Wednesday, June 25, 2014


The news coming out Middle-East is painful to watch. As I watched the C.B.S. Evening News last night, I was stunned by what I saw. And Islamic terror group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has taken Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town. The swiftness of their success was mind-numbing, but even more mind-numbing was the complete collapse of the Iraqi army. As of this writing, ISIS, armed with captured military hardware and hundreds of millions of dollars looted from banks, has vowed to march to Baghdad.

It brought back bitter memories of April, 1975 and another catastrophe.

When I arrived in Vietnam during the fall of 1965, there were less than 100,000 U.S. troops in country. When I left in 1966 there were over 200,000. By the end of the war, there were over a half a million.

During the 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon pledged “we shall have an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.” When he signed the Paris Peace Accord on January 23, 1973, he declared that America had won “peace with honor.”

As I watched the reports of North Vietnamese tanks advancing south toward Saigon, with the remnants of South Vietnam’s rag-tag army fleeing ahead of them, my heart sank. I kept shaking my head in disbelief. “How could this be?” “How could it all come to this?” “How could this be considered peace with honor?”

Within days, North Vietnamese tanks were rumbling through Saigon’s wide boulevards. South Vietnamese loyalists were desperately climbing the U.S. embassy walls, hoping to escape the Communist onslaught. Then, on April 30, 1975, the last helicopter and the last Americans left Vietnam. The war was over.

For months after the fall of Saigon, thousands of desperate South Vietnamese civilians boarded flimsy junks and cast themselves out into the South China Sea. Some were rescued. Many died at sea.

My memories of the fall of Saigon go back even further, to 1965 and 1966. The human memory can retain powerful sights and sounds. I can still feel Vietnam’s oppressive humidity and smell the stench of death that hovered over my body like grave clothes. Once in a while I can hear Charley Bock, our squadron court jester, plunking away on an old beat up guitar and howling, ‘The money makers are makin’ more money all the time,” while the rest of us hooted and applauded in response. “Give ‘em hell, Charlie…give ‘em hell, buddy!” I can still see images of the 5 ton army cargo trucks carrying stacks of metal caskets and the boots of fallen Americans to a warehouse at Tan Son Nhut. As was our custom, we’d salute in homage to our fallen brothers in arms as the trucks rolled by. My daily duties would take me past the base mortuary. I remember once seeing one of the morticians standing next to the mortuary door, vomiting profusely. I remember the strange, beautiful orange glow of the napalm and the magnesium flares that lit up the night sky. I sometimes dream of listening to the kettle drum-like thumps of bombs from B-52’s raining down on Viet Cong positions to our north.

One night years after the fall of Saigon I penned a crude sonnet to commemorate the pain of loss so many of us who served in Vietnam felt. The last three lines, a few lines past the turn, went like this:
“Oh Saigon, bitter Saigon, please restore my youth unseen
For I’ve cast my life as pearls before the swine
Whose the dying now, oh Saigon, yours or mine?”

There are 58,286 names inscribed on a black granite wall in Washington, D.C. I’ve occasionally wondered how they would have felt about “peace with honor,” had they lived to see North Vietnamese tanks rumbling through the streets of Saigon.

Vietnam had its signature slogan. Iraq has also had its share – the “mission accomplished” banner, Joe Biden’s 2009 pronouncement that Iraq could be “one of the great achievements” of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the President’s declaration that we were leaving a democratic, stable Iraq.

One of the profound tragedies that came out of Vietnam and Iraq is that the sacrifice so many made in the cause of freedom was undone by the incompetence and the empty political slogans of our leaders.

I wonder how the brave men who fought house to house in order to liberate Fallujah or those who fought at Basra, Najaf, Mosul, and the Karbala Gap must now feel as they watch ISIS marching toward Baghdad in captured American tanks and Humvees. Do they see it as one of the administration’s “great achievements?”  Are their hearts weighed down by grief? How deep is the pain of loss they must feel?

My painful memories of the fall of Saigon still linger as I watch the tragedy of Iraq unfolding and I ask myself. “Are there new sonnets on the horizon for the veterans of Iraq?”

