The Story of Mike Watanabe
By: Janelle Gullotti, Ryan Lee, Lisa Polacco, Travis Tran
On February 23, 2011, we interviewed a former Vietnam War veteran and current CEO of The Asian American Drug Abuse Program, Mike Watanabe. The interview was conducted in his main office, where he told us about his past experiences about growing up in Los Angeles before the Vietnam War, being drafted into the war, returning home to the west coast and unfamiliar territory, and his current aspirations and activities. Despite the hardships of the war, Mr. Watanabe has found success in his leadership position helping the youth in Los Angeles fight the tough addiction of drugs and educating them on HIV/AIDS. His current involvement has been driven by his own troubled past as a young Japanese American growing up in a prejudiced and racist society, and turning to drug use as a means of escape. This was his first time in many years opening up and sharing his soul with complete strangers, us.
Before The War:
Mike Watanabe was born in Hawaii, but his family moved to Los Angeles, where he grew up and attended the local schools in the area. During his adolescent years, he told us about how society was filled with fear and anger due to the events that were occurring at the time. He remembers being in junior high at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the students were prepped and instructed at a blow of a whistle to drop below their desks and take cover. The U.S. thought they were on the verge of a nuclear war when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, followed by the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The anxiety and fear sparked by these events led the more radical people of the time to join the Hippie Movement. At this point in his life, Mike found it difficult to remain focused on school and thus turned to drugs as a means of escape because they became more easily accessible and their use more common during this time period.
In fact, Mike was a good student at one point in his life as he attended Venice High School and performed well enough to get him accepted into UCLA. However, the pressures from the war not only affected the U.S. negatively, but its minority residents as well. Mike found it harder to gain happiness in this time of uncertainty as he watched many of his friends get involved in drugs and consequently overdosed. He told us this drug atmosphere grew even harder to avoid because he was constantly surrounded by the misfortunes that were making him lose the people he loved. Mike eventually got kicked out of UCLA and thus decided to attend Santa Monica College in an attempt to get his act together. His efforts paid off when he got accepted into Cal State Northridge, where he remained until he was drafted into the war.
In 1969, with the Vietnam War at full blast, Mike was 22 years old when he got drafted into the war. Many others were beginning to get drafted into the war, and saw staying in college or going abroad to fight as the only options for young men at the time. He told us how desperate the U.S. had become in recruiting people to fight in the war. On one account, even this young man who had barely arrived from England with his family was recruited, despite the fact that he was not even a U.S. citizen. Mike’s older brother was drafted as well, but lucked out as he was caught for possession of drugs. This situation was unfortunate, in that his older brother got busted for drugs, yet Mike still had to go on and fight even though he was involved in the same things as well. Nevertheless, Mike shared with us his personal feelings about going to fight in the war, and about how this had been a good way for him to escape the sadness and paranoia. Entering a different world was seen as having the potential to help him find a greater purpose in life, because this was a new start for him without the drugs and stress of both school and family. But Mike never realized what he got himself into until arriving in Vietnam.
A truly inspiring and intellectual individual, Mike fought his battles hard and triumphed in the end, but not all veterans ended up as fortunate as him. Many never made it back home or recovered from the post-traumatic stress due to previous experiences from the war. Like most veterans we have heard stories from, Mike went through his early stages of life involved in drugs and thought of the war as a way to start over. When he returned to the U.S. he did not give up on himself or on society, as he sought to help the youth and turn his own life around once again. During the War:
Mike Watanabe was stationed in Vietnam from 1969-1970. He recalled that everyone was subject to the draft unless they were staying in school as a student at the time. Due to the stress of avoiding the draft and the constant pressure of possibly getting drafted, the mental and emotional states of many draft-eligible men deteriorated. Many of Mike Watanabe’s peers started abusing drugs, and he was forced to watch acquaintances and friends alike die from drug overdoses. When he finally got drafted in 1969, Mike Watanabe was 21 years old. He was flown out to Fort Ord in Monterey, California where he began basic training for two months. During those two months, they gave the incoming GI’s a choice. They could either choose to enlist in an additional year with the army (making it three years total) and get their choice of schools, or commit to only two years but risk the possibility of being drafted directly into the jungles of Vietnam. The first option seemed viable because they could be a radioman, carpenter, or mechanic in the army instead of going where the army “needed them the most,” which was as infantrymen trekking through the fields of Vietnam.
Since Mike Watanabe was a mechanic before the war, he decided it would benefit his career to be able to choose the helicopter mechanic unit in the Army. Therefore, he proceeded to sign up for the extra year and was enlisted as a crew chief. He flew out to Alabama for two more months of helicopter school and then got shipped to Vietnam, where he was a part of the Air Cavalry Unit in the 1st Infantry Division. He was positioned as a door gunner in helicopters, as he transported troops and resources to the battlefield and back. However, due to his unique specialty in mechanics, Mike was seldom used to fight as a door gunner. Although his position was relatively “safer” than others, it did not stop him from experiencing and witnessing the brutalities of war.
Mike Watanabe compared the war to a hunting trip; he would drop off men in the morning and come back for them at nightfall. His job consisted of having to pick up the dead and wounded along with the remaining survivors, and listen to the horrific war stories of the day. During nighttime, most everyone abused drugs in some sort. Mike shared the way the soldiers classified people, either one was a “juicer” who drank alcohol every day, or a “head” who smoked dope all night. The “juicers” loved the idea of warfare (usually men from the southern states in the U.S.) and were the ones who viewed the days as “hunting excursions.” On the other hand, the “heads” were GIs who disliked the war and who smoked dope to get away from their present situation. Due to his feelings towards the war, Mike Watanabe admitted that he, too, smoked dope during his time in Vietnam.
Mike Watanabe disliked the war because, from his point of view, it was a war completely based on racism. Everywhere he went, he heard the words gook, chink and various other racially-derogatory comments. When his fellow GIs would come back at night they would be talking about how many gooks they killed that day, and their further abhorrence towards this foreign country and its people. Although Mike was not Vietnamese, it was extremely hard for him look in the mirror and not instantly feel as if his Asian ethnicity was the reason for the war. He admitted that he began to see himself in a different light as the days passed by due to the ever- increasing hatred of Asians around him. He also recalls that he almost got attacked by a trained monkey from the U.S. Army, who was taught to bite and scratch anyone that resembled a “gook.”
Although these situations seem difficult enough, Mike said that the hardest part of the war was witnessing the treatment of Vietnamese people by his fellow GIs. There were many Vietnamese locals working at the U.S. bases, who provided laundry and housing services for money. Many GIs whom Mike thought were nice guys, would treat these Vietnamese locals with complete disrespect and utter repugnance. They would constantly harass them, direct cruel jokes at them, and act as if they were of a lower life form. These actions especially bothered Mike, because of his feelings of mutual respect for individuals of Asian descent and his resulting sympathetic feelings for them.
Listening to Mike Watanabe talk about his experiences in the war felt much more powerful and educational than reading about the war in textbooks and classrooms. The stresses from avoiding the draft must have been overwhelming; having to live each day with the fear of getting called up to fight in the war would easily build anxiety within anyone. The racism that existed and that was evident throughout the U.S. bases in Vietnam must have been especially hard for Asian-American soldiers. I cannot imagine fighting a war against people who look similar to me, while at the same time hearing racial slurs that could apply to myself as well. On top of that, watching Asians get disrespected and treated unjustly would have pushed my mental and emotional limits to the maximum level. Knowing that thousands of Asian-American GIs withstood all these racial pressures, on top of fighting a war for our nation, is inexplicably extraordinary.
Of the approximately 536,100 Americans who fought in the Vietnam War, 58,220 died, 303,635 were wounded, and 1,719 were reported as missing in action. Mike Watanabe’s experience and reflection is one of many unheard stories out there. Many young adults in our generation have no idea what it is like to be in a war or live in a time where the entire community is forced to actively participate in the war effort. Although the war in the Middle East has been going on for many years now, its existence and direct influence on our society seems much more distant in comparison to the Vietnam War and its effects on our nation back in the 1960s and 1970s. We must all strive to be more aware of our veterans and their stories. Much can be learned from their experiences, but it all starts from being more alert of our surroundings and current events, as well as applying our skills and knowledge to help change our societies for the better.
