Category Archives: vietnam

Why We Keep Memorial Day

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is Memorial Day Weekend, a weekend where we remember those who died in the service of our country. It is not a day to thank the living veterans, that day is Veteran’s Day. Nor is it the day to thank those men and women who currently wear the uniform and fight the wars of our country. This weekend I am reposting a number of articles from past years to remind my regular readers and those new to my writings about how important this remembrance is, not just to me, but to all of us. I do not say that lightly. Memorial Day is the offspring of the families of the American Civil War dead, when people who lost loved ones in the cause of liberty and the defense of the Union honored their loved ones.

No matter what your political views, ideology, or religious beliefs, please take time to remember the high human cost of freedom this weekend, especially on Monday when we observe Memorial Day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Oliver Wendell Holmes 

“even if those who come after us are to forget all that we hold dear, and the future is to teach and kindle its children in ways as yet unrevealed, it is enough for us that this day is dear and sacred…”

Nearly 20 years after the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. then serving as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court spoke on Memorial Day 1884 in Keene New Hampshire at a gathering of veterans. He recalled an incident not long before where he had heard a young man ask “why people still kept up Memorial Day. The question was one that he pondered before his speech and that he attempted to find an answer, not to his fellow veterans who certainly understood their shared memories of war “but an answer which should command the assent of those who do not share our memories.”

3rd Infantry Places American Flags At The Graves Of U.S. Soldiers

I think that having an answer for the question is as timely now as when Holmes first pondered it. Though his war was twenty years past and had torn the nation apart, there were still many men on both sides who had served in that terrible time and but even so many people were not only forgetting the war and the sacrifices made by so many but intent on becoming rich. Something that he would directly state in a Memorial Day address to the graduating class of Harvard University in 1895:

“The society for which many philanthropists, labor reformers, and men of fashion unite in longing is one in which they may be comfortable and may shine without much trouble or any danger. The unfortunately growing hatred of the poor for the rich seems to me to rest on the belief that money is the main thing (a belief in which the poor have been encouraged by the rich), more than on any other grievance. Most of my hearers would rather that their daughters or their sisters should marry a son of one of the great rich families than a regular army officer, were he as beautiful, brave, and gifted as Sir William Napier. I have heard the question asked whether our war was worth fighting, after all. There are many, poor and rich, who think that love of country is an old wife’s tale, to be replaced by interest in a labor union, or, under the name of cosmopolitanism, by a rootless self-seeking search for a place where the most enjoyment may be had at the least cost.”

However his message to his fellow veterans, mostly men from his own former regiment, the 20th Massachusetts was quite personal and something that they could find meaning in. Holmes understood war, he had seen much action and had been wounded at Ball’s Bluff, Antietam and Chancellorsville. He talked of the shared experience of war, something that those who have fought in our nation’s wars, as well as combat veteran soldiers in other countries can understand far more than people that have only known peace, even while their countrymen are at war.

Memorial Day Series

Holmes’s remembrances of the war and the comrades that he and those present had served with, those living and those dead is powerful. Many of us who have served in the wars that began on September 11th 2001 have lost friends in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and many more who are wounded or maimed in body, mind and spirit. Many survivors of wounds today would have died in previous wars.

Likewise his descriptions of the memories of war, triggered by “accidents” are real to those that have experienced war and combat.

“Accidents may call up the events of the war. You see a battery of guns go by at a trot, and for a moment you are back at White Oak Swamp, or Antietam, or on the Jerusalem Road. You hear a few shots fired in the distance, and for an instant your heart stops as you say to yourself, The skirmishers are at it, and listen for the long roll of fire from the main line. You meet an old comrade after many years of absence; he recalls the moment that you were nearly surrounded by the enemy, and again there comes up to you that swift and cunning thinking on which once hung life and freedom–Shall I stand the best chance if I try the pistol or the sabre on that man who means to stop me? Will he get his carbine free before I reach him, or can I kill him first?These and the thousand other events we have known are called up, I say, by accident, and, apart from accident, they lie forgotten.”

We all have our memories of our wars, those of us who remain, be we veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, Somalia, Desert Storm, Lebanon, Vietnam, Korea or World War II. It is hard to believe that so few remain from World War II and Korea, and that even the Vietnam veterans are aging rapidly, most now in their 60s or 70s. In as much as the wars of the past decade have been fought by a tiny minority of American citizens fewer and fewer will understand the bond that we share through our memories of the living and the dead. We have been set apart by our experiences, even though the wars that we have fought differ in many ways.

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As such we should whenever possible take the time to meet and remember. That might be as groups of friends, unit associations or perhaps local chapters of Veterans organizations. We do this to remember but also to remind ourselves that we cannot live in the past alone, for the present likewise calls us to action, even after our service is complete.

Holmes put it well: “When we meet thus, when we do honor to the dead in terms that must sometimes embrace the living, we do not deceive ourselves. We attribute no special merit to a man for having served when all were serving. We know that, if the armies of our war did anything worth remembering, the credit belongs not mainly to the individuals who did it, but to average human nature. We also know very well that we cannot live in associations with the past alone, and we admit that, if we would be worthy of the past, we must find new fields for action or thought, and make for ourselves new careers.”

We remember the past, we remember our fallen and we remember the families who have lost loved ones in these wars as well as those whose lives have been changed and maybe even torn apart by the changes that war has wrought in their loved ones who returned different from war. In our service we have been set apart and as such as Holmes so well states we have the duty to “bear the report to those who will come after us.” His words carry forth to us today, we few we happy few as Shakespeare so eloquently wrote.

“nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.”

I will remember my time in Iraq and those that I served alongside. I will also remember friends who served in other units who did not return as well as those Marines, Sailors and Soldiers that I see every day in our Naval Hospital suffering from the physical, psychological and spiritual wounds of war.

This weekend I will remember and on Monday, that sacred day that we set aside to remember the fallen I take some time at noon to join in that time of remembrance and pray that maybe someday war will be no more.

That is why I think that we should remember Memorial Day even if others forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, News and current events, shipmates and veterans, vietnam, world war one, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific

A Personal Bond: The Veterans who Impacted My Life

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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Today is Veteran’s Day. I wrote a reflective piece on it two days ago and I want to follow up on it in a more personal manner in this post.

