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A Quiet Remembrance: The Fall of Dien Bien Phu May 7th 1954

French Prisoners

On May 7th 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.  It 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.  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.

French Major Marcel Bigeard at Dien Bien Phu. A revered leader he died in 2010

On May 8th 1954 the last of the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh following the surrender of the main garrison the previous day.  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 once on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son would prove to be the Göttdammerung of French colonial rule in Indochina.

French Paras landing at Dien Bien Phu

The French had thought they had come up with a template based on Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh which had in the years between 1945 and 1954 had turned an insurgent force into a strong Army capable of taking on large French forces.  As a result the French decided that they would attempt to draw Giap’s Army into open combat where their superiority in heavy weaponry and in the air could be used to 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 and had superiority in artillery and air forces.  They were also 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 in Indochina while tying down a almost a full division of troops and a large portion of French air power. They inflicted heavy losses on the Viet Minh but did not destroy them.

The French command assumed that they had found a way to defeat the Viet Minh.  They decided to repeat the strategy used at Na-Son at the remote the remote town of Dien Bien Phu near the Laotian border.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base from which they could conduct offensive operations against the Viet Minh and to draw Giap’s forces into a conventional fight that they thought they could win.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. Dien Bien Phu lay in a marshy valley surrounded by mountains which were covered in dense nearly impassible jungle.  It was a poor location to conduct offensive operations from and a worse place to defend.

Viet Minh Main Force Regulars

The French elected to go light on artillery and due to the terrain it had to be deployed in nearly open conditions with neither cover not concealment.  Unlike Na Son the Dien Bien Phu air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially relatively weak tactical air assets.  French logistics needs were far greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  The French strong points in the valley were exposed and not mutually supporting and as such Giap and the Viet Minh were able to close with and attack each strong point in time overwhelming each after valiant French resistance.  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.  Even so many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was exposed. The French garrison was a good force.  It was comprised of airborne units, the Foreign Legion, Colonial Paratroops (Marines), North Africans from Tunisia and Algeria as well as Vietnamese troops.  Many of the officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indo-China including David Galula and Jacques Trinquier would write books which would help Americans in Iraq.  Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

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.  Many 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.  Relief forces were unable to get through.  The garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops 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 forced march of nearly 400 miles by foot to POW camps in which many died.  Many were subjected to torture and group discipline.  Few French caved to the Viet Minh interrogations but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  French and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release.  French soldiers and officers were shipped from Indo-China to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency.  Militarily they had all but won the war when their government pulled out. French troops, especially the Legionaries and Paratroops felt betrayed by their nation, much like many Vietnam Vets felt about the United States government after that war.  I find today that both our government and people are caring for our returning troops in a far better manner than the past.  Even still the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan share almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong.

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indo-China were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam.  In fact the US Army made a conscious effort to ignore the advice of those that they called “losers.”  It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly in that war.

Despite our efforts in Afghanistan and the valiant sacrifices of our Marines and Soldiers we seem to have difficulty learning the lessons of the Vietnam Wars.  Old habits die hard, counterinsurgency done right isn’t sexy and there are no easy formulas to make it work.  What works in one country may not work in another as we are found when we tried to emulate our counterinsurgency success in Iraq in Afghanistan.  Despite a lot of institutional resistance from traditionally minded Army officers we were able to apply the lessons of counterinsurgency in Iraq and work with Iraqis to make that country more secure than it was before we took this type of warfare seriously.  Despite its continued problems Iraq is doing better and will likely do well in the long run as it recovers from the damage caused by the war.  They have known civilization since antiquity and are a proud people.  Someday I hope to take up the invitation of Iraqi friends to go back as they say as a tourist.

I am concerned about Afghanistan, despite the killing of Osama Bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan because it seems that the Taliban spring offensive is off to a good start.  U.S. and NATO Forces in Khandehar and Helmand Province have been placed on a higher alert and confined to their bases following a major assault on the Afghan provincial government installations in Khandehar.  The Taliban and other Afghan insurgents are only concerned with Afghanistan and even though Bin Laden is dead the deepening rift between the United States and Pakistan will likely ensure that they will enjoy military, personnel, financial support from many in Pakistan including the Intelligence agency in the remote and ungovernable northwest territories of that country which are a safe haven much like Communist China was for the Viet Minh.

Will there be a situation where an isolated NATO garrison is overrun by Taliban forces as French forces were in Indochina?  An isolated outpost was nearly overrun at Wanat in July of 2008 and at two isolated outposts near the Pakistani border in October 2009.  One would hope not, but we cannot underestimate the Afghans and their ability to adapt to NATO tactics and weapons.   Their predecessors successfully drove out the Soviets, the British, the Persians and the Greeks.  Dien Bien Phu is a warning from history not to leave troops in places where their exposure leaves them vulnerable.

