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Shineski to VA, Jones to NSA: Obama Taps Vietnam Veterans for Top Posts

“I think that General Shinseki is exactly the right person who is going to be able to make sure that we honor our troops when they come home,” President-elect Barack Obama told reporters in December. In his announcement nominating the decorated and wounded Vietnam War combat veteran, General Eric K. Shinseki, Obama heralded his off-the-battlefield judgement as well: “No one will ever doubt that this former Army chief of staff has the courage to stand up for our troops and our veterans. No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure they have the support they need.”

Widely admired for his discretion and strong character, General Shinseki retired as Army chief of staff shortly after his February 2003 recommendation to send more troops to Iraq was disregarded by then Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Upon retiring, Shinseki warned the Pentagon against trying to carry out a “12- division strategy” with a “10- division army.” When in January 2007 President George W. Bush ordered a rapid increase of American forces in Iraq, many considered it a vindication for Shinseki. During his retirement, however, the general refrained from criticizing Bush “while my soldiers are still bleeding and dying in Iraq.”

The new secretary of Veterans Affairs takes over at an especially troubling time. Besides an increased need for VA services because of the economic recession and the influx of new veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, Shinseki’s nomination comes during a severe crisis of confidence in the VA itself. This was aggravated late last year when nearly 500 veterans claims were found in shredder bins at 41 of the 57 VA offices around the nation. The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, Bob Filner, said the incidents reflect “a culture of dishonesty that has led to increased mistrust of the VA within the veteran community. A systemic lack of integrity seems pervasive.” Filner added that a “complete paradigm shift” was needed at the VA.

A 1965 graduate of West Point, Shinseki served two combat tours in Vietnam, where he lost part of one foot when he stepped on a land mine. He rose through the ranks to be the first Asian-American to become a four-star general and, later, to head a branch of the military.

President Obama’s nominee for national security adviser, Marine General James Jones, is also a decorated Vietnam veteran who has gained wide respect for his diplomatic skills. Jones was a platoon commander in Vietnam and later served as commandant of the Marine Corps, and eventually as supreme allied commander of NATO during the war in Afghanistan. General Jones retired in 2007 as a four-star general and has since chaired the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq and served as president and chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for 21st Century Energy. Although he twice declined Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s invitation to be deputy secretary of state, Rice later appointed him a special enjoy for Middle East security in November 2007. Jones’ selection as national security adviser was foreshadowed when, during the final presidential debate in October 2008, Obama mentioned him as one of the people he would want to consult on national security matters if elected president.

Oklahoma Names Highway to Honor Vietnam Veteran

A portion of the Wagoner County highway has been renamed in honor of Kelly Downing, an Okay, Okla., Marine who was killed in combat in May 1967. Downing, wounded during a firefight, stayed to hold off enemy forces while his fellow Marines were evacuated. His body was found later with six dead enemy soldiers nearby. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. The Kelly Downing Memorial Highway is a seven-mile section of Oklahoma 251A between Okay and the Fort Gibson Dam.

Louisiana Elects First Vietnamese-American to Seat in U.S. Congress

When 8-year-old Anh Cao fled Saigon in 1975, the North Vietnamese Army was just days away from taking control of the city, his father was in prison and his mother was left behind in the tumult with five of his siblings. Today, the 41-year-old immigration lawyer is getting accustomed to life on Capitol Hill as a member of the 111th Congress of the United States, representing the 2nd Congressional District of Louisiana. The novice Republican politician knocked off incumbent William Jefferson—who is under federal indictment for bribery and money-laundering—in the traditionally Democratic district.

The December election had been delayed nearly a month as a result of the damage and displacement caused by Hurricane Gustav. The fifth of eight children, “Joseph” Cao earned degrees in physics and philosophy in addition to his law degree. His father was a South Vietnamese military officer who ultimately spent six years in a Communist reeducation camp. Cao’s parents now live in New Orleans. It was there, after Hurricane Katrina, that Cao became politically active, working to close a controversial hurricane debris landfill.

New Presidential Tapes Reveal LBJ Fumed Over Nixon ‘Treason’; Nixon Denied Sabotaging Vietnam Peace Talks

In the days leading up to the 1968 presidential election, rumors were swirling in the Johnson White House that allies of the Republican Party candidate, Richard Nixon, were urging South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu to avoid peace talks with North Vietnam—which Johnson was then trying to arrange—until after the election. “This is treason,” LBJ told Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, who can be heard on the recorded telephone call softly replying, “ I know.” In a phone call on November 3, just two days before the election, Johnson confronted Nixon directly about the allegations. Nixon called “any rumblings” about an attempt to sabotage the efforts as without “any credibility.”