I am one of those unusual people for our day whose entire life has been somehow connected to life in the military. Thus I always become a bit more thoughtful and quite often emotional around Veterans Day and Memorial Day.  I’ve been in the military for over 34 years now.  I enlisted in the National Guard while in college and entered Army ROTC back on August 25th 1981.  Since then it has been to quote Jerry Garcia “a long strange trip.”  During that trip I learned a lot from the veterans who I am blessed to have encountered on the way, men and women who have touched my life in truly special ways.

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My Dad, Chief Petty Officer Carl Dundas aboard the USS Hancock in 1972

I come from a Navy family and was born in in a Navy hospital. Growing up in a Navy family in the 1960s and 1970s was a big adventure for me that never got old. I still remember looking forward to each new duty assignment with only the wonder that a child can have and to each new adventure that the next move would bring. We lived up and down the West Coast, Oakland, San Diego, Long Beach, Oak Harbor Washington, and finally Stockton California. My earliest memories of life come from our tour at Cubi Point Naval Air Station in Philippines, the sharply dressed Marine gate guards, the Navy officers in their resplendent white uniforms, the jungle that came up to our back yard, and the wild boars that would show up and tear up our garden, trees and lawn. I remember the Blue Angles flying directly over our house in Oak Harbor, those huge F4F Phantom jets roaring over me so low that every detail could be seen. I remember going on my dad’s last ship, the aircraft carrier USS Hancock and being amazed at how big and impressive everything on it was, the sights, sounds, and smells of the ship evoked a wonder that to this day I feel whenever I set foot about a ship. Of course compared to our modern carriers Hancock was old, and small but she was my dad’s ship and I was proud of him.

My dad retired from the Navy in 1974 as a Chief Petty Officer. While he was assigned to the Hancock was sent to manage aviation supplies at an emergency airstrip which was in the South Vietnamese city of An Loc when it was surrounded by the North Vietnamese for 80 days in 1972.  He didn’t talk about it much when he came back; in fact he came back different from the war.  He probably suffered from PTSD.  All the markers were there but we had no idea about it back then, after all he was in the Navy not the Army.  I had friends whose dad’s did not return from Vietnam and saw how Vietnam veterans were treated by the country as a whole including some members of the Greatest Generation.  They were not welcomed home and were treated often with scorn, even by veterans who had fought in the “real wars” of World War II and Korea.  Instead of being depicted an Americans doing their best in a war that few supported they were demonized in the media and in the entertainment industry for many years afterwards.

My dad never made a big deal out of his service but he inspired me to pursue a career in the military by being a man of honor and integrity.

Growing up then, we had a Navy family that surrounded us then remained part of my family’s life long after. My mom and dad remained in contact with friends that they served with or were stationed with, and now many of them are elderly and a good number have passed away.  Even so my mom, now a widow stays in regular contact with a number of her Navy wife “sisters.” There are not many of them left anymore, but mom tries to stay in touch with them. It was the early Navy family experience that shaped much of how I see the world and is a big reason as to why I place such great value on the contributions of veterans to our country and to me.

But there was another part of growing up in a military family in the 1960s, and that was the Vietnam War. I knew kids whose dads never came home from that war, and of course every night the evening news broadcast a “body count” segment which looked like a scoreboard showing how many Americans, South Vietnamese, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were killed, wounded or captured; but to me, at a very young age, those numbers on that “scoreboard” were flesh and blood human beings. This was my first experience of war.

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LCDR Breedlove and Senior Chief Ness

My second view of war came from the veterans of Vietnam who were my teachers in Navy Junior ROTC and the men that I served with in the National Guard and the Army.  Some of these men served as teachers and mentors.  LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John Ness at the Edison High School Naval Junior ROTC program were the first who helped me along.  Both have passed away but I will never forget them.  Commander Breedlove was someone that I would see every time that I went home as an adult. His sudden death the week before I returned from Iraq shook me.  I have a post dedicated to them at this link.  (In Memorium: Chief John Ness and LCDR Jim Breedlove USN)

When I joined the California Army National Guard in 1981 Colonel Edgar Morrison was my first battalion commander.  He was the most highly decorated member of the California National Guard at that time and had served multiple tours in Vietnam.  He encouraged me as a young specialist and officer cadet and showed a tremendous amount of care for his soldiers.  Staff Sergeants Buff Rambo and Mickey Yarro taught me the ropes as a forward observer and shared many of their Vietnam experiences as we sat on lonely hillsides at Camp Roberts California calling in artillery fire on so many weekends and during annual training. Buff had been a Marine dog handler on the DMZ, and Mickey a Forward Observer and they were fascinating men, with so many stories and such great experience which they imparted to me.

The Senior NCOs that trained me while in the Army ROTC program at UCLA and Fort Lewis had a big impact. All were combat veterans that had served in Vietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Zilkan was my training NCO at the UCLA Army ROTC program.  He was a Special Forces medic with 7th Group in Vietnam.  In Vietnam he was wounded three times, and was awarded two Silver Star Medals. He still had part of a VC bayonet embedded in his foot at UCLA, a reminder of his time serving in Southeast Asia.  He received my first salute as a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant as well as a Silver Dollar.  I understand that after the Army he became a fire fighter.  He had a massive heart attack on the scene of a fire and died a few years later from it.  Sergeant Major John Butler was our senior enlisted adviser at UCLA, he served as a paratrooper and infantryman with the 173rd Airborne brigade in Vietnam.