But even more Dien Bien Phu serves to remind us that in such wars it is not always the highly trained and organized Western forces that win.  These are local wars and once the momentum shifts to the insurgent they are difficult to turn around.  In a sense the French were trying to do what we are trying to do now in taking the fight to the enemy.  It turned out badly for them and it could turn out badly for us.  I hope that we don’t forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, vietnam

Veterans Day 2010: Counting the Cost of War

“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.” General Robert E. Lee

Veterans Day had become a rather somber occasion for me over the past decade and since returning from Iraq in 2008 has taken on added personal significance.  I have noticed that I have become much more reflective about the sacrifices made by our military and the terrible coasts of war on our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen and their families in this age of the all volunteer military.  The military which has about 2,225,000 members including the Reserves and National Guard is just 0.7% of the total population, the lowest percentage of military personnel compared to total population during any war in our history.  As a result this force has borne the brunt of a war that no politicians or bureaucrats figured would last half as long as it has.  As a result the “few” have been asked to do more for longer than and military that this nation has ever fielded during a war.

Thus for me Veterans Day has become a rather somber and reflective occasion as I ponder all the sacrifices made by our military and their families. In Afghanistan the U.S. Military has lost 1378 killed and our allies another 825.  In Iraq 4427 U.S. Military personnel have died along with 318 allied soldiers, not including the Iraqi military losses.  For each of the killed there are about 8 more wounded a total of over 38,000 wounded.  Of course the wounded numbers do not include 170,000+ cases of hearing damage; 130,000+ cases of mild traumatic brain injuries; and 200,000+ cases of serious mental health problems, over 30,000 serious disease cases, including a disfiguring, parasitic disease called Leishmaniasis, which results from bites of sand flies; thousands of cases of respiratory disease linked to exposure to toxic burn pit smoke and hundreds of suicides.  Then there are the injuries related to road and aviation accidents not in direct combat.  In my recent assignments in Iraq and Naval Medical facilities I have seen the human cost of the war.  I have friends who suffer as the result of Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD and Pulmonary diseases as well as those that have been wounded as the result enemy action.  I have a dear friend with a rare and irreversible pulmonary condition from two tours in Iraq. He is 41 his lungs are those of a 70 year old man.  My best friend, a senior Naval Officer is still suffering from the effects of TBI and PTSD incurred while serving with the Marines in Al Anbar Province.

My Dad Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas aboard USS Hancock CVA-19 off Vietnam circa 1971-72

A year ago on Veterans Day I was at with my parents in Stockton California to visit my mom and my dad who was then in a nursing facility due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.  It was a terrible visit conflict with my mother due to witches’ brew of my PTSD and grief for my dad and my mother’s struggles with my dad’s condition and her own physical condition.  I visited my dad every day when in two and unfortunately he did not know who I was, Alzheimer’s had robbed him of everything that made him my dad.  He died on June 23rd of this year a day after I found out that I had been selected for promotion to Commander.  My dad was a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer who served in Vietnam on a beach detachment manning an emergency airfield in the besieged city of An Loc in 1972.  He never talked about that tour or what happened there except to tell me that he saw the Communists executing civilians in the city from his observation point.  He came home a changed man.  Thankfully he is now out of his suffering and our family is beginning to find its way back from the abyss of his illness.

I have served for over 29 years in the Army and the Navy and have witnessed many things and been blessed to have my life enriched by many veterans.  Unfortunately many of these brave men have since passed away, some having lived many years and others that have died far too young as a result of service connected injuries.

With advisors to the 3rd Bn, 3rd Brigade 7th Iraq Division COP South 2008

In my current work I see many young men that wear the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat. I see those that need assistance to walk, amputees, men with obvious scars from burns and others suffering blindness from their injuries. Our hospital’s Medical Board sees 40-60 Marines and Sailors a day, quite a few of whom that will be medically retired due to their injuries.  There are also those that have died by their own hand suffering from psychological and spiritual injuries too deep to fathom, we had one of our own Corpsman suicide last week.

The cost of war is terrible, as General William Tecumseh Sherman so eloquently put it: “War is Hell.”

Despite this our brave men and women that serve in all branches of the military as well as those that have gone before us in the 235 year history of our military have shouldered the load, for most of that history depending on volunteers who often served in obscurity often derided by their fellow Americans who believed that the military was a place to go if you could not be successful in the civilian world. The pay was low, the duty arduous and benefits few. In the Civil War, the World Wars and up until 1974 the professionals were augmented by draftees who outnumbered the professionals by a huge margin.  Since 1974 the force has been an all volunteer force.

Health and Comfort Board Team USS Hue City, Northern Arabian Gulf May 2002

Regardless of whether our Veterans were draftees or volunteers they have served this country well and on the whole to use the current Navy description are “A Global Force for Good.” The countries liberated from oppressors and helped in humanitarian operations by American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen are many and varied.  They have represented the spectrum of our society and represent the best the country has to offer.  Unfortunately they have not always been honored by some of their our countrymen and women and sometimes the children and grandchildren of the peoples that they liberated from Nazi, Fascist or Communist oppressors who often use the wrongdoing of a few military personnel or the decisions or actions of American politicians or businessmen to label American military personnel as criminals.

Unfortunately since the military is such a small part of our population and concentrated in a few large bases it is invisible to most Americans as they live their daily lives. Often in isolated from the bulk of America such as Killeen Texas home of the U.S. III Corps and Jacksonville North Carolina the home of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force and Second Marine Division are quintessential military towns but neither are near major population centers and thus the sacrifice of these Soldiers, Marines and Sailors goes unnoticed by most of the nation.  In a sense the human cost of the war falls inordinately upon these military communities where there are few strangers.

