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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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Happy 235th Birthday Marines!

In 1775 a committee of the Continental Congress met at Philadelphia’s Tun Tavern to draft a resolution calling for two battalions of Marines able to fight for independence at sea and on shore.  The resolution was approved on November 10, 1775, officially forming the Continental Marines. The first order of business was to appoint Samuel Nicholas as the Commandant of the newly formed Marines. Robert Mullan the owner and proprietor of the said Tun Tavern became Nicholson’s first captain and recruiter. They began gathering support and were ready for action by early 1776.  They served throughout the War for Independence and like the Navy they were disbanded in April 1783 and reconstituted as the Marine Corps in 1798. The served on the ships of the Navy in the Quasi-war with France, against the Barbary Pirates where a small group of 8 Marines and 500 Arabs under Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon made a march of 500 miles across the Libyan Desert to lay siege Tripoli but only reached Derna. The action is immortalized in the Marine Hymn as well as the design of the Marine Officer’s “Mameluke” Sword. They served in the War of 1812, the Seminole Wars and in the Mexican-American War where in the storming of the on Chapultepec Palace they continued to build and enduring legacy. In the months leading up to the Civil War they played a key role at home and abroad.  In October 1859 Colonel Robert E. Lee led Marines from the Marine Barracks Washington DC to capture John Brown and his followers who had captured the Federal Armory at Harper’s Ferry.

The Corps would serve through the Civil War and on into the age of American Expansion serving in the Spanish American War in the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba where they seized Guantanamo Bay at the battle of Cuzco Wells.  The would serve in China and be a key component of the international force that defended foreign diplomats during the Boxer Revolt as well as the international force that would relieve the diplomatic compound in Peking (Beijing).  In World War One the Marines stopped the German advance at Chateau Thierry and cemented their reputation as an elite fighting force at Belleau Wood where legend has it that the Germans nicknamed them Teufelhunden or Devil Dogs, a name that they Marines have appropriated with great aplomb.

During the inter-war years the Marines were quite active in the Caribbean and Asia and also developed amphibious tactics and doctrine that would be put to use in the Pacific Campaign.  During the war the Marines served in all theaters but won enduring fame at Wake Island, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and numerous other battles in the Pacific war. Marine Aviators flew in some the most desperate actions in the war to support the Navy and amphibious operations ashore.

After the war the Truman Administration sought to eliminate the Marine Corps but the Corps was saved by the efforts of Americans across the country and Marine supporters in Congress.  That was a good thing because the Marines were instrumental in keeping the North Koreans from overrunning the South during the Korean War on the Pusan Perimeter, turned the tide at Inchon and helped decimate Communist Chinese forces at the Chosin Reservoir.  After Korea the Marines would serve around the World in the Caribbean and Lebanon and in Vietnam where at Da Nang Keh Sanh, Hue City, Con Thien fighting the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies.  The Marines took the initiative to implement innovative counter insurgency measures such as the Combined Action Platoons which enjoyed tremendous success until they were shut down by the Army high command.  These lessons would serve the Marines well in the new millennium during the Anbar Awakening in Iraq which changed the course of that insurgency and war.

The Marines would again be involved around the World after Vietnam serving in the Cold War, in Lebanon and the First Gulf War which was followed by actions in Somalia, the Balkans and Haiti. After the attacks of September 11th 2001 the Marines were among the first into Afghanistan helping to drive the Taliban from power. In the Iraq Campaign the Marines had a leading role both in the invasion and in the campaign in Al Anbar Province.  After theirwithdraw from Iraq the Marines became a central player in Afghanistan where today they are engaged around Khandehar and in Helmand Province.

The Marines are elite among world military organizations and continue to “fight our nations battles on the air and land and sea.” The Corps under General John LeJeune institutionalized the celebration of the Marine Corps Birthday and their establishment at Tun Tavern. General LeJeune issued this order which is still read at every Marine Corps Birthday Ball or observance:

MARINE CORPS ORDER No. 47 (Series 1921)
HEADQUARTERS
U.S. MARINE CORPS Washington, November 1, 1921

The following will be read to the command on the 10th of November, 1921, and hereafter on the 10th of November of every year. Should the order not be received by the 10th of November, 1921, it will be read upon receipt.

On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created by a resolution of Continental Congress. Since that date many thousand men have borne the name “Marine”. In memory of them it is fitting that we who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history.

The record of our corps is one which will bear comparison with that of the most famous military organizations in the world’s history. During 90 of the 146 years of its existence the Marine Corps has been in action against the Nation’s foes. From the Battle of Trenton to the Argonne, Marines have won foremost honors in war, and in the long eras of tranquility at home, generation after generation of Marines have grown gray in war in both hemispheres and in every corner of the seven seas, that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and security.