“My God, I would never do anything to encourage the South Vietnamese not to come to that conference table,” Nixon assures LBJ over the phone, pledging to help the administration in any way he can. “To hell with the political credit, believe me.”

This revelation comes out of the final installment of the hundreds of secretly recorded telephone conversations from the Johnson presidency, which was released in December by the LBJ Library.

Not uncovered in the new tape release is how Johnson and his advisers learned of the alleged communications between Nixon and the South Vietnamese government. While Johnson tells Dirksen it will be Nixon’s responsibility if the South Vietnamese don’t participate in the peace talks, the president kept the charges private, fearing that accusing Nixon of meddling would give the appearance that he—rather than Nixon—was using the war to influence the election. “For God’s sake, you want everybody to know you don’t play politics with human lives, that we did what’s right,” Johnson tells Secretary of State Dean Rusk on one of the calls. The South Vietnamese stayed away from the proposed peace talks and, while LBJ was adamant that Nixon had interfered, he urged the Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, that he not use what he had learned in the campaign. Nixon won the election by just 500,000 votes.

Also released in December were nearly 200 hours’ worth of President Nixon’s secretly recorded telephone tapes, along with 90,000 pages of memos. Included in these tapes are calls with his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, in early December 1972 about the decision to escalate the war and bomb Hanoi. The tapes reveal that Nixon understood that by escalating the war he was taking a chance that Congress might cut his war funding. Kissinger then told Nixon to “Blame the Democrats.”

Recordings and transcripts of the LBJ tapes are available at the LBJ Library Web site at More than 2,000 hours of recordings from the Nixon White House are now available from the Nixon Library at

Chief Master Sergeant up for MOH for Action at Secret Radar Station

When Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger died saving three fellow soldiers at a top-secret Lima Site 85 radar station in the Laotian mountains, Etchberger’s valor created a dilemma for the Pentagon. The U.S. radar base—inside neutral Laos—was stormed by NVA commandos in March 1968. To avoid drawing attention to the illegal radar station, President Lyndon Johnson denied a high-profile Medal of Honor for Etchberger, instead awarding him the second highest medal—the Air Force Cross.

“Chief Etchberger was denied the Medal of Honor because he was serving his country on the wrong side of a geographic barrier,” said North Dakota Congressman Earl Pomeroy, “but heroism knows no boundary.” Pomeroy’s efforts have helped clear bureaucratic roadblocks and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley recommended that Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger’s Air Force Cross be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. The award may be approved by the president at any time.

War Dog Memorial on the Road Again in 2009

According to Johnny Mayo, of the 4,000 dogs that served in the Vietnam War, just over 200 survived. “We always hoped that they had a good day, because a bad day is a loss of life of you, your dog, and possibly several guys behind you,” said Mayo, who served in the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, 39th Scout Dog Platoon and today takes his traveling memorial around the country. Mayo says the service dogs are credited with having prevented more than 10,000 casualties in Vietnam. The Vietnam Military Working Dog Memorial was created in 2006 and since then has traveled to dozens of cities across the nation. The next stops for the memorial are slated for April 23-26 in Melbourne, Fla., and Fort Jackson, S.C., on May 16. Mayo hopes to someday have a permanent location for the memorial.

Campus Honors for Vietnam KIAs

Forty years after he was killed, a larger-than-life bronze statue of Marine Lt. Nicholas Anthony Lia was recently unveiled at Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y. Lia, who captained the 1964 Wagner College football team, received the Purple Heart and the Silver Star after his first tour of duty. On his second tour, Lia was killed during the Tet Offensive. Last November also saw the dedication of a memorial at Norfolk State University, Virginia, honoring four NSU students and one professor killed in Vietnam. Major Warren Goss, Captain Alan Boffman, 2nd Lt. Linwood Carter Jr., and Sgt. Edward Williams were students at the school before heading to Vietnam. Lieutenant Col. Alfred Barnes was a professor of military science.