In spite of this the current men and women of the American Military train, deploy, fight and return every day as they have since the 9-11-2001 attacks, many if not most have made multiple combat tours.  I have been pleased to see more support of the military in the media, especially sports media and leagues.  Many businesses are taking time to offer things of value to servicemen and women and those businesses should be commended and patronized.  I was touched by many stories that I saw about our veterans on ESPN over the past few days.  http://www.espnmediazone3.com/us/2010/11/espn%E2%80%99s-weeklong-salute-to-veterans-day/

Many of our Reserve component personnel give up civilian employment and chances for promotion to serve in the military, particularly when they are mobilized for service. When they return home most return to towns and cities that have little of the support afforded to active duty members when they return.  I pray that our political leaders in the future will exercise discernment and wisdom before committing us to another war. Otto Von Bismarck said: “Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.” Unfortunately the current members of the House, Senate and Executive branch have little connection to the military as very few have served and I wonder if any really comprehend this maxim.  In the 111th Congress 120 members had some form of military service.  The number of veterans in the 111th Congress reflects the trend of a steady decline in the number of Members who have served in the military. For example, there were 298 veterans (240 Representatives, 58 Senators) in the 96th Congress (1979-1981); and 398 veterans (329Representatives, 69 Senators) in the 91st Congress (1969-1971).  Those who have served a full military career are far fewer; the number of congressmen with military careers will remain relatively constant for the 112th Congress. In the Senate there will be one (as compared with two in 2006 and one in 2008) and in the House there will be eight (as compared with four in 2006 and six in 2008).  Some of these Congressional Veterans have been vilified by some broadcasters and pundits of the extreme right wing media most of whom who have never served in the military.  On the positive side nine members of the new Congress will have served in the current wars which hopefully will help promote the sacrifice of our current Veterans and help with programs that will help returning Veterans.

I have seen the cost of war up close and personal in Iraq and back here in the States. I suffer some the afflictions described as a result of my service and see the young men and women many of whom were not yet born when I enlisted in the Army, or when I was commissioned as an Army Officer, when I was a Company Commander or when I was a senior Captain in the Army. These young men and women are heroes.

Please take a moment to thank a Veteran.  If you have time volunteers are always welcome at organizations such as the USO and American Red Cross working with our troops, join or support organizations which promote the causes of Veterans including the Iraq Afghanistan Veteran’s Association www.iava.org the Veterans of Foreign Wars http://www.vfw.org/, American Legion http://www.legion.org/ , Marine Corps League http://www.mcleague.org/, the Fleet Reserve Association http://www.fra.org/, the Association of the U.S. Army http://www.ausa.org and the Disabled American Veterans http://www.dav.org/. There are also many charitable organizations that provide assistance to Veterans and their families’ one of the best being the Fisher House Foundation http://www.fisherhouse.org/ which provides comfortable and free lodging to the families of wounded, injured or sick military personnel on bases adjacent to military hospitals. I found these ten ways that you can help on Yahoo.com:

1. At 11 a.m., observe a moment of silence for those who’ve fought and died while in service to the country

2. Display an American flag

3. Attend a Veterans Day parade

4. Thank a vet for his/her service

5. Send a letter to troops through the U.S. Department of Defense Website

6. Work in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen

7. Visit a veteran’s grave or pick up trash at a veterans cemetery

8. Visit with the family of a veteran who’s serving overseas

9. Visit with a wounded vet at a local VA facility

10. Donate to the USO, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars USA or other organizations that honor and assist vets

Keep us all in your prayers and please when Veterans Day is past do not forget those of us that serve and our families, especially those men and women serving in harm’s way.  To my friends and comrades I echo the words of the German commander to his troops in captivity at the end of the Band of Brother’s mini-series:

“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.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, shipmates and veterans

Veteran’s Day: Goodbye to 666 Lake of Fire Circle, a Golf Outing and Remembering the Veterans in my Life

veteransday2009

Today was Veteran’s Day. Amid the solemnity of the day I am still in California where I came this week to try to help my mom with my dad’s affairs and to also see my dad who is definitely in the end stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  This has been the hardest trip home in my life.  I knew I had to come, although the Abbess was against it fearing for my emotional health and perhaps she was right.  Tonight I sit in a hotel room self medicating and trying to regain some sense of sanity.

Me and last last picDad and Me back in May…He Still knew Me then

The past few days have been hell.  My dad does not know me anymore; he has almost no response to anything and stares straight ahead.  The hardest part is when I realized that he didn’t know me.  So I asked if he had seen my mother who I had taken to visit him the day before and my brother.  He said that he had seen them, and even seen my mom the morning I asked him the question.  However she had not been there that day.  So I asked if “Steve had visited yesterday.”  He got agitated and said “I don’t know any Steve yesterday.”  Today was much the same, I asked if he knew who Steve was, and he said “yes” and I asked if he had seen him and he said “no he hasn’t been here.”  This whole trip he has probably spoken under 50 words in 4 visits.  There is nothing left. For all practical purposes he is dead in a body that won’t die.  If that was not bad enough my mother has not skipped any opportunity to attack and pick at me until I broke.  I begged her to lay off, told her that I was not up to fighting with her and tried to keep my cool but she wouldn’t let up.   I cannot deal with constant conflict and a mother who calls me “a weak, politically correct pansy.”  I’m a combat veteran and went to war unarmed into hostile territory with little groups of Americans far away from the big battalions with all the heavy weapons and the women called me a “weak, politically correct pansy.  She has put me down, belittled my education, vocation and career and insulted my wife for the last time. When I told her that “everything in her life that was wrong was somebody else’s fault and not hers” she agreed.  I knew it was over at that point. This may sound un-Christian but I will not go see her again.   Tomorrow I will see my dad for what it is worth, see my brother and his family and then early Friday I will get the hell out of Dodge.  She had offered to pay for my trip out but I can’t prostitute myself for that kind of abuse.    The next time I come back it will be for my father’s funeral.  I love my brother and his family.  He and his wife are saints.  I couldn’t live that near my mother without ending up in a psychotic state, something that I came perilously close to this week.  God bless Jeff, Mel and their kids.

