The Letter

Texas A&M Foundation President Ed Davis ’67 salutes the millions of men and women who have answered the call to service for our country.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Davis’ Veterans Day speech at the Brazos Valley Veterans Memorial Nov. 11, 2012.

“…when the poppies came out on Main Street you knew you were celebrating the service and sacrifice of our veterans.”

I was born almost exactly eight months before VJ Day and the end of World War II. As with most families, I had relatives who served in both Europe and the Pacific. My wife’s uncle was one of the few survivors of the Battan Death March.

For the first decade or so of my life, we were all affected by the aftermath of the war. It revealed itself in many ways: economic hardship; scarcity of goods; thousands of veterans returning to college on the G-I Bill. Most importantly, it showed in the tremendous patriotism and gratefulness to those who served, and especially respect shown to those who did not return.

My memories of Veterans Day, known as Armistice Day back then, was that everyone in Henrietta, Texas, wore a poppy. It was fall, the weather had cooled a bit, football season was underway, you could smell the cotton hulls burning at the cotton gin, and when the poppies came out on Main Street you knew you were celebrating the service and sacrifice of our veterans.

The Unpopular and Forgotten Wars
As time passed, we fought two unpopular wars, including “my” war, Vietnam. We went through a phase in our country where patriotism and service were, at best, out of style. Further impacted by the end of the draft, our country spent the better part of two decades transitioning to a volunteer force — which to some degree resulted in a view that while our national security through service in the military was important, it was someone else’s job.

I recently read some coverage about the war in Afghanistan. It is, frankly, our forgotten war. It’s not a hot topic at the office water cooler, even though more than 80,000 U.S. troops are still fighting there and dying at the rate of more than one a day. By the time voters closed the polls on Nov. 6, the war in Afghanistan had entered its twelfth year. For Americans not engaged through family or friends, it hardly makes the news bytes on the inside pages.

Ignoring the war in Afghanistan, however, does not make it go away. Two thousand Americans have died. Thousands more have been wounded or maimed. More regrettably, our service members there have been doing their extraordinary job mostly out of sight and out of mind of the majority of the American population.

A Desperate Bond
An old friend who I served with in the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam recently sent me a book, called simply “War.” It’s about soldiers in Afghanistan, written by Sebastian Junger, a reporter for The New York Times who was embedded with a unit of the 173rd in a desolate mountain outpost in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. Probably the most important part of the book is not about the enormous hardships that these soldiers endure or the risks that they take every day, but rather the bonds that are created, and the love that is spawned by their isolation and brotherhood in combat.

Any of you who served together with other soldiers, airman, sailors or marines in combat will identify with these words from the book, as you feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

“Combat fog obscures your fate. Obscures when and where you might die and, from that unknown, is born a desperate bond between men. That bond is the core experience of combat and the only thing you can count on. The Army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is non-negotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire and the experience of it changes a person profoundly. What Army sociologists with their clipboards and their questions and their endless analyses slowly came to understand while studying this was that courage was love. In war neither could exist without the other and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing.”

The soldiers that are described in Sebastian Junger’s book are just like the soldiers who, 45 years earlier, served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade fighting at Hill 875 in Vietnam. This was the same 173rd Airborne that I had heard about during the week of Thanksgiving 1967 as a 2nd Lt. at Infantry Officer Basic, while the battle for Dak To was being fought. It was one of the early significant battles with regular North Vietnamese forces, and it was consummated on Thanksgiving Day 1967.

Two battalions of the 503rd Infantry counted 33 missing in action, 158 killed in action, and 411 wounded after 21 days of fighting around Dak To. It left more than 3,000 NVA dead. As a 2nd Lt. going through infantry training, you can imagine I began to question whether I was tough enough for that kind of experience.

Foundation President Ed Davis as a cadet

As a senior at Texas A&M, Foundation President Ed Davis ’67 served as commander of the Corps of Cadets.

Tough Enough
During my senior year at Texas A&M I had the great privilege to serve as the Cadet Colonel of the Corps of Cadets. The final interview was with President Earl Rudder. When I went into his office we exchanged greetings. Mr. Rudder then said, “Eddie Joe, you are a fine looking young man. I just have one question: ‘Are you tough enough?’” A bit startled, I thought for a moment, and then answered with the only answer that made sense to me, “Mr. Rudder, I’m as tough as I need to be.” He smiled, stood up, shook my hand and said, “That’s all I needed to hear. You’ve got the job.” You can imagine I was pretty pleased with myself.

Forty years later, as I stood at the memorial on top of Pointe du Hoc, I wondered in amazement how this great hero and his Ranger battalion possibly did what they did. Only then did I realize how hollow that answer must have sounded to this heroic figure.

However, that question, “Are you tough enough?” has been asked and answered millions of times of men and women in the military.

