Sunday, May 30, 2010

Consecrated Ground

President Lincoln stood at the battlefield at Gettysburg and declared that that ground had been consecrated by the blood of the brave men who struggled there. For centuries valiant Americans have struggled, bled, and died in defense of freedom and the values for which this nation stands. As a result, there are hallowed places across the world that have been consecrated by the blood of those who have fought for liberty and justice.

At places such as Flanders Field, Normandy Beach, northern Africa, Somalia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific, Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice and have thereby consecrated those sites.

As a combat commander who led a rifle platoon into battle, I especially want to acknowledge the more than 58,000 young Americans who laid down their lives in the effort to enable others to live in freedom. I've walked in the mountains and valleys of that farflung part of the world, on ground consecrated by brave warriors. Let us never forget them or the thousands of others who have who have given all for us.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Welcome Home

I arrived in Vietnam in the fall of 1971, fresh from a year and a half tour in Germany in the First Infantry Division. After a brief orientation, I was given my orders, handed my gear, loaded onto a helicopter, and flown out to the mountains west of DaNang, a reluctant warrior whose mission was to command 35 young men who were equally as reluctant.

As the chopper landed on the mountainside, I noticed several soldiers running toward us. “They’re happy to see me,” I thought. It didn’t take me long to realize that they were rushing to unload the rations and mail from the Huey.

I slid out rather ingloriously, stepped onto the skid, and, holding onto my helmet and struggling to get my rucksack properly adjusted, asked the first GI that I encountered to take me to Sergeant Garlic, the platoon sergeant.

Sergeant Mike Garlic, a 3-tour combat veteran, was to become my right hand, an experienced and tested NCO upon whom I learned to lean.

He extended his hand. “Welcome, Lieutenant. We’ve been expecting you.”

“Sergeant Garlic,” I started, “I’ve spent the last year and a half commanding mortar and recon platoons in Germany. I’m going to rely on you, especially in my first week or so in the bush. I trust your judgment and your abilities. I’ll make the decisions, but I will look to you for input.”

“Roger that, LT.”

It was in that moment that I realized that I had been given a new moniker. Men didn’t salute or call you sir in the jungle, because Charlie liked to target officers. L.T. was fine with me.

After the Huey had been unloaded and our position secured again, I began to meet the men of my platoon. They were a diverse bunch who had little in common except for a shared mission and a shared hardship, and the fact that virtually every one of them had been drafted, as had I. This assemblage of soldiers was a cross-section of America – every corner of the country, every ethnicity, every political persuasion. There were southerners such as Jimmy from Alabama and our machine gunner, Mike, from Louisiana. There were northerners like Bob, from Pennsylvania, and another grunt that we all knew simply as Linebarger. There were even two E5s from California who had been in graduate school.

Our mission was to disrupt the supply caravans that traveled the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam into the south. We patrolled each day, setting up ambushes in areas of suspected activity. Before dark we circled into our night defensive perimeter and braced for attack.
When we moved each day we had to cut a trail through the jungle undergrowth. Yet, as difficult as were our circumstances, these young men went about their duties without grumbling or complaining. We knew how much we needed to hang together for survival.

For the next several months the first platoon of Alpha Company, First of the Forty-sixth Infantry, slogged through the jungles, slept in two-man defensive positions, engaged the enemy, and battled the elements – monsoon rains, snakes and leeches. As we patrolled together, fought side by side, and for three days each month partied together in the rear, we grew to be a unit, and I grew to admire and respect every young man in my command. I felt honored to lead them.

One episode in particular reminds me of the indomitable spirit of the American fighting man. Early one October morning, we were all startled by the thud of an anti-personnel mine, then realized with horror that it was Bob Maggs, our radio operator, who had caught the trip wire. Bob died before we could get him evacuated by helicopter. This nineteen-year-old soldier left behind a wife he had hardly gotten to know before he shipped out to the other side of the world.

After we regrouped, I began asking for volunteers to carry the platoon radio, one of the toughest and most dangerous assignments. I was amazed by the number of volunteers.

“I’ll hump (carry) the radio, L.T.”

If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times.

These were brave young men with whom I was privileged to serve. They were heroes. Represented by men like Bob Maggs and 58,000 other names on a granite wall in Washington, along with thousands more who came home to a less-than-grateful nation, they were and are America’s finest. I salute you – and every veteran of every era. Welcome home.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

You know that you lied.

