WASHINGTON — Forty-three years ago this week, the fabled 101st Airborne Division launched Operation Apache Snow — a major ground offensive against North Vietnamese army invaders in the treacherous A Shau Valley. Though fighting raged over hundreds of square miles of triple-canopied jungle, the focus soon became a single terrain feature, a mountain, with peaks as high as 3,000 feet, the Vietnamese named Dong Ap Bia, or "Mountain of the Crouching Beast." The Americans who fought there called it Hamburger Hill.
By the time the 11-day battle ended, 70 American soldiers were dead, and nearly 400 had been wounded. More than 600 North Vietnamese soldiers perished. The only survivors of this epic battle to receive the thanks of their countrymen for their courage and commitment were the North Vietnamese.
The Americans who walked off that bloody mountain — and every other soldier, sailor, airman, guardsman and Marine who served in Vietnam — returned home to a bitterly divided country. The so-called mainstream media, Hollywood and academe depicted those who served in Vietnam as pothead marauders, deranged killers and the "victims" of "Johnson's war" or "Nixon's war."
There were no parades celebrating the bravery and perseverance of the 2.7 million young men and women who donned a uniform and served in some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions on earth. Until the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — known as the "Vietnam Wall" — was dedicated in 1982, public accolades were sparse, and ceremonies outside the confines of a military base, an American Legion hall or a Veterans of Foreign Wars post were practically nonexistent.
Now, five decades after their war began — and 37 years after its disastrous, cataclysmic conclusion — those who fought in Vietnam are finally being welcomed home. At 1 p.m. EDT on Monday, May 28 — Memorial Day — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will host a ceremony "to thank and honor America's Vietnam veterans on behalf of a grateful nation." Though tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans, Gold Star families and the leaders of our nation will be there, few of the potentates of the press have taken note of this extraordinary event.
Next week's ceremony shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. In the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress directed the Department of Defense to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War and "coordinate, support, and facilitate" programs nationwide to recognize those who sacrificed and served in Vietnam.
Appropriately, the Memorial Day ceremony will take place in front of "the wall" that has the names of the 58,282 Americans who were killed or remain missing in action in Southeast Asia — including that of Spc. Leslie Sabo, who posthumously was awarded the Medal of Honor this week for his heroism May 10, 1970. Also this week, 10 new names were added to the black granite walls, and the status of 12 others was changed from "missing" to "killed." Most of the new names and designation changes are the consequence of work done by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. As the ceremony takes place in Washington, two JPAC teams will be in Laos searching for more Americans unaccounted for in the Vietnam theater of war.
On Nov. 18, 1967, then-U.S. Army Pfc. Sammy Davis was serving on a small fire support base near Cai Lay, Vietnam. In the middle of the night, his artillery battery began taking incoming mortar fire and was attacked by a Viet Cong battalion. He was able to provide suppressing fire with a machine gun and then return artillery fire onto the enemy. Despite being wounded, he navigated an air mattress across the river to save three fellow soldiers. For those actions, Sgt. 1st Class Sammy Davis was awarded the Medal of Honor. (David was born and raised in French Camp and attended Manteca High.)
I asked my dear friend Sammy Davis why it is important for Vietnam veterans to gather for this commemoration. He said, "Comrades gather because they long to be with the men who once acted their best, men who suffered and sacrificed, who were stripped raw, right down to their humanity." Of the men he served with, he added: "I did not pick these men. They were delivered by fate. But I know them in a way I know no other men. I have never given anyone such trust. They were willing to guard something more precious than my life. They would have carried my reputation, the memory of me. It was part of the bargain we all made, the reason we were so willing to die for one another."
To all of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines who served during Vietnam, welcome home. I hope to see you this Memorial Day.