In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our corps, Marines have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on each occasion until the term “Marine” has come to signify all that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.

This high name of distinction and soldierly repute we who are Marines today have received from those who preceded us in the corps. With it we have also received from them the eternal spirit which has animated our corps from generation to generation and has been the distinguishing mark of the Marines in every age. So long as that spirit continues to flourish Marines will be found equal to every emergency in the future as they have been in the past, and the men of our Nation will regard us as worthy successors to the long line of illustrious men who have served as “Soldiers of the Sea” since the founding of the Corps.

JOHN A. LEJEUNE,
Major General
Commandant

I have had the privilege of serving with the Marines in peace and war and the most memorable Marine Corps Birthday celebrations for me were in Ramadi with the Marine advisors to the Iraqi 7th Division and with the Marine Security Force Company at Guantanamo Bay Cuba. The highlight of my career was serving with the Marines in Iraq and I wear my Iraq Campaign Medal with pride.  The Marines have helped my professional development as an office through the Amphibious Warfare Course, Command and Staff College and the Fleet Marine Force Officer Qualification. I count my Marines as some of my most enduring friends.

Happy Birthday Marines. Thank you for all you do.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Survival on the Home Front: Dealing with Other People’s Reactions to My PTSD

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Being in Iraq  was in Many Ways Less Frightening than Being in the USA

I find it interesting and sometimes painful to see how institutions and some people within the institution will label those of us who have gone to war and came back as gooned up with PTSD.  The biggest tension and issue, and I admit it as my own is that we get stereotyped and sometimes viewed as “broken.”  I admit that I have issues, in fact a lot of frickin’ issues and I have a pretty good awareness of them.  I see Elmer the Shrink to help me through the rough spots but there are times when I bump across those that appear to use my condition as a weapon against me.  Whether it is intentional or not, it is not fun to deal with.  I’ve had it happen a few times since I have started getting help last year and every one of the people involved were people who have not been to combat to use a pejorative term from Vietnam they are REMFs .

I know several others who have experienced this mentality.  We all feel really vulnerable because all of us have opened up to people, or to use the Star Trek analogy to “drop our deflector shields.”  Pulling down shields makes you vulnerable, if you do it because you think you are in a safe area.  When you take “friendly fire” is really sucks. It is actually easier in theater.  If I was sent to Iraq or Afghanistan today I would be back in my element and probably suffer little from PTSD symptoms.  Sometimes I wonder if the Navy would be better off to ship me over again.  Admittedly with the health of my parents and a position at my medical center that is important for me to remain in for the time being, there is something that says at some point I need to go back, maybe not now but later.  See out there the PTSD defensive reactions fit.  There are bad guys and good guys, friend and foe and the body and brains’ reaction to real or perceived danger are natural.  I am wary of people until I figure out if they are friend or foe. When I make a mistake in my IFF it usually bodes ill for me.

When you come back out of that environment you find that even though you are “home” that you have changed and nothing is the same as it was before.  Your body and brain have divided the world into two camps, friend and foe or safe or unsafe or maybe even secure versus dangerous.  In my life I notice this with people as well as situations such as being on the road in our nutty Hampton Roads traffic which by the way even if you don’t have PTSD is quite the adventure I have become a very offensively minded defensive driver with faster reflexes and reaction time than I had before I went to Iraq.  I have to say that I am now a very aware person to perceived threats and actually that is not a bad thing of itself.  In Iraq I was probably operating at a 9 or 10 of ten on my perceptions of and reactions to real and perceived danger.  Since I have returned and gotten some therapy I probably operate at a 3.5 to 4 most of the time and depending on the situation move up higher sometimes being very aware of possible danger and hyper-vigilant .  Before I went to Iraq I probably operated at about a 1-2 on the scale of 10, pretty oblivious to danger and not too worried about it either.  Truthfully I am happy at an increased level of the 3.5-4 and maybe on occasion 5.  I don’t like getting up above 7-8 because it really makes a mess of my nerves and general requires that I take my docile pills.  Recently I’ve had a few of those days.  Trust me it is no fun to have a nervous tremor.  When that happens I feel like Gene Wilder’s character in Blazing Saddle’s Jim the Waco Kid response when Sherriff Bart (Cleavon Little) questions him:

Jim: Look at my hand.
[raises hand and holds it level]
Bart: Steady as a rock.
Jim: [raises his other hand, which is violently trembling] Yeah, but I shoot with this one.

Although I can occasionally find some morbid humor in what is going on with me I can’t say that it is any fun.

