S. Brian Willson would seem to be an unlikely martyr. In his youth he considered becoming a minister, an FBI agent and a professional baseball player. He has been a lawyer, a dairy farmer and a veterans’ counselor.
But it wasn’t until middle age that Willson found his true calling. In his 40s--and long after it was fashionable or popular--the working-class boy from a hamlet near Buffalo, N.Y., became a full-time antiwar activist, a self-styled “peace warrior.”
Because of that career decision he is famous. Because of it he also is in a hospital here, recovering from a skull fracture and minus both legs below the knee, limbs lost in what he maintains is a worthy cause--trying to stop U.S. arms shipments to the Nicaraguan contras.
For Willson, 46, it has been a long and complicated journey from obscurity and conformity to notoriety and the fifth-floor private room at the John Muir Medical Center.
Even now, in the early stages of learning to walk on artificial legs, Willson defies expectations. He does not appear to be depressed by his new handicap. In an interview last week with The Times--the first face-to-face interview he has granted since his hospitalization--he was cheerful, animated and voluble.
He has few regrets about the chain of events that cost him his legs and he has begun to see his survival as a gift for his devotion to a cause.
“I feel clean and clear about what I’m doing,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I won’t think a lot about it (the loss of his legs). Obviously I have. . . .”
But, he added, “I want to know why I’m still alive. That’s the question. Wrestling with that question indicates to me that somehow something was OK about what I did.”
Because he still has his knees, he happily explained, he should eventually should be able to walk almost normally. With almost equal delight he displays an autographed baseball from the St. Louis Cardinals, his favorite team. The card accompanying the baseball wished him a speedy recovery from his “accident,” a word that makes Willson laugh.
He also chuckles when recalling that late at night, to the displeasure of his nurses, he is reading books about such leaders of the nonviolent movement as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
But behind his good humor lies a grim and tenacious preoccupation, a single-minded obsession with what he declares are forces of death and destruction. It was Willson’s serious side that nearly got him killed--and quite accidentally reaped a public relations bonanza.
Willson’s near-fatal encounter with a military munitions train during a demonstration at the Concord Naval Weapons Station on Sept. 1 has made him a martyr in the peace movement and an international celebrity.
A videotape showing Willson being mangled by a locomotive received widespread television news play. A few days later, thousands of protesters, including Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, turned out at the spot where Willson had been mutilated.
Rosario Murillo, wife of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, has visited him in the hospital. Willson also received--and declined--an offer for medical treatment from the Soviet Union, where he was hailed as a hero.
The dramatic and bloody episode also has seemed to energize the fragmented peace movement in the San Francisco Bay Area. Demonstrators, including veterans who began what they call the “Nuremberg action” with Willson last June, are maintaining a vigil at the spot where he was injured. They talk of escalating the nonviolent protests there and elsewhere to highlight opposition to the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America.
Yet the most important consequence of Willson’s close encounter with death may well be the ultimate changes in Willson himself. Those who know him say that Willson’s life has been a series of political and moral metamorphoses. After each he has sloughed off a little more of his past, a few more possessions, a few more connections to conventionality, they say.
In his hospital room with a baseball cap covering his head, shaved during surgery to repair his skull, Willson seems to acknowledge that his life has reached another period of intense reflection.
“I don’t have any answers now,” he said. “I’m in the process of trying to live up to some ideals. I concluded I have to give up a lot of what I have to be free, to express what I honestly feel without worrying about my mortgage, my reputation, my career, my patio or whatever. I had to start with myself. I’m 46 years old and it’s been a long process.”
Holly Rauen, who married Willson just days before he was injured and helped staunch the blood flowing from her husband, is worried that Willson, her son and she eventually will pay a price for the traumatic experience they shared.
“I’m starting to crack up a little bit,” she said. “I don’t think that the full impact of Brian losing his legs has hit me, Gabriel or Brian completely and I think we probably have some grieving to do about that. When I saw Brian underneath that train I knew he was dead . . . so there’s so much gratitude that he is alive that it supersedes a lot of other feelings.”
