[Bob Smalanskas ’82 wrote the following article dedicated to Vietnam veteran Bernard Teel of Elkins Park, Pa. It was publicized on the Military Family Network for seventeen days and was featured in the July/August, 2005, issue of Purple Heart magazine.]
Tribute, Validation, and Apology
By R.T. Smalanskas
This article is dedicated to a special Vietnam veteran. Bernard Teel, of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, fought almost daily in the Iron Triangle during 1967 and ’68. His company squared off against a highly motivated “Charlie” in the infamous Tet Offensive. Bernard is a tall, imposing, yet friendly black American warrior. He had already received a Bronze Star, and his commanding officer was set to present him a Silver Star for saving a fellow soldier’s life. Bernard’s commendation stayed buttoned in a front pocket as his Army lieutenant was carted away in a body bag. The fallen officer, nicknamed “Duckie,” took a long-range enemy bullet to his head while standing right next to Teel. During a horrific joint NVA/VC human wave attack in a jungle, Teel’s crew burned up three 50-caliber machine gun barrels. Every single day in ’Nam was a fight for survival and sanity. His rank at honorable discharge was Specialist E-4. He last fought as a member of 1st Battalion, Mechanized 5th Infantry, from 25th Division. As he sauntered away after our intense conversation, he looked hard and said, “You keep on writing, man.” I won’t forget it anytime soon. Thanks for your service and inspiration, Bernard.
It is time. Today, on January 1, 2005, I did something which has been a regular occurrence over the past several years. This New Years’ Day was a dreary, wintry one; clouds were thick and low lying. My eyes scanned far-off, barren cornfields as I opened a rusty, squeaking gate. I tried to shake off a numbing cold that penetrated into my bones. Immediately, my attention diverted to weather-worn and time-aged headstones directly in front of me. It happened once again, like it always does. I slowly strolled toward the nearest miniature stars and stripes, which hung on top of a tiny rounded stick. I kneeled to read a name, birth date, and date of death from a gray, blackened gravestone. The letters and numbers were barely discernable. Except C.W. Miller, SGT, CO.D, 202D, PA. INF bounced right back at me. Dark green rust or fungi covered a circular, copper emblem attached to the middle of the small, smooth stick. It read: G.A.R. 1861-1865 (standing for Grand Army of the Republic.) Right then, I envisioned a fiery, noisy battlefield and a stalwart Union Sergeant shouting commands as a hard-charging Rebel Division advanced. My vision passed. Minutes later, twenty yards away, I stared at another aged emblem which showed: World War, U.S. 1917-1918. His name, etched on a headstone to my left, begged to be read aloud: “Henry M. Conklin Sr.1896-1970.” A crippling scene of thousands, of beyond-weary men standing in sloppy, putrid, rat infested trenches popped into my skull. This disturbing perception lingered and wouldn’t disappear. Almost like it had been put there by a source unknown to my conscious. I’ll never be able to explain why it occurs.
As a boy growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania, I worked around my Grandma’s country bar and clambake grove. Many of the men whom frequented our Long Pine Inn were World War Two Veterans. These retired fighters fascinated me.
Rarely would they speak of combat overseas, but once in a while their conversation shifted to recollections from Europe or Southeast Asia. I kept real quiet, paid close attention, and visualized the action they described. I idolized these guys and to me they were bigger than life. My favorite was Joe Seward of Scranton, Pa. Joe was a lovable teddy-bear type, with curly gray hair and a penchant for mischief. He fought in the battle for Guadalcanal Island as an Army Sergeant and is now deceased.
During my early- to mid-twenties, I read voraciously about the Vietnam conflict. I watched all of the Vietnam War films far too many times. Platoon had a substantial negative effect on my psyche. My conclusions led me to a liberal, antiwar sentiment. Also, back in the eighties, there was little happening on the international front. I saw no point in joining the United States Armed Forces—I was too much a free spirit, and the service required serious discipline. When Gulf War One heated up in 1990-91, I voiced strong opposition. Why rescue Kuwait from an invading Iraqi Army? After all, it wasn’t our problem and done only to protect America’s economic interests (OIL). Well, in the wisdom and knowledge which is gained from maturity, my viewpoints then were questionable at best. If only I could go back in time.
My career as a financial professional has allowed me to meet and interview hundreds of W.W. II, Korean, and Vietnam veterans. I’ve asked many intense, meaningful questions. Every vet carries a strong sense of pride and accomplishment for answering Uncle Sam’s call. Of course, there has been some real bitching about events and circumstances, but final opinions have been remarkably positive. Each veteran retires to their grave, knowing an extreme effort was given to protect freedoms granted by the greatest democracy in the history of Planet Earth. I have seen this enlightenment in their eyes. I have no ownership in this sense of pride, because when I was of age to serve, it wasn’t worth my effort.
