TOGETHER THEY STAND, HONORABLE AND PROUD
By ROBERTA WOLFF
The Holiday, Inn, Riverwalk North, hosted a military reunion August 14-16, 1992.
Those attending were not Veterans of WWII or Korea or the Persian Gulf War. The men who came to San Antonio served during the dingiest, most tawdry war ever fought by Americans, at a time when our nation was blinded by self-centeredness and consumed by its own self-importance.
Some in the group were meeting for the seventh time, some came for their very first reunion. And some were sad, some bitter, some apprehensive lest old memories overwhelm them, some angry, some haunted--some possessed, still, by their own nightmares. Some were simply overjoyed to be reunited with their brothers.
They were the veterans of No Man’s War, young men of the 1960s and early ‘70s, aging now and gray. Willing or unwilling, believers in the cause or not, they had picked up the baggage of a responsibility many of their peers refused to carry--the Vietnam War.
These men came to San Antonio to celebrate “Together Then, Together Again”, all members of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia--the survivors, the found.
They came from all over the country, some from as far away as Hawaii. One man flew in from Puerto Rico simply for Saturday’s program. Most are civilians again, separated at the end of their obligation to serve, some retired from regular Army careers, but some still wear the uniform, at least for a few more years.
Plastic-jacketed cards gave names, dates of service in country, squadron and troop. Jaunty red ribbons hung beneath the cards, proclaiming their unit pride. For years many had not spoken of their experiences. The society they lived in did not want to know, nor to remember. But they have not forgotten. Now they speak again, to each other, and some family members who accompany them hear their stories for the first time.
Nor have these men neglected the 716 comrades who did not come home. Next to the scarlet silk ribbon on each veteran’s tag hangs another, black, proclaiming 716 KIA, a testimonial of the remembrance of their dead.
Stories of unrecognized and unrewarded heroism and valor surfaced. Not all bravery is honored with medals. In a women’s meeting, the wife of a medic gives her husband’s dates of service and unit and asks, if any of your husbands were in that unit and wounded during this time and sent home, please tell me their names. He still carries a burden because he doesn’t know if some of the men he treated lived or died. He didn’t believe in war, so he wouldn’t fight, but he served his country in the only way he could, and I’m proud of him.
In response, another wife says: It doesn’t matter if he believed in it, he still went. He didn’t run away when others did. Many of our men are alive because of men like your husband who wouldn’t carry a gun but would crawl through live weapons fire to save another man. You should be proud. That took incredible courage.
Stories of small miracles: the ACAV commander who twice ran his vehicle over mines, once tossed by the explosion with his turret ring, gun shield and 50-caliber machine gun only to land without a scratch. Possessor now of two Purple Hearts, in neither contact did he spill a drop of blood or break a bone. His wounds --contusions, bruises and muscle strains-- resulted in evacuation by helicopter, and memories, mostly now of his incredible luck. Some ran over one mine and died.
Stories of pathos: the retired general, ex-commander and helicopter pilot, greeting his sergeant major and introducing him to a table of helicopter types -- one a paraplegic and others bearing the scars of wounds received -- as the only man who ever flew with me and didn’t get wounded.
And humor. The sergeant major responded: I might not have been wounded, but once you almost dumped me out the side door of a Loach.
A sergeant first class and a shotgun were wounded by the same shrapnel, the sergeant on the arm, the shotgun on the butt. The sergeant received a Purple Heart, though he said his would was minor, the shotgun is an honored possession, having saved another man a severe leg wound. A burly ex-sergeant, easily 6 feet 5 inches tall, sent over in 1969 as an adviser to work with a group of Vietnamese military, reported that every time they came under fire, he was pushed to the ground and covered with about 10 small bodies, trying to insulate him from bullets. He didn’t smoke. The Vietnamese soldiers were protecting their cigarette supply.
The gamut of dress ran from suits to dungarees and cutoffs. They came from all walks of life. An ex-career enlisted man, first sergeant in Nam, is now a Methodist minister, another is a Pentecostal missionary. The General, George Patton, son of WWII’s Patton, and his lovely wife were every inch the brownshoe Army. After repeatedly being addressed as Mrs. Patton at the ladles meeting, she told the group, “The nicest thing about George’s retirement was I got my first name back. It’s Joanne.”
They bought and wore shirts, black, blazoned with bloody scarlet and white decorations, the combat patch of their unit. They wore them proudly on the streets of the city.
Twenty years ago, the nation reviled these men; some were spit on when they returned from war. If they were not ridiculed, they were ignored. These men were not greeted as patriots. No bands played at their return, in contrast to the welcoming revelry for the veterans of World War II, the returnees from Korea, and those who came back from the Persian Gulf War.
Today, they are back, involved in a self-directed renaissance, taking for themselves what was despoiled years ago by an insensitive and unheeding nation: their self-respect and pride in their accomplishments. This regiment of veterans is rebuilding itself. They no longer battle the enemy, but they battle nevertheless. They look for each of the 21,000 who served with the Black Horse in Vietnam. They invite their brothers to come home, to join them in celebrating their kinship.
This years reunion, which was initially planned for 600 participants, brought together nearly 1,000 on Saturday night to eat Texas barbecue, to hear Patton speak and remember. As slides flashed on the wall, showing the people, the places and the operations of the 11th Cavalry in Vietnam, voices murmured names of comrades, reminiscing, recalling incidents.
Then, a picture of The Wall flashed on the screen. The black marble length gleamed with the golden names inscribed. Wreaths and flowers littered the ground in front of it. A voice called out: “Attention. Let us stand for a moment of silence to honor our fallen brothers.” And, a regiment reborn, 1,000 rose.
The silence hung heavily. Men clung to their loved ones and to each other. One voice, alone and unaccompanied, echoed in song a tribute to the 716 who fell and to the courage and renascent pride of the 21,000 who lived but still pay the price of Vietnam. Picture after picture of Vietnam War memorials paraded in review until the song was done. Then, a lone bugler played taps.
Roberta Wolff of Fort Worth, Texas, is a retired teacher of philosophy and management. She is a volunteer mediator with the Dispute Resolution Service of Denton County. Her husband David L. Wolff, a retired command sergeant major, U.S. Army, served in Vietnam during 1966-67 and in 1969, both times with the 11th Cavalry.
This article was published on September 6, 1992, in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and was reprinted with the permission of the author.