|Happy Veterans Day, America||Afghan Women|
Veterans Day, a Day to Remember
. . . Pieces of stories from a long time ago . . .
November 11th, each year, is Veterans Day in the United States of America. For most people, I think, Veterans Day is just another day off. For others, a day of reverent remembrance, a day to remember the brave men and women who have gone into harm’s way, a day to remember those who do or die for those they love.
We were soldiers once, and young. In September 1970, I was a naval advisor in the river forces of the Vietnamese Navy. For about two weeks, while our Vietnamese sailors were operating in Cambodia, we U.S. advisors remained behind in Vietnam. During this time, I was appointed officer in charge of an Advanced Tactical Support Base at Vĩnh Gia on the Vĩnh T Canal, which forms the border between Vietnam and Cambodia.
When I arrived at ATSB Vĩnh Gia, Fort Apache, a lot of new challenges presented themselves very quickly. There had been no officer in charge of the base for some time before I showed up. Enlisted men were on their own without any command structure. Some sailors were using drugs. Others were malingering and insubordinate, refusing to obey the men appointed over them. I relieved one man of duty and made him go away by sending him up the chain of command “for further disposition.” A group of sailors decided to shoot and kill a dog at long range with their M16 rifles inside the base, thoughtlessly endangering the lives of others. That was the first day.
Then there was the first night in which I slept on a smelly, musty, filthy mattress in a drenching, greasy sweat in a fiercely hot, humid bunker in a humming cloud of vicious mosquitoes. Overall, I was grateful for the soft mattress.
The toxic culture of chaos and disorder among the men in this exposed and dangerous combat area was a serious risk to the security of the base. I thought, “How could this level of indiscipline have been allowed to develop? How was I chosen to enter this hornets’ nest of potential disaster?”
I sat down with the men. We talked. I asked questions. They offered suggestions. We made decisions. Things began to improve. Ultimately, it was the North Vietnamese Army and Vi t C ng who pulled the men together to protect and defend one another against the common enemy.
One day, a U.S. Army Special Forces airboat detachment, composed of Nùng soldiers and two Green Beret officers, arrived and began operating from ATSB Vĩnh Gia. The next night, these Special Forces soldiers made contact with a North Vietnamese Army battalion that had crossed about two miles into Vietnam from Cambodia.
The Special Forces airboats tested and probed in the darkness at their enemy, like an encircling war party of Sioux warriors, harassing, herding, assessing, measuring the size and strength of their NVA enemy. Within minutes, Special Forces radios were calling for other friendly forces to join the fight. Soon “Seawolves” of U.S. Navy Helicopter Attack Squadron Light (HAL) 3 and “Black Ponies” of U.S. Navy Attack Squadron Light (VAL) 4 arrived on scene, and became involved in the battle, unloading ordnance on the NVA battalion now trying to break up and disperse from under relentless pounding from above.
During the running battle, “Seawolf” attack helicopters landed on the helicopter pad at ATSB Vĩnh Gia half a dozen times to refuel and reload rockets and machine gun ammunition before returning to the fight. Eventually, the battle slowed. Finally it was called off. Special Forces radios called us for illumination to guide their airboats back home through the dark. Our guys fired 81mm parachute flares to provide them with safe passage.
The next day, the Special Forces airboat soldiers prepared to move to a larger base to seek medical care for their wounded. The Special Forces captain asked me for ammunition to rearm his airboats. I gave orders for our sailors to open the ammunition bunker and help the Special Forces soldiers rearm with whatever ammunition they needed.
The captain told me that his Nùng soldiers had invited me to a formal honoring ceremony to give thanks to their “war lord” for the successful fight they had fought with the NVA the night before. The Special Forces captain told me that to be invited by Nùng soldiers to an honoring ceremony for helping in a fight was an extremely rare and unusual honor.
The Nùng soldiers had chosen a bunker for the ceremony. Two U.S. Army Special Forces officers ushered me inside and asked me to sit down on a reed mat at the open end of a rectangular gathering of about 30 Nùng soldiers sitting on reed mats. We regarded each other, their eyes measuring my worth.
The Nùng chief came forward, and sat down in front of me. Small white porcelain cups of a strong alcoholic drink were placed in our hands. The Nùng chief and I crossed our hands at the wrist, and leaned forward to drink, eyes to eyes, nose to nose. This is the Nùng way of showing personal trust and respect. A plate holding the cooked, blackened, hardened head of a chicken was handed to me. The expected, proper response is to take a bite, which I did, to the smiling, nodding, appreciative murmurs of the Nùng soldiers gathered there.
In the soft focus of memory, I see the strong, resolute faces of these exceptional warriors, descendants of an ancient race of “montagnards” (mountaineers), little tough guys from the high border country of North Vietnam and China. I think My Lord works in mysterious ways to have chosen me to be there with them. I regard these Nùng soldiers with deep respect, and I often wonder where they are now. The badge on the green beret of every U.S. Army Special Forces soldier carries the Latin words “De Oppresso Liber.” Loosely translated, the term means “to free the oppressed.” I am grateful to have been in their company.