Immediately After the War:
After returning to the U.S. from the Vietnam War in 1970, Mike Watanabe was faced with the harsh challenge of accepting a new sort of society and within it a contrary appearance in his relationships. As a well-known high school gymnast, Mike was seen as having a wide range of multiracial and multiethnic friends, including Whites, Latinos, and Blacks. Before the war Mike had always been one to accept many different types of people in terms of race and ethnicity (not just those belonging to the same Japanese heritage as himself), and continued to have a number of non-Asian friends. But after coming back and experiencing numerous severe social changes throughout the west coast American community, he was forced to deal with the reality that situations residing throughout the U.S. were no longer the same as when he had left. He claims that, “after the war, there was something different about my relation with non-Asians.” Supporting this quote is the belief that it was this shift in communal relations that pushed him into his current realm of social work. Mike being connected to the Asian American Drug Abuse Program (AADAP) has a lot to do with the altering of racial relationships; though he doesn’t see himself as having a concrete conscious animosity towards non-Asians, he certainly recognized the impact the difference certain race-related aspects throughout the U.S. (comparing prewar and postwar) had on both himself as an individual and on himself within the changed community. Going along with this notion of comfort within the community is the idea that if Mike had not gone to the war and returned a changed man, he might not have gravitated towards social work and further supported the AADAP’s cause.
Mike claims that returning from the Vietnam War was especially difficult; along with being immersed in an extremely restrictive and closed-off foreign society, he was also paranoid and consequently nervous around people. This transformation and shift of U.S. atmosphere and environment after the Vietnam War thereby provided Mike with certain foundations in forming his own opinions and resulting beliefs about U.S. society and communities. Mike’s return from Vietnam to the U.S. was a unique one in that no one even knew of his homecoming. His year-long tour was supposed to last from just after Christmas in 1969 to just after Christmas in 1970, but he was let out three weeks early (just before Christmas in 1969) and so flew home to surprise his parents in California. He explained that there had been no time to write a letter telling his parents he was returning early, his journey home included flying from Vietnam to Oakland and then further from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
After arriving in Southern California and taking a cab to his house, Mike knocked on the door (seeing as he didn’t even have a key to his own house) and nearly gave his parents a heart attack since they weren’t expecting him for almost another month. As he walked into the house, he remembers feeling extremely enclosed; while knowing Vietnam as a “hot, sunny bright, dry, and open” atmosphere, he consequently viewed the U.S. as having “dreary, cloudy, cold, dark, and very depressing and closed off” feelings. Along with experiencing two polar opposite surroundings and therefore being exposed to differing environments (Vietnam vs. U.S.) in the course of a year, Mike was also in an extremely volatile and vulnerable mental state. He had continued to smoke a reasonable amount of marijuana during his year-long stay in Vietnam, and not being able to smoke “dope” had a resulting effect on his unstable state of mind. He mentioned that after returning from the war he felt really uncomfortable being in his own house, though he was surrounded by his own family, and didn’t even want to be around or hang out with his own friends. Because these dismal feelings continued to enclose him, Mike decided to move into the family’s garage in hopes of both distancing himself from the rest of his family and further figuring his postwar self out. He lived in the garage for about a year, and claimed he felt much more comfortable. Having his own space, where he could be his own person and not be subjected to any expectations by friends and family, served him somewhat well. Mike remembers living a simple life in his garage and being fairly content with this situation; having a single water bottle that he filled up in the house and took back to the garage, and using a boiler in the garage to make hot water. Being able to claim his own space contributed greatly to his being able to separate himself from not only the current war in Vietnam, but also distancing himself from his own past experiences while overseas.
Immediately following his U.S. return from the war, Mike was sent to Georgia to complete his three-year commitment to the army. Because he had only served one year in Vietnam, he still had two more years in his three-year contract agreement and so was obliged to fulfill his extra military time. His time there (a total of one and a half years) consisted of being one of the helicopter mechanics on the base. Mike claims that there was no real need for him in Georgia, so he and his fellow comrades resorted to playing around on helicopters while pretending they were actually doing something productive. His stay in Georgia consisted of working on helicopters, fixing things, and basically biding his time until he was released for good. After returning to the west coast from Georgia, Mike decided to reenroll in school (which he had been forced to give up after committing three years to the army). Now that the former prewar pressure was gone from his life, he recognized this as an opportunity to start thinking about what he really wanted to do with his life.
