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Posts from the ‘Amazing Stories from the Vietnam War’ Category


Military Myths & Legends: Truth is Stranger Than Urban Legends

By LtCol Mike Christy-Together We Served “Dispatches”

For decades there were urban legends floating around that Jerry Mathers, who played the title character on ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ died in Vietnam and that Fred Rogers from the PBS show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was either a Navy SEAL or a U.S. Marine Sniper.

Neither of those legends is true, but they serve a purpose of leaving people unable to tell fact from fiction. It’s still a mystery as to why someone would make them up.

But in many cases, it might be said that truth is stranger than an urban legend, and real life stories of celebrities who wore combat boots are much more interesting. You could never make this stuff up!

Take, for example, the case of, an accomplished classical musician who was also a television and stage actor. Werner Klemperer, a native-born German, was forced to leave Germany in 1935 with his family, shortly after Hitler’s Nazi Party took power because Klemperer’s father was Jewish.

After immigrating to the U.S., Klemperer fell in love with his new home and upon the nation’s entry into World War II, he quickly joined the U.S. Army to fight for his country. Many people may not know the name Werner Klemperer, but if someone were to say Col. Wilhelm Klink, you would recognize him as the bumbling, cowardly and self-serving Kommandant of Stalag 13 on “Hogan’s Heroes,” which aired from 1965-1971.

Another actor who served his country during World War II and ended up with an interesting tale that could rank up there with an urban legend was Jimmy Stewart. His real-life story reads like a legend but it’s all true.

Stewart enlisted in the Army as a Private in 1941 but applied for an Air Corps commission as a Second Lieutenant which he received on January 1, 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In August 1943, Stewart was assigned to the 445th Bomb Group as Operations Officer of the 703d Bombardment Squadron. As a pilot on a B-24 Liberator, Stewart flew 20 successful combat missions over Europe during the war, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Croix de Guerre, and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. By the time the war was over, he had gone from a Private to a Colonel in just four years.

Stewart continued serving in the Air Force Reserves, eventually retiring in 1968 after attaining the rank of Brigadier General becoming the highest-ranking actor in military history. A lot of people act pretty amazed when they find that out, but it’s one of those true facts that seems stranger than fiction only because of who Stewart was as an actor.

In August 1942, Tyron Power enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. He attended boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, then Officer’s Candidate School at Marine Corps Base Quantico, where he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on June 2, 1943. As he had already logged 180 solo hours as a pilot before enlisting, he was able to do a short, intense flight training program at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas. The pass earned him his wings and a promotion to First Lieutenant. Since the Marine Corps considered Power over the age limit for active combat flying, he volunteered for piloting cargo planes that Power felt would get him into active combat zones.

In July 1944, Tyron Power was assigned to Marine Transport Squadron (VMR)-352 as a transport co-pilot at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina. The squadron moved to Marine Corps Air Station El Centro in California in December 1944. Power was later reassigned to VMR-353, joining them on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in February 1945. From there, he flew missions carrying cargo in and wounded Marines out during the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Power returned to the United States in November 1945 and was released from active duty in January 1946. He was promoted to the rank of Captain in the Reserves on May 8, 1951. He remained in the Reserves the rest of his life and reached the rank of major in 1957.

Hedy Lamarr lived the glamorous life of a Golden Age Hollywood actress, starring alongside legends like Clark Gable and Judy Garland in over 18 films during the 1940s. But the Austrian star – widely hailed during her time as the most beautiful woman alive – also had a secret second life: She was a successful wartime inventor.

During World War II, she and composer George Antheil realized that radio-controlled torpedoes, which could be important in the naval war, could easily be jammed, thereby causing the torpedo to go off course. With the knowledge she had gained about torpedoes from her first husband and using a method similar to the way piano rolls work, they drafted designs for a new frequency hopping, a spread-spectrum technology that they later patented.

Their invention was granted a patent on August 11, 1942, filed using her married name Hedy Kiesler Markey. However, it was technologically difficult to implement, and at that time the U.S. Navy was not receptive to considering inventions coming from outside the military. Only in 1962 at the time of the Cuban missile crisis did an updated version of their design appear on Navy ships. The design is one of the important elements behind today’s spread-spectrum communication technology, such as modern CDMA, Wi-Fi networks, and Bluetooth technology.

Lamarr’s earliest inventions included an improved traffic stoplight and a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated drink. The beverage was unsuccessful; Lamarr herself said it tasted like Alka-Seltzer.

Their concept lies behind the principal anti-jamming device used today in the U.S. government’s Milstar defense communication satellite system. Ms. Lamarr also demonstrated her loyalty to the U.S. by raising seven million dollars in a single evening selling war bonds.

And then, there’s Rocky Blier, who after completing his first year as a rookie in the NFL, was drafted by the Army and sent to Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star and received a Purple Heart. Blier was seriously wounded in an ambush by a bullet to the thigh and a hand grenade to the lower right leg. Military doctors told Blier that he would never play football again.

When Rocky returned from the war, he went back to training camp with the Steelers after just one year – weighing only 180 pounds and in incredible pain from his war wounds. Many people might not have been able to do what Blier did; working through the pain and pushing himself hard every day even with the knowledge that he might never be able to play on the active Steeler roster.

It wasn’t until 1974, after years of hard work getting his weight back to well over 200 pounds, that he was put in as a starting running back. Millions of people still remember Blier as a running back who played for a Pittsburgh Steelers team that won four Super Bowls, but they might not remember the important sacrifices he made for his country. Even so, today Rocky’s story continues to inspire others – and it’s just another example of true life events that are much more interesting than fictionalized accounts or made-up rumors.

These were not the only working movie stars and others who would end up in Hollywood as actors fighting in World War II. Among them were Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, George C. Scott, Audrey Hepburn, Art Carney, Charles Bronson, and Charlton Heston.

Although most Americans find tales about celebrities who served in boots interesting, there are many legends about their daring in the military that never happened, like the Beaver killing 7,000 Viet Cong before biting the dust.

There’s nothing that can replace the spirit or sacrifices of real unsung heroes-those who fought and died to keep the U.S. free.

They’re the ones who aren’t famous, they’re the ones who don’t have urban legends told about them, they’re the ones who have never actually heard a word of thanks for their ultimate sacrifice, and they’re the ones who the famous celebrity veterans, along with the rest of us, look up to.


Twenty-Three Days With the NVA

By LtCol Mike Christy

TogetherWeServed Dispatches

When New Zealand-born war correspondent Kate Webb reported from the battlefields of Cambodia, she kept her chestnut hair cropped G.I.-short and wore jeans and loose shirts to obscure her breasts. This was 1971. Only a handful of women were full-time correspondents in Vietnam, and even fewer women roughed the front lines next door in Cambodia, where military officers believed foreign women were, at best, a distraction. At worst, they were bad luck.

Bad luck was a virus among foreign correspondents in Cambodia. Unlike in Vietnam  –  where Webb arrived four years earlier at age 23 with a philosophy degree, a one-way ticket from Australia, a Remington typewriter, $200 in cash and a whiskey-and-cigarette voice so soft people leaned in to hear her – there were no reliable phone lines in Cambodia to call your editor in an emergency. There were no American military hospitals to sew up your bullet wounds; no helicopters to evacuate you when things got bloody. By April 1971, several years before the Killing Fields, at least 16 foreign correspondents were missing and 9 were dead.

On April 7th, it was Webb’s turn. A 28-year-old Bureau Chief for United Press International (UPI), Webb was covering a clash on Highway 4, south of Phnom Penh. As bullets flew from every direction between North Vietnamese and United States-backed Cambodian troops, Webb and her Cambodian interpreter plunged into a ditch. By the time they eventually belly-crawled their way out, four other refugees from the attack had joined them: a Japanese photojournalist and his Cambodian interpreter along with a Cambodian newspaper cartoonist and a Cambodian photographer.

Throughout that afternoon and night, the six of them crept through the wooded foothills of Cambodia’s Elephant Mountains, holding their breath as they stood within inches of chatting North Vietnamese soldiers. At 11:30 the next morning, tired, thirsty, their clothes and skin shredded by branches, they were crouching in the underbrush when they looked up to see two skinny North Vietnamese soldiers with AK-47’s. The soldiers bound Webb’s arms behind her back with wire, vine, and tape and roped all of the captives together in a single line. They confiscated their notebooks, their ID cards, their cameras, their watches. Then they took one thing that Webb held dear: a gold Chinese charm that she wore around her neck. She had clung to that charm in foxholes and always came out alive. Now without it, she felt naked.

