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The Old Radicals

 Real Change (USA) 28 May 2019

(Originally published: 09/2009) Almost every radical thing Michael Gayler has done — from going AWOL while serving in the Vietnam War to refusing to eat for a month to raise awareness of war’s impact on humanity — has come to him out of meditation. Almost every radical act he can name finds itself linked, in ways both direct and oblique, to a number.  - By Rosette Royale

Real Change

Courtesy of Real Change

SEATTLE, USA - Almost every radical thing Michael Gayler has done - from going AWOL while serving in the Vietnam War to refusing to eat for a month to raise awareness of war's impact on humanity - has come to him out of meditation. And almost every radical act he can name finds itself linked, in ways both direct and oblique, to a number. So when he speaks of how he wound up doing a fast in a blue tent downtown Seattle, the integers and acts he cites create a paint-by-number portrait of how Gayler, 60, went from being a soldier to a peace activist.

About a month ago, Gayler hit upon the notion of abstaining from food to entice people to pray for world peace. It wasn't an entirely new idea. Back in 1991, during the Gulf War, he'd performed a similar act, when he fasted for two weeks in front of the Federal Building in downtown Seattle. But where would he stage his current fast? And when would he do it? And for how long? At first, he didn't know.

But after a short while, it came to him: He'd let history repeat itself and he'd head to his old haunt, the Federal Building on Second Avenue, yet again. "Once I decided [that]," Gayler says, "I went to my calendar."

There, he saw that August 21st marked the start of Ramadan, the Islamic holiday where any Muslim who's able to fasts, from sunrise to sunset, from food and water for a month. A practicing Buddhist, Gayler found the synchronicity appropriate.

When he looked ahead a month, he noticed that September 21st was the International Day of Peace - "It's barely a calendar footnote," he says, smiling - the day designated by the United Nations to call for an end to war. The date also marked the close of Ramadan. And it coincided with the autumnal equinox. "Kind of a trifecta," he says of the convergence.

So, after leaving his 16-acre property on Lake Ozette, on the Olympic Peninsula, Gayler made his way to Seattle. When he arrived at the Federal Building on August 21, he readied himself for the month ahead. Since 5 a.m. that morning, Gayler hasn't had any food. Even though he's taking daily vitamins and drinking vitamin-enhanced water, he says he won't eat until September 21. That amounts to 32 days without food. "And I intend to make it."

Five days after Gayler's 17th birthday, he dropped out of his junior year in high school to join the Army, serving as a paratrooper in both the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. After turning 18, he volunteered for a tour of duty in Vietnam, with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. While acting as a radio operator on Dec. 27, 1967, his platoon found itself in a three-hour battle, sustaining heavy casualties. As he and another soldier tended to a wounded comrade in a tent, a North Vietnamese fighter tossed a hand grenade in with them. Gayler and the soldier covered the already injured man with their own bodies. The exploding grenade sent debris into Gayler's legs, back and face. For his actions, the Army pinned a Purple Heart on him.

Full of what he thought was "patriotic" zeal, he volunteered for Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol - often called LRRP, or "lurp" - small units, of four to six men, sent out on highly dangerous missions. Armed with a silencer, Gayler ventured so deep behind enemy lines for his three- to seven-day missions, he lay beyond radio contact. Hungering for still more, he became Airborne Ranger, acting as a team leader.

While fighting in Vietnam, Gayler says his personal actions led to the loss of numerous lives. How many? He has to think. "Over a hundred," he guesses. "Probably no less. Possibly a lot more." But the true number may never be known.

At the time he began his fast, Gayler, a diabetic, tipped the scales at 190. But soon after commencing his month-long fast, he says he lost a pound a day. Mid-way into it, that shifted to half a pound a day. On Sept. 15, he weighed 174.

He hopes, by the time he's done, his weight will only fall to 170. "That's the same I weighed when I was 16," he says. Which could mean that soon, as he takes a stand to highlight war's horrors, he may weigh what he did when he began his training as a warrior.

But the Vietnam War did something to Gayler. It changed him.

Part of it came as a result of books he read that countered what he'd been told about the U.S. incursion into Southeast Asia. He began to see the war as unjust; he came to see the invasion as wrong.

And then there was his intuition: It warned him his luck was running out. "I'd seen enough of my friends not make it, in their last week, in their last two weeks," he remembers. "And I'd felt like I'd given enough: I'd given my blood, I'd given my health. I'd taken life. I'd seen my friends fall - and I just didn't want to do it anymore." Even if it was only for two more months. So he told his superiors he wanted to leave.

The only trouble was the Army wouldn't accept his resignation. They told him he was too highly trained to warrant an early discharge. When the military chain of command wouldn't honor his request, Gayler walked out, hitchhiking from North Vietnam to Saigon, in the south. It took the Army four months to find him, tossing him in a military prison for 30 days. After a court-martial, he says, the military separated him from service, reducing his rank to a Private First Class and handing him an honorable discharge. But it didn't matter.

