Editor's note: This is the second of two parts saluting veterans for their service. The first part was published Nov. 11 and can be found at www.observertoday.com
When the Korean War ended, the troops returned home with little fanfare. There were no victory parades with grateful citizens waving American flags. Older veterans had to come to terms with the fact that for the first time, we fought in a war that we and our allies did not win. The soldiers who served and returned home stayed quiet about their experience.
Many people, children especially, didn't even know the whole story of what went on in Korea. Life went on for these veterans, but it wasn't easy. Many were rejected from VA hospitals, couldn't get their old jobs back and couldn't find new employment. The rationalization of this rejection was that these soldiers hadn't been to "war," Korea was a "Police Action." These soldiers - many physically wounded, all mentally scarred and combat-weary - couldn't even get the respect they deserved for following the orders of their government. Certain military organizations, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and Disabled American Veterans would not even allow those who served in Korea to join their organizations. Those soldiers had a hard enough time dealing with their war experiences, and when no one cared enough to even ask about the war and what they'd been through, it hurt even worse.
Their elder counterparts had important dates to commemorate their experiences - Dec. 7 for those who served in World War II. There was no day of honor for the vets of Korea. I understand how they must have felt - in high school history class less than an hour was spent on the topic of the Korean War. Later, when I became a soldier, we spent hours in boot camp talking of the Marine victories at the Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and even Tarawa, a Marine disaster. Little, if any, talk revolved around the Korean War.
When the pages are all written about Korea, the most important thing people need to know is that these soldiers, like all soldiers throughout our history, served their country when they were called up by their leaders. They deserve the same honor as vets from any other war. And like all those other vets, they returned home from the horrors of war, got married, raised families, and did their best to rejoin a peacetime society.
The 1960s were a quiet and happy life for many, with technology advancing every day. With televisions in most households, it was easy to know what the temperatures were like in London and Alaska. News came in from all over the world. We had our problems, but felt relatively secure. No one heard the low rumblings of another war in the distance.
At this point, we had been through three wars in the same century. For many, that seemed like more than enough. But along with its news and sports, the television brought something else to our living rooms: Communism. This was not just a buzz word. "Communism" meant fear. It meant panic. The century was only a little more than half over, and once again we faced war, this time in an effort to stop and push back the threat of Communism. In 1962, tension ran high when Cuba and the Soviet Union built missile sites in Cuba, pointing these nuclear warheads at the United States. They did this in response to the failed U.S. attempt to overthrow the Cuban regime, which involved the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the subsequent Operation Mongoose, a program designed to flush Communism out of Cuba.
To protect our country from the Soviets and Cuba, President John F. Kennedy instituted a military blockade, which was met with anger on the part of the Soviet Union. Amid negotiations between Soviet leaders and President Kennedy, Soviet ships attempted to run through the U.S. blockade. The U.S. Navy was told to retaliate with warning shots, then open fire. On Oct. 27, the Soviets shot down a United States U-2, a high-altitude plane often used for intelligence-gathering. This was an act of aggression which could have resulted in immediate and severe retaliation. However, President Kennedy decided not to take drastic measures and negotiations continued between world leaders. The situation was diffused a day later, when the Soviets agreed to dismantle their weapons and return them to the Soviet Union in exchange for a promise from the United States that we would never invade Cuba.
One crisis may have been avoided, but the threat of Communism, known as "The Red Scare," popped up in a tiny country in Southeast Asia named Vietnam. Vietnam, like Korea, was divided after World War II. The South Vietnam leaders were anti-Communist, and resisted a unified Vietnam on the grounds that one country could not be half-Communist. North Vietnam was Communist, and had a strong Soviet backing. The Soviet Union had just shown their true feelings for the United States in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and tensions eventually escalated into open conflict in what would become another proxy war.
The United States, in addition to supporting "containment," the term given to stopping the spread of Communism, had reason to become directly involved in the fighting after reports that one of our destroyers, a ship called the U.S.S. Maddox, was fired upon while in patrol off the coast of North Vietnam. The details of those reports, to this day, are still in question. Nevertheless, once again, the United States was fighting bloody battles on foreign soil.
Unlike the world wars and the "Police Action" of Korea, there is no official start date to the Vietnam War, though certain battles and military actions have of course been recorded. Rather, this conflict ebbed and flowed for approximately two decades, claiming thousands of American lives as well as those of our allies from South Korea, Australia, Canada (who sent soldiers to join the U.S. troops), New Zealand, and others.
The fighting intensified as the NLF, or National Liberation Front, employed guerrilla tactics to fight the U.S and our allies. This was a group of South Vietnamese and Cambodian rebels, a political organization that supported Communism and wanted to reclaim the South for Communism along with their Northern counterparts. They thought of South Vietnam as a "Puppet State" of America, and wanted us and our allies gone.
The NLF would protest at night; they worked during the day as teachers, doctors and students. In order to be recognized, most wore black. The United States christened them the "Viet Cong." With the fear-inspiring words "Communism" and the "Viet Cong" in their reports, the United States government was able to convince Congress to pledge troops and money to the fighting in Vietnam. As this new "Police Action" escalated, North Vietnam sent the NVA (North Vietnam Army) into the fray. This involvement brought about another U.S. response, with the first set of Marine boots stepping onto the beach at Da Nang. The U.S. did not claim to be officially "at war," but neither were we officially "at peace."