Kate was interrogated by an older man, who said, “Do you realize you are a prisoner of war, and that one shot through the head could finish you, just like that?” “That’s up to you now,” Kate told him. “I can do nothing about it. Besides, I don’t consider myself a prisoner of war, I’m not a soldier.” “Then consider yourself an invited guest,” said her interrogator, and they all laughed.

After a soldier tossed her and other prisoners’ shoes into the trees, laughing, Webb was forced to walk barefoot on the hot asphalt and through woods littered with bamboo splinters and stones, until another soldier brought Webb a pair of thongs. She winced, knowing they had been stripped from a dead Cambodian paratrooper.

Following a week of night marches, they arrived at a military camp where Webb slept in a hammock and alternated between stretches of numbing boredom and piercing fear. Why she wondered, hadn’t they shot her? Did they believe her during the interrogations when she said she wasn’t an American, wasn’t with the CIA, wasn’t a soldier? Maybe they would turn her over to the Khmer Rouge, where death – perhaps preceded by starvation – was almost certain. Maybe they planned to march her to the Hanoi Hilton, where United States pilots were being brutally tortured. There are worse things than a single bullet to the head.

As Webb would later write in her memoirs, “On the Other Side: 23 Days With the Viet Cong,” there wasn’t all that much that separated soldier from prisoner. Both subsisted on two meals a day of rice and pork fat in a salted broth and wrestled with hunger, malaria, homesickness. Webb and a soldier she nicknamed Li’l Abner compared their scarred feet (his were worse) and, in French, discussed the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Napoleonic Wars. Three weeks into captivity, Webb had lost 25 pounds – down to 105, on her 5-foot-7-inch frame – and shook with fever from two strains of malaria. She longed to take a bath, to shave her legs, to eat an orange.

She was not, however, dead. On April 21, 1971 – while Webb was suffering in the jungles of Cambodia – the first obituaries began to appear. Time magazine reported that near Highway 4, two Cambodian officers had found a white woman they believed was Webb with a bullet in the head and another in the chest. In accordance with Cambodian military procedures, they cremated the body. “Webb is the 10th journalists known to have died in Cambodia,” the magazine reported. The Times remembered her both as a soft-voiced young “waif” in a striped dress and sandals on the streets of Saigon, and as a cool, incisive reporter when she put on combat boots, helmet, and flak jacket to go on missions with troops.

Around that same time, the North Vietnamese were telling Webb about their plans to free her. They figured out a drop-off spot where Cambodian forces might rescue them. And on April 30th – following what Webb would call a “Mad Hatter’s” farewell party with tea, cigarettes, candy and bananas – Webb and the other captives made their final night march, this time with their possessions returned, save for their notebooks and cameras. In the predawn darkness, the soldiers and their former prisoners said fast farewells and Webb and the others walked onto Highway 4 waving a small piece of white cloth. “Miss Webb,” said a Cambodian officer who spotted her on the roadside, “you are supposed to be dead!”

Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, and given the first name Catherine, which she detested. She was the daughter of academics who moved the family to Australia in 1951, settling in the federal capital Canberra, where her father was chairman of the political science department at the Australian National University.

At age 15, she was charged with the murder of Victoria Fenner, the adopted daughter of Frank Fenner in Canberra. She supplied a rifle and bullets to Fenner and was present when Fenner committed suicide by shooting herself in the head. After a Children’s Court hearing the charge was dropped.

After her parents were killed in a car crash when she was eighteen, Webb paid her own way through university. She graduated with an honors degree in symbolic logic from Melbourne University and began working as an artist, making stained glass windows and painting.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that she stumbled into journalism when she was forced to pay for a stained glass window she shattered while working on it. She got a job as a secretary at The Sydney Daily Mirror, then became a reporter.

Later in 1967, she resigned from the Sydney Daily Mirror and went to Saigon on her own and became a part-time correspondent for UPI, which hired her as a full-time staff member within several months. She was soon on the battlefield earning a reputation as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking war correspondent.

Armed with notebook and pen she accompanied United States, Australian and South Vietnamese troops on operational patrols, and was the first wire correspondent to reach the United States Embassy on the first morning of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Later that year Webb survived an American rocket attack on a Saigon military building that killed everyone around her.

She also spent considerable nonworking time investigating the involvement of South Vietnamese officials in the black market, a subject that had not been fully explored. Once, after writing late at her office, she came home to find a .45-caliber bullet hole in her apartment door and the slug embedded in the wall just above her bed.

She worked in Vietnam for more than six years, in those days when reporters in Indochina lived lives straight out of a Graham Greene novel, becoming UPI’s bureau chief in Cambodia in 1971. The foreign correspondent Jon Swain recalled that the only time he ever saw Kate out of her usual baggy pants was in Chantal’s, the famous Phnom Penh opium den, where clients always changed into sarongs. Kate was such a famous customer that a group photograph of her, Swain and the photographer Kent Potter, shot down and killed in February 1971, was the parlor’s sole decoration.

By 1973, following the Paris peace accords, the U.S. was pulling out of Vietnam, during what was called the “Vietnamization” of the war. Kate moved on to Hong Kong. But in April 1975 she was back, as South Vietnam collapsed and the last U.S. personnel were evacuated.

After Vietnam, she continued to work across Asia for UPI until 1977 and later spent 17 years with Agence France Press (AFP). She reported on the Tamil Tiger uprising in Sri Lanka and covered Pakistan, the Philippines, East Timor and Nepal. Later while working in India, she nearly lost an arm in a motorcycle accident.

In 1990-91 her work included the first Iraq war and the Soviet withdrawal from that country and was there for the fall of communist the fall Mohammad Najibullah in 1992. She covered Bangladesh’s President Ershad and the assassination in India of Rajiv Gandhi. In 1994 she had an exclusive on the death of North Korea’s dictator Kim Il-Sung. In 1997 she was there for the end of British rule in Hong Kong. Her last big story came in 1998; reporting on the collapse of President Suharto’s regime in Indonesia. She also reported from Afghanistan and later described an incident in Kabul as the most frightening in her career. Following the collapse of Mohammad Najibullah’s communist regime, she was captured by a local warlord and brought to a hotel, where she was brutally beaten and dragged up a flight of stairs by her hair. She finally escaped with the help of two fellow journalists, and hid out on a window ledge in the freezing Afghan winter, while the warlord and his men searched the building for her.

Kate was a good writer, but her value for future historians will be that all her best stories were written from the heart of the struggle, in the heat of the battle, in conversation with the major players – whether generals, grunts in foxholes, peasants in their fields, rulers in their palaces or guerrillas in their caves. Those historians will pass over the prognostications and predictions of desk-bound pundits to read Kate – knowing she was really there when it all happened.

In 2001, at the age of 58, Kate quit front-line reporting and returned to Australia and settled north of Sydney, on the Hunter River. For her, the only kind of journalism she liked was frontline reporting, and she was too old for it. She tended her garden and sketched nature scenes. And on some nights, with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, and a rapt audience of friends and family, she told stories about a few of the places she had seen.

In 2002, Kate Webb wrote about her experiences as a combat reported. An excerpt from her book “War Torn: Stories from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam” follows:

“Out in the field, you were all in the same predicament, with nothing between you and a piece of metal with your name on it except the whim of the Great Classifier in the Sky.

“But back in Saigon, it was different. You got back more than not stinking, sweat-caked, mosquito-bitten, and badly in need of a shower; the images of the last week or the days – the loss, the nerves, the bitterness, the adrenaline, the heart – to lights, booze, laughter, and martinis on the terrace of the Caravelle or the Continental.

“I would find myself mesmerized by the little pads of butter, the fresh French bread, the clink of ice, the feel of silk underclothes, and the whiteness of the tablecloths. I reveled in it, and I felt guilty and a sham. The people I had been with were still out there.

“It was weird. It was Alice through the looking glass.

“Often only hours before you took that first sip of Ricard or your martini, the ice cold on your tongue, you had been watching a medic give up on a kid of 18 or 19 and flip a cold poncho over this face. Often you could hear the artillery of a battle across the Saigon River.”

Diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2006 she passed away on May 13, 2007, aged sixty-four. Despite her reputation for hard-drinking, chain-smoking, and after-hours bravado, Webb described herself as “a real softie,” explaining: “Hard people shatter.”

Agence France-Presse (AFP) established the Kate Webb Journalism Award with a 3,000 to 5,000 euro prize, awarded annually to a correspondent or agency that best exemplified the spirit of Kate Webb


Military Myths & Legends: The Perfect Spy

By LtCol Mike Christy-TogetherWeServed Dispatches

Pham Xuan An was a brilliant journalist and an ever better spy. A friend to all the legendary reporters who covered the Vietnam War, he was an invaluable source of news and a fountain of wisdom on all things Vietnamese. He was also a masterful double agent, an inspired shape-shifter who kept his cover in place until the 1980s, when he was honored in his homeland as a national hero and revealed to have the rank of Colonel. He ranks as one of the greatest spies of the twentieth century.

As a reporter for Reuters, The Christian Science Monitor and Time magazine, An covered American and South Vietnamese military and diplomatic events and was one of a handful of reporters admitted to off-the-record briefings by American authorities. In appreciation for his dedicated work, Time made him a full staff correspondent, the only Vietnamese to be given that distinction by a major American news organization.

An seemed to do his best work swapping stories with colleagues in Givral’s café, on the old Rue Catinat. Here he presided every afternoon as the best news source in Saigon. He was called “Dean of the Vietnamese Press Corps” and “Voice of Radio Catinat” – the rumor mill. With self-deprecating humor, he preferred other titles for himself, such as “docteur de sexologie,” “professeur coup d’état,” “Commander of Military Dog Training” (a reference to the German shepherd that always accompanied him), “Ph.D. in Revolutions,” or, simply, General Givral.

At the same time, An was delivering a steady stream of secret military documents and messages written in invisible ink to North Vietnamese Politburo authorities in Hanoi, using an ingenious series of dead-letter drops. He was also using a Hermes typewriter bought specially for him by the North Vietnamese intelligence service to write dispatches, some as long as a hundred pages, at night. Photographed and transported as undeveloped rolls of film disguised as egg rolls hidden inside rotting fish, his typewritten reports were run by courier out to the Cu Chi tunnel network that served as the Communists’ underground headquarters. From Cu Chi, An’s dispatches were hustled under armed guard to Mt. Ba Den, on the Cambodian border, driven to Phnom Penh, flown to Guangzhou (Canton), in southern China, and then rushed to the Politburo in North Vietnam. In addition, every few weeks beginning in 1952, An would leave his Saigon office, drive twenty miles northwest to the Ho Bo woods, and descend into the tunnels to plan Communist strategy.

An’s role was so precarious that of the 45 couriers and agents responsible for getting his intelligence to the Communists, 27 of them were captured and/or killed. His writing was so lively and detailed that General Giap and Ho Chi Minh are reported to have rubbed their hands with glee on getting these dispatches from Tran Van Trung – An’s code name. “We are now in the United States’ war room!” they exclaimed, according to members of the Vietnamese Politburo.

Pham Xuan An was born in 1927 just north-east of Saigon in Binh Truoc in what was then French Indochina. As the firstborn son of a government surveyor establishing property lines and tax rolls in Vietnam’s southern frontier,An had the rare honor of receiving a French colonial birth certificate.

At the beginning of World War II, France was swiftly conquered by Nazi Germany and the governing of France and the colonial French Indochina passed to the Vichy French government, a Puppet state of Nazi Germany. At the same time, Japanese forces invaded Vietnam. The Vichy government relinquished control of Hanoi and Saigon to Japan, and by 1941, Japan extended its control over the whole of French Indochina.

In 1941, Ho Chi Minh returned home from China and founded the Viet Minh – a communist-dominated independence movement – to fight both the Japanese occupiers and the Vichy French. Assisting him in his guerrilla warfare was his most trusted and devoted Lieutenants; General Vo Nguyen Giap, a brilliant military strategists, and Pham Van Dong.

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Profile in Courage: The First Recipient of the Air Force MOH

By LtCol Mike Christy-TogetherWeServed Dispatches

A separate design for a version of the Medal of Honor for the U.S. Air Force was created in 1956, authorized in 1960, and officially adopted on April 14, 1965. Previously, members of the U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S. Army Air Forces, and the U.S. Air Force received the Army version of the medal.  The first person to receive the new U.S. Air Force Medal of Honor was Major Bernie Fisher during the Battle of A Shau Valley in March 1966. He also received a Silver Star during the same battle.

The A Shau Valley is located in Thua Thein Hue Province, 30 miles southwest of the coastal city of Hue, along the border of Laos. The valley runs north and south for twenty-five miles and is a mile-wide flat bottomland covered with tall elephant grass, flanked by two strings of densely forested mountains that vary from three to six thousand feet. Its geography and isolation made it a primary infiltration route for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) into South Vietnam for men and material brought down from the north along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Located just five miles from the border with Laos was A Shau Special Forces camp with the mission of detecting and interdicting enemy forces. Defending the camp were 10 Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group and 210 South Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG). Out of friendly artillery range, it was supported by Air Commando units equipped with vintage A-1 Skyraiders and AC-47 Spooky gunships.

The camp consisted of some barracks buildings, a triangular fort, and an airstrip made of pierced steel planking just outside the barbed wire perimeter east of the camp. The fort had a mortar bunker at each corner. The walls consisted of steel plate and sandbags.

The camp was routinely harassed by small Vietcong (VC) formations leading up to the battle. Throughout February andMarch, 1966, platoon-sized troops from the camp were sent out to conduct reconnaissance patrols in the surrounding area. On March 5, two North Vietnamese Army (NVA) defectors turned up at the camp. Under interrogation, they indicated that four battalions of the North Vietnamese 325th Division were planning to attack the camp.

Based on that information, night patrols were dispatched to confirm the enemy positions but no sightings were made. However, Air Commandos conducting reconnaissance flights observed large build-ups of NVA troops along with anti-aircraft emplacements. As a result, airstrikes were ordered against enemy positions.

On March 7, Air Force C-123s brought in reinforcements in the form of a MIKE force, increasing the strength of the camp to 17 Green Berets and 368 South Vietnamese irregulars and Chinese Nung mercenaries.

On March 8, the camp was placed on general alert and the camp’s defenders had taken up their positions. During the night a small enemy assault was launched but thrown back.

Shortly after midnight on March 9, with the cloud ceiling at 400 feet, an Air Force AC-47D “Spooky 70” from the 4th Air Commando Squadron got through the clouds and flew up the valley at treetop level, strafing the attacking NVA formations. On the gunship’s second pass, it was hit hard by ground fire. The right engine was torn from its mounts. Seconds later, the other engine was knocked out, too. The bullet-riddled AC-47 crash-landed on a mountain slope, five miles farther up the valley. All six crewmen survived but were attacked by NVA troops. Three crewmen were killed but the other three were eventually rescued by a U.S. Air Force HH-43 helicopters.

About 2 am, March 9, a second attack began with enemy bombardment emanating from the surrounding hills. Mortars, artillery, and rocket-propelled grenades pounded the camp, killing two Americans and wounding 30. The barrage set buildings and the supply dump afire and reduced defensive positions to rubble. The enemy artillery barrage stopped at dawn.

Early in the morning of March 9, two A-1Es from Pleiku were diverted from other targets and sent to the aid of the fort at A Shau. Leading the A-1E flight was Air Force Maj. Bernard F. Fisher, a 39-year-old fighter pilot from Kuna, Idaho and a devout Mormon who did not drink, smoke, or use strong language.  He had been in the Air Force for 15 years.

There weren’t many jets in Vietnam in the early part of the war, so Fisher had volunteered to fly the A-1E, which was in use both by the South Vietnamese Air Force and by U.S. Air Commandos. Fisher was initially sent to Bien Hoa, where he trained South Vietnamese pilots to fly combat in the A-1E. He then transferred to the 1st Air Commando Squadron at Pleiku.

Arriving in the area of A Shau Valley, Fisher and his wingman Bruce Wallace found the mountains blanketed by clouds and began probing to find the canyon in which the camp lay.

