The shadows are lengthening for me and for my fellow Vietnam Veterans. Agent Orange probably saved a lot of lives in the short term, but it turned out to be a time bomb, and many of us are already within its radius. We will soon be on the front line following our brothers from World War II and Korea. I still remember as a young boy living in Brooklyn and Staten Island the parades that included World War I veterans. The last American fighting man from that war died in February 2011.
I think I speak for all veterans in saying that wearing the uniform of this country was the greatest of honors. It is perhaps the largest fraternity in the world. It was not always popular to be a service member, and Vietnam Veterans know this better than any group that has ever gone to war. To this day I appreciate and thank Ronald Reagan for restoring the respect and honor of Vietnam Veterans in his speech dedicating the most recent addition to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Sadly, we live in a very divisive time. It perhaps is even more divisive than when the Vietnam War and parallel civil rights movement occurred. One of the big differences, though, was we didn’t have social media, which has proven to be an outlet for false rumors, misinformation, disinformation, outright lies, and a vehicle for our foreign enemies to further divide this country. The immediacy of being able to post anything has also contributed to this division. Few take the time or effort try and verify or debunk anything that should have the ring of being false.
Recently, the New York Times reported a story about a marine unit that served together in Iraq. After they were discharged they formed a social network to support each other during personal hardships. Their shared experiences, which few on the outside could relate to, helped them to lean on each other in their darkest hours.
This would not have been a story if over the past four years political differences had not been injected into the mix. Friendships have been broken, and the common bond of having served together in combat, having protected and having each other’s backs, no longer is the glue that holds them together.
I am reminded of the words of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson who in 1943---the height of World War II---wrote in a controversial speech case that, “Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.” One of the things that makes America exceptional is that while we hold different opinions, we remain united as Americans. If that changes we will have become an America our forebears won’t recognize.
Veterans took an oath to support and defend the Constitution. The oath reflects the importance of this document and why veterans are charged with preserving it. The oath is not to any person. No one is above the Constitution or any law.
I have said many times, and will likely say many more times, that Arlington and other national cemeteries are the final resting places of countless veterans of different political parties, different races, different religions, different ethnicities, and different regions of the country. This is another example of American exceptionalism.
Service in the U.S. Navy shaped my life. I was honored to meet and serve with some great men, too many to name, but a few deserve mention. With two exceptions, we all served on Swift Boats operating on the coast and rivers of Vietnam: Kenny Cozart, Mike Gann, Rock Harmon, John O’Neill, and Bob Scattergood. Charles (Sandy) Prouty was a SEAL who I served with on the USS SPRINGFIELD and Vietnam. Joe Mahar is another great sailor I had the privilege of serving with on the SPRINGFIELD. (Cozart and I were also fellow officers on the SPRINGFIELD.) These are the people I would want to go to war with again; our political and other differences are irrelevant.
Two of the greatest leaders I ever knew were the commanding officer of the SPRINGFIELD, Lando Zech, and his executive officer, Warren C. Hamm. Zech was a WW II veteran who served on submarines and retired as a vice admiral. Hamm retired as a rear admiral following a very distinguished career. No two men had a more powerful influence on me, and if the war tocsin sounded again, they would be the ones to lead us to victory. I would gladly follow them into the depths of hell.
President George Washington said about veterans far better than I could, words we should all heed, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation."