggle with creating that in active ways. But if enough people are asking, ‘What can I do? How can I make a contribution?’, who’s to say we can’t change the world?”
Mary McCarty is a longtime Dayton area journalist.