28 September 2005


I'm proud of my service to my country.

Being eligible for the draft, and then drafted at the age of 19,
at the time of a growing conflict in Viet Nam,
put a focus on my life that young people don't experience today.

But let me make an uncomfortable confession:
I tried to avoid Viet Nam!

A week into Basic Training, I was summoned to the Orderly Room by the Company Commander.
I was a Private........lower than a snake's belly.......
Being called by, and then standing in front of that 2nd Lieutenant was a scary experience!
He pushed a paper across his desk to me, and said, "sign at the bottom".
I signed, THEN asked, "what is this?"
"Your GT (overall aptitude) scores are high enough, so you're goin' to O.C.S.!

Oh, really!

Not, "would you like to go to O.C.S.?",
just......."sign here".

I knew I could refuse the orders later if I wanted, so I didn't complain to this man that could make life REALLY miserable for a lowly Private in the U.S. Army!

After two months in Basic Training, and two months in South Carolina learning how to be a good Infantryman, I cooled my jets for 8 months waiting for orders dispatching me to O.C.S..

I actually started Officer's school in May of '67.
Sometime during O.C.S., the U.S. and the North Vietnamese started actually talking to one another about ending the conflict.

I'm not a gung-ho warrior at heart, so the idea of having to waste my combat training at an assignment in say.........Hawaii, instead of going to Viet Nam, didn't trouble me too much!

But it took months for those involved in the talks to agree on the size and shape of the negotiating table!

Meanwhile, mid-way through O.C.S. the message went out......
"those interested in going to Flight School
should meet in the classroom at ****hours."

I was interested.
Again, I signed the forms........partly for the training, but partly in hopes that the peace negotiations would bear fruit before I had to get on the plane for that long flight across the Pacific.

While I was in Flight School, the negotiators agreed on the number and size of the flags that would be placed on the table!

I graduated Flight School, and had delayed as long as I could.

On 1 November, 1968 I got on the plane and went to do my duty as an Army Gunship pilot in Viet Nam.

You can find stories of some of my Viet Nam experiences
in the Archives of this Blog.
My tour was........."interesting".

When I meet people and they find out I flew helicopters in Viet Nam,
their attitude toward me changes. Some have referred to me and my peers as "heroes".

Personally, I'm more than a little uncomfortable with that.

It all boils down to the word "Hero", and how you define it.

Let me tell you how I define "Hero".

At the Battle of Gettysburg,
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's troops had faced the worst of the fighting for over two days.

They were attrited, exhausted, and out of ammunition on "Little Round Top" when the Confederate Troops started their attack.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's response?
He commanded his men:
And they did!


World War II bomber crews in Europe had to complete 25 missions to be able to rotate back home.

The average lifespan of one of these crews was 8 missions!
These crews knew their chances of survival and rotation back home was virtually ZERO,
yet, by the thousands, they boarded their aircraft and took off to do their duty.


In Somalia, Para-Rescue troops SFC Randy Shugart and MSG Gary Gordon were aboard a helicopter circling the "Blackhawk Down" in the intersection at Mogadishu.
Knowing their mission would probably result in their deaths,
they nevertheless requested to be inserted at the site.
Their request was refused by the Commander.
Did they relax and say, "Oh well, we tried?"
They made their request again......this time more emphatically!
And they were inserted,
And they died, protecting others.


New York, September 11, 2001.
Firefighters wearing 100 pounds of protective equipment face a 30 minute uphill trek "against the flow" of traffic desperately trying to escape the building, knowing they are about to face something never experienced in history, and more dangerous than anything they could ever imagine.
Yet they climbed the stairs, providing assistance where they could to get others to safety.


When I think of these "Heroes", I am reduced to tears and humbled.
Yes, I'm proud of my service.
But much of my story can be summed up: "right place, right time."
Viet Nam helped me learn much about my own character.

But in comparison to these "Heroes",
my sacrifice for my country seems a pretty small thing, indeed.

How do you define "Hero"?


Infinitegtr said...

In every one of the examples you cite, I daresay that none of those folks had the kind of bloodlust Rambo-idis that Hollywood uses to portray a hero.

A hero is someone who finds him or herself in a truly shitty situation, and even though they just dont wanna do it (whether it is charging a superior force with only bayonets, or charging into a burning Trade tower), their instincts tell them not to do it, they do it anyway. Just like some younger man didnt wanna find himself in the Vietnamese conflict, but kept signing the papers any way. Those that do it any way, they are all heros.

I do happen to hold Shugart and Gordon in a certain elevated esteem. I do not know why, but to this day I get very choked up about what they chose to do. There was no question as to their outcome. I am so very grateful there are still men like them in our society.

Regardless of personal views about Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or anything in between... I have children that sleep safely because of people who wear badges, who live in firehouses, and who pick up a weapon in defense of this nation. That is hero enough for me...

Purple Tabby said...

Sorry, Greybeard. You're going to have to learn to live with the "hero" thing. Folks who fly injured people to safety while getting shot at, have to be called Heroes. It's in the manual's fine print.

I like the others you mentioned, especially Col. Chamberlain. What he said to his troops about why the battle had to be fought, was an extraordinary example of leadership and gave voice to the American heart.

