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“For a brief time I stopped being a reporter and became a soldier. In the process, I found and made the best, most loyal friends of a lifetime and earned the lasting respect and trust of the military family.”
– Joe Galloway, “They Were Soldiers”
After the Vietnam War, war correspondent Joe Galloway collaborated with retired Army Lt. Gen. Hal Moore to document the first major engagement — the Battle of Ia Drang — in “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young.” Later, Galloway and Moore returned to the battlefield with veterans from both sides of the conflict, a trip that was shared in “We Are Soldiers Still: A Journey Back to the Battlefields of Vietnam.”
Now, Galloway has teamed up with Vietnam veteran and photojournalist Marvin J. Wolf to write about the Vietnam generations’ contributions to their communities and to the country. “They Were Soldiers: The Sacrifices and Contributions of Our Vietnam War Veterans” shares the stories of 48 men and women who served in the “lost war.”
Galloway and three prominent veterans from the Washington region speak of their experiences in Vietnam — and how it’s shaped their lives since.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
- Joe Galloway Co-author, "They Were Soldiers: The Sacrifices and Contributions of Our Vietnam Veterans"; War correspondent and journalist
- Richard Armitage U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War; Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
- George Forrest Retired Lt. Col., U.S. Army
- Jan Scruggs U.S. Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War; Founder and President Emeritus, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund; @VVMF
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. It's been 55 years since Americans entered the Vietnam War. Journalist Joe Galloway wrote about the first major battle that Americans engaged in, the Battle of Ia Drang, with retired Lieutenant General Harold Moore in the famous book "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young." Later, Galloway and Moore returned to the battlefield with veterans from both sides of the conflict, a trip that was shared in the book "We Are Soldiers Still."
KOJO NNAMDINow, Joe Galloway has teamed up with Vietnam veteran and photojournalist Marvin Wolf to write about Vietnam veterans' contributions to their communities and to their countries. Joining us now is Joe Galloway. Joe Galloway, thank you so much for joining us.
JOE GALLOWAYThank you for having me on the air, Kojo.
NNAMDIJoe's latest is "They Were Soldiers: The Sacrifices and Contributions of Our Vietnam Veterans." Joe, you were covering the State House in Topeka, Kansas for UPI when it started to look like the U.S. might get involved in the Vietnam War. You begged your boss to let you cover it. Why?
GALLOWAYOh, you know, as a kid, I read the collected works of a guy named Ernie Pyle who covered World War II beautifully. And I thought, if my generation has a war, I want to cover it and I want to cover it like Ernie Pyle covered his war.
NNAMDIWell, you did, and you're now well-known for the book you wrote with the late U.S. Army Lieutenant General Harold Moore. That book, "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young" documents the Battle of Ia Drang. By the way, how do you pronounce that?
NNAMDIIa Drang, documents the Battle of Ia Drang, made into a blockbuster movie starring Mel Gibson. He wrote a second book "We Are Soldiers Still," where you accompanied Vietnam vets back to Ia Drang to reflect and meet the former adversary. So, why did you decide to write this latest book, "They Were Soldiers"?
GALLOWAYWe're coming near the end of the Vietnam generation and, you know, I give a lot of speeches to veterans and active duty military. And I always make a point of saying this, the Vietnam cohort may not have been the greatest generation, but, by God, they were the greatest of their generation. And they came home from a war that divided this country like no other since the Civil War. And they came home to no welcome, no parades, no honor. And most of them sort of went to ground, just like they did in an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam.
GALLOWAYAnd they were cast as losers and no-account bums and baby killers and all of the nonsense in movies and newspaper pieces, and you name it. And these are not the people that I marched beside in Vietnam and fought alongside. These are not the young men who accepted their duty that the country put on them as draftees, most of them. They didn't ask to go, but they went.
