Ted Studebaker: A DISSENTER FROM DESPAIR
Messenger Magazine June 15, 1971
Howard E. Royer
"Cool it and don't fret; this boy knows what he's doing."
These were among the parting salvos of Ted Studebaker as he left his Ohio homeland in the spring of 1969 for Brethren Volunteer Service and Vietnam. In effect, the sentiment was voiced by Ted again this spring from Vietnam, in a letter he wrote late on April 25 to critics back home. It was the last letter Ted was ever to write.
That night shortly after mid-night, the residence of the Vietnam Christian Service unit at Di Linh, South Vietnam, was shelled with B-40 rockets, blasted with a plastic charge, and raided by Vietcong soldiers. Three women who had made it to the bunker of the stairs of the old hunting lodge were not harmed; Ted, still in his bedroom, later was found shot to death. For him two years of created interchange in the lives of the central highland people in and around Di Linh, and a commitment to a third year of service, had come to a tragic end.
Among the three women who survived the terror was Ted's wife of one week, Ven Pak, a volunteer from Asian Christian Service who Ted had learned to know in language training in Saigon. Their wedding, which had occurred a block down the road from the Vietnam Christian Service house at the Koho Tin Lanh Church eight days before, was a festive occasion not only for the church but for many in the wider community.
It was in that community, 140 miles northeast of Saigon, that I had spent a couple of days with Ted some four months before, observing what he was trying to do in a foreign land. One of my clearest impressions was that Ted scarcely seemed a foreigner there; because of his own simple tastes, because of his proficiency in both the Vietnamese and Koho languages, and, perhaps above all, because he felt genuinely enriched by the culture of those around him, and sought to learn from that culture, Ted was very much at home.
This at-homeness became increasingly apparent as I saw how he related to neighbors, local officials, youth, teachers, pastors, priests, and peasants in our trek from village to village and door to door. It was discernible through his enthusiasm for his work: the demonstration paddies where he had greatly increased the yield of native rice, the taste of which the villagers strongly preferred over new improved varieties; the improvised brooder house where he was readying 200 Pilch baby chicks for distribution to villagers; the cooperative store he was helping local people establish; and his trust in and encouragement of the Montagnard members of his VCS team.
In love as he was with the people and the land, Ted was far from accepting what he was happening to their lives. "The biggest obstacle to development work in Vietnam is simply the war itself," he told me as a thousand yards from us American piloted helicopter gun ships loaded ARVN troops likely destined for a search mission back in the hills. It was from back in the hills that thousands of Montagnard tribesmen have been driven, forced to trade their once lush farmlands for "temporary" villages and less productive paddies along the main road. Here, among these refugees, Ted's efforts in agricultural development were directed.
While historically the Montagnards have been the outcasts of Vietnam, the anguish Ted felt was that now they had become pawns in the program of pacification and Vietnamization. Their home areas in the highlands had become the free firing range for both Vietcong raiders and American and South Vietnamese bombers. What is at stake ultimately, Ted felt, is their survival as a minority.
In striving to learn of the traditions and values of the Montagnards, Ted came to respect them greatly. He knew at a glance the personal and cultural characteristics that distinguished the Montagnards from their Vietnamese neighbors. He valued the primitive tribesmen not only for what they might become, but for what they were. It was no surprise to learn that the best man at his wedding was a Montagnard--K'ra, a teammate in VCS and close personal friend, and that the service itself was in the Montagnards' Koho language.
In two days of travel together Ted and I went from Saigon to Nha Trang to Bao Louc to Di Linh to Dalat. Seemingly the most insecure area was the section in and around Di Linh. Ted was relaxed, though, as long as one did not need to be on the roads at night or did not get detained while traveling close to American military convoys. He told of shellings now and then into Di Linh and other villages, and of mine explosions, making children and other innocent persons the victims of war. "Sometimes," he commented, "it seems like this whole war is run on a bunch of mistakes."
On occasion as we traveled, Ted talked of his upcoming plans for marriage. He and Ven Pak had announced their engagement in Vietnam, but had yet to break the news to Ven Pak's parents, which meant a journey to her home in Hong Kong, and to Ted's family in the States. Actually Ted earlier had written his parents about it, but in Koho, the dialect no one at home could read.
When I last saw Ted in Dalat, he told me that he hoped that in this highlands town, which is a beautiful blend in Vietnamese and French influences, he and Ven Pak would honeymoon in the spring. His hope was fulfilled; that is how he spent part of the final week of his life.
Because Ven Pak was on a project quite some distance from Di Linh, I did not meet her. I did feel I had come to know her, however, through the snapshots Ted shared and through his own resplendence when he spoke of her.