Me and Jeff at mickey groveWith my Brother back in May

I went golfing with my brother and nephews today.  For much of the day I couldn’t hit water if I fell out of the damned boat.  My mind was so gooned up and upset by the events of the week I couldn’t concentrate worth a shit.  Even my well hit shots were mainly slicing to the right and I embarked on a tree killing expedition.  I hit 7 trees solidly, took down a couple of decent sized branches, grazed three other trees and nailed an outhouse.  However it was really good to be out with Jeff, Darren and Nate.  Nate can really hit the ball for an 8 year old; he has the potential to be a really good golfer.  Darren doesn’t really care and is out to have fun.  He enjoyed my sarcasm as I commented on my shots and helped keep track of the number of trees that I hit and I told him that I would see how many I could try to kill before the day was out.  By the end of the round I was hitting the ball a lot better and it was going more often than not where I wanted it to go, but the first 7 holes were hell.  It makes me think of Robin Williams’ golf routine. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDQd49rEF_0

As I mentioned today was Veteran’s day.  After I got my hotel I went to a local Applebee’s where I had a sirloin steak and potatoes and a couple beers on their Veterans’ day salute.  I sat at the bar with a couple about 10 years older than me; he had served on a Navy Minesweeper in Vietnam.  They were nice; I think that is why I like sitting at the bar when I go out to eat, there is a sense of community that you don’t find a lot of other places.

As it is Veteran’s day I think I will take some time to remember some of the Veterans in my life who have helped my through my life and career.  This is taken from a post that I did around Memorial Day.

I’ve been in the military for almost 28 years now.  I enlisted in the National Guard while in college and entered Army ROTC back in 1981.  Since then it has been to quote Jerry Garcia “a long strange trip.”  My dad served twenty years in the Navy.  He retired in 1974 as a Chief Petty Officer and did time surrounded 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.

breedlove-ness2LCDR Breedlove and Chief Ness

My second view of war came from the Veterans of Vietnam 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. They have both passed away in the past year and a half.  I will never forget them.  A post dedicated to them is on this blog. 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 Sergeant’s Buff Rambo and Mickey Yarro taught me the ropes as a forward observer and shared many of their Vietnam experiences. Buff had been a Marine dog handler on the DMZ and Mickey a Forward Observer.  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.  He still had part of a VC bayonet embedded in his foot.  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 at UCLA.  He served with the 173rd Airborne in Vietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Ball was my drill sergeant at the ROTC pre-commissioning camp at Fort Lewis Washington in 1982.  He was also Special Forces and a Ranger and served multiple tours in Vietnam.  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 An Officer and a Gentleman. Like Zack Mayo played by Richard Gere in the movie I can only say: Drill Sergeant “I will never forget you.”

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 a 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 was great.  He played guitar for the troops and had a song called Jane Fonda, Jane Fonda You Communist Slut. It was a classic.  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 them first. 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 in 28 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 a few years back 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.  He remains a friend and is the Endorsing Agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a Mormon he was 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.

MVC-023SMe with Major General Frank Smoker USAF (Ret) and Colonel Tom Allmon 2005

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.  Henry Boyd who I buried 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. Scotty Jenkes was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam flying close air support. Colonel Ray Hawthorne served several tours both in artillery units and as an adviser in 1972.  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.

051Ray and his Crew from The Vietnam Veterans of America at Harbor Park

My life more recently has been impacted by others.  My friends of the veterans of the Battle of Hue City including General Peter Pace, Barney Barnes,  Tony “Limey Cartilage ” Sergeant Major Thomas 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 man the beer stand behind the plate at Harbor Park all mean a lot to me.  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.

boarding teamUSS HUE CITY Boarding Team 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 RP, RP2 Nelson Lebron who helped keep me safe and accompanied me all over the battlefield.  Nelson who has done Iraq 3 times, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Balkans is a hero.  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.

307With 1st Brigade 1st Iraqi Division Advisers in East Ramadi January 2008

I give thanks for all them men that I mention in this post, especially my dad. God bless all of you guys. Please honor the Veterans that you know not only on Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day but every day.   Honor also those who gave their lives in the defense of liberty in all of the wars of our nation. They have earned it.

Today as I write many of my friends serve in harm’s way.  I hope that my recovery, spiritually, emotionally and physically goes well enough that I can go back with them.  For now I need to recover. My boss is right about that, if this week is any indication I’m in no shape to go back to a combat zone, bit Lord willing I will be so I can be with those I care for and serve alongside.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Post Script: I do pray that no one takes offense at my words regarding my dealings with my mother. If someone thinks that I am wrong, or out of line they can contact me privately.  However, I have to protect me now.  I can’t help her or save her so I’m done.