GALLOWAYAnd they just deserve at least the truth at last before they are gone. And, you know, for the last seven years, I've traveled this country for the Vietnam War 50th anniversary commemoration that's run by the office of Secretary of Defense. And my job has been to do video interviews of Vietnam veterans. I have over 800 two-hour interviews in the can. And these, unedited, go straight into the Library of Congress Oral History Archives. I've listened to thousands of stories of Vietnam veterans. I learned something new from every one of them.
NNAMDIJoining us now are three local veterans who were profiled in the book. Richard Armitage is a former U.S. Navy officer who served. He is also the former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State. Richard Armitage, thank you for joining us.
RICHARD ARMITAGEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIGeorge Forrest is a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army. George Forrest, thank you for joining us.
GEORGE FORRESTThank you, Mr. Nnamdi.
NNAMDIAnd Jan Scruggs is a U.S. Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War. He's the founder and President Emeritus of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. Jan Scruggs, thank you for joining us.
JAN SCRUGGSMy pleasure.
NNAMDIRichard Armitage, I'll start with you. When you got to Vietnam, you served as an advisor for the Republic of Vietnam Navy, and you took to your work like quoting here "an alligator to a swamp." At least that's the way Joe Galloway writes about it in his book. What was it like being an advisor, and why did you feel so strongly about being embedded with your Vietnamese counterparts?
ARMITAGEI thought it was absurd for U.S. soldiers to be carrying weapons when there were Vietnamese who could do it. But I did buy the proposition of assisting the South Vietnamese. And that included helicopters and aircraft and all that, an advisory role. And I just thought it was the better part of good sense to be an advisor, learn what was going on and help them be able to help themselves.
NNAMDIAfter you resigned your commission, you worked at the Defense Attaché Office as a civilian, but you ended up returning to Vietnam and pulling off something kind of incredible. Why did you go back to Vietnam, and what did you do?
ARMITAGEWell, I had stayed on in Vietnam as a Naval and Marine operations advisor. We were limited to how many uniforms could be in country, so I had to resign my commission. And I was going to, anyway, I was so frustrated with the way our government was overseeing the war. But in January of 1975, I came back to be with my family in San Diego. I finally got in touch with a fellow who was running the Indio China program by the name of Eric Von Marbod. And he said, come with me. We're going back to Vietnam. We've got a job to do. And he commissioned me to do a certain mission.
NNAMDIAnd, in that mission, you were able to help a great number of Vietnamese to leave and go to the Philippines. How many Vietnamese refugees did you ultimately help?
ARMITAGEThe ones that I was responsible for, 31,000.
NNAMDIThat is absolutely amazing. George Forrest, you grew up in St. Mary's County, Maryland, and you went on to attend Morgan State University, in those days called Morgan State College. You were required to take ROTC for two years. Why'd you stick with ROTC through the rest of your college career, and why did you go into the Army once you graduated?
FORRESTWell, it was a guaranteed commission after graduating from college. And being an African-American, there were a limited number of fields that we could go into. I didn't want to be a teacher. I didn't want to be an undertaker. And I didn't work hard enough in college to go to law school, so the Army was my option.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. If you have questions or comments, give us a call. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the contributions of the Vietnam generation in the book "They Were Soldiers," by Joe Galloway. Joe Galloway joins us along with Richard Armitage, George Forrest and Jan Scruggs. George Forrest, I'm curious to know how being a black man shaped your experience in Vietnam and your military career, overall. What were race relations like in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War?
FORRESTWell, race relations in -- because this was in the '60s, so the military reflected the society. I grew up in a segregated society, went to an all-black school. At the time, Morgan State was an all-black university. When I got to the 1st Cav, I was only one of a few number of African-Americans who had combat command, and which meant that I was a rifle company commander on the ground. This was a prestige job that was only rare for African-Americans to have. And so I was one of those lucky ones to get one.
NNAMDIJan Scruggs, why did you decide to volunteer in 1968?
SCRUGGSWell, just getting out of high school from kind of a working class family, it looked like a way to get my military obligation out of the way and have a great adventure, as well. So, I ended up in Vietnam.