On his third attempt, he emerged from the overcast and barely missed colliding with a helicopter that had just come from A Shau with wounded aboard. The helicopter pilot directed Fisher toward a saddle in the mountains, where he found an opening in the clouds about five miles northwest of the camp. He and Wallace went through the hole and flew down the valley at very low level. The enemy AAA was intense.

A C-130 airborne command post told Fisher to destroy the crashed AC-47 before the NVA captured the three 7.62 mm Gatling guns, which could fire 6,000 rounds per minute and which were still in working order. Fisher assigned that task to Wallace – who dropped six bombs on the wreckage and obliterated it – while Fisher went to the direct assistance of the fort.

For the next several hours, Fisher and Wallace collected arriving aircraft above the clouds and led them down into the valley. Fisher guided a CH-3C helicopter that came to evacuate the badly wounded. He also led A-1Es in a strike to break up a force that was massing to attack the fort.

Fisher went up again to bring down two Air Force C-123s. The mountains were tight on all sides, and forward visibility was less than half a mile. They began taking fire seven miles north of the camp. Fisher suppressed the ground fire as the transports air-dropped supplies for the fort from an altitude of 50 feet.

Low on fuel, Fisher went through the clouds one more time to help a forward air controller lead two B-57 bombers down the valley. In all, Fisher spent about two hours under the clouds. He made an emergency landing at Da Nang, 20 minutes away, with almost no fuel left in his tank.

Fisher was awarded the Silver Star for his role as on-scene commander and Wallace received the Distinguished Flying Cross. However, Fisher had not yet seen the last of the A Shau Valley.

In the afternoon on March 9, supplies of ammunition were flown in by C-123 and CV-2 aircraft, but the resupply drops often landed outside of the camp and could not be retrieved. At the same time, helicopters were called to evacuate the wounded. Because of bad weather, however, reinforcements from Hue and Phu Bai could not be deployed, forcing the camp’s defenders to repair as well as they could their defensive wall and dug in for the night.

Sometime between midnight and 3 AM during the night of March 10, the NVA launched yet another attack with mortar and recoilless rifle fire. Two C-123s and an AC-47 dropped flares throughout the night. Before daylight, an enemy assault team penetrated the east wall of the camp, where hand-to-hand combat took place for three hours. By 8 AM, the defenders were pushed into the camp’s north wall and the NVA dug in between the airstrip and the camp.

Throughout the day U.S. Marine Corps and Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) aircraft strafed NVA positions around the camp, but as fighting continued the situation deteriorated with ammunition supplies running short.

About 11 AM, the defenders reported that they could hold out no more than another hour and that airdrops to resupply them with ammunition should stop since they could not retrieve the bundles.

Bernie Fisher and his wingman that day, Capt. Francisco “Paco” Vazquez, were en route to provide air support to Army forces near Kontum when they got an emergency radio call to divert to A Shau. Fisher’s call sign was “Hobo 51,” and Vazquez was “Hobo 52.”

By 11:15 AM, Hobo flight had joined numerous other aircraft that were stacked and circling at 8,000 feet and higher above the valley. They had not yet gone to the aid of the fort because of the danger of running into mountain peaks hidden by the cloud cover.

One of the other A-1 flights in the stack was led by Maj. Dafford W. “Jump” Myers from the 602nd Fighter Squadron at Qui Nhon. Myers was “Surf 41,” and his wingman, Capt. Hubert King, was “Surf 42.”

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Band of Brothers

By LtCol Mike Christy-TogetherWeServed Dispatches

Once the long line of passengers ahead of me finished fumbling with stowing their carry-on luggage in the overhead bins and taking their seats, I at least reached my aisle seat near the center of the plane. I sat down, buckled in and exchanged “hellos” with the young man sitting in the center seat next to me. I then closed my eyes in preparation for my normal routine of falling asleep even before the plane leaves the ground. This day was different, however. I was too excited to sleep.

Forty-two years ago, I had met some exceptional young men. We were all part of a rifle company humping the jungles of Vietnam, including two months during the Cambodia incursion in 1970. Now, in a matter of hours, I would be seeing 18 of them at a reunion in Myrtle Beach, S.C. I knew they would have aged, but in my mind’s eye, they are still the brave young warriors who did their duty in a nasty war they didn’t totally understand. And through it all, bonded together as brothers, placing their lives in each other’s hands. I was proud to be one of them.

When the plane reached cruising altitude and the pilot finished welcoming us aboard, I began a conversation with the young man. His name was Jason, an engineer from Atlanta, who was heading home following a business trip to Los Angeles. When he asked me where I was going, I told him about meeting up with some men I served with in Vietnam. “We read about Vietnam in high school,” he said, “but I didn’t learn much. There were only four or five paragraphs about it in our history book.” That amazed me. How could a 10-year war that changed the United States in so many ways rate less than half a dozen paragraphs? I decided to tell Jason as much about the hows and whys of the war as best I understood them and what I observed from my ringside seat.

When I finished, Jason wanted to know how the men felt about the war. “They didn’t want to be there,” I answered. “They were a long way from home in a hot, dangerous place full of bad smells, bugs, and snakes. Every step they took, they didn’t know if it would be their last. Yet in spite of all the uncertainty, the camaraderie we built among each other is what kept most of us going. We had each other’s back.”

Our conversation was interrupted by a pretty flight attendant asking us what we’d like to drink. I got some water and Jason got a coke. Sipping our drinks, we both fell into silence. Soon Jason closed his eye, perhaps contemplating what he had just learned about the Vietnam War from an eyewitness. I stared ahead, lost in thought about the reunion and how it would not have happened without a website exclusively for veterans. is an exclusive website where former, retired and active duty men and women reconnect and bond. It’s also a place where I met some really great people.

The first time I signed on, I was surprised how easy it was to navigate and within a couple of hours, I found six old army buddies. When someone becomes a member there are encouraged to fill out their profile page with as much personal information about their military and personal history. There are places for unit assignments, awards, schools attended and military and personal photos. To capitalize on this powerful search capacity, I filled out my profile on both the Marine Corps and Army site as completely as possible.

I had joined the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school in 1956, then joined the Army as an infantry second lieutenant in 1966 during the height of Vietnam War. Following a year of selected training, I was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group in 1967. My first four-month was on A-Team 102 Tien Phouc along the Song Tran River southwest of Na Trang for four months. The remainder of my tour was with Project Delta, a special operations units running small reconnaissance teams deep in enemy-held territory. Today the unit is known as Delta Force.

My second tour began in 1969 when I was a rifle company commander of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). In May 1970, we operated for two months in Cambodia. I retired a Lieutenant Colonel in 1984 and jumped into a career as a writer and documentary filmmaker.

With my entire military career uploaded on both my Marine Corps and Army profiles, it wasn’t long before I begin getting messages from old Army buddies, most of whom I served with in Vietnam.

After months of exchanging emails and messages over the TWS message center with Vietnam comrades, the idea of holding a reunion began to take shape. There was a lot of enthusiasm and the beginning of some planning. The final shove, however, came from somewhere else.

One day, I got a TWS message from an unknown veteran. He wrote he had been a member of our company when it arrived in Vietnam in 1965 and for the past eight years, the original members had been meeting for reunions every two years. He wanted to open up the next reunion to be held in Myrtle Beach to all veterans from all years who served in the company. I wrote back we would be there and got busy getting the word out.

Reflecting on how it all came about, I was struck by the versatility of TWS. It not only brings together long-lost friends, it’s a national archive where millions of stories and photos are posted, and with each, a lasting legacy of America’s military heritage.

Whenever I get the chance, I like to search for photos and stories posted by vets who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It never fails to amaze me the detail some of the veterans have posted. It is better than a history book because it’s personal and because of these living, breathing “scrapbooks” come straight from the gut and the heart. The postings by friends and relatives honoring the men and women who paid the supreme sacrifice are the ones that get me the most.

Somewhere in my mental praising of why I love Together We Served, I’d fallen asleep. The next thing I felt was the plane leveling off and the pilot telling us we would be landing in 15 minutes. The head flight attendant got on the horn with some gate numbers for some connecting flights and thanked us for flying their airline.

