Posts Tagged ‘Special Forces’’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.”

Chuck Hawk: A Story of Help and Recovery

September 23, 2008

The New York Times reported yesterday that The New York Sun is in a relentless fight for new investors. It may close come the end of the month. If you know anybody looking to place a major investment in a feisty New York daily call Seth Lipsky or e-mail me. With that said, I’ve got a column in the Sun that transcends money.

Las Vegas is a city that is home to many celebrities — old and young. So it’s no surprise that throngs of visitors poured into the Harmon Medical and Rehabilitation Hospital in early September. The only question the nurses and medical staff had was which patient were all those guests coming to see?

Some theorized it was a mayor or high-ranking politician. Or, in a glitzy city filled with entertainers and singers of many different eras, perhaps the patient had been one of those. It’s possible that in another culture, one less obsessed with fame and wealth, the subject of all the well-wishers could have been a celebrity in his own right.

With the economy teetering on the abyss and people on Wall Street obsessed with the bottom line and their own financial existence, Charles “Chuck” Hawk, who died of cancer on September 15, is a reminder of basic values, building blocks more fundamental than money to the foundation of our existence.

I know him because he was married to my aunt, Sandra Katz, with whom he lived for more than a decade. By trade, Hawk was an insulator. A former member of the U.S. Navy, he was a union man through-and-through. He also ran, unsuccessfully, for Nevada’s state senate eight years ago.

Most importantly, Hawk built and rebuilt lives on a personal level. A while ago, he realized he was an alcoholic. It wasn’t enough for him, though, to attend meetings regularly. He helped others get and stay clean, one person at a time and, as they say in the world of recovery, one day at a time.

Under most circumstances, I would have never gotten to see the full value in somebody like Chuck Hawk. Like everybody else, I’m preoccupied with the details of my own daily existence. Back in 2001, though, my father, Gerald Gitell, decided to leave Boston, where he had been grimly subsisting for two decades as a taxi cab driver, and move to Las Vegas. A former member of the United States Army Special Forces, he had been one of the elite “Green Berets.” A graduate of Boston University, he trained at Fort Bragg, N.C., and was shipped to Vietnam. Like most of today’s veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, he saw combat as well as the deaths of innocent civilians with whom he worked closely to win over to the American side of the war.

During the two decades when my family and I watched helplessly as my father lived as a kind of recluse, sleeping fitfully in a couch pinned against a wall, keeping erratic hours, and failing to escape from his prison of a life, we failed to convince him to seek help. He rejected the suggestion that he should visit a Veterans Administration facility or any other kind of therapist. And, despite his pride in his military service — a bronze Green Beret statue sat on his refrigerator for years — he avoided attending reunion events or talking to friends from the army.

A few years after his move to Las Vegas, his sister Sandra, invited him to move in with her and Hawk. That’s when Hawk got a hold of him. First, he started to tell my father about a friend, a fellow vet, who sought treatment at a place called the Veterans Center. Then, he arranged for my father to meet this friend. Finally, he convinced my father to go there and start talking about those bothersome things, a process that helped to unburden those issues for him.

Over time, my father changed. Whereas he previously avoided talking to strangers about the war, he began to attend weekly therapy sessions with other Vietnam combat veterans. Before he was almost exclusively a loner, but over time he began to dedicate himself to assisting other people, particularly younger veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Earlier this month he made sure to go to the sparsely attended funeral of a member of the 10th Mountain Division who had come home from being wounded in Afghanistan and then had taken his own life. After that, he vowed to make sure that future funerals would receive more attendees.

None of that would have happened had my father never met Hawk. And he was only one of the hundreds, if not thousands of people, to whom Hawk gave succor. Americans need more people like Hawk in the trying days ahead.