NNAMDIAnd there you had a near-death experience. What happened?
SCRUGGSI was fighting the North Vietnamese troops. And some troops got behind us with rocket grenades, and I was dying, literally bleeding to death, (laugh) and kind of had an out-of-body experience. I was kind of looking down on myself. I said the Lord's Prayer. I was ready to go, but I prayed to God. I said, look, I'll make it up to you, if you can get me out of this mess. I don 't know, but -- so I became an expert later on post-traumatic stress disorder and testified in front of the Senate and wrote articles, and decided in 1979 that the names of the fallen would be etched on a memorial in Washington, D.C. And that became sort of my life mission.
NNAMDIHere is John in Colonial Beach, Virginia. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi. Thank you. Can you hear me, Kojo?
NNAMDIWe can, John.
JOHNVery good. Yes. I'm not a Vietnam veteran. I'm a Vietnam air veteran. By the way, I belong to a national veterans group called Vietnam Veterans of America, essentially made up of Vietnam air veterans like me and the folks you have there on your show. I wanted to talk to Joe Galloway. General Hal Moore, when did he die? You know, I know he's gone, but, Mr. Galloway, do you know when he passed away? I have another question after this, as well.
GALLOWAYWell, he passed away three years ago. I preached his funeral myself. Also preached the funeral of Sergeant Major Basil Plumley.
NNAMDIJohn, go ahead.
JOHNAnother question I have is that Jack Smith, who's a well-known ABC reporter, he died, too. I just found that out some years ago, surprised. He's the son of Howard K. Smith of ABC News. And was his a result of agent orange? Because, Mr. Galloway, I'm quite certain you have been exposed to agent orange, along with Jan Scruggs and the other individuals on your program.
GALLOWAYJack died of pancreatic cancer, which the VA had not, at that time, certified as an agent orange thing. But we lost several veterans of just the Ia Drang to that same malady. So, yes, I would say that Jack Smith's death was very premature, and it was caused by agent orange.
NNAMDIWe've talked about your time in Vietnam, but now let's talk about your lives after the war. Jan Scruggs, the Vietnam War was polarizing the U.S. and many of the veterans who came home experienced a great deal of anti-war sentiment. What was that like for you?
SCRUGGSWell, it's not easy to go through a traumatic experience like fighting in a war like Vietnam, and then being viewed as a possible Lieutenant Calley, but it was just a difficult time...
NNAMDI(overlapping) For those who are not aware of it. Lieutenant Calley was the one who was involved in the My Lai Massacre. But go ahead, please, Jan Scruggs.
SCRUGGSCorrect. So, I just kind of got on with my life. I got a Master's Degree at American University. I had post traumatic stress disorder from a couple of incidents. I put a number of people in body bags, and that's an experience that you never really get rid of.
SCRUGGSSo, what I did was, instead of being tortured by this, I like to struggle well, I think you call it. And I got a Master's Degree and became an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder. And flowing from that came the idea of a memorial with names, which would help those who had survivor conflicts to recover, hopefully, from their psychological wounds.
NNAMDIRichard Armitage, how did your time serving in Vietnam influence the rest of your career?
ARMITAGEWell, it made me damn certain that I wanted to try to be involved in every major event that was coming down the pike. And I was going to do my best to be part of it. I was, like others, not happy with the conduct of the war. But it forced me, in a way, my service there, to try to be part of the decision-making here in Washington.
NNAMDIIndeed, you've worked extensively in foreign policy. You worked as a deputy secretary of state from 2001 to 2005. What do you feel was your greatest accomplishment during that time?
ARMITAGEI'm not sure I can claim a greatest accomplishment, because we got involved in the Iraq War. I think it's one of the biggest bad decisions that was ever made. So, to that extent, I was unsuccessful. To the extent I was successful in anything, it was defusing the almost nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan.
NNAMDIHow about your power lifting at that time?
ARMITAGEWell, that's come along just fine. It's been a little slow in the last two months because no gyms are open, but I'll get back to it here shortly.