Our country was not ready for another war or Police Action. We had colored television, commercial jet airlines and the Beatles. There was a new breed of young Americans called "hippies," and others who called themselves "beatniks." The Army was considered an option only by those who wanted careers - and that system worked, until the Vietnam War escalated and began to demand more and more soldiers. More, in fact, than we had at the time.
At first, we sent in squads. This led to entire platoons. Then we sent regiments, divisions - the Army took the Southern areas and the Marines took the areas in the North. The more soldiers we sent in, the more troops we committed, the more our enemy matched us with. We were in deep, and needed help. A draft was instituted.
The children of the greatest generation were called up - hippies, beatniks, yuppies and jocks alike - to fight. They were conscripted to fight Communism and to defend the innocent people of South Vietnam. These people were being tortured and killed if they did not agree with Communism. Sadly, this was not new for the people of Vietnam. Their country had seen war for years, and it was an everyday, if brutal, aspect of their lives.
The horrors of the Vietnam War were brought into the homes of Americans via television sets and news reports. I myself recall being halfway through my senior year when the realities hit me. Life had been going great - I had plenty of friends, something going on every night, high school was easy and it was fun. I was in a fraternity and we had plenty of good times. But one day, while watching television, I saw women and children being killed for no reason. I later learned that women had no power, and even the elderly and people like teachers were being killed in Vietnam.
As the son of a World War II and Korean veteran, I felt it was my duty to enlist as soon as I could. At age 17, with a waiver in my hand, I joined the U.S. Marine Corps while still a high school senior. The day before graduation, I received a call telling me I would head off to boot camp in the morning. While my classmates were receiving their diplomas, I was on a train to Parris Island. Less than six months from the date of graduation, I was calling in artillery in Vietnam's demilitarized zone. Life at that time for me was still going relatively well. I was 18 years old and proudly attached to a Marine Combat Unit and actually walking patrols. Initially, I joined the military to help the people of Vietnam. After my first fire fight, my priorities shifted.
My first and last concern became saving the lives and limbs of my brother Marines. We trusted each other with our lives, knowing each Marine would die to save the next man. And we all felt that way.
Throughout the length of my tour, I saw many things. The rules of war changed from what they taught us at Parris Island. We fought in all types of conditions. The patrols went from rice paddys to dense jungles. We fought everywhere.
All of the troops were close. Everyone knew the names of their brothers' wives, parents, children. We knew where each other had grown up, the names of our towns. Nothing was kept secret. We were all there together for one reason - to do our duty and fight this war.
Regardless of the vocabulary world leaders assigned it, the Vietnam War was a real war. It may have started as a "Police Action," but when the bullets and blood flew, when explosions ripped through the ground and enemies fired on allied troops from overhead, it could be called nothing else other than a war. It was a war in which more than 58 thousand American soldiers lost their lives, a war that claimed thousands more as POW and soldiers that are still MIA, a war that produced no real result, a war fought for ground that was only lost, a war paid for with lives and injuries and then walked away from. The term "the Forgotten War" is also sometimes applied to Vietnam. It is a war we lost, a war for which we paid dearly, and one that many choose not to remember.
When people ask me how bad the war really was, how I spent my 13-month tour, what the days there were really like, I reply the days were OK. It was the 13 months of nights that were hard.
We all did out jobs in Vietnam. And those of us who returned home, just as our parents and grandparents did after they returned home from World War I, World War II and Korea, picked up what we could of our lives. For some veterans, life back at home was OK. For others, it was and is still hard.
As fighting died down and we began to pull ground troops out of Vietnam, there were still close to 30 years left in the century. Since 1901 our country saw almost constant fighting. The century ended with our country having faced 16 different wars or conflicts. The year 2000 rang in with more fighting, seeing non-top military action from its first calendar day.
This column isn't just about the wars and battles the United States has fought. It is about the veterans, the brave men and women who have stood guard over our country and its citizens, who have rallied to fight against our enemies and the enemies of the allies we've sworn to protect. These veterans did their jobs, risked their lives, and returned home. Some of our veterans gave even more to their country; the veterans of past wars gave their children to subsequent wars, fighting and coming home only to see their sons and daughters leave for an unknown fate in a foreign country.
The United States seems to always be at war, sometimes experiencing brief respite only to launch themselves once again into the face of conflict. Who knows when the next one will arrive, where in the world it will take place, with what country, who will win, which generation will be the next to give up its children to the military.
With all the problems in our current lives and recent history, there is one shining star for Vietnam veterans. We are the only veterans to date who have not seen our children drafted into war. The United States has, since the 1970s, employed volunteer-only armed forces. For that we are thankful, though we have nothing but respect for those individuals who choose to enlist in our nation's military to protect and serve this great country.
Please remember to honor members of the military - both active and retired. They were there fighting in our country's wars. They did their jobs, they risked their lives, and they would be ready to do it all over again if needed.
They put integrity first, service before self, commit themselves to excellence in all they do; they are always ready; they are always faithful; they have honor, courage, and commitment; this they will defend. They are United States veterans.