'Witness' for peace: 74-year-old activist and veteran continues to spread his message

New London — Cal Robertson has been a familiar sight on street corners in New London and Groton for several decades, holding signs that promote nonviolence and an end to war.

These days, he says, his message is a broader one that encompasses more than just antinuclear sentiments, including climate change and other pressing issues that require more action from everyday citizens and those in positions of power.

For about a year now, the 74-year-old Robertson, a Vietnam veteran who served as a Navy corpsman in the Marines, has been carrying a new sign — one that he said he wished he'd started using years ago because it frames the world's problems in the context of future generations.

It asks simply: "How are the children?"

His sign may be different, but Robertson keeps the same routine.

He starts his days by attending the 8 a.m. prayer service at St. Francis House on Broad Street, where he has lived the past five years. Afterward, Robertson, who lives off the money he receives from the Department of Veterans Affairs, offers to buy Dunkin Donuts for his housemates, dispatching his aide, Isaiah Terry, to take down their orders and bring back what they want for them to enjoy while seated around the kitchen table at St. Francis. Then Terry drives Robertson to the Naval Submarine Base for the lunch rush.

Despite his declining health, which he described as "rotten," Robertson still spends time most days "witnessing" for peace. He hates the word "protest" because he said it has a negative connotation that evokes images of violence.

After witnessing for so long, Robertson knows which intersections will be busy when. Between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., he usually can be found at the corner of Route 12 and Crystal Lake Road in Groton, at the entrance to the base, his sign propped up on his walker. He wears a black T-shirt underneath his jacket with the words "Veterans for Peace" across the front and the image of the dove of peace overlaying a soldier's helmet. Sometimes he hums or sings softly to himself. His eyes are always fixed on the cars passing by, his hands clutching his walker.

During one recent afternoon there, a man rolled down the window of the car he was driving to tell Robertson that he recognized him from when he was stationed at the base in the 1980s, when Robertson's peace activism began.

Robertson was part of the anti-Trident demonstrations at the base in the early 1980s and later got involved in rallies about U.S. policy in Central America, before starting his mostly solitary protests across the region.

Robertson, who was born in Norwich and grew up in Mystic, said he didn't have an interest in going to college after graduating from Fitch Senior High School, so his parents suggested he enlist in the military. "My folks talked me into it," he said. The military does "a damn good job of training you," he said, adding "always for war."

Robertson won't talk much about his military service — he deployed to Vietnam twice, in 1964 and 1968 — but said he thinks about it regularly. "It's why I am what I am," said the longtime member of the group Veterans for Peace.

He still gets angry when talking about the Vietnam War. The decision-makers at the time knew it was a losing proposition, he said, "and they didn't do a damn thing about it."

To this day, he deeply regrets his decision to join the military. After he got out, he said, he drank for seven years straight, which he attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder from what he witnessed in the service, though "other people saw a heck of a lot more than I did."

His drinking led to a blood clot on his brain, which was removed in 1977 and slowed his speech, a frustration that bothers him even today. He spent six months in a VA hospital undergoing intensive therapy and recovering. Today, he battles a host of health issues, including diabetes. On days when he's not feeling well or the weather is bad, Terry, his aide, said he tells Robertson he can only witness for 30 minutes at a time.

Most days about 3 p.m., Robertson stands at the head of Bank Street in New London, just below the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, as a line of cars, many of them filled with workers from submarine-maker Electric Boat, snake down the road. He nods at them as they pass by, a sign of respect, he said, for their hard work. His parents were employed by EB for 25 years. He doesn't blame the employees who make the war machines but those in power who make the work possible.

Reception to Robertson is mixed. Most people show no reaction. There's the occasional thumbs-up and car horn honk. One recent afternoon as Robertson was standing on Bank Street, a man leaned out the window and yelled "get a job." Robertson doesn't let the comment upset him. He thinks of this as his job.

However, he wishes he wasn't alone. "I'd like to have hundreds out here, thousands," he said.

Robertson said he doesn't try to measure or think about the impact of his actions. His thing is taking to street corners with his message, but he encourages everyone to do something.

"I don't care if you do signs, do something," he said. He has a phrase for it: Solidarity in the struggle.

j.bergman@theday.com

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