Another fascinating character was Sergeant First Class Harry Ball was my drill sergeant at the ROTC pre-commissioning camp at Fort Lewis Washington in 1982. I kid you not, that was really his name, but this was probably one of the most important experiences of my life, which was incredibly difficult but most necessary. Sergeant First Class Ball was a veteran of the Special Forces and Rangers and served multiple tours in Vietnam and when he walked across the drill field his Smokey Bear hat reminded me of a shark fin cutting across the water, the man was scary as shit, but he had a heart of gold. Though he only had me for a summer he was quite influential in my life, tearing me apart and then building me back up.  He was my version of Drill Sergeant Foley in the classic movie An Officer and a Gentleman. Like Zack Mayo played by Richard Gere at the end of that movie I can only say: Drill Sergeant “I will never forget you.” Every time I see that movie

As I progressed through my Army career I encountered others of this generation who also impacted my life. First among them was First Sergeant Jim Koenig who had been a Ranger in the Mekong Delta.  I was the First Sergeant that I would measure all others by.  Once during an ARTEP we were aggressed and all of a sudden he was back in the Delta. This man cared so much for his young soldiers in the 557th Medical Company.   He did so much for them and I’m sure that those who served with him can attest to this as well as me. Jim had a brick on his desk so that when he got pissed he could chew on it.  He retired after he was selected to be a Command Sergeant Major because he valued his wife and family more than the promotion.  It hurt him to do this, but he put his family first.

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1985 with 2nd Platoon of 557th Medical Company (Ambulance) in Germany

Colonel Donald Johnson was the commander of the 68th Medical Group when I got to Germany in January 1984.  Colonel “J” as well all called him was one of the best leaders I have seen or served under in 34 years in the military.  He knew everything about everything and his knowledge forced us all to learn and be better officers and NCOs.  On an inspection visit you could always find him dressed in coveralls and underneath a truck verifying the maintenance done on it.  He served a number of Vietnam tours.  He died of Multiple Myeloma and is buried at Arlington.

Chaplain (LTC) Rich Whaley who had served as a company commander in Vietnam on more than one occasion saved my young ass at the Army Chaplain School.  No really he saved my career at least twice, and kept me out of big trouble on both occasions. Personally I don’t know too many senior chaplains who would put themselves on the line for a junior chaplain the way that Rich did for me. He remains a friend and is the Endorsing Agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a Mormon he is one of the most “Christian” men that I have ever met.  I know some Christians who might have a hard time with that, but Rich demonstrated every trait of a Christian who loved God and his neighbor.

When I was the Installation Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap PA I was blessed to have some great veterans in my Chapel Parish.  Major General Frank Smoker flew 25 missions as a B-17 pilot over Germany during the height of the air war in Europe. He brought his wonderful wife Kate back from England with him and long after his active service was over he remained a vital part of the military community until his death in 2010.  Sergeant Henry Boyd was one of the 101st Airborne soldiers epitomized in Band of Brothers. He had a piece of shrapnel lodged next to his heart from the Battle of the Bulge until the day he died and was honored to conduct his funeral while stationed at Indiantown Gap. Colonel Walt Swank also served in Normandy.  Major Scotty Jenkes was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam flying close air support while Colonel Ray Hawthorne served several tours both in artillery units and as an adviser in 1972 and was with General Smoker a wonderful help to me as I applied to enter the Navy while CWO4 Charlie Kosko flew helicopters in Vietnam.  All these men made a deep impact on me and several contributed to my career in very tangible ways. Another man who I knew at Indiantown Gap was Sergeant Billy Ward who just passed away last week of a major heart attack. Billy was a bear of a man, but one of the kindest and gentlest men who I have ever known. Billy never knew a stranger and loved people no matter what their station in life, no matter what their beliefs, no matter what their lifestyle. I can honestly say that Billy didn’t have an enemy and though he was a lay preacher and was later ordained to the ministry, he just loved people and never judged anyone. He exemplified what it is to be a Christian. 

Al Waleed Iraq 2007

In 1999 I resigned my commission as an Army reserve Major to enter active duty in the Navy, with a reduction in rank. Since joining the Navy my life has continued to be impacted and influenced by other veterans. A good amount of my Navy career has been spent serving with Marine Corps. I served with some great Marines and Sailors in those units, including Lieutenant Colonel T D Anderson, and then Major, but now Brigadier General Dave Ottignon of the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Desroches of 1st Battalion 8th Marines, Colonel Lou Rachal of 3rd Battalion 8th Marines, and Colonel, now Major General Richard Lake of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. My friends at Marine Security Forces Colonel Mike Paulovich and Sergeant Major Kim Davis mean more than almost any people in the world.  We traveled the globe together visiting our Marines.  Both of these men are heroes to me as well as friends, Colonel Paulovich was able to administer the oath of office to me when I was promoted to Commander.

I was blessed to become friends with many of the Marine Corps veterans of the Battle of Hue City including General Peter Pace, Barney Barnes, Tony “Limey” Cartilage, Sergeant Major Thomas. They and so many others have become close over the years, especially after I did my time in Iraq. They and all the Vietnam vets, including the guys from the Vietnam Veterans of America like Ray and John who manned the beer stand behind the plate at Harbor Park all mean a lot to me.

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Boarding Team of USS Hue City 2002

Finally there are my friends and brothers that I have served with at sea on USS HUE CITY during Operation Enduring Freedom and the advisers on the ground in Al Anbar mean more than anything to me. Perhaps the most important is my bodyguard, RP1 Nelson Lebron, who helped keep me safe and accompanied me all over the battlefield.  Nelson who has done Iraq three times, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Balkans is a hero.  Two others who matter a great deal to me from Iraq were Army Colonel David Abramowitz, Navy Captain (Chaplain) Mike Langston, and Father Jose Bautista-Rojas, a Navy Chaplain and Roman Catholic priest. Then there are the men and women of Navy EOD who I served with from 2006-2008 have paid dearly in combating IEDs and other explosive devices used against us in Iraq and Afghanistan are heroes too.  There is no routine mission for EOD technicians.  Then there are the friends that I serve with in Navy Medicine, medical professionals who care for our Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen, family members and veterans at home and in the thick of the fighting in Afghanistan.

There are many from my time in Navy Medicine who have meant so much to me. Chaplain Jeff Seiler, an Episcopal Priest at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and Father Fred Elkin, a retired Navy Chaplain who served there helped keep me together during the darkest time of my life after Iraq, as did many of the physicians and nurses that I worked with there, and many of them were not Christians, but they helped and cared for me. That continued at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune, where I served as Director of Pastoral Care. At Lejeune I was fortunate to serve with Duke Quarles, a civilian pastoral counselor and retired Navy Chaplain. Duke was a rock for me there, as was Command Master Chief Ed Marino, one of the most spiritual and kind people that I know.