The plane landed at the Atlanta and parked at a gate. Walking off the plane I said goodbye to Jason and headed for the gate my flight to Myrtle Beach would depart. Two hours later the commuter plane landed. I called the hotel where I would be staying and where the reunion was being held. In a matter of minutes, a van picked me up.

The excitement and anticipation was growing inside as I realized that within minutes, I would be coming face-to-face with some of my combat buddies after more than four decades. They understood better than anyone else about what Vietnam meant because they were there, they shared in the experience too. No doubt Shakespeare had us in mind when he wrote in Henry V, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”.

This article appeared in the April 2013 Vietnam magazine


Military Myths and Legends: Women of the Vietnam War

By LtCol Mike Christy-Together We Served Dispatches

It has been estimated that as many as 11,000 women served in Vietnam or in other locations, but over 90% served as nurses. Some served as nurses in evacuation hospitals, MASH units and aboard hospital ships. Others worked in support roles in military information offices, headquarters, service clubs, and various other clerical, medical, and personnel positions. Servicewomen in Vietnam experienced many of the same hardships as their male counterparts and served bravely in dangerous situations. Many were awarded personal citations.

Non-military women also served important roles. They provided entertainment and support to the troops through the USO, the American Red Cross, and other humanitarian organizations. Women working as civilian nurses for USAID (US Agency for International Development) participated in one of the most famous humanitarian operations of the war, Operation Babylift, which brought thousands of Vietnamese orphans to the U.S. for adoption. Additionally, many women reported the war for news and media agencies.

Combat Nurses
Combat nurses worked twelve-hour shifts six days a week and when a mass casualty incident occurred, like a major battle, those twelve-hour shifts could easily turn into twenty-four to thirty-six-hour shifts. Nurses also volunteered their time in the communities around them, often going to the local orphanages or hospitals to offer the civilians their medical services or to teach classes on basic hygiene, first aid or even English. Nurses also had to deal with numerous emotions: stress from a number of patients they had to serve, anger at seeing young men so horribly wounded and guilt at not being able to save all of the wounded men or make them whole again.

Despite the long hours and sometimes horrifying wounds these women had to face, many nurses found their service rewarding. They were able to serve their country and save and comfort the wounded men in their facilities. During the Vietnam War 98% of the men who were wounded and made it to the hospital survived. Nurses witnessed some truly miraculous events such as men recovering from their wounds or acts of true selflessness that are common during combat situations, and many nurses made close friends with their fellow co-workers some of whom still keep in contact into the present day.

Eight U.S. of these heroic nurses died in Vietnam; six were killed, two died of illnesses. Each dedicated themselves to taking care of the wounded and dying.

See their faces and remember their names. These are their stories.

Lieutenant Colonel Annie Ruth Graham, Chief Nurse at 91st Evacuation Hospital in Tuy Hoa. A native of Efland N.C., she suffered a stroke in August 1968 and was evacuated to Japan where she died four days later. She was a veteran of both WW II and Korea. She was 52.
View her shadow box on TogetherWeServed: LtCol Annie Ruth Graham

First Lieutenant Sharon Anne Lane died from shrapnel wounds when the 312th Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai was hit by rockets on June 8, 1969. From Canton, OH, she was a month short of her 26th birthday. She was posthumously awarded the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Palm and the Bronze Star for Heroism. In 1970, the recovery room at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, where Lt. Lane had been assigned before going to Vietnam, was dedicated in her honor. She was 26 years old.

In 1973, Aultman Hospital in Canton, OH, where Lane had attended nursing school, erected a bronze statue of Lane. The names of 110 local servicemen killed in Vietnam are on the base of the statue.
View here service shadow box on TogetherWeServed: 1stLt Sharon Ann Lane

2nd Lt. Carol Ann Elizabeth Drazba (L) of Dunmore, Pennsylvania, and 2nd Lt. Elizabeth Ann Jones of Allendale, South Carolina. Both were the first military women killed in the Vietnam War. Both were assigned to the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. On February 18, 1966, they were on an administrative flight to Dalat aboard a helicopter from the 197th Assault Helicopter Company, 145th Combat Aviation Battalion, when the aircraft struck a high-tension transmission line over a river in the vicinity of Bien Hoa. They died along with five other passengers in a helicopter crash including Jones’ fiance. Both were 22 years old.

They are honored on Panel 5E, Row 46 and Panel 5E, Row 47 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

View their shadow boxes on TogetherWeServed: 2nd Lt.Carol Ann Elizabeth Drazba
2nd Lt Elizabeth Ann Jones Read more »


Remains of Marine shot down during Vietnam War heading home after 48 years

A Marine radar intercept officer missing nearly 48 years after he was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War has been accounted for after his remains were found last year, the Bergen Record reports.

The remains of Marine Corps Reserve 1st Lt. William (Billy) Ryan, of Bogota, N.J. (left in photo) were identified through DNA tests conducted by the Defense Pow/MIA Accounting Agency at the Pentagon, the paper reported Friday.

Ryan’s plane crashed on a combat mission in southern Laos near the Vietnam border on May 11, 1969, the day before his son’s first birthday.

“I always knew my dad died in the crash, and that’s what my mom told me,” Michael Ryan, 48 told the paper. “What she didn’t tell me is that part of her held out hope that maybe she’d see his face again.”

His aircraft was pulling out of a bombing run when it was hit by enemy fire. The pilot bailed out and was rescued.

Ryan was also shot down in 1968 over the Gulf of Tonkin but he survived that crash.

According to the Record, military investigators went to the Laos crash site in 1990 and found his plane seat.

Investigators visited the site on six other occasions from May 2012 to January 2016 to look for remains.

A lab identified the remains as Ryan’s and notified Michael last month.
The next day Ryan’s widow Judith was diagnosed with stage-4 stomach cancer.

“I don’t know, it’s strange to me,” Michael told the paper. “We’ve waited 48 years for this. And now I’m looking up at God and saying, ‘Can you give this woman a week to celebrate?'”

Billy Ryan will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on May 10, the eve of the crash anniversary.

Much more about Ryan and his family can be found at the site below:


It’s Only a Movie

By Al Bell

As a small boy I was terrified by Bud Abbot and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein, a comedy which featured Lou Costello in constant danger of being attacked by such horror film villains asabbott Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man. Each time Lou was in peril, I would hide my eyes, while my dad would comfort me with the words, “Don’t worry. It’s only a movie.” I soon relaxed. No one was really hurt.

In 1969, I became the senior advisor to a South Vietnamese River Assault and Interdiction Division (RAID), consisting of 21 river boats which had been transferred from the U.S. Navy’s “Brown Water Navy.” I was a Navy lieutenant, and I was assisted by about six enlisted men. We provided technical support and advice in the maintenance and operation of the heavily armed boats. We liaised with U.S. units when the Vietnamese needed air or artillery support. We also helped with logistics in obtaining fuel and ammunition.

My position as an advisor gave me a sense that I was sort of an observer of the passing scene, only becoming involved when help was needed. While I had been to school to learn riverine tactics, the Vietnamese had actually been at war for decades. I had more to learn than to teach.

RAID 72 had the job of transporting a battalion of Vietnamese marines into combat in the U-Minh Forest of the Mekong Delta. We would typically put the marines ashore at a point determined by intelligence to have a concentration of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Our boats would then move into blocking positions, while the marines with air and artillery support would attempt to drive the enemy into our ambush. More commonly, the enemy would fade into the jungle while the marines gave futile chase, leaving the boats to sit and wait for the marines to return.

tet2During Tet of 1968 the enemy had suffered so many casualties that they withdrew into the U-Minh Forest to lick their wounds and to regroup. Both the U.S. and South Vietnamese believed we had the enemy on the run. The South Vietnamese launched a “Dark Forest” Campaign to destroy the remaining enemy in that area.

Our boats carried the marines down a long, narrow canal, the Song Cai Lon. We had to fight our way down. Ahead of my boat, a monitor (a boat bristling with guns) was sunk by an IED made from a U.S. 500 lb. bomb, killing all five sailors on board.

Ever the dispassionate observer, I photographed the boat as it was sinking. After all, this seemed just a movie. There was nothing for me to do but to send a report.

Farther down the canal we bivouacked at a place on the canal shown as the village of Dong Hung. It had been destroyed years before, the villagers had been relocated to a government area, and the jungle had closed in. Still there were the 273rd North Vietnamese Regiment and thousands of VC.