Upon meeting Ven Pak at the Studebaker home near Union, Ohio, early last month, the day before Ted's memorial service, what surprised me most was how many of Ted's qualities seemed to be her own. The gentleness, the humility, the sincerity, the warmth, the determination were readily conveyed. Even more so, her life statement shared with the directors and staff of Vietnam Christian Service seemed to echo what Ted himself might have written:
"I'm sure all of our share my grief over his death, but I hope you will grieve even more for those who do not understand what he did."
The real story of Ted is not only of his life and death and Vietnam; it is also of his years of growing up in Ohio's "Studebaker Country"; of his feel for the soil and things of the farm' of his devotion to high school and college football and other sports; of swimming in the farm pond; of parents who expect their children to do their own thing, to leave the family nest, and to make their own mark in the world' of older brothers, one of whom was in military service in Germany, another in Brethren Volunteer Service in Morocco, and a third, in International Voluntary Services in Laos; of three sisters and a younger brother all of who make their contribution to the family's sense of solidarity; of studies and friendships at Manchester College, where he earned his way through school and did four years' work in three; and of master's study in social work at Florida State University.
Ted's story is closely aligned too with the West Milton Church of the Brethren, where in a sermon in August 1967 he revealed his feelings about the war. Holding up a newspaper clipping of a starving, homeless child, he read an accompanying article which said, "Hunting was good today in the Mekong Delta region. U.S. Marines bagged 45 of the enemy, wounded scores, and completely wiped out one small village."
"Hunting was good today!" Ted responded. "Just like the sportsman who comes back from a day of rabbit and pheasant shooting. So many rabbits, so many pheasants, he lays them all out to see. The dehumanizing process of war concerns me deeply. What can I do about man's inhumanity to man?"
While in Vietnam Ted continued to be in contact with his home church. "Second only to my family," he wrote a year ago, "you as representatives of the West Milton Church of the Brethren are responsible for my thought and actions concerning conscientious objection to the military, my pacifistic views, and my volunteer service. Without the church, as skeptical as I am about it now, I might find myself in a uniform as part of a giant military machine whose reason for existence seems based on economics and a big myth. The meaninglessness, the wastefulness, and the non-necessity of this war is outweighed only by its inhumane effects, both here and in the states."
"...I do not pretend to understand all the whys and wherefores of this crisis, but one thing stands out clearly in my mind. This war is immoral and wrong, and the burden of blame is upon the U.S. military, the U.S. government, and the U.S. people. I believe there is a lot of truth in the statement that the killing will stop only when American public opinion demands it."
This was the letter, picked up in the Southern Ohio Herald and then this past March in the Troy, Ohio, Daily News, that prompted a Troy couple to write Ted of their disappointment in his stand, questioning his understanding of the Bible, wondering even if the organization he was serving was "Christian." The couple appealed to Ted to study the word of God, to spurn the company of those misfits who call the war "immoral," and "for God's sake, to get your views straight."
Only hours before his death, Ted replied, thanking the family for writing, indicating the difficulty of debate by letter, and clarifying one point. "I do not 'feel the enemy is right' any more than I feel the U.S. military is 'right' here," he wrote. "I believe strongly in trying to follow the example of Jesus Christ as best I know how. Above all, Christ taught me to love all people, including enemies, and to return good for evil, and that all men are brothers in Christ. I condemn all war and conscientiously refuse to take part in it in any active or violent way. I believe love is a stronger and more enduring power than hatred for my fellowmen, regardless of who they are or what they believe."
"You probably think I'm pretty idealistic and, by your letter, indicate that I'm a pretty mixed up kid. But, I cannot apologize for any part of the letter I wrote to my church, since it well represents honestly and sincerely my feelings and concerns about this particular situation. I have tried to speak from both experience and reason, not from mere emotion or hearsay."
The letter was closed by Ted thanking the family for writing and for expressing concern for his welfare. "Please know that I am in excellent health and adequate safety. I know I am a fortunate man and life is great to me."
Excerpts from the letter, the statement of Ven Pak Studebaker, and tapes of guitar playing and singing which Ted had recorded only weeks before in Vietnam were used by Pastor Phillip Bradley in the memorial service May 3. On the altar of the church were two bibles--Ted's heavily marked edition in English and Ven Pak's in Chinese, a Brethren Service cup, a shovel, Ted's guitar, and a banner lifting up in essence the affirmation with which he had concluded the final letter and many letters before it: "Life is great, yea."
It was on this note that Ted Studebaker, 25, a dissenter to despair, a champion of love, a man of peace, came home. He had lived his life purposefully. To the nation, the community, the church, the loved ones his return was not unlike his leaving; it simply put meaning to the words:
"Cool it and don't fret. This boy knows what he's doing."