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Filed under alzheimer's disease, golf, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

Revisiting the Demons of PTSD: Returning to Iraq in Virginia a Year and a Half Later

Today I am attending a conference on Caregiver Operational Stress Control.  This brought out my “demons” as I was faced with the stories of others who had been to the same places that I have been in Iraq, and experienced similar things that I experienced on my return.  This is a re-posting of something that I wrote in March at the very beginning of this blog.  At that time I had very few readers.

I am glad to be at this training today.  I needed to take a Xanax when I arrived because I don’t do well with these kind of events anymore.  The intial session and a video of Dr Heidi Kraft talking about her expereinces at Al Taqaduum where I was based out of.  I was scheduled for another meeting but I knew that I needed to be here.  So I asked my Department Head who was going to the meeting if I could stay and he allowed me to do so. God bless him.

I received a note from a new friend in another country’s military, a physician with multiple tours in Afghanistan.  He is dealing with many of the things that I discuss in this essay and had a bad day that took him back to Afghanistan.  I am sure that he is not alone as I deal with many people in my Medical Center who have similar experiences.  Yesterday I was walking down a hallway near our Operating Room and I saw a pretty good sized blood spill on the floor. I was surprised at my reaction as I kept seeing it in my mind the rest of the day and flashbacks to Iraq and the TQ Shock Surgery Trauma platoon where I was pulled into a couple of the last major mass casualty events where 10-15 Marines or soldiers came in at a time. I began to see those wounder Marines on the tables and can visibly see those Marines, their wounds, even tattoos… I hope this helps break the code of silence.  I wrote this on a particularly rough day and will repost some of those early essays as they are still very relevant.  Peace, Steve+

964Trying not to Show my Stress and Exhaustion after 2 weeks out while in between flights at Al Asad

The feeling of abandonment and aloneness, separation and disconnection run deep for those returning from unpopular wars in which the majority of the citizens take no part.  The effects are devastating.  It is estimated that at least 100,000 Vietnam veterans have taken their lives in the years after that war.  Last year the Army had its highest number of active duty suicides ever recorded, January and February of 2009 have been banner months for Army suicides.  Of course as I noted in my previous post these numbers don’t include reservists and Guardsmen who have left active duty or veterans dischaged from the service.  Neither do they include the host of service men and women who died from causes undetermined.

Many veterans attempted to return to “normal life” and family following the war. Many only to have marriages fall apart, continue or leave untreated alcohol and drug addictions acquired in country which often follow them back destroying lives, families and careers.  Most felt cast aside and abandoned by the goverment and society. Many got through and return to life with few visible effects, but the scars live on.  My dad would never talk about his experience in the city of An Loc in 1972 where he as a Navy Chief Petty Officer was among a small group of Americans operating an emergency airstrip in the city which was besieged by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong for 80 days.  I do know that it affected him, he wasn’t the same when he returned, he was a lot more tense and had some problems initially with alcohol.  He never talked about his time there.

I have seen the effects of this in so many lives,  I remember a Vietnam vet who attempted to kill himself with a shotgun blast to the chin in Dallas during my hospital residency.  He forgot to factor in recoil and blew off his face without hitting his brain or any major arteries.  He survived…talk about having something to be depressed about later.  I have seen the tears as veterans rejected by the country during and after than war begin to seek community with their wartime brothers, men who had experienced the same trauma followed by rejection and abandonment by the people that sent them to Southeast Asia.  One only has to talk to veterans of the Ia Drang, Khe Sahn, Hue City, the Central Highlands and Mekong Delta or read their stories to know what they have gone through.  LTG Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway in We Were Soldiers Once..and Young and We are Soldiers Still have deeply penatrating and soul searching views of Vietnam as does Bing West in The Village. Bernard Fall does the same from a French perspective in Hell in a Very Small Place and Street Without Joy. Alistair Horne’s book A Savage War of Peace discusses and tells the story of many French soldiers in Algeria, who fought a war, won it militarily and had their government abandon them, bringing out a mutiny and coup atempt by French Soldiers who had fought in Indochina, were almost immediately back in action in Algeria with little thanks or notice from thier countrymen.  Abandonment is an ever present reality and “demon” for many of us who have served regardless of our nationality, French, Canadien or American who have fought in wars that have not engaged the bulk of our fellow citizens. Go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and tocuh it, trace the outline of a name, look upon the makeshift memorials and tokens of remembrance left by comrades who came home and understand the sorrow and the sacrifice.

Unfortunately we would like to think that this is something out of history that we have learned from and applied the lessons and in doing so no longer have an issue.  Unfortunately this is not the case.  There are many, depending on the study anywhere from8-20 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who suffer from some type of PTSD, Combat Stress reaction or other psychological malady incurred during their tour. Similar numbers are reported by the Israeli Armed Forces in from the 1973 War forward.   The British are seeing the same now as their veterans return from war.  Canadian Forces assigned to the UN command during the Rwanda genocide suffer horribly from PTSD. The mission commander, LTG Romeo Dalliare now a Senator in the Canadian Parliament is a leading spokesman for those who suffer from PTSD. His book Shake Hands with the Devil is a study of how military professionals were exposed to atrocities that they either were forbidden to stop or lacked the combat power to do so even if they wanted to.  These men and women tell their story in a video put out by Canadian Armed Forces.