Rauen describes Willson as someone who was gradually transformed from a man she probably would have hated into the entirely different person she fell in love with in Central America last year while she was on a tour of Nicaragua with a group of health workers.
“Before he went to Vietnam he thought he would be a minister,” she said. “He went to (college) because he thought he would be in the clergy. He studied Russian because he wanted to join the FBI. He was a total red-blooded American.
“We met at the Intercontinental Hotel in Managua . . . he was standing in the lobby talking with (two other American veterans). What they were talking about was driving trucks in the war zones, escorting civilians because everybody’s afraid to drive on the mined roads. And he said ‘What about people like me who have risked our lives once to kill, how about we risk our lives for peace?’ When I heard him speaking about that I fell in love with him.”
Willson himself is more circumspect about his private life. He is also more interested in talking about his ideas than his past. He mentions his brief attempt at practicing law and the several years he spent running a dairy farm and dairy marketing business in Upstate New York only in passing.
But he does seem to have one regret. As he shows off his autographed baseball he remarks, “I was a good baseball player and there was some chance at one point to maybe play with St. Louis. Well, I went to college.”
S. Brian Willson’s road to committed peace activism began during the Vietnam War, where he says he served from March to August, 1969, before the Air Force shipped him to a base in Louisiana because of his outspoken opposition to the war.
Rauen, a dark-haired 34-year-old, says he often describes his revulsion toward U.S. conduct in Southeast Asia during the war.
“Part of his . . . job was to go to villages right after they were bombed and count the casualties,” she said. “The casualties that he counted were always women and children and old men. It tore him apart.”
But once he was out of the Air Force, Willson couldn’t find a suitable outlet for his opposition to that war.
“When he tried to join the peace movement, he couldn’t relate at all,” Rauen said. “You know: a bunch of hippies smoking dope. He wasn’t interested in that. I think he brooded over many, many years and really thought about what he was going to do.”
Willson’s last regular job was as a director of a Vietnam veterans’ outreach center in Greenfield, Mass. He quit and traveled to Nicaragua in January, 1986, on a trip that he felt had become morally and spiritually necessary.
“I came back (from Vietnam) and tried to pursue my professional life and as Central America heated up in the ‘80s,” he recalled. “It was bothering me and I finally resigned (from the veterans center). I felt like my own healing, in addition to all the healing of many other veterans, could not happen without some profound interaction and application of our feelings to contemporary U.S. policies.”
Since then, Willson has spent several months in Nicaragua and Central America. He says he has walked 500 miles in areas of Nicaragua being contested by the Sandinista government and the contra rebels, and that his experiences there have been like those he had in Vietnam.
“Going to Nicaragua, the first week brought Vietnam right to the front of my forehead and I said, ‘My God, we’re doing this again.’ It wasn’t like intellectually that was news, but I was feeling it in my gut.
“I said I must got back to the United States and do everything I can to stop this. It was like everything I had learned about Vietnam, about us really. It was like 17 years had just disappeared.”
But it was after he left the war zones and had moved to a small town in Vermont, where a friend loaned him a cabin, that Willson says he had perhaps his most profound, almost mystical, experience.
“I was looking out my window one day and I saw a flatbed truck go by, a very innocent, very trivial little incident which I didn’t think anything of,” he recalled. “About two hours later I was sitting there--it was a very sunny afternoon--and I kind of had an image of that truck coming back down the hill full of bodies.
“And I said I have got to go out and stop that truck. I started grappling with this idea that I can’t wait for somebody else to tell me what is the way to peace.”
Talking about this moment, Willson seems to be reliving it. His eyes have a remote look. Then he comes back to the present and he begins gesturing again with his hands.
‘In My Stomach’
“I really have to wrestle with what is my responsibility as a citizen of this culture to stop this killing that is being waged in my name. It was not an intellectual exercise. It was very visceral; I mean, it was in my stomach. I used to say it was like going into a burning building after a loved one.”