There is a perception by some, which I think is often systemic in parts of the military that people with PTSD are “broken.” Some in the system as well as others who have been granted the privilege of knowing your vulnerability consciously or unconsciously sometimes use it against you, I personally think it is intentional when this happens but I try to give the benefit of the doubt to the offender.  Like I said before this has happened to my on a number of occasions and in every instance I have felt attacked, devalued and re-traumatized and I don’t like that feeling and it takes me a while to get back through all the crap.  When it happens to me I get angry, defensive and now as opposed to my pre-Iraq life will shoot back.  I’ve stopped rolling over and letting people get away with this behavior and when I see it happen to others I get equally pissed.  Unfortunately I have a number of friends who have had similar experiences and as we share our stories we realize that some people or even the system in general will write you off as damaged goods.  What is the bad thing is that the worst comes from people who have not been in harm’s way.  Likewise, if they went to a combat zone never left one of the big FOBs and never had to deal with the danger of being outside the wire. Nor have they experienced what many medical personnel who remained on the big FOBs experienced in dealing with never ending trauma of dealing with the death, wounding and suffering of young Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen.  Another group are the men and women who perform the tasks of getting the fallen back home.  One of my Chaplain friends had this job in Kuwait and had to meet every aircraft with the bodies of the dead leaving theater performing memorials and conducting honors all the time caring for those who cared for the bodies of these Americans and came back in pretty bad shape.

What saddens me is that this still attitude of men and women dealing with PTSD being “broken” or as one called me a “shipwreck” happens even though we have been making the conscious effort since Vietnam to treat people traumatized by war.  The end result is that those who are traumatized are again and again re-traumatized by the system as well as individuals in it.  I have seen enough of this to make me throw up. Thankfully the Navy as a whole does better in this than the Army, Marines or Air Force but there is a lot to be done.   When I have a REMF screw with me or my friends it does get to me and I can say that I get angry and the person moves out of my “circle of trust.”

Likewise I get discouraged and when I see my countrymen from both of the major political parties, elected officials and regular party members tearing themselves and the country apart because of the hatred that they have for each other and each other’s positions on the issues that face our nation.   I came home at the beginning of the 2008 primary season and within a short time became quite disheartened by what I saw on both sides of the line.  There is no civility in the land and no peace at home for those of us coming home from war.  We come back and see our brothers and sisters, fellow Americans all saying and doing things doing things that can only in the long run further divide and destroy the nation.  I can understand the anger that the returning German soldiers and sailors of the First World War came home to in 1918-1919.  It seems that the only thing that we lack to be like Weimar Germany is for right and left wing militias begin fighting in the streets, killing each other and trying to take over power by force.  As it is these are fighting at political rallies and raising the invective to frightening levels.  In the case of one protest men brought semi-automatic assault weapons to protest outside of a venue the President was speaking at.  They said it was a Second Amendment rights protest but all that is needed is for one deranged individual to act on a homicidal urge to blow the whole damned place up.  I have seen the results of such folly in both the Middle East and the Balkans and I just don’t get it, it is frightening to me and the extremists on both sides of the political spectrum seem like they are doing their damnedest to destroy the country that I love so much and went to war to serve. Regardless of what extreme they are on I just say a pox on them all.

I have been asked a number of times why I would open myself up and show my vulnerability on this website.  It is certainly not for fun when I deal with this subject because I am really wound up in it.  When I write I often have to live the experience again. While many times this is emotionally draining it is something is something that I know that I have to do.  I know so many vets from the current wars and Vietnam who struggle with some of the very things that I do and often a lot more but do not have the ability to really share their stories.  The Marines who fought at Hue City are a group that I still have contact with as are people from my last base chapel job, the Vietnam Veterans of America men who man the beer stand at the Church of Baseball Harbor Park Parish, Wayne the Army Chaplain and decorated Vietnam infantry scout who dealt with his own PTSD and helped me in my discernment process to become a Chaplain.  Likewise I have this connection with my brothers and sisters who have served in Iraq and or Afghanistan.  In a sense what I want to do in my articles about PTSD as well as those about my tour in Iraq is to help people who have not been or not experienced this to get some understanding of what happened to me and to many others.  I don’t want guys to fall through the crack like in Vietnam and I think that educating the public is the best way of raising the issue and helping people care for us.  So I guess this is my “cause” and maybe even a crusade.  I hope and pray that those who love and care for our combat veterans who read this will take the time to learn, take the time to care and take the time to be with us as we walk through the often dark places that we walk.

Today was not a good day for me it was very painful but at least I was able in this post to use it to help explain what we who deal with our return from war go through.  I guess that the Deity Herself knew what she was doing today.  Pray for all of us who live in the surreal world of PTSD as we pray for you and our nation.  Pray for me a sinner.

not a happy camper

Peace,

Steve+

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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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The Demons of PTSD: Abandonment

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.

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.

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 Military, PTSD