I now serve in a wonderful place, the Joint Forces Staff College. I am surrounded by great people here, from all the services of our armed forces, active duty and retired. I get to do wonderful things, and despite having gone through absolute hell dealing with the military mental health system this year, these folks have stood by me, especially Commander Lisa Rose, our former staff nurse who retired last year. Lisa is a highly skilled nurse and a courageous woman. For eighteen years of her career she served always wondering if someone was going to try to persecute, prosecute or try to run her out the Navy because she is a lesbian. For years she could not take her spouse to official functions, she could not even take a chance on being seen in public by someone with her spouse, even under “don’t ask don’t tell.” She was finally able to do that, but truthfully I cannot imagine what it would be like to want to serve your country, your shipmates and your God, while always knowing that anyone could end that simply because they didn’t approve of who you loved. I am glad that Lisa and my other gay and lesbian friends in the military are now able to openly serve.

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Me with RP1 Nelson Lebron just prior to leaving Iraq

There are others who I have served alongside who have died while in the service of the country, or after their service had ended. Some, like Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman, who I served with at 3rd Battalion 8th Marines, were killed in Afghanistan, others like Commander Marsha Hanley, a nurse I served with in the ICU at Portsmouth, who was one of the people who helped hold me together when I was so fragile; she died of complications of chemotherapy treatment at far too young age. Damage Control Specialist 2nd Class Ray Krolikowski, who I served with aboard USS Hue City died just over a year ago, eleven years after suffering an injury that left him a quadriplegic in 2003. Then there those who died by their own hand, having never recovered from war. Captain Tom Sitsch who was my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, and Father Dennis Rocheford committed suicide after being tormented by the demons of PTSD and TBI. Both men were real heroes. I could mention so many more, but will end there because I am getting a bit emotional.

There is a closing thought from the television mini-series Band of Brothers which kind of sums up how I feel. The American troops who have fought so long and hard are watching a German general address his troops after the German surrender. An American soldier of German-Jewish descent translates for his comrades the words spoken by the German commander, and it as if the German is speaking for each of them as well.

Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.

So for me Veteran’s Day is intensely personal because of the veterans, living and dead, who made an impact on my life. I have a bond, a special bond with so many of my brothers and sisters who volunteer to serve. Today we number less than one percent of the nation, a tiny number of people in comparison to the size of our nation and the commitments that our leaders have engaged us.

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The military is a young persons game, and I am now older than almost everyone on active duty. I have been in the military longer than almost everyone that I know, including many people senior in rank to me. I am a dinosaur, and sometimes a cranky one at that when it comes to dealing with the bureaucracy of the military, but my long strange trip continues. That being said, though I served over half of my career in the Army, at heart I have always been a navy man. I think that President John F. Kennedy expressed how I feel about serving the best. He said, “I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”

So today I give thanks for all them men that I mention in this post, especially my dad. For the countless others that are not mentioned by name please know that I thank God for all of you too. Someone once said “A ‘Special Day’ once a year creates an excuse for neglect on the other 365 days for mothers, fathers & veterans” Please do not let that continue to happen, please do not just look at this as time off, or if you are a corporation or retailer use this day to boost your sales by acting like you care.

I do hope that people will remember the Veterans that impacted their lives this and every day. Some may have been the men and women that we served with, perhaps a parent, sibling or other relative, maybe a childhood friend, a teacher, coach or neighbor. As we pause for a moment this Friday let us honor those who gave their lives in the defense of liberty in all of the wars of our nation. They have earned it and please thank any veteran that you know in some small way today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, remembering friends, Tour in Iraq, US Navy, vietnam

They Shall Not Have Died in Vain: Memorial Day 2015

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In Flanders Fields

John McCrae, 1915.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

There is a poignant scene in the film The Longest Day in which Richard Burton, playing the wounded British Royal Air Force Flying Officer David Campbell looks at the body of a dead German soldier and says to an American paratrooper who is lost from his unit: 

“It’s funny isn’t it. He’s dead, I’m crippled, you’re lost. Suppose it’s always like that. I mean war.” 

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Back when the movie was filmed in the early 1960s there were still many World War II veterans around and the United States and most Western European nations still had some form of draft or conscription which ensured that most people still had some connection with the military. It’s not like that now. In the United States far these than 1% of the population is serving in the military, and this includes the National Guard and reserves. The numbers are similar throughout Western Europe. Those who have served in combat or even deployed to combat theaters are far fewer. As a result the people of the United States and Western Europe as a whole are so disconnected from military service, not to mention the terrible human cost that is war. As William Tecumseh Sherman said: War is Hell. 

I came back a different man from Iraq. It seems that for me with every passing year Memorial Day becomes more of a melancholy observance. It is a weekend and observance that I feel deeply having lost friends in war and served in Iraq as well as Operation Enduring Freedom. It is also a day in which I feel more and more disconnected from the vast majority of my fellow Americans. I don’t know, but just from my observation it seems that for most Americans the weekend serves as not much more than the end of the school year and the beginning of the summer holiday and vacation season.

Now I could be wrong, but it seems to me that for most Americans, the vast majority who have themselves never served a day in uniform and who have no more than a passing relationship with anyone who is either serving in our current wars or has served in any war, that war is at best a spectator sport.

This is an attitude that has been nurtured by our politicians of all parties, political pundits and preachers for decades. As a result there is a grave disconnect between the society at large and the men and women who serve in the military and in our wars.

To be fair I don’t think it is a matter of ordinary people not caring, not that at all. Many do and I am thankful to them. That being said there are many who though they say they support the troops find war to be some sort of sporting event where we send our heroes out to do battle against the enemies of freedom, while making no sacrifices themselves and even call military health care, retirement benefits and disability pensions “entitlement programs” which need to be reigned in. Yes, that is right. Send the volunteers to war and then abandon them. Sadly, with the exception of the end of World War Two, this is always how this nation has treated its veterans and their families.

The real fact of the matter is that the wars that we have fought since World War II have not been national affairs. If they were we would not be continually fighting wars that most people neither understand and which in many if not most cases we would be better off staying out of completely. That being said I am appreciative of those who do things to care for and honor our veterans, honor our fallen and do practical things for the survivors. There are some really wonderful people, many who have never served who do what they can for those who fight and die in or come back forever changed from these misbegotten and unpopular wars.

