Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

Gitell.com’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.”

Advertisements

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.”

A Healing Time for Vietnam Veterans

November 13, 2007

The Vietnam War Memorial

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.

United States Naval Academy

August 29, 2007

Noon Meal Formation

I was very moved last week by my visit to the United States Naval Academy and its Memorial Hall, which commerorates fallen graduates of the school, such as Swampscott’s Jennifer Harris, whose helicopter was shot down in February. Here’s my piece in The New York Sun.

“The Brigade of Midshipmen, some 4,400 students, clad in dress blues and khakis, stands at attention, arrayed in Noon Meal Formation in front of Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy. Upon command, a small group of cadet officers draw its swords. The drum and Bugle Corps strikes up the notes of John Philip Souza’s “The Thunderer.” The midshipmen, still in formation, march off Tecumseh Court.

This is ritual, underlying the values and tradition of the institution that has trained officers for the Navy and the Marine Corps on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay since its inception in 1845. Even as the midshipmen lined up for inspection on Thursday, politicians in Washington were arguing about the lessons of the Vietnam War and their applicability in Iraq.

A few hundred feet up the steps into the Beaux Arts architecture of Bancroft Hall, there were other war lessons, past and present, for today’s students, recent graduates, and Americans at large. Up a sweeping staircase stands Memorial Hall. A blue flag with the last words of John Lawrence, the captain of the U.S.S. Chesapeake, “don’t Give Up the Ship,” hangs on the wall above a list with 956 names, a “scroll” of Naval Academy graduates killed in action. The greatest portion fell in World War II, among others in the Boxer Rebellion, the Philippine Insurrection, and in Lebanon. Twelve names are listed under the Global War on Terror, among them James Patrick Blecksmith ’03, Jennifer Harris ’00, and Douglas Zembiec ’95.”

I will also write a post about the magnificent new Jewish chapel on campus.

American Legion and VFW Are Relevant Once Again

May 29, 2007

It is one of the sad ironies of the Iraq War is that veterans organizations once thought to have all but outlived their usefulness are all too relevant once again. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, every small town in America had either an American Legion or VFW post on the edge of the community. With World War II veterans — the men who formed the backbone of these groups — dying off at a rate of 1000 a day, you might think these groups would be disappearing from the scene as well. But that isn’t happening.

In fact, the need to support the soldiers, sailors and marines returning home from Iraq, has caused these groups to return to their original mission — helping vets adjust to life at home and making sure they get adequate health care. We tend to forget today, but there was a day when the VFW and American Legion were something other than a place to find cameraderie and an affordable cold glass of beer. The VFW was founded after the Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurrection, which are roughly analagous to the initial invasion of Iraq and subsequent insurgency. The vets came back with strange diseases, malaria and yellow fever, among others, and needed help. So too the Legion, founded in Paris in 1919 amid tales of mistreatment of returned veterans.

I write about this development in my column in The New York Sun.

Bacevich and Boston University

May 24, 2007

One angle I couldn’t fully explore in my column on the funeral of Andrew Bacevich on Tuesday or my prior post involved Boston University ROTC.
In 1993, I was at B.U. on graduation day; my sister was receiving her degree. My father, Gerald Gitell, a graduate of Boston University’s School of Communications, like Bacevich, and a participant in the ROTC program, disappeared for a while. When we met up with him, we learned he had paid a visit to BU’s ROTC headquarters. He came back with a document I wanted to mention in my column but couldn’t find until today. It was a list of ROTC members at BU over time.

Back in my father’s class, 1963, there were 44 Boston University ROTC graduates. Five years later, during the height of Vietnam, there was one, Richard Lowery. After a spike of 8 graduates in 1969, ROTC had one graduate at best (some years, such as 1970 and 1971 had none at all). The numbers pick up again in the late 1980s and early 1990s. With the strain the military is currently under, it’s important to remember how low the stature of the Army had fallen after Vietnam — a fact reflected in these ROTC numbers.

I wrote in my column that BU is not known for its military heritage, but it has more than one would think. When I attended a publicity screening of the Vietnam film We Were Soldiers, it was filled with members of BU’s program (maybe even Andy Bacevich). I stumbled into a lecture on Comm. Ave featuring journalist Joseph Galloway, who wrote of the battle the movie was based upon, sponsored by BU ROTC.

In this world, you don’t necessarily know where courage is going to come from. We expect it to emanate out of Annapolis and West Point. But it’s present up and along the windy urban campus on the Charles as well.

March on the Pentagon: 2007

March 16, 2007

Many aspects of American life are starting to resemble forty years ago during the Vietnam War. In 1967, anti-war activists organized the March on the Pentagon, chronicled by Norman Mailer in “The Armies of the Night”. ““Others, using spray cans, crayons, paints and bush began to write slogans on the stone wall of the Mall, the pier, the sides of the ramp,” Mr. Mailer recorded. “ ‘WAR SUCKS’ went one of the signs, ‘PENTAGON SUCKS’ went another, ‘F— WAR’ went a third.”

This weekend, the ANSWER Coalition is planning a new March on the Pentagon. I write about it in a short story in The New York Sun.

But this year’s activities diverge from the 1960s in a key way. This year a group of veterans called, “A Gathering Eagles”, is planning a protest to support the troops and the cause for which they’re fighting. Originally billed as an effort to protect the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall, when it looked like ANSWER might hold its protest there, the demonstration is gathering steam. Thousands of participants are expected.

This is interesting on a number of fronts. First, the Iraq War, like prior wars is generating its own veterans’ groups. Much as the Spanish American War created the Veterans of Foreign Wars and World War I prompted the growth of the American Legion and the Bonus Army, Iraq is making itself felt on the homefront.

Second, the Gathering of Eagles will surely draw the ire of the anti-war crowd as pawns of the president. But one of their organizers, Col. Harry Riley (retired), was unafraid to speak up on conditions at Walter Reed. He told me in comments published here exclusively at Gitell.com:

“Obviously there were some serious shortfalls up there. It’s obvious that they were not caring for the warriors the way they should.
The government has developed an attitude of use and abuse. That’s what happens to the military warrior. He gets called up. He may be wounded. He may be killed, and then he comes back and finds an apparatus that is illprepared to take care of him.”

The ANSWER spokesman, Bill Hackwell, a combat photographer in Vietnam, added that his protest would advocate on behalf a range of causes, other than the war — including Katrina victims and immigrant rights.

Honor, Then and Now

February 27, 2007

Bruce Crandall courtesy of The Washington Post

Less than 3400 Medals of Honor have ever been awarded. Lt. Col. Bruce Crandall (ret.) received one yesterday for his decision to keep piloting helicopters to Landing Zone X-Ray in the Battle of Ia Drang. This was one of the handful of bloodiest Vietnam battles. Crandall decided, against orders, to make 14 landings to resupply the vastly outnumbered 1400 men and evacuated 70 of the wounded.

I write about Crandall and other brave helicopter pilots in my New York Sun column.