WASHINGTON—It is that time of year and soldiers no longer young will soon gather in the nation's capital to observe the 40th anniversary of a series of battles in the mountains of Vietnam that marked the true dawn of America's war in that country.
For the veterans of the 1st Cavalry Division's bloody battles with North Vietnam's Peoples Army regulars in the Ia Drang Valley and the Pleiku Campaign, this is always a bittersweet time. We come together every Veterans Day weekend to remember 305 of our brothers who died that long-ago November in 1965.
Each year the numbers shrink as the passage of the years gathers more friends. Last week we buried Command Sgt. Maj. (ret.) James Scott of 2nd Battalion 7th U.S. Cavalry at the Post Cemetery at Fort Benning, Ga. He was a three-war man—landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, fought in Korea and Vietnam. Four Purple Hearts. A Distinguished Service Cross. Two Silver Stars. He had a dry sense of humor and his friendly competition with Command Sgt Maj. Basil L. Plumley of 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry had gone on nearly half a century.
Those two bet a case of beer on the boat to Vietnam: The winner being the one who got shot first in this new war. Scott won, or lost, depending how you look at it, but claimed Plumley never paid off on the case of beer. Plumley said Scott was a notorious cheapskate and just wanted to collect twice or three times on that case of beer.
What a crew to go to war with.
The leader of the Band of Brothers, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Hal Moore, will turn 84 early next year and has begun easing off on a schedule that would kill a younger person. Last spring he delivered what he said was his farewell address to the 4,000 cadets at West Point.
He told them that they would hear many teachers and trainers talk about the principles of leadership at West Point and in their first years as young officers. But he said no one would talk to them about what he considered the most important of those principles: Love.
The cadets and the academy professors were stunned. Love is not a trait they associate with leadership in combat, or life in the military. But the old soldier who is an icon at the military academy where he graduated with the Class of 1945 told them they must love their soldiers and think of them and care for them day and night, through good times and the worst times.
If you demonstrate your loyalty to and love for your troops, he said, it will be returned a hundred-fold. Take care of your soldiers not because someone tells you that you must, Moore said. Do it because you love them.
Even the youngest of the soldiers who fought in the Ia Drang is now near 60.
All are conscious of the relentless advance of the years; all keenly aware that 40 years after they fought the big opening act of the Vietnam War our nation is engaged in another war that bears some chilling similarities to the one that stole their youth and divided their country so long ago.
But for a few days politics will be set aside as the old soldiers and their children and grandchildren, and the families of many of our fallen brothers, gather for a dose of fellowship and memories more easily shared with and understood by comrades who stood beside us.
On Veterans Day the Cavalry veterans in their black Stetson hats will kick off the official ceremonies at The Vietnam Veterans Memorial by marching, two by two, down the length of The Wall as a bagpiper skirls the Cavalry anthem—an old Irish drinking song titled "Garryowen"—and when we pass Panel 3-East, we will salute those who fell in battle so long ago.
We who have known war and can never forget it pray that one day, someday, there will be peace; that one day the treasure nations waste on killing the young shall instead be invested in educating them; that one day there will come a Veterans Day and a Memorial Day when there are no more war veterans left alive to march.
I will remember the words from Laurence Binyon's World War I poem "For the Fallen":
"They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young