Ralph Puckett: Valor and sacrifice in Vietnam

March 7, 2014 

National Infantry Museum symposium to feature personal accounts of men who experienced that war

For the past two years, the nation has been quietly commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. Early operations of the war began in 1962. The American ground war started in 1965. The U.S. ended its involvement in 1973, but the war waged on until Saigon fell in 1975. All of those actions are coming back into focus as we remember where we were 50 years ago.

Eight men, each with history-making stories of service and sacrifice from that time, will relive their experiences as they take part in a symposium and dinner titled "Vietnam: Valor and Sacrifice" March 20-21 at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center. The symposium will take a deeper look into the war that was central to the greatest civic turmoil and dissension in our country since the Civil War.

Four of these men earned the Medal of Honor, our nation's highest military honor. In every case, these intrepid soldiers found themselves in harrowing situations, surrounded by the enemy, losing their leaders, losing the fight. And in each case, an inexplicable courage surfaced, enabling them to reverse the tide, save their buddies, live another day.

Symposium attendees will also meet four other men who fought another kind of war in Vietnam. These men were taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese, and for days -- months -- years they fought brutality, isolation, hopelessness. The war history of just these four men fills 30 years of captivity. But they too found within their spirits a hunger to survive that would not be denied.

The symposium also will include a presentation on "US Strategy in Vietnam: Continuities in War and Lessons for Today and Tomorrow" by Maneuver Center of Excellence Commanding General H.R. McMaster, and a discussion on the war's 11 most resistant prisoners of war by "Defiant" author Alvin Townley. Joe Galloway, who co-authored "We Were Soldiers Once … and Young," is guest speaker at the dinner that evening.

That's quite a playlist. It is not often we are given the opportunity to hear first-hand accounts of the events that would shape the rest of the war and our nation's response to it.

The events at the National Infantry Museum March 20-21 are not purely educational. They are intended to fulfill the museum's mission of honoring soldiers, past, present and future. On Friday, these eight Vietnam veterans and possibly hundreds more will stand side by side with the Army's newest Infantrymen as the museum dedicates a new Vietnam Memorial Plaza. General (Retired) Barry McCaffrey, one of the Vietnam War's most decorated officers, will make remarks; the guest speaker will be Medal of Honor recipient Col. (Retired) Jack Jacobs.

The memorial features a three-quarter scale reproduction of The Wall in Washington, D.C., that faithfully reproduces the somber splendor of the original. A person cannot view this memorial without both pride and sorrow for the 58,000-plus military personnel whose sacrifice is memorialized and honored there. No one has expressed this sacrifice better than author Myra MacPherson: "Above all, Vietnam was a war that asked everything of a few and nothing of most in America."

The events planned for March 20 and 21 will be historical. They will be awe-inspiring and unforgettable. When you touch the names etched into the black reflective surface of the Wall, you'll connect with the men and women who gave their last full measure of devotion in service to our country. And when you shake the hands of the men who lived to share their stories, you'll connect with history.

Col. (Retired) Ralph Puckett, a former honorary colonel of the 75th Ranger Regiment, serves on the National Advisory Board of the National Infantry Museum Foundation; www.nationalinfantrymuseum.org.

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