NNAMDIYou have worked extensively in foreign policy. Was your involvement in Vietnam the reason why you decided that you wanted to become a decision-maker in international relations?
ARMITAGEI didn't want to be jacked around.
NNAMDI(laugh) Every few months, you get contacted by someone whose parents were part of that convoy you led out of Vietnam all those years ago. What do they want to know?
ARMITAGEIt's generally the children who were babies, or perhaps actually born here. They want to know what their parents were feeling, because generally -- at least the majority who have contacted me -- have not heard from their mom or their dad what the experience was like. It was too traumatic for the parents to talk about. So, the children, generally at the time that the elder is about to pass, they get in touch me and want to know what it was like. What the trip to the Philippines was like, what Saigon was like in the last couple days, that sort of thing.
NNAMDIJan Scruggs, how did you first come up with the idea to create a monument for Vietnam veterans?
SCRUGGSI went to see a movie called "The Deer Hunter" with my wife in Silver Spring. And, that night, I had a hard time sleeping, and I just decided that I was going to build a national memorial in Washington, D.C. At the time, I was a GS7 at the Department of Labor, you know, kind of a nobody. And I was determined to do this. And, thankfully, a good team of people emerged as my partners with this, graduates of the Harvard Business School. We fought the battles, and then we got this memorial built.
SCRUGGSIt now gets five-and-a-half million visitors a year. Everybody loves it. It's really been transformed into a sacred shrine by the visitors. It's much like a place like Pearl Harbor or Gettysburg. There's a spiritual dimension to it. So, it's a wonderful thing. Very proud to have done it.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned you fought the battles, because you received a lot of pushback during your time trying to get this memorial built. Why was that?
SCRUGGSWell, people -- this was a modernistic design, and some people didn't like it. And, you know, I can understand that, but they tried to stop it from getting built. And I can understand that, too, but we had to beat them, so we did. But we agreed to have a flag and statue, the statue of the three fighting soldiers at the Vietnam Wall. So, we had a modernistic memorial with a sort of more traditional element. And we all make comprises in Washington, and that was a pretty good one.
NNAMDIGeorge Forrest, after going back to the old guard as an operations officer, being promoted to lieutenant colonel commanding an infantry battalion in Germany, you retired. You've been offered a position at your alma mater, Morgan State, with the football team. What was the position and how did your experience as an officer help prepare you for it?
FORRESTWell, fortunately, for me, the athletic director at the time was concerned about the academic performance of his athletes. And the graduation rates for athletes was pretty low. So, he brought me back as an academic advisor. When I got there, the job changed because I -- and I picked up some additional duties, which is not unusual for a coach, and I became a defensive coordinator. And then I eventually ended up being the assistant head coach.
FORRESTBut what was most rewarding for me was I saw, in these young men, what my coach saw in me, something called latent potential. And so I set high standards for these guys, and then demanded of them. The lesson that I learned in Vietnam, thanks to Joe Galloway and going back with him in '93, is that if you push young people hard enough, they're looking for rules, they want guidance. And the results can be positive.
FORRESTOne of my greatest accomplishments is the Surgeon General of the United States Army played defensive back for me at Morgan State College. His name is Lieutenant General Scott Dingle. He is the surgeon general for all of the U.S. Army.
NNAMDIAnd you're particularly proud of how you were able to help those players achieve academically, correct?
FORRESTThat's correct. And it's rewarding when you are -- I was in Atlanta at an airport, once. And across the concourse, I heard, coach, coach. And there was one of my former athletes, who was now the pharmaceutical manager for the whole southern region of the United States. And I remember him well, because he was one of these kids who did just the minimal, which was a reflection of me when I was in college.