On Aug. 8, 1969, Gayler was free, which is what he'd asked for, 60 days before the Army wanted to let him go. More than 40 years later, on the morning of Tues., Sept. 15, 2009, Gayler left his tent at the Federal Building to have some coffee. When he returned, about 8:45 a.m., federal officers were cordoning off Second Avenue, from Madison to Marion Streets. Inside the yellow POLICE-DO NOT CROSS tape that denied entrance to the building sat Gayler's tent. Outside the tape, an officer held the leash of a dog.

Officials told Gayler that while he was gone, someone had placed a backpack in his tent. Perhaps it held a bomb. They had to secure the perimeter, to send the dog in. Did Gayler have any idea who might have left the pack, or what might be in it?

Gayler proposed one possibility: Since fasting, he'd befriended many homeless people. One particular person had come by often. Maybe the pack belonged to him?

The minutes passed as officials verified Gayler's identification, as the dog sniffed around and in the tent, around and in the pack. Employees en route to work stopped on street corners to watch. The dog returned to a vehicle: He'd found nothing. Everything was fine. The pack did indeed belong to the homeless man Gayler had proposed.

Officials removed the tape, opening up Second Avenue. And after 45 minutes, Gayler was allowed back to his tent. He chalks up the reaction to the fact that "We live in a post-Timothy McVeigh, post-9/11 world." But even so, in his 26 days there, it's the only incident he's had.

Except for the week before, the day security personnel asked him to move his tent.

When he'd arrived at the Federal Building last month, Gayler hadn't secured a permit. The moment he encountered security personnel, they threatened to arrest him. He held out his hands for the cuffs. He figured he had a win-win situation: If they arrested a decorated Army vet, the negative press would amount to a win for him; if they let him stay, it'd also be win. They let him have his permit.

A week into his fast, a storm blew in, soaking Gayler and his belongings. To withstand the elements in the future, he pitched a tent. But according to Ross Buffington, regional spokesperson for General Services Administration, which acts as landlord for the nation's federal buildings, Gayler can only sit or stand on federal property during office hours. Or bring a chair. "If we become aware that he's set up a tent on federal property," says Buffington, "that will not be allowed."

Even though Gayler says security personnel knew he had a tent for nearly two weeks, they didn't ask him to move. Until Sept. 9, at least. Then he was told he had to drag it six feet, to the sidewalk, shifting him from federal property to city property. A city official says that Gayler now needs a permit from the transportation department. Gayler doesn't have one.

"[Buffington] didn't know what he was talking about if he says they didn't know I was sleeping in a tent," says Gayler. "They know every move I make."

For a while, Gayler considered getting arrested, to make a point. But he relented and moved the six feet, a short distance to maintain a little peace.

Because of his diabetes, Gayler says his doctors frowned on the fast. If he didn't get his glucose levels under control, they warned him, he'd suffer impaired brain functions. "Which I can't afford to do or experience at this point," he admits.

So he has to check his insulin levels several times a day. If his levels are low, he can administer the hormone with a pump attached to his stomach that injects insulin directly into his body. Less than an hour after officials ordered him to move his tent, he realizes his levels are low. He presses the pump three times, allowing .1, .2., .3 units of insulin to enter his system.

He says that even though his doctors are worried, he's not. He feels he has little choice but to be at the Federal Building. "I dodged bullets for three years for an unjustified war and risked my life for the wrong reasons," he says. "I think I'm willing to put myself at risk for the right reasons."

With less than a week left, Gayler has his sights set on 5 a.m., Sept. 21. That local time equates with noon Greenwich Mean Time on the International Day of Peace. It's at that point Gayler - and he hopes others who want to join him - will pray for peace for one minute, just 60 seconds. "People can be in their bed, in their car, in their office, walking, in the shower. It doesn't matter where they are," he says.

And when that one minute is done, when his 32-day fast meets its end at 5:01 a.m., Gayler says he plans to pack up his tent, hand it to the homeless man whose backpack caused an early morning shutdown of part of Second Avenue, and begin the slow transition to food. Because by then, he'll have made it. And he knows he'll reach his goal. "Nothing is going to stop me from doing this," he says. "Nothing. No one."

Come Sept. 21, everyone will get to find out if he's right.

PQ: He feels he has little choice but to be at the Federal Building. "I dodged bullets for three years for an unjustified war and risked my life for the wrong reasons," he says. "I think I'm willing to put myself at risk for the right reasons."

PQ: At the time he began his fast, Gayler, a diabetic, tipped the scales at 190. He hopes, by the time he's done, that his weight will only fall to 170. "That's the same I weighed when I was 16," he says.

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