Dear Richard Blumenthal,

All the stories today concerning your military record are quoting your sources as saying that you "misspoke" when you stated that you served in VietNam. Here in the south we don't use such a euphemism. We simply say, "you lied."

Granted, definition of misspeak is:

To speak or pronounce incorrectly: The lead actor misspoke his lines.

Now, applying this definition, the best that can be said of you is that you are an actor playing the part of an actual veteran of VietNam. But the stakes are too great for any candidate to be playing the part of someone they're not. In your case, you're not a veteran of VietNam, but rather than misspeaking about you military experience, you simply and knowing lied.

As a peer from that same era, I can certainly understand the value of the deferments that so many sought, myself included. I was a college student at the height of the war, with a 2A student deferment, but unfortunately I flunked out of college in 1968 and was drafted. Already married, I was sworn into the Army on the day my daughter turned 3 months old. I tried to convince the local draft board that I should be granted some other kind of deferment as a husband and father, but my pleas fell on deaf ears.

While in basic training at Fort Knox, I applied for and was accepted into both officer candidate school and flight school. Upon graduation from OCS I was given orders to Germany, where I served for 18 months in an infantry battalion as a mortar then a recon platoon leader. Then, in the summer of 1971, the Army decided that my services were needed in Southeast Asia, so I relocated my family back to our home town and off I shipped to command a rifle platoon in the mountainous jungles west of DaNang. Later I was reassigned to command the battalion heavy mortar platoon.

In the late spring of 1972 the adjutant's office called me in to discuss my future. They offered to promote me to captain and give me my own company to command in exchange for extending my tour by six months in country. If I didn't accept this offer, I could go home a couple of months early. I chose the latter, and don't regret it one bit.

That's my story. I was there. I served alongside some of the finest young men I've ever been privileged to know. Most of my platoon were conscripts who weren't able to obtain deferments or arrange a reserve assignment. They served bravely and honorably and most came home under their own power. Not all did.

Your deceit dishonors their service, and the service of the thousands of young Americans who have served in combat.

To quote a song from our era, "You know that you lied. You lied, you lied, lied, lied, lied." So, spare us the euphemisms, sir.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Living through storms

One thing is for certain: storms will come. I was reminded of this just today when I ran into a dear friend outside the post office. Jack was my neighbor for nearly ten years, but before and since he has been a great friend. Jack is one of the kindest, most soft-spoken people I know. He genuinely cares for others, and has the heart of a servant. Just a couple of years ago Jack lost an eye to cancer, and today he told me that it appears that the cancer may have spread to his liver. He asked for prayer - especially this Friday morning as he undergoes a biopsy procedure.

We got to talking about the storms of life, and Jack reminded me of the sermon he heard just two Sundays ago about how Jesus calmed the storm that arose on the sea of Galilee. And not only did he calm the storm, he calmed his frantic followers as well.

This gave me an opportunity to share with Jack a personal experience of being in a storm. Twenty years ago I had emergency surgery to remove my colon - yes, the entire length of it. I learned later that it had perforated and that I was in really bad shape. In fact, my surgeon gave me less than a 50/50 chance of surviving.

One moment I recall vividly from my eight days in intensive care. As I lay in the bed in this tiny room, with three IV poles behind me, feeding nutrients, meds, and who knows what else into a central line in my neck, I began to feel as if my life was slipping away. I couldn't move, I was so weak. So, I began to pray, something simple like, "Lord, help me." (Much like the disciples must have prayed.)

At that very moment a peaceful calm settled over me and I had this undeniable sense that I was not alone in this room. I never heard a voice, but I believe that Jesus himself was standing at the head of my bed, and the message I heard within was, "Child, I'm here with you. What I have in store for you is beyond description, and someday you'll be with me in eternity. But, it's not today. I will be here with you as you recover. I'm not through with you yet."

As I related this to Jack I felt the sting of tears in my eyes, and noticed that his own good eye was moist as well. I assured him of my prayers, and also told him I'd share his concern with others and ask them to pray also.

So, please pray for my friend Jack, and his wife, Deborah. Ask God to remind Jack that he is not alone and that the Lord will give him the strength and the peace that he needs.

"Lord, like the song says, 'Sometimes you calm the storm. Other times you calm the child.' May your perfect peace fall on Jack and Deborah as they face this storm. And, if I might be so bold, I'd ask you to heal him of this affliction, in the name of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen."