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The Importance of Citizen Soldiers: Strong Vincent and Joshua Chamberlain at Little Round Top and American Military Sociology

dont give an inch

“As soldier and citizen, today’s armed forces officer is a champion of both the nation’s defense and the principles upon which the nation was founded. Taking an oath to support and defend the Constitution means swearing to uphold the core values that define the essence of American citizenship; the armed forces officer is first and foremost a citizen who has embraced the ideals of the nation—only then can he or she defend those principles with true conviction.” [1]

While the professional Gouverneur Warren through himself into the battle to save Little Round Top, as did many others the story of the battle dictates that we must discuss the actions of two “citizen soldiers” without whom the battle may have been lost, Colonel Strong Vincent and Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Both are depicted and immortalized in the film Gettysburg which is based on Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels. As such their actions are known more than many others that are covered in this account of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Within the U.S. Army the example of Chamberlain at the Battle of Little Round Top has occupied a prominent place in Army leadership manuals including FM 22-100 and its successor FM 6-22, however, that being said even those that learn about Chamberlain from this seldom delve deeper into his character, development as a leader and significance, at Little Round Top, Appomattox and after the war, likewise the examples of both Warren and Vincent which are key to Chamberlain and his regiment even being on the hill are ignored in that publication.

It is important to discuss Vincent and Chamberlain for more than their direct contributions to the battle. Those are widely known and in a sense have become part of the myth that is our understanding of Gettysburg. While discussing those actions it is also necessary to put them into context with the character of both men, the cause that they fought. Likewise it is important to address in this age of the professional all volunteer force the importance of Citizen Soldiers in any kind of democracy or representative republic, a sociological question that military professionals as well as our elected officials and citizenry would do well to revisit.

This is particularly important now as various elected leaders, think tanks, defense contractors and lobbyists are all questioning the economic “liabilities” of the All-Volunteer force as well as the disconnect between the broader military and society at large. This means that there will be efforts to determine how the military will be manned, trained and employed, and if military leaders are ignorant of our history, the vital connection between the military and the citizenry and the contributions of Citizen Soldiers then we will be caught flat footed and unprepared in the coming debates. If that happens those decisions could be made by “bean counters” with little appreciation for what military professionalism and readiness entails, as well as think tanks and lobbyists for the defense industry who have their own motivations for what they do, often more related to their profits, power and influence than national security.

The armies that fought the Civil War for the most part were composed of volunteers who of a myriad of reasons went off to fight that war. Gouverneur Warren is a character whose life and career before and after the Civil War was much more like currently serving regular officers and to some extent the much more professional and hardened by war officer corps of the Reserve Components of each of our Armed Services, in particular the much active and deployed Army National Guard and Army Reserve. The reserve components still do reflect much of the Citizen Soldier tradition but that being said between deployments, other activations and required schooling, those assets are much more on par with their active counterparts than they ever have been in our history.

“American defense policy has traditionally been built upon pluralistic military institutions, most notably a mix force of professionals and citizen soldiers.” [2] Warren represented what until the beginning of the Cold War was the smaller pillar of that pluralistic institution that of the long term professional while Vincent and Chamberlain represented the volunteer citizen soldier who enlisted to meet the crisis.

Until World War II and the advent of the Cold War these dual pillars existed side by side. Following the Second World War along with the small-wars that went along as part of it the world changed, and the wars that occurred, such as Korea and Vietnam “occurred on a scale too small to elicit a sustained, full-fledged national commitment, yet too large for a prewar-style regular army to handle.” [3] Because of this “military requirements thus became a fundamental ingredient of foreign policy, and military men and institutions acquired authority and influence far surpassing that ever previously possessed by military professionals on the American scene.” [4] General Tony Zinni noted that the foreign policy results of this transformation have resulted in the United States becoming “an empire” [5] something that no American living in 1863 could have ever contemplated.

