Saturday, August 4, 2018

A Matter of Mutual Respect

An amusing quip that has been kicking around for years has it that: If a person is from Texas, attended Harvard, or was in the Marine Corps, you will learn about it in the first five minutes of a conversation with them.

As with most jokes, there might be an element of truth in this, since these associations do seem to have a profound effect on how a person defines themselves throughout the rest of their lives. Being from California and having received my degree from an undistinguished state university there (which, coincidentally, we self-mockingly referred to as: “Harvard West”), I am unqualified to lend an informed opinion on the first two. However, an experience I had this week with several fellow, former U.S. Marines, reminded me of why we are different than Texans and Harvarders.   

Last Wednesday, I spoke about my latest book, The Gunpowder Prince, to a luncheon audience of around one hundred at the Las Vegas Country Club, hosted by renowned Las Vegas attorney, and former Marine, Joe W. Brown. The group consisted of business, professional and civic leaders, including a former governor of Nevada. Due to the announced subject of my address, there was also a good number of those with military backgrounds present, including a dozen, or so, former Marines.  Among the latter, was retired Lieutenant General E.R. “Buck” Bedard, who had served in Vietnam as a rifle platoon commander.  Years later, as a colonel, he participated in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and commanded the 7th Marine Regiment when it deployed to Somalia with the difficult assignment of protecting humanitarian efforts there. As a lieutenant general, Bedard would serve as a Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps before retiring.

Also present was retired Marine Colonel Thomas Czech.  Our conversation was particularly moving for me. As an enlisted man, he had served in Alpha Company, First Battalion, Ninth Marines, during the siege of Khe Sanh. His platoon had been overrun by a North Vietnamese Army battalion while defending an area west of the combat base on the night of February 8, 1968. Of the sixty-four Marines and corpsmen, roughly half were killed and all, but a few, of the others were wounded. Czech was among those wounded, left for dead by his attackers as they swarmed past him over the hilltop. He would survive, do additional time in Vietnam, and go on to make a career of the Marine Corps. I was pleased to learn that he will be attending the Khe Sanh Veterans Association reunion in Washington, DC. later this month, so we will have a chance to resume our discussion.  

I was honored to have Lieutenant General Bedard, who prefers to be called “Buck,” introduce me as the keynote speaker, and equally pleased to have Colonel Czech, who prefers “Tom,” follow my talk with his own, very personal, recollections of Khe Sanh. Buck then joined me during the, at times quite emotional, Q&A period that followed. Like Captain Mirza Munir “Harry” Baig, in The Gunpowder Prince, Buck had extensive training in counterintelligence (at one point in his career serving as an instructor at the U.S. Army Intelligence School), and so his input was both pertinent and insightful. It was one of those perfect, spontaneous moments when, as host Joe Brown later described: “You could hear a pin drop in the room.”  Witnessing this, I was once again overcome with awe at the egalitarian tradition in which we are bonded by the Corps for the rest of our lives. I never cease to marvel—especially in this world of endless hype and spin—at the genuineness of it all!  

I had been part of  this dynamic before, when I came to know another retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, Martin Brandtner. Marty, as he insisted on being called, lived in Reno and served as Development Director for the Roman Catholic Diocese. Like Buck Bedard, Marty had served as a rifle platoon and company commander in Vietnam and had also risen to the highest rank in the Marine Corps—save for Commandant.

Both gentlemen were engaging, unassuming, keenly intelligent and generous with their praise.  At one point, Marty saw to it, along with Major General Mike Myatt, that my first book, A Patch of Ground, Khe Sanh Remembered, was placed in the library of the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco—a real thrill for a new writer. To these men, I wasn’t a former corporal, I was a former Marine—and that’s all that mattered.

Until his death last year, Marty Brandtner was universally liked and admired by those in the community who knew him—and there were many! Yet, my sense was that most of them had no idea what he had accomplished in his life. It seemed only a few knew that, during the Vietnam War, he had achieved one of the most extraordinary episodes of bravery and leadership in Marine Corps history, earning two Navy Crosses (the Marine Corps’ highest recognition of valor in combat, besides the Medal of Honor)—within an eight-day period!

Marty evidently forgot to mention that in those first five minutes of his conversations with them.

On my flight back to Reno Wednesday night from Las Vegas, I reflected on what a privilege it has been, for an old corporal like me, to have received such sincere approval from extraordinary Marine officers like Buck, Marty and Tom.  And how, when we were finally able to stand down from the rank structure—so essential to the accomplishment of every mission—we were all simply Marines, bound by a special camaraderie of those who intimately appreciate what they had been willing to sacrifice for their country—and each other.

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