Since 1776, the United States has fought in and sent troops to fourteen wars and conflicts to protect her interests. This equals an incident average of once every sixteen years since the Declaration of Independence was signed by our founding fathers. As of April 16, 2005, 1,223,162 American soldiers have died in service. At least 1.6 million have been wounded in action. The reigning veracity is that human beings are not and will never be completely civilized. War and conflict will always be required to turn back the forces of evil infested in mankind. The United States of America represents goodness in the human race (for the most part) and offers, validates, and protects more human rights than any organized nation ever has. It has become quite obvious—the entire world’s population is attempting to relocate here for these reasons. A visit to any major U.S city will substantiate this immigration phenomenon.
The result of today’s epic fight will determine whether tomorrow’s children are dreading suicide bombers (observe Israel) and dirty nuclear bombs in the streets of America. Twenty-first century terrorists are unlike any enemy we have previously faced. This fanatic foe believes he is serving Allah by murdering and mutilating Christians. A fantastic enjoyment is gained by severing a westerner’s head, in medieval fashion. This crew has unjust hatred toward human advancement and freedoms. Their grudge flows from the Crusades, which ended in 1271. There were eight Crusades over a 176-year period. Christian knights and footsoldiers trekked to Jerusalem to deliver the Holy Land from Mohammedan reign. Muslims were killed in tremendous numbers.
For those who are not aware, the Holy War of revenge has dropped on our doorstep. Al zarqawi, the commander of al qaida in Iraq, recently made this statement: “You made peace with the tyranny and handed over the countries and the people to the Jews and Crusaders when you prevented youth from heading to the battlefields in order to defend the religion.” He was speaking to Shiite Muslim leaders in Iraq who had allied with the United States. Obviously, an avoidance or pacifism would only make this enemy stronger and allow a Middle Eastern cauldron to boil and stew further.
President George W. Bush and his staff made a very difficult decision by invading Iraq. He chose to be proactive and decided to rid Iraq of a notorious tyrant. Countries that promote human rights cannot idly stand by while malicious dictators destroy human spirit and hope. Saddam Hussein’s vicious, brutal regime repressed Iraqi people for a callous twenty-four years. His lengthy list of heinous accomplishments only partially include: a decade-long war with Iran; the invasion on Kuwait in 1990; documented chemical attacks on Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq; and an inconceivable 21.3 billion of illegal revenue scammed from undermining the U.N. oil-for-food program. How many hundred thousands of Iraqis suffered from malnutrition or starved to death while so-damn was busy erecting palaces? Allowing this criminal to hold all the keys to a crucial Middle Eastern state was no longer an option for the United States.
On January 30, 2005, 58 percent of all eligible Iraqi people cast ballots for the first free election in fifty years. This is a greater percentage of voter turnouts than occurs in most U.S. presidential elections. High numbers of citizens risked their bodies in battle-strewn neighborhoods to exercise this newfound right. The courage and resolve of an Iraqi populace in the teeth of such peril and wickedness was phenomenal. A crystal clear and resounding message was sent to the world; Iraqis desire freedom and democracy.
Yesterday, today, and tomorrow it is extremely unfortunate for American soldiers to lose their lives and good health, however just the cause for which they die and suffer. Mr. Bush approaches this war on terror with the same fervor as did Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in their respective times of struggle. History has rewarded both of these illustrious leaders with a giant seal of approval. In their era, Lincoln and Roosevelt were required to make arduous, gut-wrenching decisions and were not free from criticism or hatred. President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865. In our present day, benefits from the current war on Islamic jihads and Sunni insurgents are on the horizon, and we as Americans must be stocked with fortitude. There is not any other choice.
Just recently, I examined pictures of all American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Philadelphia Inquirer also listed age, branch of service, unit, and date of death. Most were so very young and innocent looking. I wondered if any of these kids knew how worthy is the cause which snuffed their lives prematurely. Did any of them think it was honorable or for the greater good as they choked in their last few breaths? While I have no idea, the thought and visions of it all wells up tears in my eyes. As I stared at names and pictures for hours, it was impossible not to think about the spouses, parents, and children who must now cope with severe emotional and economic hardships. Hopefully, with time, these tormented family members will recognize that the ultimate sacrifice given by their loved one is “forever noble.”
Today, at forty-four years of age, I am compelled to apologize to all living U.S. veterans from every era and walk of life. I am sincerely sorry to every vet who was wounded, suffers from post-traumatic stress, mental illness, or drug/alcohol abuse as a direct result of their tour. I ultimately regret my lack of advocacy and past suspicion of United States government policies. Hindsight is a perfect 20/20, and with age there arises a strong dose of wisdom. I now confront an unequivocal recognition that I enjoy all the freedoms America offers—while others have done all the sweating, suffering, bleeding, and dying. This prevailing fact permeates and gnaws into my guts and, most likely, always will. Let there be no mistake on this mournful truth: If the USA is to remain perpetually a sovereign entity, American troops must battle and bleed crimson. Since day one, this is the only way of the world. In the summer of 2005, I will visit the Vietnam Memorial for the first time. I will place this Tribute, Validation, and Apology at the base of the majestic, onyx wall. Maybe the dead soldiers will listen, just maybe...
A previous article by Smalanskas, Only One Marine’s Story,appears here.