Article written by Steve Flairty for KyForward. Find the original story here.
New York native Craig Williams had an understanding with his father while he was growing up. “My dad would punish me if I did something wrong, but if I didn’t tell the truth about it, my punishment was far worse. He instilled in me the importance of always being truthful,” said the Berea resident. Williams now devotes his life to holding the American government and military to the same standard.
Though seeking, and telling, the truth has put Williams in some tough predicaments in his life, it has also resulted in safer existences for literally thousands of citizens who live near the U.S. government’s various chemical weapons sites spread across the nation.
Williams, along with his relatively small band of like-minded environmentalists, have courageously confronted U.S. military and government officials with meticulously researched and accurate information that demanded compelling answers. His leadership has brought about significant policy changes, starting with the government’s decision to find a safer way to dispose of chemical weapons than by incineration. After a long and tenacious battle, it happened in four of eight sites, including in Kentucky at the Blue Grass Depot at Richmond.
Williams is best known for his efforts with safe disposal of chemical weapons, but his “truth” battles with the U.S. military began during his two-year hitch in the Army, when he was part of the Vietnam era’s “biggest draft in history” in 1968.
He didn’t start out with a political agenda, though. “I was like other kids, interested in consuming, clothes and things. I was not engaged about the war either way,” he said.
Williams soon became part of the military police, and he also received intense training in the Vietnamese language. Both of those influences were critical to his future way of dealing with the world. He was part of an investigation team that looked at evidence of possible criminal actions of some officers at West Point. Williams believes that there was a bit of cover-up involved.
“We found some guilt, and, as part of the agreement, the officers were sent elsewhere along with us.” For Williams, that meant being shipped unceremoniously to the jungles of Vietnam, where he was assigned duty as an interrogator around which he again raised issues regarding the treatment of POW’s. The charges he leveled led to his being reassigned “way out in nowhere guarding an ammunition outpost amongst some Vietnamese villages.”
He was stung and disillusioned by the actions of the Army in the criminal investigation, and Williams also began to evolve in another way. “In getting to know the Vietnamese people, I developed a better understanding of their perspective on the war and an appreciation of their culture. They wanted to determine their future themselves, and for years they were being invaded by other countries.”
After his two-year time in the Army ended, Williams embraced his newfound mindset, that a flawed and untruthful leaning American military was involved in an unjust war. He helped organize Vietnam Veterans against the War, and his passionate desire to right wrongs and make life better for others was revved up. He participated in War protests all around the nation. In the anti-war crusade, he was introduced to future presidential candidate John Kerry who, Williams said, “served admirably in the War, but always had political aspirations, too.”
The Vietnam War ended in 1975, and Craig Williams had to figure out a new purpose in life after seven years of immersion in the international conflict. He lived for a while with friends in San Diego, and then moved with them to a rural area of Kentucky, near Elizabethtown, where the group lived somewhat hippie-style, raising vegetables and playing rock music.
Soon, though, the group dwindled and Williams moved to tiny and rural Morrill, near Berea, and lived in a small cabin with no electricity. “I was still adjusting to this culture after the Vietnam experience,” he said.
There, he grew vegetables and attended classes at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, driving there “in my old pickup truck.” He graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1978. Over the next few years, Williams married and gained an “instant family,” attended The University of Kentucky Law School for a year, and had his own woodworking business.
He co-founded the Viet Nam Veterans of America Foundation Inc., an organization that eventually, in 1997, was a co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize for its campaign to ban landmines. Even for the driven Craig Williams, a whole lot was on his plate. He added something else, however, when Williams got word of a public meeting regarding Richmond’s Bluegrass Army Depot and its plan to destroy chemical weapons by using an incineration process. He made it a point to be there.
Williams took an immediate, cynical interest in the Army’s plan to dispose of chemical weapons, which were a product of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War days. Though it is thought that the U.S. didn’t use the weapons during that period, they were manufactured as a potential option to deter the Soviets from doing likewise. Williams didn’t question the fact that the Army wished to get rid of the chemical weapons, but only its method – by burning, or incineration. He began to study the issue intensely and found others around him with like concerns.
In 1990, Williams helped found the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, and under its umbrella, the Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG). The CWWG’s immediate goal was to challenge three of the Army’s premises regarding waste incineration.
“We challenged their assertions that incineration was the only way to get rid of the wastes, that it was a safe way, and that once the decision was made, there was no way to turn it around,” said Williams.
It would prove to be a long, arduous battle, with Williams often working late into the night and begging for the patience of his own family members.
The CWWG became more and more visible, and working from Williams’s home, then later from an office in Berea, money was raised to hire engineers and experts to produce a report to refute the public pronouncements the Army gave. With the help of Kentucky politicians such as Rep. Hopkins, Senators Ford and McConnell, along with the persistent efforts of Craig Williams and the CWWG, congressional hearings were held and each of the three Army arguments mentioned earlier were successfully challenged.
Williams’s group supplied resources and information to other communities around the country facing similar challenges with the disposal of dangerous chemical weapons of mass destruction. A huge success came about in 1996 when the Army announced it would use a safer, water-based process for chemical disposal in Maryland and Indiana, and would suspend funds for incinerators in Colorado and Kentucky. That meant four of eight sites became imminently safer because of the CWWG’s advocacy. Through the leadership of Williams, other CWWG groups around the U.S. gained more legitimate access to previously closed door Pentagon and Army meetings, which was a signal of hope.
Craig Williams won the prestigious 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize of $125,000 for his long and successful efforts in promoting a safer world. It was an award he “didn’t even know about.” In discussing the prize, and the good works of CWWG, his words are sprinkled liberally with “we,” and not “I.” He remains heroically, and effectively, involved in the work of his organization today, even after suffering a heart attack in December of 2006.
Craig Williams and his work is one good thing that came from the tragedy of the Vietnam War.
This story is reprinted from Steve Flairty’s 2008 book, “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes.” Williams continues his quest to see the destruction of chemical weapons as the Kentucky Environmental Foundation’s project director in Berea. He is quoted nationally because of his expertise on the subject.
By Steve Flairty
KEF in the News
We love making news; here you will find media pieces that highlight our work.