At the same time there are a lot of what I call War Porn addicts, especially the pundits, politicians and preachers who cannot get enough of war. As a Christian I hate to say that many of the worst of the war porn addicts are the supposedly Christian pundits, politicians and preachers who cannot seem to find enough new wars to get us involved in even as we struggle to deal with what is on our plate already. If you ask me these sons-of-bitches are traitors who do not love the troops, do not love this country and should be forced into the front line so they can see, smell and taste death.

What I find the most offensive are the war mongers and profiteers who have never served. I feel this way about those who did all that they could to avoid serving in the military and those who did the very minimum to satisfy outward appearances of service while avoiding anything difficult, especially deployment to combat zones. Of the latter I can think of five to six currently serving and very outspoken conservative members of the House of Representatives and the Senate that fit the description. I shan’t mention the members of the previous Presidential administration who through their outright lies caused the deaths of nearly 4500 American military personnel in Iraq. I speak about men who in their writings, their appearances on news networks and their think tanks and corporations that do nothing but profit off of war. Some are current or former politicians, others supposedly “academics” and others men who smell a profit in war. 

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I find such people to be loathsome and wonder how on Memorial Day weekend they can show their faces. But then they are rather shameless. Sometimes their actions make me wonder if the sacrifices made by those who serve are in vain. However, I strive to resist that and pray that our sacrifices will not be in vain. While they profit from war others pay the bill and it has always been this way. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, a two time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor wrote after World War One in his book War is a Racket:

“This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

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Maybe I feel this way because I grew up in a military family where my dad was frequently deployed and served in Vietnam, a place where some of my friends fathers died, and because I have been in the military 32 years between the Army and the Navy. Maybe it is partly because I am a military historian, theologian, priest and chaplain who has seen the horrors of war and the wounds that remain for life in the bodies, minds and spirits of those that fight in them. I cannot speak of how my heart feels when I see young men and women, wounded in war, their lives forever changed bravely struggling to go on even as the war mongers, war profiteers and chicken-hawks profit off of their suffering. As I said before, these people are traitors and if I had my way we would drive them at bayonet point into the arms of the Islamic State so they can taste what war is all about. Maybe then these sons-of-bitches would think twice before sending another young American to die so they might make a profit.

So for me this is a rather melancholy time. A time where I struggle a time when I get so angry. That being said I also echo the words of Civil War Veteran and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who spoke these words in 1895:

“even if those who come after us are to forget all that we hold dear, and the future is to teach and kindle its children in ways as yet unrevealed, it is enough for us that this day is dear and sacred…. nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.”

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I honor the fallen, my brothers and sisters who have given the last full measure of devotion in serving this country, those that I know personally or have served with and those who did so before I was every born. Why you might ask? 

The reason is simple and I think that Abraham Lincoln said it best as he closed his Gettysburg Address:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Return from Gettysburg: Table Talk and Meeting a Hero

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I am on the way back from Gettysburg following our Staff Ride. As always it was a very interesting trip and as much as I get to expound on what I know, I also get to learn. As the late Hall of Fame Manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Earl Weaver so eloquently put it: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

I love going up, not just for the teaching opportunity, but to spend time with the students, and sometimes their family members over lunch, dinner or drinks at the various watering holes. These occasions of table talk are probably some of the most important parts of learning and relationships. They are something that have become an anomaly in our modern higher education process, which driven by the need for profit, or by austerity in public or military educational systems, or fear of legal liability, have all too often sacrificed this all too important manner of learning.

I remember reading Martin Luther’s Table Talk, which is a collection of writings by his student’s gathered around the table as they ate and drank. They show Luther at his best and worst, expounding on some of his less systematized ideas, as well as his ability to expound on subjects outside of the lecture hall or the theological debate, sometimes while certainly under the influence of good German beer.

This type of learning was common at one time, but now is a dying art. One of the things that it does for me is that my student’s questions, comments, experiences and ideas also spur my thinking and cause me to do more research, discover more and learn more. I then attempt to assimilate what I have learned and then develop those thoughts into things that I am either writing or teaching.

For me this is about a commitment to the truth, as I quoted from Star Trek the Next Generation on Friday, that my first duty, is to the truth, and as one of my students mention to me last night can be painful, especially when long cherished myths, are crushed by the weight of facts. For him it was the ugly truth of the Lost Cause and especially in the role of religion in the South to justify slavery, secession and following the war segregation, discrimination and sometimes even lynching. For him, as it was for me, so many years ago at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, this was difficult. But if truth matters at all, we cannot ignore it as so many do and cling to myth, as Captain Picard said ” be it scientific, historic or personal truth.” 

I was fortunate that my professors at Southwestern, especially my professors of Church History, Systematic Theology and Philosophy of religion challenged me and laid waste to the myths that I believed that I am who I am today.

I think I am going to start doing table talk sessions for any interested students during our next term.

I also had a unique honor on this trip. One of my students brought his dad, a retired Army Colonel and Vietnam veteran. He was a very interesting man and was engaged in the lessons of the trip, even since his son had provided him a copy of my text, asking when I would get it published. He didn’t try to draw attention to himself, we had some nice conversation over dinner and drinks with the rest of the students, and at the end of the Staff Ride, which is at the Solder’s Cemetery he walked up and thanked me. He the said “let me give you my coin.”

For us in the military a being presented a commander’s coin or unit coin is an honor. I have a lot of them, including one from former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, who I met at the Battle of Hue City Memorial weekend when I was the chaplain of the ship that carries the name and legacy of Hue City.

When I looked at the coin it was inscribed “Colonel Walter Marm, Vietnam, 14 November 1965.” In the center a depiction of the Medal of Honor. The front, Congressional Medal of Honor Society, United States of America. Colonel Marm was a platoon leader then, a young lieutenant, in Company A, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Ia Drang. You might recognize it, the battle was chronicled in the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young” and film We Were Soldiers

If you want to read about his heroism you can google him or go to this site, which is just one of many where you can read about this American hero.

http://www.medalofhonorspeakout.org/bio/walter-marm

Interestingly enough President Obama will award the Medal of Honor posthumously on November 6th to Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing who died defending the Angle on day three at Gettysburg.

