Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program of CNY – 30 October 2009
LtCol Kurt Wheeler, USMCR
Field Historian, Marine Corps History Division
I am honored to be here today and to have the opportunity to share this time with you. When Judge Mordue asked me to speak, I was delighted to accept. This venue combines two of my favorite groups; students and veterans. I am a history teacher at Cazenovia High School and truly believe helping and nurturing young scholars to be my reason for being. Young people like you are near and dear to my heart. With regard to veterans, I happen to be one, but that is secondary. For me, veterans are the embodiment of our nation’s virtues. They are also living repositories of history. You’re probably tired of hearing your teachers tell you that we need to learn from history, so let me phrase it differently – we can and should learn from those who have made history. Each year, I require my students to seek out and learn from veterans of our nation’s wars. How blessed you are to have veterans in your own family – I hope you will never stop learning from them.
Vietnam veterans, in particular, can be a rich source of knowledge and advice. Every officer remembers the seasoned old NCO who took them under their wing and helped them survive their tour as a 2nd Lt. My mentor was a crusty MSgt named Guy Ambrose. MSgt Ambrose had earned five purple hearts during multiple tours in Vietnam. Now we all suspected that the MSgt must have had magnetic properties to attract that much shrapnel and we used to kind of edge away from him when there was incoming during Operation Desert Storm. But on every other occasion, one wanted to stay as close to him as possible. He had encountered and sorted through every leadership challenge you could imagine and he had that gentle fatherly ability to point you in the right direction without making you feel like an idiot for not seeing the solution in the first place. One of the messages that I would like to leave our students with today is: Everyone needs a mentor – and I’ll bet there are some damn fine ones in this room today – seek them out, ask questions, and listen to what they have to say. I owe much to those who have mentored me over the years.
The timing of this luncheon is appropriate in that Veterans’ Day is just 12 days away. I love our country. I love all that it represents. More than any other group, our veterans represent the qualities and virtues we hold dear as a nation. We all value freedom. They have defended it. They have sacrificed their individual liberty, often in ways we can only imagine, to share the blessing of freedom with others. We honor courage. They define it. I often remind my students that courage is not the absence of fear, it is acting despite it. Our servicemen and women almost always know the dangers they face – the point is that they do their duty in spite of those dangers. What must it have been like to look across that long open field at Gettysburg on July 3rd 1863, to know the odds, but to step off anyway? What must it have been like to watch darkness settle in on Hill 881 outside Khe Sanh, but man your post without hesitation? What must it have been like to enter house after house in Fallujah, knowing the next one may be your last? Veterans knew the risks in each of these cases, but performed their duty nonetheless.
Those virtues are well-known and often celebrated – as they should be. But our veterans embody other virtues such as self-discipline, compassion and restraint that are not as heralded. I will share some examples from Iraq, but talk to those who served in Vietnam, or any of our nation’s conflicts, and you will hear similar themes emerge. I am privileged to serve as a historian for the Marine Corps. My mission is to document the experiences of Marines and those who serve along side them so that their stories are not lost. Historians deploy wherever Marines may be serving to capture their stories by conducting interviews, taking photos, collecting documents and recovering artifacts – all to preserve our history for the benefit of future generations.
Those of you who have served at earlier points in our nation’s history have established a legacy that each ensuing generation strives to live up to. You have set a standard of service, of valor, of selflessness that inspires those who serve now. Each year on the 10th of November, Marines gather to celebrate our birthday and we talk of such things. The spirit of warriors past and the essence of their actions is always tangibly present in the room. That presence motivates the latest generation to live up to your example. I am deeply proud to report that today’s young Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen are living up to that ideal. I never miss an opportunity to talk about the magnificent job that our young warriors are doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would like to share some of that with you today – because you might not hear about it anywhere else. Due to the current debate on policy in Afghanistan, those who watch the news may know that we have nearly 70,000 US troops in Afghanistan with the potential for tens of thousands more to be added. But how many Americans know that we still have 120,000 troops in harms way in Iraq? You would have to listen carefully to hear any mention of that fact in the mainstream media. So today, as we enjoy our time together and cherish the blessing of being here in America, safe and secure, let us remember those 200,000 young people who are abroad.
