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Veterans Day – November 11, 2015

On Veterans Day, we honor our men and women who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States.

Originally, in 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed this day of remembrance, it was called Armistice Day, to mark the end of the shooting in World War I, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

Observed on November 11th each year, Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, and is different from Memorial Day, which is observed the last day of May each year, and honors the memory of men and women who have given their lives while in service.

This day, I honor my father, Donald Smith, who served in the U.S. Army and later the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, and my uncle, Archie Starnes, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and fought at Iwo Jima in World War II. I honor Larry Hughes, who served as an electronics technician in the U.S. Navy, and if I remember correctly, also as a physician in the U.S. Army. I honor Bob Thibedeau, who served in the U.S. Army and flew L-19 spotter planes in Vietnam, conducting naval gunfire support missions with U.S. Navy ships and artillery fire support missions with friendly forces ashore. Bob also participated in many other hazardous missions as part of his daily life in Vietnam, without saying much about it. I honor my step-son, Scotty Fell, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the fighting in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. I honor my grandson, Jacob Fletcher, who is on his way to join his shipmates as a nuclear propulsion engineer on board one of America’s Nimitz-class supercarriers in the U.S. Navy, conducting bombing missions against ISIS/ ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria.

I honor my friends, Joe Erickson, who served in the U.S. Army Special Forces in Vietnam, and Bill Applegate, who served in the U.S. Naval Advisory Group in Đ c khu R ng Sác (the Rung Sat Special Zone, the “Forest of the Assassins”), a twisting, turning, very dangerous mangrove swamp and shipping channel south of Saigon, Vietnam.

We were all there together in 1969-1970.

I honor the men of Duyen Đoan hai mư i lăm (Coastal Group 25) of the Vietnamese Navy, with whom I served as an advisor. We sailed the South China Sea in diesel-powered wooden junks with eyes painted on the bows to help us find our way. We boarded junks and sampans, searching for Vi t C ng infiltrators, deserters, contraband, weapons and ammunition in the coastal waters and islands off central Vietnam, and fought alongside local village and hamlet self-defense units, supported by Bi t Đ ng Quân (Vietnamese Army Rangers) and L c Lư ng Đ c Bi t (Vietnamese Army Special Forces), the U.S. Army 48th Aviation Company (“Blue Star”), and the Republic of Korea 9th Infantry Division (the “White Horse” Division).

I honor the men of Giang Đoan Ngan Chan b n mư i m t (River Interdiction Division 41) of the Vietnamese Navy, with whom I served as an advisor. We sailed bar-armored river boats in the winding rivers, narrow canals, and black mangrove swamps of the Đ ng b ng Sông C uLong (the “River of Nine Dragons,” the Mekong River Delta of South Vietnam) as part of Operation Sealords. We fought alongside Vietnamese and U.S. Army Special Forces, Nung Montagnards, Vietnamese Marines and Rangers, Civilian Irregular Defense Group units, and all kinds of other “special warfare” small units for whom I hold the most profound respect for their completely unbelievable bravery, breath-taking audacity, and remarkable success. We were supported by the U.S. Army 268th Field Artillery Radar Detachment (“Night Eyes”), U.S. Navy Helicopter Attack Squadron Light (HAL) 3 “Sea Wolves,” Attack Squadron Light (VAL) 4 “Black Ponies,” and other units of the Vietnamese and U.S. Armed Forces.

For a while in mid 1970, while our RID 41 Vietnamese guys were operating in Cambodia, we American advisors remained behind in Vietnam “guarding the fort.” During this time, I was appointed officer in charge of an advanced tactical support base at Vinh Gia on the Vinh Te Canal, which forms the Vietnam-Cambodia border west of Saigon. One of the most humbling memories of my life was to be invited by Nung Montagnard special forces soldiers to a “thank you” banquet as the guest of honor for helping out a little bit in some of their fighting with North Vietnamese Army units. Their U.S. Army Special Forces advisors told me their invitation was a very rare and unusual honor. Later, my unit, RID 41, moved south of the U Minh Forest (the “Dark and Evil Place”) to the Cà Mau Peninsula, the southernmost tip of Vietnam, as part of Operation Seafloat and later Operation Solid Anchor, where I eventually left Vietnam to return home to the world.

Every now and then, like this Veterans Day, I stop what I’m doing to pray about my time in Vietnam. On such occasions, I think about my guys and the mud marines and special forces soldiers I used to know. Their faces pass softly in front of me. I am profoundly humbled and grateful to have once been in their company.

On such occasions, a gentle voice speaks softly behind me . . . whispering the same words, every time: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast. It is not proud, it does not dishonor others. It is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

In 2004, Jackie and I were privileged to visit Israel with our church group. After our visit to the Holy Land, we passed through Ben Gurion Airport, 12 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, on our way back home. Ben Gurion is famous for its high level of security, provided by professionals who work in uniform and undercover to maintain the highest level of vigilance to detect any possible threats. These silent, steady “watchers by the gate” are most definitely the kind of people you really do want to have on your side.

At Ben Gurion, I spoke with a young woman security guard who had previously been a sergeant in the Tzva Hahagana LeYisra’el (IDF, Israel Defense Forces). Her unit was the 33rd Caracal Battalion, an infantry combat battalion named after a small desert fox, and composed of both male and female soldiers. Prior to Caracal’s formation in 2000, women were barred from serving in direct combat units, but as of 2009, approximately 70% of the battalion is female. Their mission is to patrol one of the most dangerous places on earth, the Israeli-Egyptian border, the Sinai Desert where Hamas terrorists have operated for many years and Islamic State terrorists have more recently arrived.

Speaking of her service in the 33rd Caracal Battalion, this young woman told me in perfect English, in her lovely Hebrew accent, “I loff my solyairs.” I understand exactly, and I have to say, “I love my soldiers, too.” I honor you, all of you, on this Veterans Day 2015. Thank you, Lord, for allowing me to be a veteran. Thank you for holding all of us safely in your hands, close to your heart. Thank you most of all for bringing us home on the very last day. In Jesus’ name, amen.