The marines established a small command post (CP) at Dong Hung and the main force went out into the jungle to find the enemy. Our boats moored on both banks of the canal near the CP. My Vietnamese counterpart, Lieutenant Commander Binh, the commanding officer of RAID 72, explained to me that the plan for defending ourselves if attacked was to move the boats to the outside ends of the stretch of the canal bounding our encampment. The boats could then have interlocking fields of fire. I had been concerned that no defensive barrier had been established, nono barbed wire had been strung, nor had trees been felled to provide those fields of fire. They assured me that this would have to do since they did not know how long we would be there. I just thought about Roman Legions on the march who erected timber palisades wherever they stopped, even if it were only for the night.

I don’t recall how many days we were there while the marines were away looking for the enemy. Reports generated by me tracked Vietnamese marine movements, engagements, casualties, and the status of boats. In addition to the 110 Vietnamese sailors, there was one of my enlisted advisors, Radioman 3rd class Bruce McIver, and two enlisted advisors from RAID 74, which provided some of the boats in our group of twenty-one. At night, I would lie under mosquito netting on an air mattress and listen to the chatter on my AN/PRC-25 short range (VHF FM) radio. There were just brief communications between the U.S. Marine advisor, Maj. Mike Cerreta, and the pilot of an Army single-engine forward air control (FAC) aircraft which coordinated air support.

At about 1 a.m. on November 6, I was listening to the Marine advisor and the FAC pilot when the FAC signed off and headed for his base. That meant that there would be no further communication, so I drifted off to sleep. Thirty minutes later, I was jarred awake by explosions all around me. was2Was this just a movie? Mortar rounds were impacting throughout the CP and among the boats. Soon, it became apparent that we were under attack by a large force, perhaps two battalions (500-600 men each) armed with 82 mm mortars, 60 mm mortars, 57 mm recoilless rifles, rocket propelled grenades (RPG), Chinese machine guns, and AK-47 assault rifles. Swarming from the jungle, they quickly overran the CP, destroying tents, huts, bunkers, and communication equipment. The small contingent of Vietnamese marines and their U.S. advisors were forced to retreat onto the boats.

Plans to move the boats to the edges of the CP evaporated under the speed of the attack. Soon the enemy was among us, climbing on some boats with hand grenades and satchel charges. Most boats got underway from the west bank of the canal and moved to the east bank, for, although we were completely surrounded, the main force of the attack was from the west.

Maj. Cerreta retreated to my Command and Control Boat (CCB) with many Vietnamese marines, some of whom were badly wounded. The CCB tried to back off the west bank but it was tied with nylon lines to a bush on the bank. The CCB backed at full power, but it could only fishtail helplessly three feet from the bank while the enemy on the bank was raking us with rockets and small arms fire. Maj. Cerreta and I crawled to the bow trying to free the line, but it was hopeless. The major even tried unsuccessfully to shoot the line in half with his military issue 1911 Colt.45 Cal pistol.

I jumped below, fetched my Buck knife, and ran back up to the deck. We had been hit by four B40 RPGs, and the boat was on fire from burning fuel. I told Maj. Cerreta that I was going to crawl up and cut the line. Reinforcing my feeling that this was only a movie, he held up his pistol and said, “I’ll cover you!” I crawled exposed up to the bow and found a Vietnamese marine still trying fruitlessly to free the line; I shoved him aside and cut it loose. The CCB quickly moved to the east bank, only 20 yards from the enemy who pounded us with crew manned weapons from the west bank. We fired back with every weapon we had.

The fierce fighting continued until dawn. A medevac helicopter relayed a request for air support. This turned out to be Shadow and Spooky gunships, cargo planes fitted with high speed Vulcan guns. Those Gatling type guns fired so many rounds that it appeared they were pouring liquid metal on the enemy.

In the morning, I organized the evacuation of the many wounded. A man pressing a battle dressing against his belly to hold his intestines in place was begging me to get the helicopters there fast. Each time the helos approached, the VC would fire mortars at us.

After it was all over, I had fired every one of the 500 rounds of M-16 ammunition that I had. A quick survey revealed that all of the boats were out of ammunition, too. I urgently requested helo delivery of all types of ammunition. It did not arrive until the following day. Had we been attacked that night, we would have been wiped out.

Searing my soul for life is a scene from the morning after the fight. Lacking body bags, the Vietnamese had wrapped one of our sailors in a plastic rain poncho. I remember thinking irrationally as I looked at the face limned against the plastic, “He can’t breathe!” Then it came home to me — he would never breathe again! We suffered 44 killed and 151 wounded. Seventy-five enemy bodies were found.

The night of November 8, the enemy attacked again, this time sinking two boats, but we held them off again, but with more casualties on both sides. My realization at this point that this was not a movie and that I had nearly five more months of this affected me deeply. Clearly, this was serious business.

The week in March 1970 that I left Vietnam, we killed a VC whose possessions included a citation for his role in the November 6, 1969 attack on us. Unfortunately, the same firefight which killed that VC resulted in the death of a U.S. Army advisor to Regional and Popular Forces we were transporting.

Al Bell is a writer and publisher who just released his second book “Sea Story!” and Other Sketches: Memories and musings from a life of adventure. Available from (search term; “CDR BELL”). My first book, “Sea Story!” & Other Sketches, is still available there.

The book is a collection of previously published stories, essays, rants, and musings by ‘Skipper Al’ Bell, whose adventurous life has given him a unique perspective on the world. The writings range from interesting accounts of real events to humorous lampoons and fiction. Some are inspiring, while others are ironic. The gentle reader may not agree with the author on some issues, in which case the reader is almost certainly wrong. His writings are part Mark Twain, part Jonathan Swift, and a large dose of Mad Magazine. Some stories are serious and uplifting. Others reflect brooding depression. All are entertaining.


TCCM Dennis White U.S. Coast Guard (Ret) (1972-1998)

profile2Read the service reflections of

TCCM Dennis White

U.S. Coast Guard (Ret)


Shadow Box:


In my late elementary school years I took and interest in aviation. I would check out books from the public library and read the principles of flight and aeronautics. In my junior high years, this developed into a dream of becoming a helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard. Growing upin San Diego, my family spent many afternoons fishing off the rocks in San Diego bay around Shelter Island. We would drive past the Coast Guard Air Station San Diego which had its own traffic light that would stop traffic on Harbor Drive when a C-130 or old Albatross sea plane would taxi from the Coast Guard base to the international airport runways. In my junior year of high school I spoke with the Coast Guard recruiter in San Diego about my plans. But my dream of becoming a pilot was quickly squashed when I learned that my eye sight was not good enough. Undaunted, I simply lowered my sights a bit and looked to another field I was studying, marine biology. I learned of the Marine Science Technician rate in the Coast Guard which caught my attention. I joined up soon after graduating high school, taking the entrance exam in October. The recruiter called me and asked when I wanted to go to boot camp. I told him I would like to spend the holidays at home first. I arrived at the Alameda Training Center on January 2nd! By the end of boot camp, another rate caught my eye, one which was a long time hobby, radio. And there where two opening for Radioman school. One was mine!


Starting in junior high, I had a hobby of building Heathkit radios. I started with a simple AM/FM set, then an analog FM/VHF radio, and then stepping up to a crystal controlled VHF scanner. I also had a large portable short wave radio that I would tune in the world with at night, our aluminum mobile home awning serving as my antenna. I went into boot camp hoping to become a Marine Science Technician. But when I had an opportunity to look more closely at the MST rate, I saw that I would probably not be that happy just being someone who simply gathered info but didn’t really get into any marine research. I graduated boot camp as Hotel-83 Honorman, so I had first pick of the available schools out of my company. When I saw two openings for Radioman school, the proverbial light bulb in my brain came one, and I was off to Petaluma to become a Radioman. I never regretted that decision! My 26.5 year career took me from vacuum tubes and dials to IC chips, computer monitors, and push buttons!