That experience led to his first highly visible protest. Willson joined a 47-day fast on the U.S. Capitol steps last fall with three other veterans to protest U. S. Central American policy. The group called off the hunger strike after they received shows of public support from hundreds who joined them in their vigil on the steps and from thousands of others who sent letters in support.
Later, on another visit to Nicaragua, he met Rauen, a San Rafael midwife who was on a tour with a group of health workers. He joined her last December in California, where he also found comrades in his war for peace.
In California, Willson joined Post 5888 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The Santa Cruz post is run by Vietnam veterans opposed to war and has become a national focal point for peace actions in recent years. Two years ago, it nearly lost its charter for decrying U.S. involvement in Central America.
Among the veterans there, the conviction gradually arose that the Concord station, site of many protests against the Vietnam War, would be a good place symbolically and tactically to stage a continuing protest against U.S. policy.
Spread over 13,000 acres of rolling hills, Concord is the only West Coast weapons depot of its type, one from which munitions are loaded onto ships for distribution throughout the Pacific Basin. About 100,000 tons of weapons and munitions are shipped out each year.
Before they reach the naval docks, the armaments must be driven by truck or train across Port Chicago Highway, a stretch of Contra Costa County road dividing the base.
Along that section of road and railroad track, a choke point no more than 100 yards across, Willson and other peace advocates decided to make their stand.
The demonstrations began in June and about 400 demonstrators have since been arrested for blocking the highway and railroad. But until last month, the protesters were never able to generate more than local interest.
Willson says he has no memory of the moments before he was hit by the train, or of the day or two afterwards. He says he “never imagined” the train would run over him, especially since base authorities and local law enforcement officials had been thoroughly briefed on the demonstrators’ intention to block the tracks.
But he is certain of one thing: that he deliberately got in the path of the locomotive to uphold his principles and that he had thought out his actions carefully.
“I feel like standing on those tracks was like what we have often said the Germans didn’t do,” Willson said. “Why weren’t the Germans stopping the death trains going through Germany? I feel that the essential question in this country is ‘What is the price for peace?’ What are we willing to pay for peace?
“There’s a price for everything. There’s a price for silence and there’s a price for various kinds of complicity. I have enough visceral experiences in Vietnam and Central America now that the maiming and the killing is very real; it’s not abstract.
“The life of a Nicaraguan or an El Salvadoran or an Angolan is worth no less than my life and we kill them everyday with our policies. Therefore, the question I like to pose is ‘How do we begin to stand in the way of that train?’ ”
As far as he’s concerned, “staying on the tracks in front of a train carrying munitions that are going to kill people to me was upholding international law. Now, you can say it was stupid, but I wasn’t jumping on the tracks or doing something hurriedly or thoughtlessly.”
But, he admits, it’s also personally not as simple as that.
“That’s not to say that I would advocate people standing in front of the trains,” he concedes. “I’m trying to work out for myself how strongly I feel about it.
“I feel very badly for the people who had to witness it, including my 14-year-old stepson. I would certainly not have asked my stepson to be there to witness such a horrendous thing.”
Despite the uncertainties they face, both Willson and Rauen are busy planning their future. She says they may move to San Francisco because “Brian hates Marin County.” Willson expects to embark on a national speaking tour this fall.
For the next few weeks, he will remain in the hospital, where he will be fitted with his first set of artificial limbs and undergo a rigorous routine of physical rehabilitation as he relearns the skills the train carried away. He does not seem to mind.
“I’ve seen 500 or 600 people in Central America with their legs blown off, so to me this doesn’t seem like a big deal,” he said.
“Now, I know it’s a big deal to me, personally, but it doesn’t really seem in the scheme of things to be a big deal. I might go through a period of post-traumatic stress depression, but I know this: I don’t have any regrets about what I did or why I was there.
“I believe that for the rest of my life that I have to be prepared--as I was once went off to war with the idea that I might die for the collective good--that I might die for the good of what I call the consciousness of the Earth.”
Times staff writer Dan Morain in the San Francisco contributed to this story.