Here is last Friday’s column in the North County Times:
Hero. It is difficult these days to see anything in print or on screen that doesn’t ascribe the moniker of hero to our men and women in uniform. While that is a wonderful sentiment, it seems to have been used quite a bit in recent years. Is every Marine a hero?
I guess the concept of hero is really like that of beauty —- it is in the eye of the beholder. I believe the sincerity shown by my fellow countrymen when they show their respect by bestowing that honorable title on warriors and veterans. It is a testament to the good will that our nation feels for the men and women who have carried the flag to foreign shores and shed their blood in its defense.
It was not always that way, however. Not long ago the warriors and veterans of the war in Vietnam were not widely welcomed home as heroes. Instead, they were often at best simply ignored and at worst treated as pariahs. It is a stark juxtaposition in comparison to here and now, and made even more so when you consider who it is that those in uniform today consider their heroes.
Marines who fought in Iraq and still fight in Afghanistan have heroes, too. Heroes in the classical sense of antiquity, which defined a hero as a person who faced great danger and adversity, yet displayed courage and a willingness to undergo tremendous sacrifice. For Marines, our heroes are those who preceded us in places like Trenton during the Revolution and the Argonne during the War to End All Wars. Those are our heroes of antiquity.
Our heroes in modernity are those who fought in less popular wars and yet still walk among us. Our heroes fought their way from one end of Korea to the other and endured the savagery of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.
One particular battle is known to each and every serving Marine because it typifies the soldierly virtues of Marines in the absolutely worst circumstances. In early 1968, a string of hilltops close to the demilitarized zone that separated North and South Vietnam became a cauldron that swallowed the lives of countless combatants. Khe Sanh, as those hilltops were known, found a beleaguered force of Marines facing many times their number of hardened Vietnamese who were determined to wipe them from the face of the earth.
The savagery of the battle has been recorded in books and articles and documentaries, but those are incapable of recording the horrific conditions that existed during the battles in the hills. Hundreds of Marines died, as did thousands of Vietnamese. They fought each other with knives and rifles and often their bare hands. It was war at its most visceral and most savage, and despite the relentless fighting that went on for months, the Marines held their ground until their enemy gave up and faded back into the jungle.
I know this because recently I was honored to be in the company of men who were there. To call them heroes would only embarrass them, because like all true warriors, they view themselves as Marines who answered their nation’s call and fought as Marines always have. They fought because they were Marines and that is what Marines do, but their sacrifice and tenacity and dedication to each other is the stuff of legend.
Although they would never call themselves heroes, I consider them to be so nonetheless. They have etched their legacy into the Marine Corps just as the Spartans did at Thermopylae thousands of years ago. Today, Marines revere those who fought at Khe Sanh, and speak of them in hushed and respectful tones.
Our heroes are among us. To them, the veterans of Khe Sanh and countless other fights in Vietnam I say thank you for your service, for they gave me and all Marines a living example of the stuff that true heroes are made of. We can only hope to be able to follow in their footsteps and carry the mantle that they have passed to us.