Rita Dragonette isn’t a Vietnam War veteran, but she experienced the war’s effects as a student on the campus of Northern Illinois University in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
To share her Vietnam War-era experiences, Dragonette spent the last 12 years writing an historical fiction novel, “The Fourteenth of September.” The book will be released on Sept. 18 by She Writes Press, and is available for pre-order on Amazon. For more information about the book, visit www.ritadragonette.com.
Dragonette, who lives and writes in Chicago, is currently at work on three other books: an homage to “The Sun Also Rises” about expats chasing their last dream in San Miguel de Allende, a World War II novel based upon her interest in the impact of war on women and a memoir in essays.
On Oct. 25, Dragonette will visit NIU for a book reading and signing and a panel discussion about protest activities on campus and in town after the Kent State shootings.
Dragonette spoke to MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton on the phone to discuss the novel and what it was like to be a young woman during the time of the Vietnam War.
Milton: Why write about the Vietnam War?
Dragonette: I was an English major in college, and I have always been a writer. I always told myself that if I were to write a book, this would be the first story I would tell. I was a 1972 graduate of NIU, on campus during the most pivotal time of the anti-war movement: between the first draft lottery (December 1969) the Kent State shootings (May 1970). What I experienced at NIU was mirrored on campuses throughout the country at the time. I knew as I was going through it that it was significant and needed to be witnessed.
Milton: Why is it important to tell the story from a woman’s point of view?
Dragonette: There are a lot of books about Vietnam, primarily war stories told by the men who fought. Women were equally involved as men, but rarely have had their stories told. And yet, women were equally involved in organizing anti-war activities and, above all, in supporting the guys who were subject to the draft. It was terrifying for them, equally terrifying for us. After the lottery, drugs hit very, very hard on campus and many of the guys engaged in dangerous behavior, like stopping eating so they could be underweight. They would say things like, “I could die in a jungle or die here, what difference does it make?” As women, we dealt with that fallout all the time, trying to keep them safe and come up with an answer to that question. We weren’t always appreciated for that, and often felt disenfranchised because we were told that our lives weren’t at stake. With “The Fourteenth of September,” I wanted to write a story with the same emotional intensity for a woman as for a man at the time.
Milton: Was age an important factor in the war?
Dragonette: There was a common saying, “Too young to vote but not too young to die.” That’s what it felt like. The draft lottery that determined the order of who would go to Vietnam at a time when the life expectancy under fire was something like six seconds, seemed like a barbaric game show of who would live and who would die, similar to today’s “The Hunger Games,” which is also about bartering the lives of young people. It’s also similar to what’s happening with the school shootings and the Never Again movement. Young people are victims with no standing, no vote.
Milton: Is a book about the Vietnam War relevant today?
Dragonette: During many of the years I was working on the book I got a lot of push back. “Vietnam isn’t relevant. We lost, get over it. Nobody cares.” It’s interesting that now it’s actually right in the zeitgeist. It’s partly the anniversary – it’s been nearly 50 years, and that’s allowed us to look back with a more objective eye. Files have been declassified. We know more about what went on behind the scenes in North Vietnam. Ken Burns’ documentary “The Vietnam War,” has given us a foundation for re-evaluating a lot of what we thought we knew, reaffirming much of what we suspected about the war being prolonged for issues of politics and because “we’d never lost a war.” And, of course, the current world situation is frighteningly parallel. In the late ‘60s, we were facing exactly the same things: a divided congress, a president no one respected. We have flash points around the world in North Korea, Syria. If we do have another bona fide war, we may need another draft. If so, we’ll be facing many of the issues dramatized in “The Fourteenth of September.”
Milton: Tell me more about your novel’s plot.
Dragonette: Private First Class Judy Talton, is in school on a military scholarship which is the only way she can afford to go to college. By the fall of 1969, she starts questioning the war and her role in it. She secretly joins the campus counterculture on her 19th birthday, Sept. 14, putting her future and her relationship with her military family in jeopardy. She begins a journey of self-discovery which ultimately leads to her being forced to make a life-altering decision that is the equivalent of that of any lottery draftee. Her dilemma is the female equivalent of the decision to go to Canada, and mirrors the decision facing America as the war relentlessly continued with no objective or end in sight.
Milton: What is the book’s tagline?
Dragonette: The tagline is “A Coming of Conscience Novel.” You’ve probably heard “coming of age novel,” when a young person faces some sort of dilemma, and going through that, they become an adult. My novel is deeper. Judy’s decision, whatever it will be, she feels will determine her character for the rest of her life.
Milton: How would you describe the book’s genre?
Dragonette: The book is historical fiction. The novel is fiction, but it is inspired by what happened at the time. It’s authentic and plausible.
Milton: How did the war affect campus life?
Dragonette: College students were the largest concentration of draft-age young men. There was tremendous interest, fear and anxiety about if and when they’d be called up as the war progressed. They couldn’t make plans about their future or even, often, concentrate on their studies. The lottery happened real-time, while everyone was on campus, jammed around the few TV sets available in the union and in dorm TV rooms. When Kent State happened and the National Guard arrived, we thought we’d be shot next. It was brutal.
Milton: What happened during the war at NIU?
Dragonette: The most significant action was the riots after Kent State. Once we heard, we tried to respond with a responsible protest, a student senate vote to remove ROTC from campus. But at the last minute, it was vetoed. In frustration, the students rioted. They broke windows in downtown DeKalb and in the campus electric building, set fire to police cars. Then the National Guard arrived. For two nights we camped on the bridge by the lagoon near the entrance to campus. One night was peaceful, things had calmed down. The second night the Guard charged. We thought they’d shoot us just like they shot the students at Kent State.
Milton: Tell me more about the upcoming event on campus.
Dragonette: On Oct. 25, I will be on NIU’s campus for a reading and book signing at 12:30 p.m. At 4:30 p.m., there will be a panel including activist professors and students who were on campus during the Kent State action. It will be a teach-in event, where students, teachers and the community can discuss what happened. Those times were part of the legacy of the university, of our country. Like all history, it’s important we understand causes and ramifications, and examine lessons learned so we don’t repeat the hamster wheel of history.