NNAMDIHere now is Scott in Virginia. Scott, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SCOTTThanks, Kojo. I just want to say, especially to Mr. Galloway, I'm a Marine veteran myself. I served 20 years, and was able to serve in both Afghanistan and Iraq. And when I was going through my initial training, "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young" was actually the basis, one of our seminal texts that we had to read. And, to this day, I think it was absolutely one of the best books a young Marine could possibly read in terms of explaining good leadership and the fog of war, the difficulty of making decisions.
SCOTTIt's very hard to put that into words, and I think Mr. Galloway and General Moore did an absolutely magnificent job of doing that, of preparing us. And I think those lessons served me well for 20 years. And I think also that things like the Vietnam Memorial, I think Mr. Galloway's example is what laid the ground work for the much better reception that we all got when we came back. And I just want to thank you, Mr. Galloway, all of the guests today, because you laid the groundwork for today's veterans. So, thank you very much.
GALLOWAYAnd I thank you, because I must tell you, that my first seven months in Vietnam, I was assigned to cover the Marines. I made every Marine combat operation in I Corps during that time to include one combat amphibious assault landing. And the Marines taught me just enough to keep the Army from getting me killed.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We got an email from Steve in Baltimore, who writes, Vietnam veterans were done a great disservice in many popular TV shows and cheesy thriller and cop movies in the 1970s and the 1980s. For a while, there it seemed like half the lunatics and deranged killers on screen were quote-unquote "disturbed Vietnam veterans."
NNAMDIAlso I worked with Joe Galloway for several years at U.S. News and World Report. In the 40 years I was a newsman, I know of no better reporter or writer than Joe. I missed Vietnam, thank God, but had I been there, there was no one I would rather have at my back than Joe Galloway. So, Joe Galloway, even though you were not a combatant, it would appear that there are people who really appreciated the role you played there.
GALLOWAYWell, I appreciate that note from Steve Kidney. I worked alongside him for several years at U.S. News. And, you know, that noncombatant role in Vietnam, it slid on occasion. I carried a rifle on my shoulder when I went in to Ia Drang. And I was forced to use it to protect myself and the wounded around me, and I make no excuse for that.
NNAMDIHere is Kirk in Cottage City, Maryland. Kirk, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KIRKHello, Kojo. I have a question or your guests, but first, I would like to say that one of the names on that wall is the name of Danny Sharp, a black man from Greenfield, Missouri, my uncle's high school classmate who laid down his life for his country in Vietnam. And I wonder what your guests think of Ken Burns' documentary about the Vietnam War.
NNAMDILet me ask each. I'll start with you, Richard Armitage. What do you think of Ken Burns' documentary?
ARMITAGEI thought the first one-and-a-half reels was fantastic, the history, etcetera. But I thought Mr. Burns fell victim to that sort of image of Vietnam vets as sort of shaggy-haired druggies, and things of that nature. So, I was not totally enamored with the whole project.
NNAMDIHow about you, George Forrest?
FORRESTMy comments exactly. And what I think the documentary missed was the heroic actions of so many young people. And this is the burden that I carry as a combat leader, the number of people who we lost. We lost over 50,000 young people. Who knows what these guys could have contributed to the society overall?
SCRUGGSI'll give it a good solid B. I think he could've chosen more successful Vietnam veterans who were not tortured by the war. (laugh) But it was very entertaining, and he's a real professional if you look at the overall subject he's done with baseball and politics. He's just incredible at his art.
NNAMDIHere is Luke in Maryland. Luke, your turn.
LUKEHi. I just wanted to reiterate what one of your previous callers said. I wanted to thank your guests and all Vietnam veterans, as a veteran of Iraq. I truly believe that it's because of what they did that we came home with honor. And, you know, there's always been a saying, ours is not to wonder why, ours is but to do or die. And I just appreciate what Vietnam veterans did for us. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Richard Armitage, I'd like for you to comment on the notion of ours is not to wonder why. After the war, did you wonder why?
ARMITAGEI wondered why before I went over. This is why I volunteered as an advisor in a combat unit. As I said, I wondered why we were doing the heavy end of the fighting. I didn't mind doing a fair share, but I thought plenty of Vietnamese could do the same thing. So, I did wonder why.