The morning of January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger sat on a launch pad in freezing temperatures. The USCGC Dallas entered The Tongue of the Ocean off Andros Island, Bahamas for exercise torpedo drills. The Dallas had just come off a long patrol in the Caribbean. We had leftour homeport of New York a little over two months ago, and had been on patrol through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. All we had to do now was work with a navy nuclear submarine, fire off some exercise torpedoes, and then we could head for home and families. It was late morning as we headed for the exercise area, then the ship’s loudspeakers came on with “Officers call, officers call. All hands to quarters.” Strange; we usually had Officers call right after lunch. Why now? As we a gathered on the flight deck, the two gas turbines could be heard coming on line. This meant something was up! The ship’s company was soon informed of the tragic explosion of the Shuttle Challenger, and the CGC Dallas was to “proceed at best possible speed” and assume On-scene Commander for the rescue and recovery operations. The CGC Dallas was soon throwing a ten foot rooster tail of water as we left Andros Island at full speed. What followed was two weeks of long hard days and nights for the Dallas crew members. The area was soon full of Coast Guard, Navy and NASA vessels as part of the recovery operations. Plus, the area was soon further crowded my private vessels carrying news reporters and crews. It was the CGC Dallas’ job as On Scene Commander to coordinate all the efforts of not only the surface vessels, but also the numerous aircraft in the area. The bridge crew and Combat Information Center (CIC) handled the voice communications with vessels and aircraft. The radio room was busy sending and receiving long situation reports (SITREPs) every four hours. These administrative and coordinating duties were daunting enough, but the Dallas was also very much into the physical efforts of recovery. During day light hours, both of our small boats were in the water collecting the bits and pieces, both large and small, which were scattered over and ever increasing search area. All this “evidence” from both our own small boats, and other surface vessels was collected onto our flight deck. Each piece had to be tagged for identification purposes with information such as time and location it was found, and a unique number. We collected everything from booster rocket nose cones to small pieces of gold foil, plus dangerous fuel canisters. The small boat operators were “In the saddle” so long, they all soon had painful blisters on their inner thighs. As soon as the sun would go down, the Dallas would head into Port Canaveral, set special sea detail, tie up to the NASA pier, off load our days load of “evidence”, set special sea detail, and head back out to the scene to be ready to do it again starting at first light. If you were lucky, you could catch 2 to 4 hours of sleep on the trip back out to the scene. This routine went on for about 2 weeks. But despite the long hours of hard work, the extension of our already long patrol, and the lack of sleep, I never saw the crew of the CGC Dallas with higher morale and dedication to duty. Unit and individual awards from the Coast Guard and from NASA followed. I remember late one night as we were off loading at Port Canaveral, two astronauts came into the radio room as we were preparing the final situation report for the day. I only remember that one of them, Astronaut William Shepherd. They thanked us for the hard work we were doing and told us just how much they appreciated it. It was very touching, knowing that they too must have been going through a lot of emotional stress themselves.


The same station was both – Coast Guard Radio Station Honolulu. Fondest memories: This was back in the day of open bay barracks. I was a young, single, and at my first true duty station. You quickly developed a comradery with the other operators in your duty section. We wereon the front lines in saving lives and property at sea. We received the frantic and scared calls for help from large tankers to the weekend pleasure boater. Calls came in as voice calls over Channel 16, SOS’s over CW on 500 KHz. CG Radio Station Honolulu (call sign NMO) prided itself on not missing a call for help. You quickly had to learn to remain calm yourself as you handled distress calls for fires at sea, amputated limbs, sinking vessels, and just plain scared seamen riding out a hurricane. And of course, the fondness for the duty station may also have something to do with the fact that I met my future wife while stationed here!

It was also my least favorite because of the leadership we served under. (I will not mention any names.) Our CO and XO were both warrant officers. The XO was an alcoholic. Many a time, on of the mid-watch duty section men would be called to a local bar to drive the XO home. When he was semi-sober, he a real hard nosed person, handing out extra duty hours for even the simplest infractions of log keeping. The CO either didn’t know, or didn’t care about the conduct of his XO. Oh well, you do the extra duty, say “Sir yes Sir”, and ride out the storm.


My most personal impact of life altering events happened there at CG Radio Station Honolulu, my best and worst duty station. In our duty section, there occurred an on-going debate between two in our section who had gotten into Scientology and two of our section chiefs who were Christians. Iwould listen in on these debates, trying not to get involved. But God had other plans! The best meal in the Navy galley was mid-rations, or “midrats”. They would serve left overs from dinner, or you could have an omelet made to order by a cook that was a real master of his art! (The Coast Guard Radio Station was co-located on the US Navy Communications Station.) One night after getting off of the eve-watch, I headed to the galley for midrats. I sat down at a table with my food, and this young skinny navy dude sat down across the table from me and ask me “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven or hell?” He didn’t wait for an answer, just got up and left. A couple of nights later, this same navy man did the exact same thing. I never saw or heard from him again. Just a few days later, I got an invitation that no single guy living in the barracks could pass up. My section chief invited me to his house for Easter dinner, home cooked by his wife, in a house off the base. All I had to do for this wonderful meal away from the military was to go with his family to Easter services at his church. So on Easter Sunday of 1974 I found myself sitting on a pew in the Wahiawa Christian Church. My section chief, RMC Doug Peterson, and his wife Roberta, didn’t put any pressure on me by trying to “convert” me. They invited me into their home and we had an enjoyable and pleasant day. But that day was really a joy to me. I got to met people other than military types, and they were all so warm and pleasant to me. I wanted to come back! I was usually accompanied to church my one of my room mates RM3 Roy Ludwig. (By now we had moved out of the open bay barracks and into three man rooms. Whoopee!) After a couple of months of studying God’s Word with my new found friends, I was ready to make a decision which would set my course for the rest of my life. One night, while lying in my bed in our three man room, I decided to give my life to Jesus Christ. I prayed silently that night for forgiveness and acknowledged my complete surrender to Jesus. I drifted off into a pleasant sleep. Around 7 a.m. the three of us got up to get ready for the day watch. The very first words spoken that morning was from the third man in our room, RM3 Larry Dinger. Larry looked at us as we all stood there in our underwear, and said, “What happened to you two?” Roy and I looked at each other, and we both realized we had both accepted the Lord earlier that night, with our the other having known about it! But Larry knew there was now something very different about us!

Wahiawa Christian Church was a small local church. It had no baptistery, so they held their baptisms in the ocean on the north shore of Oahu. Great things were happening at this small church. Sunday filled the small church and overflow was seated outside on the lawn. The south side of the building had sliding walls that could open the whole building up. So many people were coming to the Lord that every two weeks they would have a baptism picnic on the beach, with about a dozen baptisms happening each time. Our pastor was an active duty navy chief yeoman who was soon to retire. I got baptized there in the surf that day. Afterwards everyone had a grand time with a picnic and games. Chief Peterson came up to me during the picnic and asked a favor of me. He told me of a girl who was a radioman in the navy, and she needed someone to show her around the island. As a favor to him, would I give her a call some time and show her around. I reluctantly said yes. A couple weeks later I was playing tour guide to RM3 Mary Kerr, USN. A year later we were married! A couple of months after we were married, we were going through some of Mary’s photos from Hawaii. She had taken just one picture of someone getting baptized. That picture was of me! Taken before we had even be introduced! So God took me to Hawaii to meet Him and my wife!

What achievements make me proud? What do I look back on the most? It was accomplishments that I never got medals or awards for. It was the satisfaction and pride I achieved from being able to lead others that were under my watch. Being radioman-in-charge on the CGC Dallas and at CG Group Los Angeles/Long Beach. Being able to work closely with the staff at Pacific Area/Maritime Defense Zone Pacific. My pride comes more from the relationships I made in the service rather than from my own accomplishments. I tried to treat enlisted and officer with equal respect and courtesy. My son is currently serving in the Air Force, and I have many other friends from other services. And I don’t know of any better service to have been a part of were you can share such a wonderful sense of serving together. The Coast Guard was truly like a family to me.


You should see my “awards wall” at home! It’s full of plaques and memorabilia. A great shadow box presented to me upon retirement from my shipmates and ESU Cleveland. Plaques from PACAREA, CGC Dallas, Group LA/LB, Certificates of appreciation from NASA, North Coast CPOA, our church in Long Beach, andmy diploma from the Chief’s Academy. But on top of them all, right up near the ceiling, there is mounted one small wooden plaque with a cheap brass colored engraved plate. My Honorman award from my boot camp company, Hotel 83. I received it from the hand of Alex Haley. At the time I had no idea who this man was. It wasn’t until years later that I learned of Mr. Haley. But it wasn’t who I received it from that makes it meaningful. It’s because it was the first real accomplishment I was recognized for. It represented the fact that I could rise above and face all the coming challenges of service with confidence. You just keep your head above water, your eyes and ears open, and do the best you can!