105Convoy along Route Uranium

I am not going to rehash stories that I have recounted in my other posts dealing with PTSD here, but both I and many men and women that I know are scarred by the unseen wounds of this war.  We gladly recognize, and rightfully so, those who suffer physical wounds.  At the same time those who are dying inside are often ignored by their commands or if they come out are shunted into programs designed to “fix” them.  In other words make them ready for the next deployment.  I am not saying here that there is an intentional neglect of our service men and women who suffer from PTSD and other issues.  I do not think that is the case, but it is a fact of life. The military is shorthanded and stretched to the breaking point. Many Army Soldiers and US Marines have made 3-5 deployments since 2003. The Navy has sent over 50,000 sailors, not including those assigned with the Marines into “Individual Augmentation” billets in support of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and other fronts in this war.  The Navy personnel, as well as Air Force personnel who perform similar missions often do not have the luxury of going to war and coming home with a particular unit.  We serve often in isolation and incredibly disconnected from our commands, our service is often misunderstood.  Now there are efforts by the services and some commands to do things better to support our sailors, some of these at my own hospital.  However as an institution the military has not fully made the adjustment yet.

Many sailors feel abandoned by the country and sometimes, especially when deployed by the Navy itself.  I have debriefed hundreds of these men and women.  Almost all report anger and use terms such as being abandon, cut off and thrown away by the service and the country.  Those from all services who work in unusual joint billets such as advisers to local military and police forces in Afghanistan and Iraq feel a sense of kinship with each other, often feel a connection to the Iraqis and Afghans but are often not promoted or advanced at the same rate as others who have served in conventional forces in traditional jobs.  There was a film called Go tell the Spartans staring Burt Lancaster about Army advisers in the early stages of Vietnam.  If you see it and have been to Iraq with our advisers you can see some of the same dynamics at work.

At this point we are still engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These wars divided the nation and the veterans, though better treated and appreciated by society than most of thier Vietnam counterparts have no memorial.  Words of thanks uttered by politicans and punits abound, our Vietnam era and other fellow veterans in their latter years come to the airports that we fly in and out of to say thank you, but our numbers are rising, the war rages on both in country and in our minds and lives are being lost long after soldiers have left the battlefield.

not a happy camperNot Doing Well on Leave about 5 months After my Return from Iraq

We have to do a better job of ensuring that those who sacrifice so much do not feel that they have been cut off and abandoned while they are in theater and especially when they return. When it is time we need a memorial on the Capitol Mall for those who served in these wars.  I don’t know when that will be, but I do hope to see it in my day.  Sure it’s only symbolic, but symbols can be healing too, just look at the black granite wall rising up from the ground and going back down into it, filled with the names of those who gave their lives and made the supreme sacrifice in Southeast Asia.  Simply known by most as “the Wall” it has become a place of healing and rememberance.  A place to say thank you, goodbye and amen.

Peace and blessings, Steve+

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Filed under healthcare, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq, vietnam

Memorial Day 2009- Thoughts and Musings

I am again at the Medical Center on duty, but this not a bad thing.   Before I begin my post I want to direct you to the post of the Abbess of the Abbey Normal and her thoughts on this Memorial Day.  Her post is linked here: http://abbeynormalabbess.wordpress.com/2009/05/25/memorial-day-musings/

I Have also posted several links in this article. Peace, Steve+

ports hosp cemetary 2Conaway Cemetery Portsmouth Naval Medical Center

I have been thinking a lot about the significance of Memorial Day the past week.  I think about it more now than I used to.  Now I have always thought a lot of it and observed it the best that I could.  Yet having now been “boots on the ground” in Iraq travelling about the battlefield to take care of the spiritual needs of American Marines and Soldiers serving as advisers with the Iraqi Army, Police and Border forces it has more meaning.  I am now a combat veteran.  Last year I joined the VFW.  I came back from the war different, PTSD kind of goons you up sometimes.  I spent most of the past 15 months dealing with this, not sleeping and being in chronic pain.  I’m now doing much better.  In part this is due to the support I have at home and a work and the fact that I am no longer isolated.  Being on staff at our Naval Medical Center has been good for me and I do not resent being the Duty Chaplain on this Memorial Day.  I have far too many wonderful people I work with here to think anything like that.  It is an honor to serve here with such fine people, Physicians, Nurses, Chaplains and other medical and support staff.

ports hospt cemetary 1Another View Conaway Cemetery

Today has been really good no matter how the night goes.  I participated in the annual Memorial Day observance at the historic Naval Cemetery on our grounds.  It is but a mere two acres of land and dates to 1838 when it was established to allow the remains of those who died far from their homes repose. It has Navy Sailors, Marines and their families.  It also holds the remains of Sailors from Great Britain, Russia, Germany, Japan and Brazil who died in the Norfolk area.  Additionally the remains of Sailors of the Confederate States Navy are buried here.  The service was organized by the Local Chapters of the Fleet Reserve Association, supported by the local Boy Scout troops and attended by veterans, active duty members and dignitaries from the City of Portsmouth City Council and a State Senator.   It was a simple yet moving ceremony which involved a wreath-laying as well as Amazing Grace played on the Bagpipes and Taps.  Our Color Guard presented the colors and our Commanding Officer, Rear Admiral Kiser was the guest speaker.  Local news services were on hand to televise it, just as they televised others services throughout the region.  One of these was on the Battleship USS Wisconsin which is the centerpiece of the local maritime museum at Norfolk’s Nauticus venue.