So this indeed was a special trip, a reminder to me of the lost art of table talk in education, as well as the heroes who do not draw attention to themselves. Yes my friends, it is what you learn after you know it all that counts.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remembering Why We Keep Memorial Day

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“even if those who come after us are to forget all that we hold dear, and the future is to teach and kindle its children in ways as yet unrevealed, it is enough for us that this day is dear and sacred…”

Nearly 20 years after the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. then serving as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court spoke on Memorial Day 1884 in Keene New Hampshire at a gathering of veterans. He recalled an incident not long before where he had heard a young man ask “why people still kept up Memorial Day. The question was one that he pondered before his speech and that he attempted to find an answer, not to his fellow veterans who certainly understood their shared memories of war “but an answer which should command the assent of those who do not share our memories.”

I think that having an answer for the question is as timely now as when Holmes first pondered it. Though his war was twenty years past and had torn the nation apart, there were still many men on both sides who had served in that terrible time and but even so many people were not only forgetting the war and the sacrifices made by so many but intent on becoming rich. Something that he would directly state in a Memorial Day address to the graduating class of Harvard University in 1895:

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Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr in the Civil War

“The society for which many philanthropists, labor reformers, and men of fashion unite in longing is one in which they may be comfortable and may shine without much trouble or any danger. The unfortunately growing hatred of the poor for the rich seems to me to rest on the belief that money is the main thing (a belief in which the poor have been encouraged by the rich), more than on any other grievance. Most of my hearers would rather that their daughters or their sisters should marry a son of one of the great rich families than a regular army officer, were he as beautiful, brave, and gifted as Sir William Napier. I have heard the question asked whether our war was worth fighting, after all. There are many, poor and rich, who think that love of country is an old wife’s tale, to be replaced by interest in a labor union, or, under the name of cosmopolitanism, by a rootless self-seeking search for a place where the most enjoyment may be had at the least cost.”

However his message to his fellow veterans, mostly men from his own former regiment, the 20th Massachusetts was quite personal and something that they could find meaning in. Holmes understood war, he had seen much action and had been wounded at Ball’s Bluff, Antietam and Chancellorsville. He talked of the shared experience of war, something that those who have fought in our nation’s wars, as well as combat veteran soldiers in other countries can understand far more than people that have only known peace, even while their countrymen are at war.

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Holmes remembrances of the war and the comrades that he and those present had served with, those living and those dead is powerful. Many of us who have served in the wars that began on September 11th 2001 have lost friends in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and many more who are wounded or maimed in body, mind and spirit. Many survivors of wounds today would have died in previous wars.

Likewise his descriptions of the memories of war, triggered by “accidents” are real to those that have experienced war and combat.

“Accidents may call up the events of the war. You see a battery of guns go by at a trot, and for a moment you are back at White Oak Swamp, or Antietam, or on the Jerusalem Road. You hear a few shots fired in the distance, and for an instant your heart stops as you say to yourself, The skirmishers are at it, and listen for the long roll of fire from the main line. You meet an old comrade after many years of absence; he recalls the moment that you were nearly surrounded by the enemy, and again there comes up to you that swift and cunning thinking on which once hung life and freedom–Shall I stand the best chance if I try the pistol or the sabre on that man who means to stop me? Will he get his carbine free before I reach him, or can I kill him first?These and the thousand other events we have known are called up, I say, by accident, and, apart from accident, they lie forgotten.”

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We all have our memories of our wars, those of us who remain, be we veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, Somalia, Desert Storm, Lebanon, Vietnam, Korea or World War II. It is hard to believe that so few remain from World War II and Korea, and that even the Vietnam veterans are aging rapidly, most now in their 60s or 70s. In as much as the wars of the past decade have been fought by a tiny minority of American citizens fewer and fewer will understand the bond that we share through our memories of the living and the dead. We have been set apart by our experiences, even though the wars that we have fought differ in many ways.

As such we should whenever possible take the time to meet and remember. That might be as groups of friends, unit associations or perhaps local chapters of Veterans organizations. We do this to remember but also to remind ourselves that we cannot live in the past alone, for the present likewise calls us to action, even after our service is complete.

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Holmes put it well: “When we meet thus, when we do honor to the dead in terms that must sometimes embrace the living, we do not deceive ourselves. We attribute no special merit to a man for having served when all were serving. We know that, if the armies of our war did anything worth remembering, the credit belongs not mainly to the individuals who did it, but to average human nature. We also know very well that we cannot live in associations with the past alone, and we admit that, if we would be worthy of the past, we must find new fields for action or thought, and make for ourselves new careers.”

We remember the past, we remember our fallen and we remember the families who have lost loved ones in these wars as well as those whose lives have been changed and maybe even torn apart by the changes that war has wrought in their loved ones who returned different from war. In our service we have been set apart and as such as Holmes so well states we have the duty to “bear the report to those who will come after us.” His words carry forth to us today, we few we happy few as Shakespeare so eloquently wrote.

“nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.” 

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I will remember my time in Iraq and those that I served alongside. I will also remember friends who served in other units who did not return as well as those Marines, Sailors and Soldiers that I see every day in our Naval Hospital suffering from the physical, psychological and spiritual wounds of war.

This weekend I will remember and on Monday, that sacred day that we set aside to remember the fallen I take some time at noon to join in that time of remembrance and pray that maybe someday war will be no more.

That is why I think that we should remember Memorial Day even if others forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remembering Hell: The Fall of Dien Bien Phu 59 Years Gone by and Still Forgotten

Dien Bien Phu War Remnants

Dien Bien Phu Today

It was an epic battle in a tragic war and most people neither know or care what happened in the valley where a small border post named Dien Bien Phu became synonymous with forgotten sacrifice. This year fewer remembrances are taking place. Some are in Vietnam and others in France.