This was part of a revolution in military affairs far more important than the application of technology which brought it about, the Atomic Bomb; it was a revolution in national strategy which fundamentally changed American thinking regarding the use of the military instrument in relationship to diplomacy, and the relationship of the military to society at large. Russell Weigley noted: “To shift the American definition of strategy from the use of combats for the object of wars to the use of military force for the deterrence of war, albeit while still serving the national interests in an active manner, amounted to a revolution in the history of American military policy….” [6]

The policy worked reasonably well until Vietnam and the inequities of the system showed its liabilities and brought about a change from politicians. Lieutenant General Hal Moore wrote of the Vietnam era: “The class of 1965 came out of the old America, a nation that disappeared forever in the smoke that billowed off the jungle battlegrounds where we fought and bled. The country that sent us off to war was not there to welcome us home. It no longer existed.” [7]

The debacle of Vietnam and the societal tidal wave that followed brought about the end of the selective service system, by which the large army needed to fight wars was connected to the society at large and the creation of the All-Volunteer force by President Nixon in 1974. The ethos that every citizen was a soldier was destroyed by Vietnam and even men like General William Westmoreland who warned that “absent “the continuous movement of citizens in and out of the service,…the army could “become a danger to our society-a danger that our forefathers so carefully tried to preclude.” [8]

This cultural shift is something that none of the professional officers of the small ante-bellum army like Warren would have ever imagined much less men like Vincent or Chamberlain who were true citizen-soldiers. Thus for currently serving officers it is important to recognize this key change as it applies to American military strategy as well as the place the military occupies in our society. This makes it important to our study as we examine the actions of Vincent and Chamberlain outside of myth and legend and see the implications that they can have not only on the battlefield but in our relationship to the American citizenry and society. It is to put in in classic terms a return to understanding the relationship between the military and the people so powerfully enunciate in Clausewitz’s Trinity.

While Warren represents the Strong Vincent and Joshua Chamberlain represented that important part of our military tradition that really, except in the case of young men and women that volunteer to serve and leave the military after their obligated service really no longer exists. We no longer have a system that allows, nor do we actively encourage men like Vincent and Chamberlain to leave lucrative civilian employment or academia to serve alongside the professionals in positions of responsibility leading regiments or brigades or serving as senior staff officers unless they are already part of the military in our reserve components.

vincent

Colonel Strong Vincent was a 26 year old Harvard graduate and lawyer from Erie Pennsylvania. Vincent enlisted and then was appointed as a 1st Lieutenant and Adjutant of the Erie Regiment because of his academic and administrative acumen. He married his wife Elizabeth the same day. Vincent like many young northerners believed in the cause of the Union undivided, and he wrote his wife shortly after after the regiment went to war on the Peninsula:

“Surely the right will prevail. If I live we will rejoice in our country’s success. If I fall, remember you have given your husband to the most righteous cause that ever widowed a woman.”[9]

Vincent was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel in the 83rd Pennsylvania September 14th 1861. The young officer learned his trade well and was considered a “strict disciplinarian and master of drill.” [10] That being said one enlisted man remarked that “no officer in the army was more thoughtful and considerate of  the health and comfort of his men.” He assumed command of the regiment when the commander was killed during the Seven Days in June of 1862 where he learned lessons that he would help impart to his fellow officers as well as subordinates, including Chamberlain. Following a bout with a combination of Malaria and Typhoid that almost killed him, he took command of the regiment. He commanded the regiment at Fredericksburg and was promoted to command the 3rd Brigade when its commander was killed at Chancellorsville in May 1863. Vincent was offered the chance to serve as the Judge Advocate General of the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1863 after spending three months on court-martial duty. But refused the offer in order to remain in the fight commanding troops. [11]

Unlike most other brigade commanders, Vincent was still a Colonel, and he, like many others would in his place hoped that going into action to save Sickles’ command “will either bring me my stars, or finish my career as a soldier.” [12] On July first, Vincent, a native Pennsylvanian came to Hanover and learning that battle had been joined, ordered “the pipes and drums of the 83rd Pennsylvania to play his brigade through the town and ordered the regiments to uncover their flags again….” [13] As the brigade marched through the town Vincent “reverently bared his head” and announced to his adjutant, “What death more glorious can any man desire than to die on the soil of old Pennsylvania fighting for that flag?” [14]

Vincent was known for his personal courage and a soldier of the 83rd Pennsylvania observed “Vincent had a particular penchant for being in the lead….Whenever or wherever his brigade might be in a position to get ahead…, he was sure to be ahead.” [15] That courage and acumen to be in the right place at the right time was in evidence when he led his brigade into battle on July second.