Knowing the story of a people makes them personal. The Nùng people are a Chinese ethnic minority who live in the northeastern mountains of North Vietnam in the provinces of Cao B ng, L ng Sơn and other northeastern mountain provinces on the North Vietnam border with China. The Nùng are culturally similar to the T’ai, Hmong, and Mư ng peoples of the northwestern mountains of North Vietnam, China, Laos, and Thailand.
When the French left Indochina in 1954, Nùng people fled from the Communists in North Vietnam and joined the great exodus of more than one million North Vietnamese refugees who fled south and resettled in South Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, Nùng soldiers operating with U.S. Army Special Forces were highly regarded as fearsome warriors, and were known for their loyalty to the Green Berets. When Saigon fell to the Communists in April 1975, Nùng people again became political refugees, and fled South Vietnam as Boat People to refugee camps in Malaysia and Hong Kong, eventually resettling in the United States, Canada, France, and Australia.
A few days after the fight with the NVA battalion, my unit received new orders, and we moved south of the U Minh Forest (the “Dark and Evil Place”) to the Cà Mau Peninsula, the southernmost tip of Vietnam. Operation Sea Float, later called Solid Anchor, was where I was destined to remain for my last two and a half months in Vietnam before returning home to Fargo, North Dakota in November 1970.
Now here I am in California, by the grace of God, many years after coming home from Vietnam. I am blessed to share another Veterans Day with the spirits of my youth. I love my soldiers. We have many sad memories to consider quietly within ourselves. All of us must surely be amazed at how events beyond our control, the journey of our family history, and the shaping of our own choices have so profoundly influenced our lives.
The senior chief of my naval advisory team was from Hawaii. His ancestors were immigrants from Japan. During World War II, his Japanese relatives were forcibly removed from their homes in California and interned in a relocation camp in Wyoming, while his father and uncles fought in Europe in the all-Nisei (second generation Japanese) 442nd Regimental Combat Team that became the most decorated military unit in the history of the United States.
One of my guys from Georgia had ancestors who fought for the Confederacy in the Irish 24th Georgia Regiment. Others from New York and New Jersey had ancestors who fought for the Union in the Irish 69th New York Regiment. Surely, they faced each other in harm’s way.
Some of my guys from Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Indiana had ancestors from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Russia, and Ireland who were soldiers in the Iron Brigade of the Union Army. Some of my guys from Alabama, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Texas, and Louisiana had ancestors from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and France who were soldiers in General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
In those days of civil war in America, only 85 years after the USA had become an independent nation, our young men, determined soldiers, purposely — deliberately — bitterly — killed their brothers at Bull Run — Antietam — Fredericksburg — Chancellorsville — Gettysburg — Richmond — Petersburg — Appomattox. My heart hurts to think of it. They are quiet now. They are safe now. They are a strong, steady light to one another in the promised gathering place of blessing. They are brothers forever on this Veterans Day.
Today, I remember Specialist Lori Ann Piestewa, a 23-year-old soldier of the 507th Maintenance Company of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps who was killed in Iraq on March 23, 2003 when her convoy was ambushed by Iraqi forces during the Battle of Nasiriyah, the same firefight in which her fellow soldiers, Shoshana Johnson and Jessica Lynch, were wounded.
Lori Ann Piestewa was the first woman soldier killed in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. She was a member of the Hopi tribe of Arizona, and the first Native American woman in history to die in combat while serving with the armed forces of the United States. Piestewa Peak in Lori Ann’s home state of Arizona is named in her honor.
When Jessica Lynch from West Virginia was rescued by U.S. special operations forces on April 1, 2003, she greeted her rescuers with a grateful smile, “I am a soldier too.” Jessica Lynch is the first American prisoner of war successfully rescued since Vietnam and the first woman soldier ever.
My family stands up for America. My cousins from Patillas, Guayama, and Ponce, Puerto Rico were airborne rangers, armored corps soldiers, and mud marines. One was a crewmember on the high endurance cutter that became the most honored ship in the Coast Guard. Their ancestors were Spanish soldiers who fought against U.S. soldiers in the 1898 Spanish-American War.
My father was a soldier in the U.S. Army 3rd Division, a “mustang” who rose from the ranks to become an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps. My uncle was a blood marine, wounded at Iwo Jima. My grandson, Jacob, is a nuclear power engineer on board an aircraft carrier in the U. S. Navy, a force for good in this troubled world. Jacob’s other grandpa was a sailor in the Navy and a doctor in the Army. There are more of us, and we are many, and undoubtedly I have forgotten some, so please forgive me, I do not mean to be unaware of anyone.
The old men in my church group who meet for breakfast every Thursday morning are all soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, every one of them. They fought for the USA against those in front of them, to protect those around them, to defend those behind them. They fought for those they love. They fought for those who could not fight for themselves. Who will you fight for?
On this Veterans Day, Thank You, Lord for holding us safely in Your hands, close to Your heart. Thank You for bringing us home on the very last day. By Your grace, Lord, we know strength and honor in the home of the brave, we offer respectful, grateful thanks to our fallen, we pray for the blessing of peace in this turbulent world. Happy Veterans Day, America.