A first-generation American, Mike Sierra spent two tours in Vietnam. He joined the Texas National Guard in 1957 while in high school, became active duty after graduation, went to officer candidate school in 1964 and retired in 1990 as a colonel. He worked in the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, served as a political-military planner for the Middle East and Persian Gulf, commanded the School of the Americas in Panama (where he negotiated with dictator Manuel Noriega), was a battalion and brigade commander with the 25th Infantry Division and chaired the Army War College’s Military Strategy Department.
Born: July 26, 1941, San Antonio; parents immigrated to Texas from Mexico during the revolution of the early 1900s.
Residence: Round Hill, Virginia
Education: Bachelor’s degree in government, master’s in international economics and international relations, University of Arizona
In Vietnam: June 1965 to June 1966, platoon leader, C Company, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division; June 1968 to June 1969, company commander, C Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)
Today: President and CEO, The Ventura Group Inc., founded 1995; provides federal agencies with information technology, telecommunications and cybersecurity services; 170 employees
How do you see Vietnam War now? It was initiated with the best intentions, as perceived at that time—to contain the spread of communism. But we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to do. As much as you want to look at a lot of positive aspects, the war was a failed effort from an American perspective.
What are some positive aspects? It allowed our Army to evolve into what was needed to protect our nation. We were doing unique things on the ground. The 1st Cav did things with helicopters that had never been done before [using them as gunships and vehicles to transport infantry troops to the battlefield]. There were very advanced tactics and sophisticated operations.
What are the lessons from the war? Do not enter a war unless the objectives—and goals for an end state—are clear, understood by the people executing them and accepted by both the civilian and military leadership. The threats against us are everywhere. Wars are going to happen. We have to have resolve, commitment and the desire to achieve victory, or we’re going to fail again.
How well have we applied the lessons of the war? We entered Afghanistan and Iraq with great intentions, just like we did in Vietnam, but there was no real long-term commitment. Our actions must be driven by a vision of what is possible and a strategy to make it happen. In Iraq, we disbanded the existing army and tried to build an army from nothing. In May 2015 that trained army evacuated and left [U.S.-supplied] armored personnel carriers for the bad guys. I pictured, again, people being evacuated by helicopter from the embassy in Saigon as everything we tried so hard to build was collapsing. No, we haven’t learned our lessons.
What impact did the war have on your life? I was in combat most of the time I was in Viet Nam. It provided me with focus, direction and commitment. It provided maturity. I grew up as an officer, a husband and a father. I gained confidence in my ability to be able to do things. It’s why I started a company.
Did the war change any of your views? You sometimes go to war with excitement. It is the manly thing to do, and you lead brave men in fierce combat. But a realization about the brutalities of war grows on you. I remember a mission to intercept North Vietnamese troops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. One day coming down the trail were 15 or 20 young soldiers, driven by their own motivations, just like us. We killed all of them. Mission accomplished. Cheers followed. A sobering reflection. Accepting that killing is necessary has always been the task of soldiers. Folks who have never been associated with the military can’t relate to that. But we who have been there really can.
Any books about the war you think are particularly good? A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, by Neil Sheehan. Vann [who served in Vietnam as an Army officer and later as a civilian official] was extremely critical of the military leadership for selecting tactics that were not going to be successful. A second one is Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, by H.R. McMaster. That was a powerful book.
Which political or military leaders do you admire? There are so many—I’m a history buff—but since we’re talking about Vietnam, I want to focus on John McCain. He was a POW, he was tortured and survived, and now he is continuing to serve the public as U.S senator. There are many things I like about him and some things I don’t, but I admire him and respect him, and I wish him well.
Any favorite movies from the ’60s and ’70s? Zulu, a true story of 150 British soldiers surrounded by 4,000 Zulu warriors. I saw it in 1964 when it came out, just before I went to Vietnam as a young lieutenant. Five things came across in the movie that stayed with me: You have to have leadership, an organization that functions well, the discipline within that organization to deal with a particular situation, a commitment by the soldiers to execute the mission and the bravery to get up and do it.
What was your favorite music during your youth? It was all wonderful music, really. I made the transition from the Coasters and Fats Domino to the Beatles; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Barbra Streisand.
Any song from the war years that sticks with you? A song that has a lot of emotion for is “Leaving on a Jet Plane” [a Peter, Paul and Mary hit]. When I got ready to go on my second tour in Vietnam, my wife was at the airport with me, holding my 10-month-old son and pregnant with my daughter. “I’m leaving on a jet plane. Don’t know when I’ll be back again.”
Any other thoughts of that era you would like to share? When I look at the Vietnam memorial and see the names of the people who died, it fills me with emotion. Did we do the right thing? Should we have been there? But when I get together with the guys I served with, I think about the things battle can bring you: the bonds, the ties, the friendships that are inescapable and unexplainable to other folks.
During the Vietnam War’s 50th anniversary, Vietnam magazine is interviewing people whose lives are intertwined with the war and asking for their reflections on that era in American history.