On July 2nd Barnes’ division of V Corps, which Vincent’s brigade was a part was being deployed to the threat posed by the Confederate attack of McLaws’ division on the Peach Orchard and the Wheat Field to reinforce Sickles’ III Corps. While that division marched toward the Peach Orchard, Vincent’s 3rd Brigade was the trail unit. When Gouverneur Warren’s aide, Lieutenant Randall Mackenzie [16] came toward the unit in search of Barnes he came across Vincent and his brigade near the George Weikert house on Cemetery Ridge awaiting further orders. [17] Vincent intercepted him and demanded what his orders were. Upon being told that Sykes’ orders to Barnes were to “send one of his brigades to occupy that hill yonder,” [18] Vincent, defied normal protocol assuming that Barnes was drunk [19] told Mackenzie “I will take responsibility of taking my brigade there.” [20]

It was a fortunate thing for the Union that he did. His quick action to get his brigade, clear orders to his subordinate commanders and skilled analysis of the ground were a decisive factor in the Union forces holding Little Round Top. He ordered Colonel James C. Rice of the 44th New York to lead the brigade up to the hill while he and his aide went forward to scout positions as the brigade moved forward at the double quick “across the field to the road leading up the north shoulder of the hill” with Chamberlain’s 20th Maine in the lead. [21] Looking at the ground which had the valley and Devil’s Den, occupied by the end of Sickles’ line, he chose a position along a spur of the hill running from the northwest to the southeast to place his regiments where they could intercept the Confederate troops of Hood’s division which he could see advancing toward the hill.

The 16th Michigan, his smallest regiment was placed on the right of the brigade. That section of the line was located on massive boulders that placed it high above the valley below, making it nearly impregnable to frontal attack. He deployed the 83rd Pennsylvania and 44th New York, known as Butterfield’s Twins to their left at the request of Rice who told him “In every battle that we have engaged the Eighty-third and Forty-fourth have fought side by side. I wish that it might be so today.” [22] Those units were deployed below the crest among the large number of boulders; the 83rd was about two-thirds of the way down the way down the slope where it joined the right of the 44th, whose line angled back up the slope to the southeast.

Vincent deployed the 20th Maine on his extreme left of his line, and in fact the extreme end of the Union line. Vincent knew that if this flank was turned and Chamberlain overrun that it would imperil the entire Union position. Vincent came up to Chamberlain who remembered that Vincent said “in an awed, faraway voice. “I place you here….This is the left of the Union line. You understand. You are to hold this ground at all costs.” [23]

chamberlain

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain was another one of the citizen soldiers whose performance and leadership on Little Round Top saved the Union line that hot July evening. A graduate of Bowdoin College and Bangor Theological Seminary, Chamberlain was fluent in nine languages other than English. He was Professor of Rhetoric at Bowdoin before seeking an appointment in a Maine Regiment without consulting either the college or his family. He was offered command of the 20th Maine but asked to be appointed as a Lieutenant Colonel which he was in August 1862. He fought at Fredericksburg and was named commander of the regiment when Colonel Adelbert Ames, his commander was promoted following Chancellorsville.

Like Vincent, Chamberlain was also a quick student and rapidly adapted to being a soldier, officer and commander of troops in combat. On receiving his orders Chamberlain deployed his small regiment halfway down the southern slope facing the small valley between Little and Big Round Top. As a result of his experience in battle and the tenacity of the Confederate army he became an advocate of the tactics that William Tecumseh Sherman would later employ during his march to the sea in 1864. He wrote his wife before Chancellorsville:

“We must fight them more vindictively, or we shall be foiled at every step.  We must desolate the country as we pass through it, and not leave a trace of a doubtful friend or foe behind us; make them believe that we are in earnest, terribly in earnest; that to break this band in twain is monstrous and impossible; that the life of every man, yea, of every weak woman or child in the entire South, is of no value whatever compared with the integrity of the Union.”

Since Chamberlain’s account is so important I will forgo a discussion of his tactics and instead quote the sections of his after action report that explains his actions. Chamberlain wrote:

“On reaching the field at about 4 p.m. July 2d, Col. Vincent commanding the Brigade, placing me on the left of the Brigade and consequently on the extreme left of our entire line of battle, instructed me that the enemy were expected shortly to make a desperate attempt to turn our left flank, and that the position assigned to me must be held at every hazard.

I established my line on the crest of a small spur of a rocky and wooded hill, and sent out at once a company of skirmishers on my left to guard against surprise on that unprotected flank.

