Archive for the ‘Special Forces’ Category’s Veterans Day Tribute

November 11, 2008

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

For this Veterans Day, I’ve decided to post some of my pieces during the last few years on the contributions those who serve our country in the military.

Early in my tenure at the New York Sun, I did a column on Harvard’s Memorial Hall and the military contributions of Ivy League graduates.

Here’s the story of Tung Nguyen, a former Vietnamese refugee who came to America and gave his life as a Green Beret in Iraq. (The link is not to the New York Sun, where the story was first published, as I am having problems with the site.)

He was born the year of the Tet Offensive, the great turning point in Vietnam on two fronts: It was the year the Viet Cong expended the bulk of its resources turning the conflict from an insurgency to a war more directly executed by the North Vietnamese army. It also marked the moment when the American public, surprised by the enemy offensive on Saigon, and elsewhere throughout the country, began to lose heart in the struggle.

Eight months before Nguyen’s birth, in October, Special Forces Company D, headquartered in his hometown of Cantho, fought off an attack. The elite soldiers, the Green Berets, who defended Cantho did so under the Special Forces motto “de oppresso liber,” which is a fancy Latin phrase meaning “to free the oppressed.”

The Special Forces were among the first Americans to fight and die in Vietnam. President Kennedy believed that these unconventional troops could be an important tool in the fight against communism. He visited the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1961, an institution that took Kennedy’s name after his assassination two years later.

I also wrote about Bruce Crandall, a helicopter pilot at the Vietnamese battle of Ia Drang, who save hundreds of lives and received the Medal of Honor.

Colonel Walter Marm, retired, who received the Medal of Honor in 1966, knows about courage. He was the young lieutenant who charged a North Vietnamese machine gun fortified in a rock-hard anthill to help rescue the lost platoon in the Battle of Ia Drang in November 1965. But when enemy fire tore through his jaw, Mr. Marm had to rely upon the heroism of helicopter pilots to get him out of harm’s way.

When I spoke to Colonel Marm on Saturday morning, he was getting ready to head to Washington, where President Bush presented the Medal of Honor at the White House yesterday to the retired [L]ieutenant [C]olonel, Bruce Crandall, who served as a life line to American forces at the battle.

Colonel Crandall, who was then a major, was the tip of the spear for a new American way of war. He served as a helicopter pilot in the reconstituted 1st Cavalry Division.

In what was a grand experiment to expand the mobility of America’s armed forces, military planners transformed a defunct traditional cavalry unit into a symbol of the country’s high-tech struggle against communism in South Vietnam, albeit one that still needed pilots to put their lives on the line. …

Today, it’s easy to envision the ignoble American evacuation from Saigon in 1975 and perceive the entire struggle in Vietnam as a sweeping defeat. But think about that 10-year delay, to which the American soldiers who fought and died at Ia Drang contributed. During that time, neighboring countries, such as Thailand and Malaysia, were able to strengthen themselves and stabilize.

Aside from Cambodia, which was a victim of North Vietnamese aggression, the feared Domino Theory, the idea that the fall of one pro-Western government would be followed by a rapid chain of others in Southeast Asia, never took place in part because of the American effort in Vietnam. It didn’t look like a victory back then, but, in the long view, history sees things differently.

In Massachusetts earlier this month, a horse-drawn hearse carried the flag-draped casket of another helicopter pilot, a casualty of today’s war. Captain Jennifer Harris of the United States Marine Corps was brought to her final resting place in the historic Swampscott Cemetery.

Right now, it’s easy to see Iraq as a cauldron of chaos. But it can take years to recognize the significance of courage, duty, and sacrifice. Long wars are hard wars, old soldiers like to say. It took many years for Colonel Crandall to be properly recognized. In time, we will acknowledge the true courage and import of today’s heroes.

One year ago, I wrote about the lasting importance of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

Twenty-five years ago today a simple, sober, monument was riveted into American public life — the Vietnam War Memorial, the distinctive black wall in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to which the names of 58,000 fallen American service men and women are ascribed.

The story of the memorial, known for its iconic Maya Lin design, begins with one man, Jan Scruggs. An infantryman in Vietnam and then a graduate student at American University in Washington, Mr. Scruggs took his wife to a showing of the 1978 Vietnam War film,“The Deer Hunter.”

I caught up with Scruggs for my New York Sun column.

The Wall lists the names of the fallen in chronological order, which can be disconcerting at first. But veterans can see the names of their fallen comrades together. “It gives them carthasis,” Mr. Scruggs says of Vietnam veterans who come to the wall. “It helps the veterans be able to say goodbye.”

I saw the power of the Wall first hand five years ago in Scottsdale, Ariz., of all places. A touring replica of the Wall was on display, and I happened to be in town for a family gathering with my sister and my parents. We went together. My father, Gerald Gitell, a veteran of U.S. Army Special Forces in Vietnam, rushed to the Wall and searched to find the names of his friends.

We had to look up their coordinates. Major John Arnn. Second Lieutenant Bryan Grogan. Specialist Robert Stepanov. Arnn was his commanding officer who was ambushed. Grogan and Stepanov were his buddies from Fort Bragg who were killed together in the tall grass near Pleiku. “I couldn’t even breathe,” my father, remembering how moving the replica Wall was that day, said.

I can’t forget the story of Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University/ROTC graduate and the son of B.U. professor Andrew Bacevich.

Yesterday I drove down Route 1A for the funeral of Lieutenant Andrew Bacevich at St. Timothy’s Church. I described the scene in my New York Sun column. “Mourners sang “America the Beautiful” as pall bearers wheeled the casket carrying First Lieutenant Andrew Bacevich out of St. Timothy’s Church in Norwood, Mass., yesterday. Before exiting into the bright May sunshine and the sight of the soothing waters of Willett’s Pond, they paused and draped an American flag over the coffin.”

Westmoreland’s Sgt. Major, My Father and Me

February 21, 2008

George Dunaway, who served as sergeant major of the Army at the height of the Vietnam War, died earlier this month at the age of 85. I got to meet Dunaway through my father, whom the spit-and-polish soldier had invited to join the Special Forces Alumni Association out in Las Vegas.

I write in the online version of The Weekly Standard: “During our lunch, Dunaway, who spoke in the accent of his native Richmond, Virginia, regaled me with his stories of military life. Looking for steady work near the end of the Great Depression, he enlisted in the Virginia National Guard; he left the military, 30 years later, as the top NCO-aide to the chief of staff of the Army, General William Westmoreland.”

Dunaway also helped my father. “My father, Gerald Gitell, had served in Vietnam as a Special Forces officer and had even played a role in creating Barry Sadler’s iconic number one hit, “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” But as a loner who preferred reading to socializing, he eschewed military alumni organizations or groups of any kind. Dunaway discovered my father in a local Las Vegas coffee shop wearing a cap with a Special Forces insignia and asked him if he had served in the unit. When my father answered that he had, Dunaway invited him to a monthly meeting of the alumni group, and my father, for the first time in his life, agreed. By making the invitation, this spit and polish sergeant major helped provide a troubled veteran a place to feel at home. My father arranged for Dunaway and me to meet.

When I attended a Chapter 51 meeting with my father, I learned that the group begins each session with “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” As the notes wafted out of an old stereo box, the men sang along–even my father, who has never been known to sing anything. Helping my father–and scores of other former veterans–was another of Dunaway’s less well-known, but equally important, achievements.”