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Subase Pearl Harbor Det 716 

 

As we face a new year, I recall visiting with three old friends, a few years back, at a park in the nation's capital.     It seems like only yesterday that we were all together, but actually it has been 42 years.  There was a crowd at the park that day, and it took us a while to connect, but with the aid of a book we made it.  I found Harry, Bruce and Paul.    

In 1970-72 we were gung-ho young fighter pilots on the America and Constellation off Vietnam, the cream of the crop of the U.S. Navy, flying F-4J Phantoms.  Now their names are on that 500-foot-long Vietnam War Memorial.  I am hesitant to visit the wall when I'm in Washington, D. C., because I don't trust myself to keep my composure. Standing in front of that somber wall, I tried to keep it light, reminiscing about how things were back then.  We used to joke about our passionate love affair with the inanimate flying objects that we flew.  We marveled at the thought that we actually got paid to do it.  

We were not draftees but college graduates in Vietnam by choice, opting for the cramped confines of a jet fighter cockpit over the comfort of corporate America.  In all my life I've never been so passionate about any other work.  If that sounds like an exaggeration, then you've never danced the wild blue with a supersonic angel.  To fight for your country is an honor. 

I vividly remember leaving my family and friends in San Diego headed for Vietnam. I wondered if I would live to see them again.  For reasons I still don't understand, I was fortunate to return while others did not. 

Once in Vietnam, we passed the long, lonely hours in Alert 5, the ready room, our staterooms or the Cubi Point O'Club. The complaint heard most often, in the standard gallows humor of a combat squadron, was, "It's a lousy war, but it's the only one we have." (I've cleaned up the language a bit.) We sang mostly raunchy songs that never seemed to end because someone was always writing new verses. As an antidote to loneliness, fear in the night and the sadness over dead friends, we often drank too much. 

But at the wall, I told the guys only about the good parts of the years since we’ve been apart.  I talked of those who went on to command squadrons and those who made Captain and flag rank.  I asked them if they've seen some other squadron mates who have joined them. I didn't tell them about how ostracized Vietnam vets still are.  I didn't relate how the media had implied we Vietnam vets were, to quote one syndicated columnist, "either suckers or psychos, victims or monsters." I didn't tell them that Hanoi Jane, who shot at us and helped torture our POWs, had married one of the richest guys in the United States.  I didn't tell them that the Secretary of Defense they fought for back then has now declared that he was not a believer in the cause for which he assigned them all to their destiny.  I didn't tell them that our commander-in-chief avoided serving while they were fighting and dying. And I didn't tell them we "lost" that lousy war.  

I gave them the same story I've used for years: We were winning when I left.  I relived that final day as I stared at the black onyx wall.  After 297 combat missions, we were leaving the South China Sea …heading east.  The excitement of that day was only exceeded by coming into the break at Miramar, knowing that my wife, my two boys, my parents and other friends and family were waiting to welcome me home. I was not the only one talking to the wall through tears.  Folks in fatigues, leather vests, motorcycle jackets, and flight jackets lined the wall talking to friends.  I backed about 25 yards away from the wall and sat down on the grass under a clear blue sky and midday sun that perfectly matched the tropical weather of the war zone.  The wall, with all 58,200 names, consumed my field of vision.  I tried to wrap my mind around the violence, carnage and ruined lives that it represented.  Then I thought of how Vietnam was only one small war in the history of the human race.  I was overwhelmed with a sense of mankind's wickedness balanced against some men and women's willingness to serve. 

Before becoming a spectacle in the park, I got up and walked back up to the wall to say goodbye and run my fingers over the engraved names of my friends as if I could communicate with them through some kind of spiritual touch. I wanted them to know that God, duty, honor and country will always remain the noblest calling.  Revisionist history, from elite draft dodgers trying to justify and rationalize their own actions, will never change that. 

I believe I have been a productive member of society since the day I left Vietnam.  I am honored to have served there, and I am especially proud of my friends--heroes who voluntarily, even enthusiastically, gave their all.  They demonstrated no greater love to a nation whose highbrow opinion makers are still trying to disavow them.  May their names, indelibly engraved on that memorial wall, likewise be found in the Book of Life.  Remember that throughout the New Year.

 

 

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