These dispositions were scarcely made when the attack commenced, and the right of the Regt. found itself at once hotly engaged. Almost at the same moment, from a high rock which gave me a full view of the enemy, I perceived a heavy force in rear of their principal line, moving rapidly but stealthily toward our left, with the intention, as I judged, of gaining our rear unperceived. Without betraying our peril to any but one or two officers, I had the right wing move by the left flank, taking intervals of a pace or two, according to the shelter afforded by rocks or trees, extending so as to cover the whole front then engaged; and at the same time moved the left wing to the left and rear, making a large angle at the color, which was now brought to the front where our left had first rested.

This hazardous maneuvre was so admirably executed by my men that our fire was not materially slackened in front, and the enemy gained no advantage there, while the left wing in the meantime had formed a solid and steady line in a direction to meet the expected assault. We were not a moment too soon; for the enemy having gained their desired point of attack came to a front, and rushed forward with an impetuosity which showed their sanguine expectations.

Their astonishment however was evident, when emerging from their cover, they met instead of an unsuspecting flank, a firm and ready front. A strong fire opened at once from both sides, and with great effect, the enemy still advancing until they came within ten paces of our line, where our steady and telling volleys brought them to a stand. From that moment began a struggle fierce and bloody beyond any that I have witnessed, and which lasted in all its fury, a full hour. The two lines met, and broke and mingled in the shock. At times I saw around me more of the enemy than of my own men. The edge of conflict swayed to and fro -now one and now the other party holding the contested ground. Three times our line was forced back, but only to rally and repulse the enemy. As often as the enemy’s line was broken and routed, a new line was unmasked, which advanced with fresh vigor. Our “sixty rounds” were rapidly reduced; I sent several messengers to the rear for ammunition, and also for reinforcements. In the mean time we seized the opportunity of a momentary lull to gather ammunition and more serviceable arms, from the dead and dying on the field. With these we met the enemy’s last and fiercest assault. Their own rifles and their own bullets were turned against them. In the midst of this struggle, our ammunition utterly failed. The enemy were close upon us with a fresh line, pouring on us a terrible fire. Half the left wing already lay on the field. Although I had brought two companies from the right to its support, it was now scarcely more than a skirmish line. The heroic energy of my officers could avail no more. Our gallant line withered and shrunk before the fire it could not repel. It was too evident that we could maintain the defensive no longer. As a last desperate resort, I ordered a charge. The word “fix bayonets” flew from man to man. The click of the steel seemed to give new zeal to all. The men dashed forward with a shout. The two wings came into one line again, and extending to the left, and at the same time wheeling to the right, the whole Regiment described nearly a half circle, the left passing over the space of half a mile, while the right kept within the support of the 83d Penna. thus leaving no chance of escape to the enemy except to climb the steep side of the mountain or to pass by the whole front of the 83d Penna. The enemy’s first line scarcely tried to run-they stood amazed, threw down their loaded arms and surrendered in whole companies. Those in their rear had more time and gave us more trouble. My skirmishing company threw itself upon the enemy’s flank behind a stone wall, and their effective fire added to the enemy’s confusion. In this charge we captured three hundred and sixty eight prisoners, many of them officers, and took three hundred stand of arms. The prisoners were from four different regiments, and admitted that they had attacked with a Brigade.” [24]

Colonel William Oates of the 15th Alabama would give Chamberlain and his regiment the credit for stopping his attack. Oates wrote: “There have never been harder fighters than the Twentieth Maine and their gallant Colonel. His skill and persistency and the great bravery of his men saved Little Round Top and the Army of the Potomac from defeat.” [25]

chamberlain lrt

As with any firsthand account, aspects of Chamberlain’s accounts are contested by others at the scene. Oates notes that he ordered the retreat and that there were not as many prisoners taken, one of Chamberlain’s company commanders disputes the account of the order of the bayonet charge however the fact is that Chamberlain who was outnumbered nearly two to one by the 15th and 47th Alabama regiments “offset this superiority with strength of position, iron determination and better tactics.” [26] Also a factor was the fatigue of the Confederates, these regiments and their parent unit, Law’s brigade of Hood’s division had conducted a grueling 28 mile march to get to the battlefield and were exhausted by the time that they arrived.