I mentioned other virtues that should be honored and I would like to elaborate a bit on that theme now. Make no mistake about it, the troops we have overseas today exhibit the courage, tactical skill and fighting spirit for which Americans have been renowned throughout our history. Those attributes have been essential in tracking down and eliminating those who would harm our nation and other freedom-loving people. But in some ways, it may be other qualities that have led to victory in Iraq and that will be the key to success in Afghanistan. I believe that the Iraq War, for all its flaws and setbacks, will one day be viewed as a strategic victory in the war on terror. The primary reason is that the conflict has showcased the innate decency of Americans and the inherent barbarity of al Qaeda. It has not been lost on the world’s Islamic community that the vast majority of people murdered by al Qaeda and their surrogates during the last eight years have been Muslims. Meanwhile, American servicemen and women have consistently demonstrated honor, decency, respect and restraint. That contrast has been noted.
During my tour in Iraq, I was privileged to travel throughout al Anbar province, its largest province, encompassing the western third of the country. I visited nearly every major population center and concentration of US forces. I met with ordinary Iraqis and their leaders. And I had the honor of interviewing 425 magnificent young Americans to capture their stories for history. I was also fortunate to be there during an event known as the Anbar Awakening. As this indigenous movement unfolded, Iraqis in one area after another made the conscious decision to unite with Americans against al Qaeda in Iraq and other violent insurgents. Iraqis did this out of self-interest. They compared the words and actions of insurgents with those of Americans. Over the long period the message conveyed by our troops was backed up by their deeds. “We are not here to occupy your country. We’re here to help you. We want to stabilize you communities, restore your essential services, train your indigenous security forces, return sovereignty to leaders of your own choosing and then go home to our own families.” In time they believed us because the actions of young Marines and soldiers on the streets of Fallujah and Ramadi and al Qaim matched their words. They exhibited restraint, and decency and mercy and compassion on a daily basis. The Iraqis, who are by and large an extremely pragmatic people, determined it was in their interest to cooperate with us and abandon the marriage of convenience some had formed with al Qaeda and other insurgent groups in late 2003 and 2004. The tide turned in Iraq when their citizens began to cooperate with us in pursuit of our mutual interests. Their young men stepped up to safeguard the security of their own communities. Today their security forces are in the lead and our forces are primarily trainers and advisors.
None of us should underestimate the scope of the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. But like Iraq, I believe the fundamental key to success in Afghanistan will be convincing their people that we are not there to occupy their country. Given the nation’s history and the fragmented nature of its society, this will not be an easy task. However, the element that gives me hope is the knowledge that the same young people who won the confidence of the Iraqis are now operating amongst the Afghan people. More than our political system, our nation’s leaders or even our senior officers, I have faith in the American fighting man and woman. If success in Afghanistan is to be achieved, it will be due to their courage, their decency and their exceptional ability to embody all that our nation stands for. I pray only that we give them a clear mission and the resources to achieve it.
This luncheon symbolizes the intersection of our nation’s past, present and future. The veterans here today have done so much to serve our nation, to protect its interests and safeguard its freedoms. They continue to serve and to lead in so many ways in civil society. There is much we can learn from their example. Today is part of the vital process to hand off the ideals and the values that have guided them to the next generation of Americans. Your capacity to receive, to appreciate and to carry on those ideals will have a profound impact on our nation’s future. This process of intergenerational transfer is essential to the success of our country – so essential that it can never be taken for granted. I am thankful that organizations like the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program exist to safeguard that process and grateful that I could be here today to see it in action. Thank you for having me and for your kind attention. May God bless you and America.