Two years ago I sat down with a group of Vietnam War veterans who crewed UH-1C “Firebird” helicopters together and, four decades later, meet every other year to check in with each other, relax and retell their stories. One incredible tale was about the September 1969 day they call Black Monday. Gunner Gene “Wally” Waldrip, 20 years old at the time, described the scene:
The gunships were escorting infantry on the ground, including a friend Wally had known since first grade, he said. It was supposed to be a relatively routine day, at least for a war zone, but as they approached their landing zone, the jungle erupted with gunfire around them. Soldiers and choppers fell on all sides. Gunships, with their load of weapons and fuel, weren’t meant to land. One pilot landed anyway.
Fleeing and wounded soldiers immediately clamored in as bullets flew. The pilot couldn’t clear the trees with the weight, so he took his only other option: tipping forward his blades and weed-whacking his way through the trees. The chopper made it to safety and unloaded and refueled to head back. Wally’s friend was dead.
It’s the kind of bizarre and terrifying story only something like war can provide, but what comes to my mind today is what Wally told me afterward. He and other Vietnam vets lost girlfriends, were denied jobs and were labeled baby killers when they returned, he said, subjected to the anger and vitriol of years of protests against the war.
Wally struggled for decades to find any value or meaning to the loss of almost 60,000 American lives and many more Vietnamese. But he found some solace in how differently people react toward vets now.
“Generally, the nation gets it this time,” he said. “They may not agree with that war (Iraq or Afghanistan), and if they had their say they’d tell you to get out, but they’re not downgrading and they’re not stomping and disrespecting.”
He added: “That was the value of the Vietnam War, and you know what? It was worth it.”
These days the U.S. military is mostly out of the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we continue airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, where the so-called Islamic State sows death and slavery, and violence continues in Afghanistan. Several recent veterans I talked to last June said they felt their efforts and hundreds of thousands of lives, almost 7,000 of them American, were wasted in those two countries. I’m sure others disagree, but the veterans I spoke to were unanimous.
As Wally said, veterans today have a much kinder reception. But visible and invisible injuries remain that we’re obliged to help take care of. There’s no returning what soldiers and sailors and Marines and airmen give us, and no forgetting it on Memorial Day. On the front end, we civilians need to make absolutely sure the sacrifice is worth making.
These shots are from Fayetteville’s National Cemetery this morning. It was actually dry and fairly sunny for the speakers and taps and moments of silence, though breezy. Now we’ve got storms coming through — again.