Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembering a vet who gave all

I wrote the following remembrance on Sept. 11, 2001, a Veteran's Day to truly remember.

We're probably remembering our veterans with a bit more emotion this year than on previous Veterans Days, which I guess is always the case when America observes the holiday at a time when our men and women of the Armed Forces are engaged in combat.

At the Veterans Day observance at the Richmond County Veteran's Memorial Park in Rockingham on Friday, speaker Hugh Lee, a World War II veteran, reminded us of the Americans and our allies locked in combat in Afghanistan with a new type of enemy, the forces of terrorism.

But though this is a different type of war than any we've ever fought before, at core it comes down to the same bottom line - men and women have to go into harm's way to stop Osama bin Laden and his terrorists, just as they did to stop Hitler and Tojo 60 years ago.

Five WWII veterans were honored at the dinner at VFW Post 4203 with high school diplomas they never received when they went off to war so long ago. I'll have to agree with Tom Brokaw on this one point if nothing else, the WWII vets may well have been "The Greatest Generation," which is what he titled his book on that era.

But as I strolled through the Veteran's Memorial Park and looked at the monuments to WWII, Korean and Vietnam War veterans, my own thoughts went back to one of our Vietnam vets who gave all.

Lonnie Hoopaugh from Norman was a childhood friend, a classmate of mine through the 12th grade. I remember the first day of the first grade - back before they had kindergarten - and the teacher asked how many of us knew the alphabet already, pointing to the strange characters displayed at the top of the blackboard.

I didn't even know what the alphabet was, much less know its characters, and neither did anybody else in the class. But Lonnie raised his hand. The teacher only smiled and didn't ask him to recite the alphabet. If she had, I don't know what Lonnie would have said.

But one thing Lonnie never was as long as I knew him was bashful.

He was a little guy, short as a Banty rooster, which may have been why he made up for his lack of stature with a boldness and swagger. And that's at least one reason Lonnie is no longer with us. His older brother Wade, who still lives in Norman, told me in recent years that in 1968, Lonnie only had a little over a year left in his hitch in the Navy to serve and was stationed on a ship on the West Coast where he could have stayed and avoided the Vietnam War.

But Lonnie volunteered for the Navy's most dangerous duty, riverboat patrols in Vietnam. The "Brown Water Navy" as it was called, had the highest casualty percentage of any unit in that war, with 70 percent of its members either wounded or killed in Vietnam.

In January 1969, I had just arrived in Vietnam aboard the USS Mullinnix, DD-944, a destroyer, to begin a tour of gunline duty in support of our troops inland. I didn't know it until I returned to the states, but that was the month Lonnie was wounded and killed.

Lonnie was manning a .50 caliber machine gun on the fantail of his riverboat when a B40 rocket came arcing in and landed at his feet. He was evacuated by helicopter, but later died of his wounds.

Wade told me he has often asked himself over the years: Why did Lonnie die? Why did he volunteer to fight in our most unpopular war? The Vietnam War is still regarded as something far lesser than the conflicts that preceded and followed it, mainly because it was the first war America lost and hopefully the only one we ever lose.

If we learned nothing else from Vietnam, we learned how not to fight a war. We learned that Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara shouldn't have been picking targets and setting rules of engagement in Washington, D.C., while men and women were dying in Vietnam.

Civilian authority over the military is indeed part of our constitution, but I pray LBJ will be the last commander-in-chief who handcuffs our military by making such critical decisions for them.

So far, President George W. Bush is following the lead of his father in the Persian Gulf War, letting the military do the fighting while he does the leading. If we can remember the hard-learned lessons of Vietnam, perhaps there will never be another war like it.

My prayer this Veteran's Day is that President-elect Barack Obama doesn't dishonor the blood our men and women in uniform have already shed for victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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