In compliance with federal mandates, ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War will be held throughout Virginia this year and next.
Like millions who have waited decades for America to right the wrongs of a conflicted society that dishonored military men and women, I simply followed the military directives of the commander-in-chief. I should feel proud, but such pride carries a painfully cognitive price.
A scared but proficiently trained Marine lance corporal, I arrived in Da Nang, Vietnam, one day after my 19th birthday in 1970. Landing in a combat zone was accentuated as Marines, armed for battle, were directed to deplane first.
We passed smiling, sympathetic airline stewardesses who had donned flak jackets and helmets; the tarmac temperatures rose to 100-plus degrees as we silently observed scores of coffins stacked nearby.
Remarkably, on my first day in Nam, someone “procured” a birthday cake, steak, and beer, welcoming to war the birthday boy who became a man overnight. Later, during my first combat engagement, my M-16 jammed while firing my first bullet amid barrages of fire. As I witnessed my first dead Viet Cong, Armed Forces Radio and Television cried out, “Good morning, Vietnam!” on a PX radio that was then obliterated by a direct hit.
War remains inglorious, bolstered by poignant bravado and intimidation from those in command, young and old. After Vietnam, I became one of the youngest Marine drill instructors in history. At the ripe old age of 20 at San Diego’s Marine Corps Recruit Depot, I helped train several platoons for deployment to Southeast Asia by utilizing the same bombastic techniques.
Recently, I finally found the moral courage to meticulously examine the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. What an incredible relief to actually substantiate that no man I trained in boot camp was with the more than 58,000 names of our honored dead.
Vietnam was many things to many people. For me it was incredible discrimination. Hispanic troops, many from undocumented families, used service as the basis to earn legality. The famed Marine leadership excelled in battle, but was abhorrently missing at base camps. There, amid a rampant drug culture and racial confrontations, remained talk of fragging officers.
I’m haunted by memories of McNamara’s 100,000 mental Category IV draftees sandbagging missions rather than fighting with our Combined Action Platoon. Leadership voids caused needless deaths of hometown comrades.
Transferring to a division unit with considerable supervision and discipline brought intense battle engagements. President Nixon’s drawdown brought me home after a combat promotion to the rank of sergeant.
Regrettably, I visualize the carnage daily. I still see the blood, hear the screams, and relive the heartbreak of the casualties and suicides. It never completely leaves you. Who was the enemy captive in that clandestine snatch operation I was volunteered for? Special weapons and helicopters for a classified assignment during one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. Then there were the two-man killer teams, led by an insanely courageous company commander.
Or the intoxicated first sergeant who had a finger shot off bragging how he’d murdered a black Marine in combat. Was it degenerate military arrogance or the racist reality of the times? Such is the ignorant repugnance of war.
The real tragedy surfaced returning home. Unlike my uncle’s gallant return from World War II, there were no victory celebrations, no parades. In spite of my being wounded and decorated for extraordinary heroism, there was ridicule and scorn. High school chums were no longer chummy. Old girlfriends kept their distance. Alcohol abuse was common among returnees.
But life has a way of somehow trying to even things out. My then-young company commander, 2nd Lt. Lawrence B. Hagel, would become Judge Hagel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
Where I took life, my son’s wartime service is with the Air Force’s medical unit saving lives. As a marriage commissioner in the 15th Judicial District, I proudly join couples in matrimony. Many are military combat veterans. The love business remains great therapy for a jaded pacifist.
Incredibly, patriotism is on the rise, but American exceptionalism and the military’s international dominance decline. Sequestration may be the straw that breaks our military’s back and allows another 9/11 if the administration tolerates ISIS terrorists dictating our national military and moral surrender.
My fervent hope nevertheless remains that Americans sent to battle today are sent with the uncompromising support for victory, not more political expediency.
It is with great trepidation that I await ceremonies being nobly organized by 1st District Congressman Rob Wittman, slated for August 29 in Northern Virginia at Quantico Marine Base. There, amid appropriate pomp and circumstance, will be my surreptitious mental transformation back into that 19-year-old invincible Marine warrior unscarred by war’s veracity. The tragic memories and frequent nightmares from decades of national disrespect will dissipate. Mercifully, I pray for that day.
Daniel Cortez, a distinguished Vietnam veteran and award winning writer-broadcaster, and is active in veterans and political affairs with an independent voter perspective. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cross-posted in the Richmond Times-Dispatch