As a very young man, Tom Trimmer crept into villages at night and killed old men, old women and younger people, although never children. That's where he drew the line in America's war against communism. When he saw a good friend cross that line, he cursed, he trembled, he cried. He quit the killing.
Trimmer repented of his sins while still young and has spent the past four decades promoting peace and justice--monitoring elections in foreign lands, witnessing for peace, teaching others how to wage peace, marching for racial equality, and much more.
Now an Episcopal deacon from Alma, Michigan, he travels widely to help build a world in which war, like slavery, will be regarded as a relic from less enlightened times.
On Sunday, Sept. 24, Trimmer delivered the homily before about 100 at St. Joseph's Church in Sevierville, Tenn., where he quoted Jesus, Gandhi, Thoreau and others who preached peace. We owe one another our truth, Trimmer said.
Later he sat with me in the fellowship hall and told me his truth. The quiet voice and smoky eyes of this face framed in luminous white hair expressed remorse for violent deeds long past.
As a young half-Indian seeking to escape poor circumstances on and off the Saginaw, Chippewa Reservation in Michigan, he joined the Air Force, which shipped him to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. There he was recruited along with other Native Americans--fourteen in Trimmer's group alone--for special operations.
"They told us, `You people are naturally sneaky, you're crafty hunters and fighters.' They told us we would be contract employees. We would be paid $600 a month and work directly for the president." In this case, Eisenhower, says Trimmer, though he's unsure whether the president knew of his activities.
Here's how it worked. "They would show us aerial photographs of a village and they would draw a circle around a certain hut. It was the home of someone they said could not be counted on by the American government. Our job was to make sure everyone in that hut was dead." Helicopters would deposit them near the village and they were on their own. Many believe the shameful Bob Kerrey affair was the result of just such an operation gone wrong. The guns that killed so many were weapons of last resort, not primary tools of the mission, as guns were too noisy and would alert the village.
Weapons of choice in Trimmer's squad were knife, wire and cross bow.
Trimmer always used a wire.
How many did he kill? "Too many." Children? "No." Old men and women? "Yes." Where? "It might have been Cambodia," although Trimmer knows such operations also occurred in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
As I say, it was the death of a child that turned Trimmer away from war.
"We had stopped for a few minutes to get water and to rest. A little girl stumbled into camp. We didn't see where she came from. She was just there. A friend of mine, a Puma Indian, swung around, grabbed her around the face and stabbed her and that was it.
"Somebody cursed. Others cried. We buried the little girl. Some of us were Christians and they planted a cross at the foot of her grave, which was a dead giveaway. We should have just hid her in the woods and left, according to our training.
"After we buried the girl, we sat and talked. Killing adults was one thing, but killing a little girl was something else. It was wrong. It was just wrong. We knew it was wrong. It made no difference who ordered it, it was wrong. When the chopper picked us up, we told them we were all done. No more killing.
"They threatened us, offered us more money, but we absolutely refused. They shipped us back to Lackland." They received honorable discharges and were sent home, Trimmer says. Over the years, some of those Indian operatives have died in suspicious car wrecks, he says. The only other one of the 14 still living, as far as he knows, is a friend who never again left the reservation in Buckeye, Arizona.
In his twenties, Trimmer was shot at and run off the road, in separate incidents, he says. He doesn't know if there's a connection between his near misses and the deaths of his old friends. Trimmer speculates the government decided not to kill him--maybe because of his religious work or because his high profile would prompt suspicions.
It wasn't because he hid out on the reservation. No, Trimmer has ventured out again and again, including trips to Central America, where he saw evidence of former Marine Col. Oliver North's secret and illegal Iran-Contra work close up and personal.
Next week: Working for Peace.