McCartney Stakes Claim to the Beatles’ Antiwar Mantle

In an interview in the January issue of the British journal Prospect, Beatle singer Sir Paul McCartney says he, rather than John Lennon, was the inspiration for the group to become vocally antiwar. After meeting philosopher Bertrand Russell in the mid-1960s, McCartney says he then began to persuade Lennon to oppose the war. “I remember going back to the studio either that evening or the next day and telling the guys, particularly John, about this meeting and saying what a bad war this was.” The band, and Lennon most prominently, became influential voices against the war.

John Ripley, blew up bridges in daring operation to stop NVA tanks

Retired Marine Colonel John Ripley, who died in Annapolis in October at age 69, stopped a column of North Vietnamese tanks by blowing up a pair of bridges at Dong Ha during the 1972 Easter Offensive. His legendary actions slowed the NVA advance and has long been credited with saving countless U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. A 1962 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Ripley earned the Navy Cross and the Silver Star for his service in Vietnam. For his actions in 1972, he became the only Marine to be inducted into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame. Ripley went on to serve on the Joint Staff and was Camp Lejeune regimental commander. He was president and chancellor of Southern Virginia College in Lexington, Va., after retiring from the Marines.

Rear Admiral George S. Morrison, commander of the U.S. fleet involved in the Tonkin Gulf incident

Admiral George Stephen Morrison died late last year at age 89. It wasn’t long after his February 1941 graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy that Morrison witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from aboard the minelayer Pruitt across the harbor. He went on to fly combat missions during the last year of World War II and again during the Korean War. On August 2, 1964, Morrison found himself on another ship at another historic intersection—the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Aboard the flagship carrier Bon Homme Richard, Morrison was the commander of American naval forces in the gulf when the destroyer Maddox engaged three North Vietnamese torpedo boats.

Morrison’s son, Jim, was a rock music icon in the 1960s as the lead singer of The Doors. The two of them had a difficult relationship, and the admiral never spoke of his famous son publicly. However, in 1990 Admiral Morrison installed a plaque he had crafted with a Greek phrase said to mean “true to his own genius” on his son’s grave in Paris, where he had died in 1971.

MLK Vietnam Speech Stirs Controversy Once Again

When singer and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, asked Sotheby’s to auction a handwritten draft of King’s 1967 speech, titled “Casualties of the War in Vietnam,” it was expected to fetch more than $500,000. However, the December auction of the document—along with two others linked to King—was stopped after an ownership dispute arose involving the King estate. King reportedly wrote the first draft of his antiwar speech on three sheets of a yellow legal pad and left it at Belafonte’s apartment in New York when he went to Los Angeles to make the address on February 25, 1967. In the speech, King decried, along with military and civilian victims, a loss of moral principle, resources diverted from the fight for civil rights and the war’s effect in alienating other nations from the United States. The document is considered among King’s most important, along with his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the draft of his “I Have a Dream” speech and his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

Father and Son Get Silver Stars in Simultaneous Ceremonies

Forty years ago, Gary Harris was an Army staff sergeant and a squad leader in Vietnam. He and his company were patrolling a perimeter on August 15, 1969, when they were attacked with mortars and rocket fire. During the engagement, Harris risked his life by helping medics aid wounded soldiers and take them to safety.

As often happens with awards, Harris has been decorated years later—but in this case, he received his honor as part of a joint long-distance ceremony with his son, Army Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Harris. Like his father, the younger Harris had risked his life for the safety of their comrades. His Silver Star from the commander of Combined Joint Task Force 101, was presented during a ceremony on November 28 at Bagram Aifield, Afghanistan. As his family watched from Fort Campbell, Ky., the elder Harris was pinned with the Silver Star and a Bronze Star Medal he earned in Vietnam.

The younger Harris thanked his father, who he said had set the example for him. “Every time people thank us for our service, I tell them to thank a Vietnam vet.”

Stockdale Statue Unveiled at Naval Academy

A towering bronze statue of Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale was unveiled late last year at his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy. Stockdale, who died at age 81 in 2005, is best remembered for his actions as a POW. Shot down while on a mission on September 9, 1965, he landed in a small coastal village, where he was captured and went on to spend nearly the next eight years in the Hanoi Hilton. There, he was kept in solitary confinement for four years, tortured and denied medical care. As a carrier group commander, he was the highest-ranking naval officer at the prison. Still leading his men, Stockdale organized a system of communication that helped buoy the spirits of his fellow prisoners.

At the dedication ceremony, among the scores of family members, friends and admirers, was H. Ross Perot, who brought Stockdale back into national prominence when he tapped the former admiral to be his vice-presidential running mate in his third-party run at the presidency in 1992.


Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here