Other heroes (gosh there are so many!)
 The nurses who held everything together in a POW camp for three years during W.W.II.

 The Russian pilot who flew over Chernobyl, trying to put out the fire.

 My Dad, a W.W. II Seabee, who helped build runways in the Pacific, fighting heat, mosquitoes, the enemy and fear of never seeing home again.

 Folks who dove into to freezing water to save people whose plane had crashed into the Potomac just after take-off (maybe 15 years ago? can't remember)

 The lady who kicked her way into a burning car to grab a toddler. The car exploded just seconds after they hit the ditch.

There are so many more but it makes me think of an old movie with Ingrid Bergman. She played an English missionary in China. At one point a man asked her why she didn't go home, a war was coming and she had no reason to stay.

She answered that in England an unmarried lady had no place, she was not allowed to work at anything meaningful. The only thing she wanted was "to be of value."

That phrase has stuck with me because I think that’s what we all want. And it's not surprising that we elevate and admire those who have been of great value.

Remember when your folks told you that your actions as a youth might have consequences that last your entire life? The “hero” thing is one of them, Greybeard.

Mike said...

As a young man with little discipline (infinitegtr can attest) I thought it would be a good idea to enter a structured environment when I went to college.

I joined the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M University. It was a 24 hour a day commitment to military living and it grated my personality to the bone.

One of the duties of a freshman was to learn the names and stories of the seven Medal of Honor recipients who were members of the Corps.

Their stories are humbling but they do not diminish the heroism of every other person in our history who has put on a uniform, picked up a gun or firehose, or died in the defense of our nation.

You are all heroes.


Some of the history of the recipients:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as leader of an assault group attached to the 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division during hand-to-hand combat with enemy Japanese at Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, on 3 March 1945. Standing watch alternately with another marine in a terrain studded with caves and ravines, Sgt. Harrell was holding a position in a perimeter defense around the company command post when Japanese troops infiltrated our lines in the early hours of dawn. Awakened by a sudden attack, he quickly opened fire with his carbine and killed 2 of the enemy as they emerged from a ravine in the light of a star shellburst. Unmindful of his danger as hostile grenades fell closer, he waged a fierce lone battle until an exploding missile tore off his left hand and fractured his thigh. He was vainly attempting to reload the carbine when his companion returned from the command post with another weapon. Wounded again by a Japanese who rushed the foxhole wielding a saber in the darkness, Sgt. Harrell succeeded in drawing his pistol and killing his opponent and then ordered his wounded companion to a place of safety. Exhausted by profuse bleeding but still unbeaten, he fearlessly met the challenge of 2 more enemy troops who charged his position and placed a grenade near his head. Killing 1 man with his pistol, he grasped the sputtering grenade with his good right hand, and, pushing it painfully toward the crouching soldier, saw his remaining assailant destroyed but his own hand severed in the explosion. At dawn Sgt. Harrell was evacuated from a position hedged by the bodies of 12 dead Japanese, at least 5 of whom he had personally destroyed in his self-sacrificing defense of the command post. His grim fortitude, exceptional valor, and indomitable fighting spirit against almost insurmountable odds reflect the highest credit upon himself and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

While leading his platoon on 27 December 1944, in savage house-to-house fighting through the fortress town of Sigolsheim, France, he attacked a building through a street swept by withering mortar and automatic weapons fire. He was hit and severely wounded in the arm and shoulder; but he charged into the house alone and killed its 2 defenders. Hurling smoke and fragmentation grenades before him, he reached the next house and stormed inside, killing 2 and capturing 11 of the enemy. He continued leading his platoon in the extremely dangerous task of clearing hostile troops from strong points along the street until he reached a building held by fanatical Nazi troops. Although suffering from wounds which had rendered his left arm useless, he advanced on this strongly defended house, and after blasting out a wall with bazooka fire, charged through a hail of bullets. Wedging his submachinegun under his uninjured arm, he rushed into the house through the hole torn by his rockets, killed 5 of the enemy and forced the remaining 12 to surrender. As he emerged to continue his fearless attack, he was again hit and critically wounded. In agony and with 1 eye pierced by a shell fragment, he shouted for his men to follow him to the next house. He was determined to stay in the fighting, and remained at the head of his platoon until forcibly evacuated. By his disregard for personal safety, his aggressiveness while suffering from severe wounds, his determined leadership and superb courage, 1st Lt. Whiteley killed 9 Germans, captured 23 more and spearheaded an attack which cracked the core of enemy resistance in a vital area.

Mike said...

I should have included the names of the recipients:

Sgt. William G. Harrell '43

Lt. Eli L. Whiteley '41

TwoDogs said...

To everyone: Examples listed - Heros all - I agree. But, there are many different ways to define a Hero. Being in the right place at the right time does not necessarily create a Hero. But when there is a third multiple called "Character" added, it certainly can create Heros. The 'want' to do the right thing, the need to try and the training/knowledge/belief that you can succeed is all important, but, to me - Character is probably the most important part of the equation. I agree with Golden Girl - Greybeard, you are going to have to live with the "Hero" thing. For someone who has served his Country as you have and contiues to help his fellow man in many different ways, I'm not sure that those four letters say enough. You have 'Character' written all over you.... You are a Character - I mean that in a good way. Again, Welcome Home!