Probably so.

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Better to die ten thousand deaths than wound my honor
          - British poet James Addison

At the Sunday morning service before Memorial Day there was a brief ceremony honoring veterans for their service. Our music team led the congregation in singing “God Bless America” and the American flag was presented. Our pastor then asked all veterans to stand to be recognized. It was a kind gesture, but I felt a bit awkward about it. Nancy saw this and prodded me to stand.

Why the awkwardness? First, because I believe the altar is solely God’s domain.  I’m a loyal citizen and always will be, but I believe there are obligations that are even higher than those conferred on me by citizenship. My faith obliges me to be a good citizen, but there are times when my faith requires me to listen to a Higher Voice.

That doesn’t put me at odds with my country.  I’m very fortunate to live in a country where my rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are deemed to be God-given, unalienable rights. I’m glad our Founders had the wisdom to enshrine our most important rights, particularly our right to freely “exercise” our respective religious faiths. It took considerable wisdom and courage for them to do so. Allowing a nation’s citizens to practice their beliefs freely can sometimes be dangerous to entrenched political interests. That freedom gives us all the right to say, “No! That’s powerful stuff.  

I was awkward for a second reason. I served in the U.S. Air Force for 8 ½ years. I did my duty. I served “honorably.” I went where I was told to go. I did overseas tours of duty in Panama, Newfoundland¸ and Vietnam.  I obeyed the orders of my superiors to the best of my ability. But, I bear no lasting scars of war. I never won a Purple Heart. I simply did my duty, that’s all. I left the Air Force in 1969. I didn’t expect a lot in return. I went to college and graduate school, thanks to G.I. Bill education benefits I’d earned for my service. I bought my first home with a V.A. loan, another earned benefit for my service. Until a few years ago I’d never claimed any medical benefits for my service. Now, I get an annual physical, flu shots, and low cost medications. I’m also entitled to a limited number of medical procedures.

I don’t get to the Topeka V.A. center often, but when I do I always make it a point to wander around and see how my fellow veterans are doing. I’d like to be the bearer of better news, but that wouldn’t be true. Many of them bear the physical scars of their service. There’s an over-abundance of artificial limbs. Some walk with canes; some sit in wheelchairs. Some tremble uncontrollably. Many of them shuffle from place to place with faraway, haunted looks in their eyes. I suspect it’s because the memories of the past are so painful they refuse to go away even after forty, fifty years, or seventy years.

I get the chance to occasionally talk with them. They sometimes complain (it’s the G.I.’s privilege), but I’ve never heard one ever say he wouldn’t serve again. They never ask for much. They just want to be treated with dignity and respect.

You’d think that would be easy for a grateful nation to do. But, tragically, it’s not. We’ve all read the horror stories of secret waiting lists, bonuses for bureaucrats, and veterans dying because they couldn’t get an appointment to see a doctor.

The more I think about it, the more my blood boils. I’m angry. I’m not angry for myself. I’m doing fine. I’m angry for my fellow veterans. I’m angry with the entire chain of command, including our Commander in Chief.

The injury inflicted on our veterans has been bad enough, but events of the past week have added insult to that injury. Like most veterans, I’m glad that Bowe Bergdahl has been repatriated. Perhaps now he’ll come home and start to learn the true meaning of honorable service.

But, Bowe Bergdahl is only the tip of the iceberg.  When an administration becomes so cynical that it conducts a Rose Garden news conference with Bergdahl’s family and then parades Susan Rice before the media with the proclamation that Bergdahl has served with “honor and distinction,” it’s a slap in the face of every veteran waiting in a long, long line for treatment.  It’s a slap in the face to all those who currently serve and for those who searched for Bergdahl. It’s a slap in the face to those who died looking for him. It’s an insult to their families.

For me, the worst part of this scandal is that it appears the President did it all for the optics, hoping that the return of Bowe Bergdahl would make the V.A. scandal magically disappear. Those currently serving and the veterans who served before them deserve far better.