Our hospital is interesting.  It dates to 1826 and is the first Naval and for that matter military hospital in our country.  The motto here is First and Finest. Building One is the original hospital.  It has a glass dome which at one time lighted the operating theater.   It now is our command building with other administrative offices.  The hospital has served in peace and war and was instrumental in the 1850s in caring for the victims of the Yellow Fever epidemic.  It is now a teaching hospital and multi-faceted medical center with a national reputation.

The time at the service was neat as I mixed with our veterans of World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and the current wars.  Many proudly displayed their medals, ribbons and badges.  When the National Anthem was played these men and women saluted as smartly as when they were on active duty.  Many are involved with local veterans groups and some are volunteers at our hospital taking time to care for the needs of our patients and families.  Among the dignitaries was Councilman Charles Whitehurst who is a member of the small historically black Episcopal Church where I worship.  Mr. Whitehurst enlisted in the Marines in 1955 and rose through the enlisted ranks to Sergeant, was appointed as a Warrant Officer and the Commissioned as an Officer.  He retired as a Major after Vietnam.   Afterward Admiral Kiser was the Grand Marshal of the Portsmouth Memorial Day Parade, which is the oldest and longest running in the nation.   A link to a local station’s coverage of this event is here: http://www.wvec.com/video/index.html?nvid=364992&shu=1

I was able to catch a glimpse of President Obama’s wreath laying at Arlington National Cemetery where in in short and solemn remarks he noted: “Why in an age when so many have acted only in pursuit of narrowest self-interest have the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of this generation volunteered all that they have on behalf of others,” he said. “Why have they been willing to bear the heaviest burden?”

“Whatever it is, they felt some tug. They answered a call. They said ‘I’ll go.’ That is why they are the best of America,” Obama said. “That is what separates them from those who have not served in uniform, their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met.”

I think that his remarks were perfect and honored those who serve now and those have gone before us.

The last service of this type that I attended was at the US Cemetery at Belleau Wood, France. It is the site of the battle in which the Marines in their first battle of World War One turned back the assault of the German Army which was advancing on Paris and launched a counter-attack.  I was with Marines of the Marine Security Forces who were conducting a joint memorial service with French Marines.  The next day I visited Normandy with the Marines and taught classes to them on the battle, looking at it from the German perspective.  The day prior to the service I taught parts of the “staff-ride” of the battlefield discussing various aspects of World War one tactics, weaponry and equipment.

me at normandyWith Marines at Normandy

This is also most likely the last Memorial Day that my father will be alive.  He served as a Navy Chief Petty Officer and retired in 1974.  In 1972 he served “boots on the ground” at the city of An Loc which was surrounded for 80 days by the North Vietnamese Army.  He was my inspiration to serve in the military.  There are many veterans of World War Two, Korea and Vietnam who like him are in the twilight of their lives.  I do pray that all will be remembered this Memorial Day.  I was able to be with him the week before last.  I expect it will be the last time that I see him.

McCains Special BaseballTed Williams as USMC Aviator

One interesting thing that I want to mention before I close was the effort that many professional ball players made back in World Wars One, Two and Korea.  Some of the top players of all time gave up some of their prime playing years to serve.  Christy Matthewson served in the Army in France during World War One. He was gassed and developed Tuberculosis and died at the age of 45 in 1925 never playing again.  Yogi Berra served as a Navy Gunners Mate at D-Day.  Ted Williams served in both WWII and Korea as a Marine Corps fighter pilot.  He lost nearly 5 seasons to his service. One who studies statistics in baseball might want to extrapolate the numbers that Williams might have had if he had played on instead of serving.  Hank Greenberg the first Jewish Major League superstar was drafted in 1940 and released just before Pearl Harbor when Congress voted to send men over 28 home. He then re-enlisted, was commissioned and served in the China-Burma-India Theater.  Joe Dimaggio enlisted in the Army Air Force and served 2 ½ years from 1943-1945. Bob Feller volunteered for the Navy on December 8th 1941 and spent 4 seasons on the USS Alabama as a gun captain. Pee Wee Reese served in the Navy in the Pacific while Jackie Robinson served as an Army Officer and Larry Doby served in the Navy before breaking the color barrier to play Major League baseball.  Whitey Ford, Willie Mays, Eddie Matthews and Ernie Banks were all called up for Korea along with Williams.  Roy Gleason of the Dodgers was the last player to earn the Purple Heart as an Army Sergeant in Vietnam. Of course the world has changed.  We have an all volunteer military no current Major League players, or for that matter NBA, NFL or NHL players serve in the military but many donate time and money to support military members and their families including Giant’s pitcher Barry Zito and Orioles pitcher Jamie Walker.  Working with USAA these men have founded a non-profit group called “Strikeouts for Troops.  A link to that organization is here:  http://video.yahoo.com/watch/3462236/9644105

Pat Tillman a defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals enlisted after 9-11 and was killed during a “friendly fire” incident while serving as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan.  He has been the only NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA player to volunteer for active duty in the current war.

