As it did during the Vietnam War, when the Defense Department tapped retired Army Lt. Gen. Claude M. “Mick” Kicklighter to run the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration, it was once again sending the officer to where he was most needed. With the general’s logistical and planning experience both in Vietnam and after the war, his appointment to lead the massive and multifaceted venture was a natural. Since last July, Kicklighter has been building an organization to plan and execute a decade-long, nationwide effort to deliver a grateful nation’s “thank you and welcome home” to every Vietnam veteran.
Were your two tours in Vietnam what you had expected?
In February 1966, I was an artillery officer en route to join the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), but I was diverted to the 1st Logistical Command as planning officer. This was very early in the war and our mission was to plan for supporting combat operations at the brigade size and larger. I’d had logistical training, so the Army thought I was needed there more. Then, on my way to join the Cav for my second tour in August 1970, I was again diverted, this time into the 101st Airborne Division, because of my logistics background. I was supposed to be given command of an artillery battalion after six months, but the policies changed and that never happened, and I ended up staying as the assistant chief of staff (G4) for the division.
Were you disappointed?
Initially, but I count my blessings for that year and the chance to work with such great men and women in the division.
How was your logistics and planning expertise put to the test in early 1971?
I helped plan and ensure that support was sustained for Lam Son 719. It was a huge operation, using primarily South Vietnamese ground troops in an effort to disrupt enemy logistics and the flow of supplies going through Laos. The operation was unexpected, but the enemy response was very strong. We provided all the air support, the airlift and helicopter gunships. It may have been the most intense antiaircraft our helicopter pilots ever encountered. We’d accomplished what we set out to do, but the fighting was fierce.
What was the toughest part of your job?
Knowing that if you failed, people died. First, you couldn’t run out of ammunition. Second you couldn’t run out of fuel; it was a helicopter war, after all. You had to be able to move, shoot and communicate. We had to make sure troops were fed when hungry and medevaced when wounded. It could be very complex. As a logistician, you like to know that no combat operation has to be scaled down or canceled because it can’t be logistically supported. I never had to scale down or cancel an operation because we couldn’t provide for it. While I would have preferred being in an artillery unit, you have to do what you’re asked to do and do the best you can. I was no hero, but I was very proud to serve alongside many great Americans who were.
Why did you go back to Vietnam in 1975?
In the spring of 1975, after the North Vietnamese invasion, President Gerald Ford decided to send a small team led by General Fred Weyand into Vietnam to assess the situation and report back. I was on the Joint Staff and was assigned to the secret mission along with Army Lt. Col. Harry Summers and about 10 others. At the time, we only had about 50 uniformed Americans left in Saigon. It was chaotic. Just days before Saigon fell, we received letters from Vietnamese who had helped Americans, pleading not to be left behind. It was a very emotional mission.
As we were leaving Saigon on April 4 to report our findings to President Ford at Palm Springs, a C-5A that we’d used to bring in supplies was being loaded with orphans to be evacuated to the United States. Then, a couple of hours into our flight, General Weyand brought us very bad news. “I can’t believe things could be much worse,” he said, “but we just got word that the aircraft with the orphans has crashed and there are few survivors.”
How would you describe your experience serving in Vietnam?
It prepared me for the rest of my life. I’m very proud of my service in Vietnam and of those I served with. I cannot adequately express my admiration and respect for those brave men and women who, in my opinion, did all the nation asked of them. They went to the sound of guns, where they were needed, and many did so as volunteers.
Did the treatment Vietnam veterans received upon coming home affect you?
It was hurtful. I was a boy during World War II. Many members of my family went to war and when they came home they were nothing less than heroes in our eyes and minds. So, I think it was tragic that the Vietnam veterans, the sons and daughters of that “greatest generation,” came home to something so very different.
Do you see your next Vietnam assignment as a way to address that?
Yes. The Defense Department’s Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration mission is to help the nation take advantage of a rare opportunity to turn back to a page in history and to right a wrong, by expressing its honor and respect to Vietnam veterans and their families. I’m really here to get the commemoration planned and underway. As a Vietnam vet myself, eventually I want to be able to sit on the sidelines and enjoy the parades.
Does your experience with the WWII and Korean War anniversaries help?
For the WWII and Korean War efforts, we studied the U.S. and Constitutional Bicentennials. I learned from the leaders of those efforts, including Sen. John Warner and Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, how they were able to reach “hometown” America. The community partnership programs that we developed for the Korea and WWII anniversaries proved to be very successful and will be replicated and expanded for the Vietnam commemoration. However, unlike the WWII effort, which struggled financially, we have a law mandating our mission, we are well funded and have the authorization to raise donations and seek sponsors. This program is much more flexible and I think we have the total support of Congress. I’m optimistic we will get it right.
Will the Vietnam War’s unpopularity and controversy taint the public’s reception?
I don’t think there will be any question why we are doing this. The nation learned a lot since Vietnam, and I think the way we treat our veterans today proves that. I believe that the country wants to do this right and will do it right. Our charter is not to make judgements. It’s not our job to convince anyone one way or the other. Our focus is on the veterans and their families, and to present the most accurate information about the war.
How will the war’s length affect the commemoration process?
It will have three phases, much like the war itself, with a gradual buildup, peak period and gradual ramping down. We are in the preparatory phase now, leading to the Memorial Day 2015 kick off of the most active phase, which will run to Veterans Day 2017. After that will be what we call the sustainment phase, lasting until Veterans Day 2025. During this period we will mark major events and find permanent homes for many of the commemoration programs, such as the exhibits and educational materials. It was a long war, and as such it gives us the time to revaluate as go along. Nothing is set in stone, so we expect to be modifying and adjusting our plans.
What are some of the immediate tasks during the first stage?
The recruitment of community partners. Our goal is to have 7,500 partners by 2015 and 9,500 by 2017. A senior-level advisory committee comprised of individuals from all walks of life is also being established. A working group representing each service, the VA, CIA and State Department, will recommend at least two Vietnam veterans from their respective organizations. And we are very busy planning all of our efforts: educational materials, a Pentagon exhibit, traveling exhibits, symposiums, oral history projects and much more.
When will the public be learning more about the commemoration?
I can’t announce the details of what will take place, but I can say that on Memorial Day, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, we will begin to recruit the nation to get behind this effort in a very big way. I can’t say any more than that.
What should Vietnam veterans most understand about the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration?
That this will truly be coming from a grateful nation—for all the right reasons. You know, all veterans really want is to be thanked, and our task is to do everything we can to make sure that happens in a meaningful way. As the director of this operation, I know our mission will only be complete when all Vietnam veterans, and their families, have been honored for their service, valor and sacrifice.
For more information on the 50th Anniversary Commemoration visit http://www.vietnamwar50th.com