There were a few things which served to help Mike out the most after returning from Vietnam, in terms of realizing, understanding, and accepting his new role in postwar U.S. society. He joined the Vietnam Vets Against the War (VVAW) organization, as well as got involved with an Asian American student group. This student group focused on activities in the Asian American community, and further supported happenings which would promote and improve self-esteem, self-pride, Asian-pride, Asian Studies, and additional services throughout the community. Getting involved in these sorts of groups, ones which advocated the roles of Asian Americans within and throughout a U.S. society, was healthful for Mike and ultimately contributed to being able to detoxify himself from previously-experienced racial madness. Supporting groups such as VVAW also helped him address much of his built-up war anger, fiercely directed towards both the army and against the war.
Mike had been a former sociology major before getting drafted in 1969, and when he returned to the U.S. he decided to go back to school and attend Cal State University, Northridge. While there he learned he could become a professional social worker by going through a graduate program, and decided to enroll in this program after finishing his undergraduate studies at CSUN. The Asian American Caucuses at both UCLA and USC were extremely active during this time, and after completing his schooling Mike was recruited by both branches of the organization. He was a unique applicant and therefore at an advantage over others seeing as he was older (about twenty-five years old) than most candidates, he had been to Vietnam and as a result held more years of experience, and he was seen as someone with more maturity. In the eyes of the program, these things Mike consisted of were seen as a plus for the organization when combined and put together. And since he had also been involved in various activities relating to Asian American and Vietnam War Veteran groups, Mike was therefore seen as being able to exhibit the kind of activism that was viewed positively by the Asian American Caucus. He was recruited by both UCLA and USC, and decided to attend UCLA because of the fact that they held a greater tradition. Mike enrolled in the MSW graduate program at UCLA, became chair of the Asian American Caucus, and further grew more informed about Asian American organizations throughout the community.
After gaining more knowledge and experience and further graduating, Mike then asked to be placed at AADAP where he was given the position of a counselor. In the beginning of his time at AADAP, the residency was in extreme turmoil, the staff was burnt out, and they were looking for someone who would provide new and more leadership, a sort of “new blood.” After proving his capability as a counselor, Mike was made coordination of the program which ultimately gave him the opportunity and freedom to rewrite and expand the program. Seeing as the program was consistently spiraling downward and needed some major rejuvenation, this was a chance for him to put to use all the things he had previously learned and experience and further turn the entire association around. He decided to completely restructure the entire program, and worked in the residential branch for several years as he both ran and built up the organization. After showing his capability and competence in being able to organize, manage, and completely revive the program, Mike was then promoted to Executive Director in 1982, as soon as the position opened up for him. And it is from here on out that he has been able to work his way up the ladder at AADAP, eventually and currently acting as President and CEO.
The Asian American Drug Abuse Program (AADAP) is a non-profit drug abuse program that began in 1972, and remains as one of only two programs in the nation with a mission to target, and further design services for, Asian and Pacific Islanders. They currently have eight locations with the Corporate Office located on Crenshaw Blvd, where Mike personally works himself. According to their, the AADAP’s mission is “To change lives and save families, by providing comprehensive substance abuse and other social services for Asian Pacific Islander and other diverse communities. Core programs include education, prevention, intervention, treatment, employment, advocacy, and economic development.”
Coinciding with their main goal of drug abuse prevention, AADAP also contains six separate programs within their organization; these programs include an outpatient unit, a residential unit, an employment access unit, a prevention unit, youth and family programs, and an Olympia academy. The outpatient unit operates under the philosophy that “substance abuse and addiction must be treated holistically, giving consideration to cultural, environmental, and emotional factors, along with others that have the potential to affect the addiction process.” The residential unit is a twelve to eighteen-month residential treatment program, the employment access unit implements the agency’s “comprehensive job training and employment programs,” the prevention unit is used to “facilitate empowerment among individuals, families, and groups,” the youth and family programs are engaged in a wide spectrum of programs committed to “providing prevention, intervention, and diversion services,” and lastly, the Olympia academy is a “sixteen-bed treatment facility for youth ages fourteen to seventeen.” Overall, the organization is committed to serving the community, and continues to act as the largest program in South Los Angeles.
After hearing Mike Watanabe’s story and life experiences, we came to the realization that his past situations and circumstances are very different from our own today, yet it is still crucial that we understand and appreciate the history of significant individuals. Our society as a whole needs to take an essential step as a community in linking together the past, with additional present and future conditions. Through the narrative of Mike Watanabe, we can further realize and share just how important historical accounts can be in the shaping of our population. This remarkable Vietnam War veteran has helped us accomplish our goal in not only recognizing the past, but also continuing on towards helping the community in pushing for a more positive and improved environment.