I remember attending a Muster service early after I returned to work at Texas A&M in the 1970s. The speaker, Jim Ray ’64, was an Aggie pilot who had been held captive for six years by the North Vietnamese in the Hanoi Hilton. Each morning, regular as breakfast, a guard would come in and beat him with a bamboo pole. Jim Ray, however, had answered the question in his mind. He was tough enough. He credited it to his A&M training. Every day he would say to himself, “Here he comes again. I know he’s going to beat me, but he can’t hold a candle to that sophomore S.O.B. who lived next door to me when I was a Fish at A&M.”

The “Are you tough enough?” question has not just been asked of men. Take, for example, the young American nurses in the Philippines in 1941. They were certainly “tough enough.” Elizabeth Norman has recorded their experiences in the book, “We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese.” Even after these young, conventionally trained hospital nurses escaped the Japanese bombing of Manila and sought refuge with American forces on Corregidor, they were eventually captured and held prisoner for years by the Japanese.

These young women had not received any military training and had very little knowledge of jungle survival. But they did know how to care for each other and the soldiers. In the prison camps, these dedicated healers were determined to stay together and continued to work as a nursing unit throughout their internment despite the effects of starvation, exhaustion, inhumane treatment and violent brutality. By the time they were liberated in February 1945, they had answered the question of being “tough enough,” and military nurses view them as extraordinary role models even today.

“The scene that left me struggling was the one from Officers’ Row at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the wives of combat leaders and officers waited back home while their husbands were in Vietnam. It showed the lines of houses with screened-in porches, the wives going about their normal chores and always watchful for the dreaded government car pulling up to their doorstep.”

The Letter
The question of “Am I tough enough?” returned to me a few years ago as I left a movie theater with an enormous lump in my throat. The film, “We Were Soldiers,” which recounts the experience of the first Cavalry Division in one of the earliest major battles in Vietnam, Ia Drang Valley, reminded me of the toughest thing I ever had to do.

The scene that left me struggling was the one from Officers’ Row at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the wives of combat leaders and officers waited back home while their husbands were in Vietnam. It showed the lines of houses with screened-in porches, the wives going about their normal chores and always watchful for the dreaded government car pulling up to their doorstep. You know the one… olive drab or black, small hubcaps, black wall tires, coming to deliver the impossible telegram. It begins, “The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you…” That’s the official word.

Then there is what I call “The Letter.” It was one of the most profoundly impactful experiences of my life and one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. It has never left me.

Sgt. Bobby Parker was 21 years old in November 1969. He was from Newburyport, Mass., a middle class town about 35 miles northeast of Boston. I was his superior at all of 24 years old. We ran combat intelligence operations for the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Binh Dinh Province in Northern II Corps. Bobby was mature and wise for his age. He ran the intelligence and field interrogation unit for the 1/503rd Infantry Battalion at LZ Uplift. He was smart, had a knack for foreign languages and could hold his own in Vietnamese, a very difficult dialect.

We had captured a wounded North Vietnamese soldier who had been making his way to a major underground hospital complex, and through interrogation we had been able to locate the hospital on a map. Bobby was taking the NVA soldier and elements of a rifle company to locate this underground hospital facility where many NVA soldiers were reportedly being treated. When they air assaulted, the LZ was not hot; things seemed to be going very well.

Davis commends both the book, “We Were Soldiers Once… and Young,” and the movie, “We Were Soldiers,” as perhaps the best depictions of Vietnam War leadership in combat and the enormous impact of helicopter aviation on the war.

Bobby jumped off the Huey with everyone else, formed a quick perimeter, and then started down a path following the point man and the NVA prisoner. Unfortunately, the noise from the rotor blades masked the sound of a trip wire pulling a grenade out of a can, popping the handle. It was probably the point man or the prisoner who unknowingly hit the trip wire, and within a few steps the grenade blast caught Bobby square in the back. I got the radio call that he was down.

It took awhile to get him medevaced due to a minor ambush and skirmish, but he had died instantly.

I knew the official telegram would be on its way to his family. As soon as I could get back to base camp, I began to write “The Letter” to Bobby’s parents. It wasn’t an official letter, it wasn’t from the Secretary of the Army, and it didn’t have a seal or the signature of some famous person. It was a letter that described how much I loved and respected their son. I tried to make them proud. I tried to make them somehow understand the impossible sacrifice and that what they had given up had somehow been worth it. Bobby’s mother cherished the letter and read it at a memorial service for Bobby in his hometown. We stayed loosely connected for years by correspondence. Finally their health failed and the circle was completed.

My message is not just about service, but also about the bond, the indelible bond between all who have been there. You didn’t have to be a POW, or in combat, or have given the ultimate sacrifice, but you all answered the call… the call of service.

Dare we not forget each other and pray that our country never forgets all who have served and especially all those who have suffered from their sacrifice. And certainly remember all who have ever written or received “The Letter.”

God bless our service men and women and God bless the United States of America.

By Ed Davis ’67
Texas A&M Foundation

A special thanks to all of the staff of the Texas A&M Foundation who have served our country.

Don Birklelbach ’70
Dr. Ed Davis ’67
Jim Keller ’63
Glenn Pittsford ’72
Jerome Rektorik ’65
Dr. Guy Sheppard ’76
Ron Streibich
David Wilkinson ’87
Dr. Bubba Woytek ’64

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