Here are a few links to some baseball and veteran stories:

Link to video of Baseball Hall of Fame Player Monte Irvin talking about his service in World War Two: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKERxyAbg1w and link to Indians and A’s player Lou Brissie’s WWII experience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFwAXNR9q-k Jerry Coleman on his Marine Corps time as a dive bomber pilot: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUlBgBxaWoY

Bob Feller’s, Buck O’Neal and Phil Rizzuto’s WWII memories:  http://video.search.yahoo.com/video/play?p=bob+feller+american+veterans+&n=21&ei=utf-8&js=1&fr=yfp-t-105&tnr=20&vid=0001463818096 and here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRyILkx_c2U

Link to Rick Monday’s saving the flag at Dodger Stadium in April 1976:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrV8QPQAhxo&feature=related

goldstar

Let us remember our veterans, especially those who gave the last full measure to serve our country. Support the Honor and Remember flag campaign as well as the “Blue Star” and “Gold Star” families whose loved ones currently serve or have died on active duty in this time of war.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, vietnam

Dien Bien Phu- Reflections 55 Years Later

VIETNAM DIEN BIEN PHU

French POWs from Dien Bien Phu being marched into captivity

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 based on 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.

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.  Likewise French logistics needs were greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  French positions were exposed and 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.  Even so many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was exposed. The French garrison was a good force.  It was comprised of Airborne units, Foriegn Legion, Colonials (Marines), North Africans and Vietnamese troops.  Many of the officers including LtCol Langlais and Major Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indo-China including David Galula and Jaques Trinquier would write books which would help Americans in Iraq.  Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

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.  Many 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.  The were turned down.  Relief forces were unable to get through.  The garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops 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 forced march of nearly 400 miles by foot to POW camps in which many died.  Many were subjected to torture and group discipline.  Few French caved to the Viet Minh interrogations but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  French and their Algerian comrades would apply this lessons against each other within a year of their release.  French soldiers and officers were shipped from Indo-China to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency.  Militarily they had all but won that war when their government pulled out. French troops, especially the Legionaries and Paratroops felt betrayed by their nation, much like many Vietnam Vets felt about the United States government after that war.  I find today that both our government and people are caring for our returning troops in a far better manner than the past.  Even still the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan share almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong.

bigeard_instruction_sautLtCol Bigeard at Dien Bien Phu

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indo-China were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam.  In fact the US Army made a conscious effort to ignore the advice of those that they called  “losers.”  It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly, Despite the efforts of General David Petreus and others these lessons have not been completely learned by western military organizations.  Old habits die hard, counterinsurgency done right isn’t sexy.  Despite a lot of institutional resistance from traditionally minded officers we have, thanks to General Petreus had a good amount of success in Iraq. I believe that Iraq will do okay in the long run.  Someday I hope to take up the invitation of Iraqi friends to go back. I am concerned about Afghanistan. It  has the potential to be Vietnam in the mountains.  I do hope and pray that we will figure Afghanistan out.  Will there be a situation where an isolated NATO garrison is overrun?  One would hope not, but we cannot underestimated the Afghans and their ability to adapt to NATO tactics and weapons. A year or so ago the Taliban came close to overrunning an American Coalition Outpost (COP).   Dien Bien Phu is a warning from history not to leave troops in places where their exposure leaves them vulnerable.

Last night at the ball game, Ray and Bill, the Vietnam vets who man the beer stand on the concourse behind home plate gave me a small memento.  A small wooden coming from the Virginia Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America.  On the back side a simple message: “Welcome Home.”  Something that they did not get when they came home.  My dad came home in 1974 after back to back 11 month deployments, one of which he was at An Loc, besieged for 80 days.  He never talked about it.  I go home next week.  My dad is slowly dying and doesn’t have that much longer left, his physician cannot believe that he is still alive.  I have to help my mom with funeral arrangements, some hospice stuff, billing issues with the insurance company and the nursing home.  My dad had expressed his desire to be buried at sea in the Gulf of Tonkin.  He told my brother he wanted this because it had the most beautiful sunsets he had ever seen.  I do hope that we can fulfill that wish.  As a Navy Chaplain I know I can work out the burial at sea, and pray that somehow I will be able to take him where he wants to go.

Thank you dad.  Thank you Ray and Bill and all my Vietnam era friends and mentors, from the California Guard, SSG Buff Rambo, SSG Mickey Yarro and Colonel Edgar Morrison.  Thanks also to SFC Harry Zilkan, SFC Harry Ball, 1st Sergeant Jim Koenig, Colonel Donald Johnson and Sergeant Major John Butler.  I especially thank my former parishioners at the Fort Indiantown Gap Chapel.  Charlie, Ray, General Smoker, Scotty and the rest of you.  Thanks also to my Battle of Hue City brothers, Barney, Limey, General Pace, Sergeant Major Thomas.  Thank you also to the French officers who did so much for their country and were treated so shamefully.  A number of these men have passed on but I will not forget them.  Others I have lost contact with. Please take the time to thank the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in your lives.  May no other veterans have to endure what all of you endured at the hands of your countrymen. May God bless all of you.

Peace, Steve+

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