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General Vo Nguyen Giap

On May 7th 2011 in Hanoi a small remembrance was held to mark the fall of Dien Bien Phu and honor the victor, 101 year old General Vo Nguyen Giap at his home. Giap is the last senior commander of the war alive at 103 he remains active. That 2011 ceremony was one of the few remembrances held anywhere marking that battle which was one of the watersheds of the 20th Century. A half a world away in Houston Texas a small group of French veterans, expatriates and historians laid a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial.  In Paris an ever shrinking number of French survivors gather each year on May 7th at 1815 hours for a religious service at the Church of Saint Louis des Invalides to remember the dead and missing of the French Expeditionary Corps lost in Indochina. A small number of other small ceremonies have been held this year.

This battle is nearly forgotten by time even though it and the war that it symbolized is probably the one that we need to learn from before Afghanistan becomes our Indochina.

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French Prisoners

On May 8th 1954 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh.  It was the end of the ill-fated Operation Castor in which the French had planned to lure the Viet Minh Regulars into open battle and use superior firepower to decimate them.  The strategy which had been used on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son.

The French had thought they had come up with a template for victory based on their battle at Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh. The plan was called the “Air-land base.”  It involved having strong forces in a defensible position deep behind enemy lines supplied by air.  At Na Son the plan worked as the French were on high ground, had superior artillery and were blessed by General Giap using human wave assaults which made the Viet Minh troops fodder for the French defenders.  Even still Na Son was a near run thing for the French and had almost no effect on Viet Minh operations elsewhere while tying down a light division equivalent and a large portion of French air power.

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Viet Minh Regulars

The French took away the wrong lesson from Na-Son and repeated it at Dien Bien Phu.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base of operations against the Viet Minh.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. The elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle. They elected to go light on artillery and the air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially tactical air forces which were in short supply.  To make matters worse the General Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina informed that the French government was going to begin peace talks and that he would receive no further reinforcements elected to continue the operation.

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French Paras Drop into Dien Bien Phu

Likewise French logistics needs were greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  French positions at Dien Bien Phu were exposed to an an enemy who held the high ground and were not mutually supporting. The terrain was so poor that French units were incapable of any meaningful offensive operations against the Viet Minh. As such they could only dig in and wait for battle. Despite this many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was in exposed positions.

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Major Marcel Bigeard 

The French garrison was a good quality military force composed of veteran units. It was comprised of Paras, Foreign Legion, Colonials (Marines), North Africans and Vietnamese troops. Ordinarily in a pitched battle it would have done well, but this was no ordinary battle and their Viet Minh opponents were equally combat hardened, well led and well supplied and fighting for their independence.

Many of the French officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Marcel Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indochina including David Galula and Roger Trinquier would write books and develop counter-insurgency tactics which would help Americans in Iraq. Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

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Viet Minh Supply Column

Giap rapidly concentrated his forces and built excellent logistics support.  He placed his artillery in well concealed and fortified positions which could use direct fire on French positions. Giap also had more and heavier artillery than the French believed him to have.  Additionally he brought in a large number of anti-aircraft batteries whose positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among French Aircraft.  Giap also did not throw his men away in human assaults.  Instead he used his Sappers (combat engineers) to build protective trenches leading up to the very wire of French defensive positions.  In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web.

Without belaboring this post the French fought hard as did the Viet Minh. One after one French positions were overwhelmed by accurate artillery and well planned attacks.  The French hoped for U.S. air intervention, even the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. They were turned down by a US Government that had grown tired of a war in Korea.

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Wounded Awaiting Medivac 

Relief forces were unable to get through and the garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops. Colonials and Legionaries. The French garrison was let down by their high command and their government and lost the battle due to inadequate logistics and air power. The survivors endured a brutal forced march of nearly 400 miles on foot to POW camps in which many died. Many soldiers who survived the hell of Dien Bien Phu were subjected to torture, including a practice that we call “water boarding.” General Georges Catroux who presided over the official inquiry into the debacle at Dien Bien Phu wrote in his memoirs: “It is obvious that there was, on the part of our commanding structure, an excess of confidence in the merit of our troops and in the superiority of our material means.”

Few French troops caved to the Viet Minh interrogations and torture but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  Some French troops and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release. French soldiers and officers were shipped directly from Indochina to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency often against Algerians that they had served alongside in Indochina. The Algerian campaign proved to be even more brutal and it was lost politically before it even began.

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The March to Captivity

The wars in Indochina and Algeria tore the heart out of the French Army. The defeats inflicted a terrible toll. In Indochina many French career soldiers felt that the government’s “lack of interest in the fate of both thousands of missing French prisoners and loyal North Vietnamese…as dishonorable.” Divisions arose between those who served and those who remained in France or Germany and created bitter enmity between soldiers. France would endure a military coup which involved many who had fought in Vietnam and Algeria. Having militarily won that war these men called The Centurions by Jean Lartenguy had been turned into liars by their government.  They were forced to abandon those who they had fought for and following the mutiny, tried, imprisoned, exiled or disgraced. Colonial troops who remained loyal to France were left without homes in their now “independent” nations. They saw Dien Bien Phu as the defining moment. “They responded with that terrible cry of pain which pretends to free a man from his sworn duty, and promises such chaos to come: ‘Nous sommes trahis!’-‘We are betrayed.’

The effects of the wars in French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam on the French military establishment were long lasting and often tragic. The acceptance of torture as a means to an end sullied even the hardest French officers. Men like Galula and Marcel Bigeard refused to countenance it, while others like Paul Aussaresses never recanted.

One of the most heart rending parts of the Dien Bien Phu story for me is that of Easter 1954 which fell just prior to the end for the French:

“In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

As a veteran of Iraq whose father served in Vietnam I feel an almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy, Algiers and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong. When it comes to this time of year I always have a sense of melancholy and dread as I think of the unlearned lessons and future sacrifices that we may be asked to make.

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Legionairs on the Street Without Joy

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indochina were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor were the lessons of Algeria. It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly and I do not think that many in our political, media and pundits or military have entirely learned or that we in the military have completely shaken ourselves. We lost 54,000 dead in Vietnam, nearly 4500 in Iraq and close to 2600 in Afghanistan, not counting vast numbers of wounded. There are those even as we have been at war for 12 years who advocate even more interventions in places that there is no good potential outcome, only variations on bad. How many more American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen will need die without “victory” whoever we might want too define it?