NNAMDIGeorge Forrest, did you wonder why?
FORRESTYeah, I wondered why, and I still wonder why. Why we are involved in so many conflicts around the world. We're using our young -- I have a grandson, and I have four sons. None of them served, and I have a grandson. And I hope that his life will not be wasted in some useless war.
NNAMDIJan Scruggs, do you wonder why?
SCRUGGSWell, to understand the Vietnam War you have to really look back in the Cold War. And this was sort of a battlefield of the Cold War. But it cost a lot of money. It cost a lot of lives. Nothing was accomplished. But now, you can go to Vietnam and have a nice vacation and go to the Nike factory. (laugh) That's it.
NNAMDIHere is Tricia in Vienna, Virginia. Tricia, your turn.
TRICIAHi, Kojo. Listening to your conversation reminded me of an experience that I shared with my father backing up when I was in college in 1975, maybe '74. My dad and I had this huge argument about patriotism and what it meant to be patriotic. It was a biggie. Many years later, after I moved to Washington, my parents came to visit me, and we went down to the Mall, and we entered the Vietnam Memorial.
TRICIAMy dad was a very stern, very tough man to all appearances. But as we walked down the incline and were confronted with more and more names, I could see my dad starting to tear up. And by the time we got to the other end of the memorial, my dad was visibly shaken and weeping. And it was really a moment of communion in this sanctified place. And I want to thank your guest who was involved in creating the Vietnam Memorial for doing that. I think many people have had that kind of experience that my dad and I shared. So, that's all I wanted to say.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Jan Scruggs, care to comment on that?
SCRUGGSYes. I would just say that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a very special place and a good place. And sometimes, there is a communion between the living and the dead there. Over half a million items have been left at the wall, and I certainly appreciate everyone's help in getting it built. And I'm so proud that it had such a happy ending.
NNAMDIHow do you feel about the memorial, George Forrest?
FORRESTIt's a healing place for me. Being a rifle company commander, on one given day, I lost, in a matter of seconds, 17 young people, 45 wounded because of -- and, as a commander of a unit, I feel responsible. And so when I go to the wall and I see these name, I don't need the wall to know the names, because they are indelibly etched in my mind. And, for me, it is a healing place. I had a great deal of difficulty going there, initially, because it was my worst nightmare. The names on that wall, those 17 names on panel 23E, in a way, I'm responsible for their names being up there.
NNAMDIRichard Armitage, the memorial for you?
ARMITAGEIt's sacred. It's meaningful. I was glad to be a small part of it. And I go as often as I can.
NNAMDIAlex from D.C. emails, I'm excited to read "There Were Soldiers." As a 33-year-old, the Vietnam War was nearly nonexistent in my education. It was only with Ken Burns' recent documentary and the book "Hue 1968" by Mark Bowden that I've come to understand the war more deeply. Our society is better when we know where we have been. Joe Galloway, why do you think it's important for us -- both those in the military, as well as civilians -- to reflect on the Vietnam War? What do you hope people understand from reading "They Were Soldiers"?
GALLOWAYThere are 58,400 names engraved on that black granite wall in D.C. And when I go there, I'm almost frozen, contemplating the price that we paid, the lessons we should have learned and didn't. I look at the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Only have about 30 seconds left.
GALLOWAY...and I think: Why haven't we learned better than to go easily to war, when it's so difficult to get out, and so many pay the price afterward?
NNAMDIJoe Galloway, Richard Armitage, George Forrest, Jan Scruggs, thank you all for joining us. This conversation about Vietnam veterans' contributions to their communities and to their country was produced by Cydney Grannan. And our update on murder hornets was produced by Richard Cunningham.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, we're revisiting some of the conversations that have stuck with us in recent months, including my visit with award-winning author Jason Reynolds and the last installment of our local climate change series, where we asked scientists, educators and young climate activists if there's still hope for the future of the planet. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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