of soldiers long overdue
By Joseph L. Galloway
December 25, 2003
WASHINGTON - Time magazine named the American soldier its Person of the Year for 2003. The American soldier (read: Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard) has been my person of the year every year through four decades and three wars, beginning with Vietnam.
Largely unsung and unnoticed, the American soldier does the hard, dirty work of keeping freedom alive, year in and year out, in a world growing ever more violent and dangerous.
Soldiers put their lives on the line in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan and Bosnia and Kosovo, to name just a few of the 120 places around the world where American soldiers stand between people bent on killing each other, where they teach the soldiers of other nations, and where they pursue the shadowy terrorists who would bring darkness to the world.
To those we owe so much we pay so little that the spouses and children of volunteer enlisted soldiers sometimes have no choice but to seek public welfare. They exist in shabby trailer parks on the outskirts of places such as Fort Hood and Fort Riley and Fort Stewart while their loved ones soldier in some foreign country for months, if not years. We should be ashamed.
The Army has changed much in the four decades since I first marched into combat in Vietnam. Then most soldiers were draftees, young men who hadn't made it into college and were called to two years' service by their hometown draft board.
They didn't ask to be called, but didn't run away to Canada or turn up for their draft physicals wearing pantyhose. They went when called and served where ordered, which meant in a hellish jungle war against a formidable foe.
They died by the thousands, were wounded by the hundreds of thousands. Those who made it home unscratched were by no means untouched. They carried the scars of witnessing brutal infantry combat at an age when they should have been home, dreaming of cars and girls. What a homecoming they received from a nation deeply divided over a badly mismanaged war.
But for their bravery and sacrifice I would not be here to write these poor words of praise for them. Ronald Reagan called Vietnam a "noble war." It was not. It was a mistake. But the soldiers sent to fight that war were noble. No one could explain to them why they were there or what they were fighting for, so they did the only thing they could: They fought for each other.
Their era ended with the war they fought. The draft went away 30 years ago and a volunteer force took their place. The first job would be to rebuild the Army, which was shattered by Vietnam, broken by indiscipline, drugs and racial conflict. Those soldiers and NCOs and officers stayed around to rebuild something they loved, and they labored for years to create a finely trained and armed force.
That Army, and those new soldiers, stunned the world with what they did in the Persian Gulf war, Operation Desert Storm. In just 100 hours of swift ground combat, they routed the Iraqis and liberated Kuwait.
Before the last soldier made it home from that outing, the Army was being cut back from 12 divisions to 10. So the force would shrink but also grow more lethal.
The American soldier was deployed again and again: Somalia, Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq one more time. The politicians of both parties seem so much more willing to draw the sword these days.
The Army was whittled to only 480,000 great soldiers. Too few called on to do too much. The National Guard and Reserves had to fill in the gap every time America moved militarily.
I see them sometimes in my dreams, and they are always the same, these American soldiers: Young, gaunt, burdened like pack animals, homesick, wary, weary - and so proud to be serving their country.
They give so much and ask so little. The next time you see a man or woman in uniform, just walk up, shake hands and say: Thank you for your service.
And watch the tears come into their eyes.
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Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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thank you for posting that tribute to our soldiers on this Christmas
morning. I spent Christmas in
a place called Pleiku, Vietnam in 1968 and I was one of those draftees who spent 2 years in the Army at the request
of my local draft board. I, like yourself, have great love
and respect for our soldiers and each night when we say grace at dinner my family says a special prayer for their safety and wellbeing. I believe the military is much better
managed than in my time and more focused on the mission.
The troops in the Vietnam War were as selfless as you could
possibly imagine and for that they paid a heavy price.
Over the years the reasons for us being in Vietnam in the
first place have have become very clouded and as the author
of this article states most people think it was a mistake
from the outset. I'm not so certain that if the United
States hadn't stood up to the expansion of communism at that time, the world would be moving in the direction of
democracy at this time. Try to remember that in the late
50's and early 60's the Soviet Union was on the march
around the world with client states like North Vietnam
springing up on almost every continent. Vietnam was a bad
spot to take a stand against this onslaught and was the
main reason it turned out badly. Logistically it was a
nightmare and the anti-American propaganda coming out of
Moscow was just too effective to overcome. I'm sure the
Vietnam War will be debated for many years to come, but
one thing for certain, the men and women who have served
and are serving now are the reason we can enjoy the Christmas morning in peace and goodwill to all mankind.