The fifth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq sparked many memories of the beginning of a war that isn’t even close to being over and has, so far, consumed the lives of more than 4,000 American troops.
A good friend, Tony Cordero, has written of that day in early spring of 2003 when he and a group of sons and daughters of American military men who were killed during the Vietnam War heard the news that a brand-new war was at hand while they were on their way home from Southeast Asia, where they'd visited the places where their fathers died.
This week, I turn this space over to Tony and his memories:
“Five years ago — on March 17, 2003 — a group of 70 Americans huddled intently around television monitors in Singapore's Changi International Airport to view a news broadcast from home. What was evening news for our families in the States served as a wake-up show across the International Dateline in the South Pacific. As the message rippled across the globe, it riveted attention: President Bush had warned Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq within 24 hours or face an invasion of American and coalition troops.
“For these American tourists, there was powerful irony in the timing of that televised pre-war message. As the scars of one war were finally healing, pain (was) set to be inflicted on a new generation of soldiers and their families.
“Part of Sons and Daughters in Touch (SDIT) — a nationwide assembly of the estimated 20,000 children of American servicemen killed in the Vietnam War — our weary travel party was concluding an historic two-week trip to Southeast Asia. Serving as our guides were two dozen Vietnam veterans — soldiers and nurses — who generously shared their time, energy, personal experiences, knowledge and comfort with the now grown sons and daughters of their fallen fellow servicemen. Hearing that foreboding news report, I couldn't help but wonder, 'If war in Iraq does happen, will a new generation of Sons and Daughters arise, having lost their parents in combat in the Middle East?'
"In Honor, Peace and Understanding," the official theme of our trip to Vietnam, was a sentiment that underscored our desire to fully experience the places our dads were stationed and lost. We wanted to walk through the same villages, and to know the people our dads were trying to protect. We wanted to see and better understand what, and who, they were fighting.
“We lost our fathers to war in the 1960's and early 70's and it took more than three decades before our nation could say 'Vietnam' and think of a people and a culture rather than a bad memory. 'Will it take 40 years for the wounds to mend so that a new mindset tells us Iraq isn't a bad word?' I wondered.
"I also wondered whether veterans of a war in Iraq would support a new generation of sons and daughters as much as Vietnam War veterans have supported us.
"For each of us, the trek to Vietnam was a trip to our personal ground zero. After two years of exhaustive research by Vietnam veteran and retired Army Col. Dick Schonberger, we sons and daughters were able to laugh and cry, to light incense and lay flowers at the exact locations our fathers died in America's longest war. Often, residents of the surrounding villages stopped their work in the fields and rice paddies to join our spontaneous ceremonies. Some village elders took time with us to recall incidents of the war that killed 58,256 Americans and many more Vietnamese.
“During our two weeks in Vietnam, we floated the Mekong Delta on sampans; crawled through the Cu Chi Tunnels; held a group memorial service on the sands of China Beach; roamed incredulously through an official Vietnamese war museum devoid of accuracy and objectivity; visited the Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton) to recall the torture and fate of POW's including Everett Alvarez, John McCain and Fred Cherry, and the many others who returned _ or didn't — from captivity there.
“The circumstances and political climate had never been better for our trip to Southeast Asia. Anticipating the aftermath of a looming war in Iraq, it was painful to think of how long it might take for a new generation of sons and daughters to feel comfortable enough to journey to see their own personal ground zero. A delay in being able to grieve and honor a loss would prolong the pain of these new 'sons and daughters'.
“In the middle of our journey, I broke away from the group for three days and traveled to the remote jungle hamlet of Ban Namoung, Laos. In an attempt at taste bud diplomacy, I presented Red Vine licorice to the children of the village and a bottle of Jack Daniels to the village chief. As I wandered among the dogs, pigs and chickens that roam the dirt streets of this third-world village, I could better understand the basis for questions the villagers had asked the night before, 'Are all Californians wealthy? . . . Are women in America really allowed to hold jobs?'
“I've always wanted to inspect the wreckage of my father's B-57 that has rested in the jungles of Laos since Father's Day 1965. Despite the best efforts of the villagers, time and an unconquerable terrain prevented me from getting to the exact site. In the village below, residents joined me in erecting a shrine of flowers, family photographs and incense beneath a stand of banana trees. To complete this memorial to my dad and the pilot of his jet, the villagers added small parts of my dad's plane they had crafted into tools they used daily. It was a physically and emotionally exhausting journey and after three days of less than intermittent English with my Lao hosts, I crossed the border into Vietnam and raced with my guides toward the South China Sea. My travel partners were at Hue City on the Perfume River and I was desperate to see familiar faces!
“Our group had come together from every corner of the United States to confront lifelong questions in Vietnam. Our dads served in every branch of the U.S. military. We are the "sons and daughters" of privates, generals and Medal of Honor recipients. We are as colorful as the fabric of America. We are different, but with so much in common. As ironic as it is, at one point, from July 2004 to February 2007, U.S. and multinational forces in Iraq were led by a 'son' — U.S. Army General George Casey, Jr. — who lost his father in Vietnam in May 1970. Today, Gen. Casey is Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.
“On Veterans Day 2007, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that bears the names of our fathers, and each of the 58,256 Americans lost in Vietnam, celebrated its 25th Anniversary. To support the new educational Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center scheduled to open in 2010, SDIT launched a campaign to raise at least $1.00 for every name on the Wall.
Looking ahead with 20/20 hindsight, SDIT is also lending a hand to the estimated 2,000 new 'sons and daughters' of Americans killed in the War on Terror. We work closely with Tragedy Assistance for Survivors (TAPS), Snowball Express and the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund — organizations that weren't around when we were kids, but today they deliver critical support to American military families. Fortunately, our nation has learned to provide better care for the military families that bear the lion's share of war. Whether it is family counseling, scholarship funds, a weekend vacation to momentarily block out the pain, or any of the other therapies employed to ease the burden of grief, this new generation of sons and daughters is being cared for as they rightly deserve.
“The time will come, maybe in my lifetime and hopefully in that of my children, when the 'sons and daughters' of U.S. service personnel lost in the Global War on Terror — in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere — will travel to their own personal ground zero. My hope is that our organization's trip to Vietnam five years ago, its 18-year existence and outreach programs, will serve as a historic benchmark for them, a lesson on how to confront, endure, and prevail in the unique life experience we share.
“Regardless of when or why each war began, or where we were — and above and beyond the pain and sorrow that comes from losing one's father or mother in battle — we "sons and daughters" from WW II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, the Global War on Terror and every other U.S. military action share one thing: our common bond as America's Gold Star Children."