Vincent was mortally wounded while leading the defense of the hill. While he was standing on a large boulder with a riding crop ordering the men of the 16th Michigan who were beginning to waiver he cried out “Don’t yield an inch now men or all is lost,[27]he was struck by a bullet which hit him in the groin. As he was being carried from the field to the hospital where he died on July 7th, “This is the fourth or fifth time they have shot at me…and they have hit me at last.” [28]

As Vincent lay dying he was visited by many comrades, visited by Sykes and Barnes he told them “I presume… I have dune my last fighting.” Meade recommended Vincent for posthumous promotion to Brigadier General, but the request was lost.

Two months after his death his wife gave birth to a baby girl. The baby would not live a year and was buried next to him. One wonders what heights of leadership the young colonel might have achieved had he not died at Gettysburg. He was a man who understood the nature of total war, an excellent leader and skilled tactician.

Chamberlain survived the war to great acclaim being wounded three times and receiving the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 9th 1865.

The examples of these two citizen soldiers demonstrate the importance of this legacy, which is still to some extent carried on by the reserve components of the United States military service. That being said, in the coming years military professionals will have to engage lawmakers and the bureaucracy of the Pentagon as the shape of the future military, especially the land components is debated and decided upon by politicians. Thus, it is of the utmost importance of revisiting the tradition of the citizen soldier and how it can be renewed in the coming years.

Chamberlain’s words about the men that he served alongside like his commanding officer, Strong Vincent are a fitting way to close.

“It is something great and greatening to cherish an ideal; to act in the light of truth that is far-away and far above; to set aside the near advantage, the momentary pleasure; the snatching of seeming good to self; and to act for remoter ends, for higher good, and for interests other than our own.” [29]

Notes

[1] _______. The Armed forces Officer U.S. Department of Defense Publication, Washington DC. January 2006 p.2

[2] Millet, Allan R. and Maslowski, Peter, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States The Free Press a Division of Macmillan Inc. New York, 1984 p.xii

[3] Bacevich, Andrew J. Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed their Soldiers and Their Country Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2013 Kindle Edition Amazon Edition p.50

[4] Huntington, Samuel P. The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1957 p.345

[5] Zinni, Tony. The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America’s Power and Purpose Palgrave McMillian, New York 2006 p.4

[6] Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military History and Policy University of Indiana Press, Bloomington IN, 1973 pp.367-368

[7] Moore, Harold G. and Galloway Joseph L We Were Soldiers Once…And Young Harper Perennial Books, 1992 pp. xix-xx

[8] Ibid. Bacevich Breach of Trust p.58

[9] ________. Erie County Historical Society http://www.eriecountyhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/strongvincent.pdfretrieved 9 June 2014

[10] Golay, Michael. To Gettysburg and Beyond: The Parallel Lives of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Edward Porter Alexander Crown Publishers Inc. New York 1994 p.129

[11] Leonardi, Ron Strong Vincent at Gettysburg Barringer-Erie Times News retrieved June 9th 2014 from http://history.goerie.com/2013/06/30/strong-vincent-at-gettysburg/

[12] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.264

[13] Pfanz, Harry F. Gettysburg: The Second Day. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1987 p.51

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage p.159

[15] Tredeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.305

[16] Some such as Guelzo believe this may have been Captain William Jay of Sykes staff.

[17] Ibid. Tredeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.327

[18] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage p.262

[19] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage p.262

[20] Ibid. Tredeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.327

[21] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.389

[22] Ibid. Pfanz, Gettysburg: The Second Day. p.213

[23] Ibid. Golay To Gettysburg and Beyond p.157

[24] Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrence. Official Narrative of Joshua Chamberlain of July 6th 1863, Maine Military Historical Society, Inc., Augusta, Maine, copyright 1989 U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute Reprint, retrieved from http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/carl/download/csipubs/chamberlain.pdf June 15th 2014

[25] Oates, Willam C. and Haskell, Frank A. Gettysburg Bantam Books edition, New York 1992, originally published in 1905 p.98

[26] Ibid.Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.393

[27] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage p.272

[28] Ibid. Tredeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.361

[29] Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrence. Chamberlain’s Address at the dedication of the Maine Monuments at Gettysburg, October 3rd 1888 retrieved from http://www.joshualawrencechamberlain.com/maineatgettysburg.php 4 June 2014

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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