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French Navy F-8 Bearcat at Dien Bien Phu

Like the French our troops who returned from Vietnam were forgotten.The U.S. Army left Vietnam and returned to a country deeply divided by the war. Vietnam veterans remained ostracized by the society until the 1980s. As Lieutenant General Harold Moore  who commanded the battalion at the Ia Drang immortalized in the film We Were Soldiers recounted “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.”

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

I do pray that we will learn the lessons before we enter yet another hell.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Loss of an Icon: General Norman Schwarzkopf dies at 79

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Schwarzkopf and Powell, the Eisenhower and Marshall of their Era

“Do what is right, not what you think the high headquarters wants or what you think will make you look good.” 

Americans lost a military hero and an icon yesterday. General Norman Schwarzkopf died in Tampa at the age of 79 due to complications of pneumonia.

Schwarzkopf was one of the most brilliant commanders of his era, a multi-dimensional character who was to many of us bigger than life.

Schwarzkopf was the quintessential Army Brat, growing up on military bases in the United States as well as in diplomatic posts overseas. The son of General he graduated from West Point, was commissioned as an infantry officer, became a paratrooper at Fort Campbell Kentucky before being assigned to the Berlin Brigade, a post he left just prior to the erection of the Berlin Wall by the Soviets and the East Germans. He completed a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering from USC and was assigned as an instructor at West Point.

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Schwarzkopf helping to carry a wounded South Vietnamese Paratrooper 

During that tour he volunteered to serve as an advisor with South Vietnamese paratroopers.  After that tour and the completion of his tour at West Point he was promote to Lieutenant Colonel and commanded the 1st Battalion 6th Infantry, 198th Brigade and was wounded while with his troops and who in the crisis kept his head and helped lead his troops, though seriously wounded out of the trap. He was known with affection by many soldiers as “the Bear,” a moniker that he appreciated much more than Desert Storm media nickname of “Stormin’ Norman.”

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Schwarzkopf with ARVN Paratroops

It was during his time in Vietnam that Schwarzkopf came to a realization about men at war and his own personality. “I prided myself on being unflappable even in the most chaotic of circumstances,…That guise lasted until Vietnam, where I realized that I was dealing with human lives and if one were lost, it could never be replaced. I quickly learned that there was nothing wrong with being emotional.”

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Following his time in Vietnam he remained in the Army to help be a part of its rebuilding as an All Volunteer force. By the late 1970s he had served as a Brigade commander in the 9th Infantry Division and Assistant Division Commander in the 8th Infantry Division before taking command of the 24th Infantry Division in late 1982. He was appointed the Deputy Commander for the Joint Task Force that invaded Grenada in 1983 and in 1988 was appointed Commander for the US Central Command.

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It was in this capacity that he took command of US and coalition troops gathering to respond to Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1981. His leaders and planning cells helped engineer a military campaign in conjunction with the admirable skill of President George H.W. Bush and his diplomats the successful expulsion and destruction of Saddam’s forces. While some criticize the decision not to continue the war and go on to Baghdad Schwarzkopf made a comment that those that invaded Iraq in 2003 might well have better heeded: had “we taken all of Iraq, we would have been like a dinosaur in the tar pit — we would still be there, and we, not the United Nations, would be bearing the costs of that occupation.”

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Schwarzkopf’s Briefings

After his retirement he was active in supporting cancer research programs, efforts to save the Grizzly Bear and was a military commentator and analyst for NBC. Although he supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 he asked questions that few were asking. In early 2003 he told the Washington Post: “What is postwar Iraq going to look like, with the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shiites? That’s a huge question, to my mind. It really should be part of the overall campaign plan.”  Following the invasion and the beginning of the insurgency he became a critic of the operation. He was particularly critical of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for not anticipating the consequences of the invasion and for Rumsfeld’s criticism of the Army and the deployment of reserve component troops into urban combat who did not have the correct training or equipment for the job. He also made another observation that few noted about Rumsfeld and much of the Pentagon staff and the Bush Administration appointees in Iraq, in that they “showed a total lack of understanding of the culture that we were dealing with.” 

Schwarzkopf was an original and though he was loathe to admit it a hero. He also knew that life was bigger than the military and that one has to be more than the sum of their career. He once told the Associated Press: “I may have made my reputation as a general in the Army and I’m very proud of that… “But I’ve always felt that I was more than one-dimensional. I’d like to think I’m a caring human being. … It’s nice to feel that you have a purpose.”

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Schwarzkopf with Iraqi Generals at Cease Fire

Though I never served under his command while in the Army I knew many friends that did and my early career was shaped and molded by men life him.  He was not a perfect commander, analysis of his command in the Gulf show that he did make some mistakes, the greatest and most long lasting being the concession to allow the defeated Iraqi forces the use of helicopters which they used with great effect against the Shi’a tribes near Basra that sought independence.

However, in my mind it was Schwarzkopf’s public leadership that helped inspire his troops and encourage the nation which until that point had not recovered from all of the effects of the Vietnam War.  His briefings inspired confidence in America and with our Allies. He was as much of a diplomat in figuring out how to employ over 700,000 troops, military forces of 32 nation coalition, including numerous large Arab countries in a successful war.

Schwarzkopf also understood the full gravity of war and its effects on nations and people. He said: “I hate war. Absolutely, I hate war…Good generalship is a realization that … you’ve got to try and figure out how to accomplish your mission with a minimum loss of human life.”

He is remembered well. General Colin Powell who served as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during Desert Storm remarked after Schwarzkopf’s death “His leadership not only inspired his troops, but also inspired the nation. He was a good friend of mine, a close buddy. I will miss him.” From his hospital bed former President George H W Bush issued a statement saying that Schwarzkopf: “epitomized the ‘duty, service, country’ creed that has defended our freedom and seen this great nation through our most trying international crises….More than that, he was a good and decent man — and a dear friend.”  President Barak Obama praised him saying that “He was an American original” and “From his decorated service in Vietnam to the historic liberation of Kuwait and his leadership of United States Central Command, General Schwarzkopf stood tall for the country and Army he loved…”

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Rest in Peace General, Rest in Peace,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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