Personally, it would be RMC Douglas Peterson who loved and cared enough about me to draw me away from Scientology into the arms of my Lord Jesus Christ.

Professionally, it was Captain Carl Luck of the CGC Dallas. CAPT Luck was a strong leader, an expert seaman, and was always very fair yet firm in his dealings with those in his command. He was a fine example of true leadership for me.

I find it curious that most of the friends I remember by name are from either my first or last duty stations. After my basic and A school training, my first station was Radio Station Honolulu. RMC Douglas Peterson was my watch section chief. Doug was a compassionate leader who was very professional on watch, but also cared enough about the young men he led. He would invite the young single men in his section over the his house on occasion for a home cooked meal and some quality time of really getting to know you. I still communicate with him, especially since he introduced me to my wife! There at RADSTA Honolulu (NMO), I still remember my two room mates, Larry Dinger and Roy Ludwig. I found Roy recently on facebook, but have not heard from Larry since Honolulu. Facebook is great! I also recently reconnected with two shipmates from CCGDNine Cleveland, my last duty station. Debi and Scott Morris worked closely with me in the communications center.

As a new member of the watch section at Radio Station Honolulu, I soon fell in with a group of guys who shared my love of snorkeling and scuba diving. We all decided to do a night dive on the east side of Oahu. The shortest way there was driving through Scofield Barracks and over Lualualei pass which meant driving a small winding road on the base. But this road also had a legend attached to it about a ghostly specter of a female hitch hiker that would appear on the road, and then appear in your car! As we drove this dark lonely road, freaking ourselves out with ghostly stories of spirit hitch hikers and US Marines who had taken their own lives at the guard post atop the pass, we were suddenly met with two glowing eyes in the middle of the road! The horror was quickly replaced with laughter as we got closer and saw it was just a cow! The night dive went off uneventful.


I retired out of the Ninth Coast Guard District offices in Cleveland Ohio. We moved to Spokane Washington, my wife’s home state. We purchased a ten acre parcel of land to build on which was an old alfalfa field. I took on a part time job at the local Radio Shack to help with the expenses and pay for our rental in town while the land was being prepared for our home. I stayed there five years until my wife Mary got a good paying job.

We joined a local Christian congregation at Westgate Christian Church. I have made serving at Westgate my second career. I have served there as a deacon, elder, and member of the school board. I am also the current IT Technology Leader and head sound technician. My training in the Coast Guard, both as Radioman and Leadership training at the Chief’s Academy has served me well in these positions. Serving in these areas is a true passion for me.

I currently carry memberships in the USCG CPOA and the American Military Society. They serve as my voice in Washington D.C. along with their sister military associations. I am also a member of the National Rifle Association, though not a military association, I feel they also support many of the ideals that veterans hold dear.


Whoa! This is a simple question with a not so simple answer! I still remember the first time I went home after boot camp. I left home just a few short months after graduating from high school. When I came home after boot camp, those high school friends of mine acted and seemed like “immature kids”. Of course, it wasn’t them that changed, it was me. I had broken away from mom’s “apron strings” and proved to myself that I could make it on my own. The challenges and hardships of military life will either break you or make you stronger. I saw a few who did get broken and had to be sent home or discharged. I don’t think I was that much better than them, but by the grace of God, I was able to change and grow in the new environment of the service life. These lessons of change, growth, and personal strength have become life lessons that have not let me down. I ended up making the Coast Guard my career. A decision I have never once regretted. I can look back at my life and career with pride, dignity, and a true sense of accomplishment.


Get yourself in a job that you have a true passion for and you’ll never look back. Believe in yourself and your abilities. Treat others with respect and fairness. And most importantly, anchor yourself in the one true harbor of Jesus Christ.

Some of you may be like me, and not very good at remembering names after you leave a duty station. If your lucky, you may remember 2 or 3 out of every 100 you served with. TogetherWeServed puts names together with times and duty stations. When you see those names that you have long forgot, the memories come flooding back! What happened to Petty Officer Jones after you parted? Now you can find out. But first you have to sign up! (But there’s no recruiter lies!)


SSgt Walter Madden U.S. Air Force (1958-1966)

profile1Read the service reflections of

SSgt Walter Madden

U.S. Air Force


Shadow Box:


The decision was made while I was still in high school. During my junior year, the Air Force invited our Scout Troop to Dover Air Force Base (AFB), Md. We were taken on a tour of the base and fed in the mess hall. But the biggest thrill of the entire trip was when they flew us around in a C-130, allowing each of us on the flight deck where we could ask questions. When we landed, I was hooked! I wanted to fly! I set my mind on getting good grades, going to college during my junior and senior years of high school, all to qualify for pilot/navigator training.

Most of my senior class had plans of going to college, but I couldn’t afford to go. So certain of my plan, in the middle of my senior year, I went to Philadelphia’s All Services Induction and Physical Center and signed up for the Air Force program of induction right after high school graduation. I even took the tests and physical so I could go straight to training.

That is when the first setback occurred. The doctor noted that I had asked for pilot/navigator training and said that I had failed the physical. My two right shoulder operations (one while an infant, the other at three years old from a car accident) had left me with an inability to turn my head to the right far enough to look over my right shoulder, a necessary requirement for flight training. I still wanted to fly, so I went ahead with my enlistment. I graduated high school on June 10, 1958 and within two days, I was in Lackland AFB, Tx. to start Basic Military Training.


During my little over eight years in the Air Force, I had many jobs, some better than others. Of course, my training began with basic training. As we rolled off the bus for our first day on the base, I found that the Training Instructor (TI) was yelling at everyone but me. This was because of my years in the Boy Scouts, I knew what was meant by hurry, fall in line and stand at attention, stop looking around and so forth. I also already knew most of the marching and parade commands since I had instructed other scouts in these same things.

The TI asked the group, “Any of you had any college?” There were only two of us who had, one tall young man who looked older than the rest of us and myself. He made us the Flight Leader and Assistant Flight Leader, respectively.

Most of the young men in my training flight were Southern farm boys who struggled with learning the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the chain of command. I’d been ordered to teach those in my bay in the barracks. However, they had very little trouble with the physical and marching part of the training except with the sweltering heat, which bothered all of us. It was so hot on the day we were at the rifle range, the TI’s took each of us off of the range as soon as we’d qualified. Only the those going into the Air Police (AP) were required to remain for Marksman, Sharpshooter, and pistol qualifications.

We were given a battery of tests at the Philadelphia Induction Center. I did well with the electronics test with a score of 80. I figured if even if I couldn’t go to flight training, I would qualify for a flying job in Electronics. But I was wrong again. I was told that Electronics was not what the Air Force needed. I was also given the Radio Operator Code Test but I purposely did poorly so I would not be forced into a job listening to code all day long. Eventually, I was assigned to “General” which gave me a choice of Air Police, cook, or medical. Since I was always good at first aid in Boy Scouts, I took medical.

After Basic Military Training I was sent to Basic Medical School (on the ‘other side’) of Lackland. The 8-week course was exceptional and I learned a lot. I had made a good career choice. After graduation and a week on casual status, I was assigned to the Air Force Headquarters Hospital at Andrews AFB, Md.

My first assignment was as a Psychiatric Technician with Medical Air Evacuation Unit. I was given the responsibility for moving patients from incoming aircraft to the hospital or from the hospital to outgoing aircraft. Apparently the reason I was assigned to this unit was to be available to help with any incoming or outgoing patient showing signs of psychiatric issues.

My shift was 24 hours on duty and 48 hours off. On my days off, I mostly spent taking classes at the University of Maryland. I used the time between flights coming and going to study my college course home work. The great thing about the job, however, was I got to fly some of the patients to their new hospital or from their old hospital back to Andrews. Shortly after I got married and about eight months into this assignment, I was transferred to the Hospital Psychiatric Ward, where I found I enjoyed working with the patients.

While I enjoyed my work, I came to realize promotion possibilities were slow in the medical field. That’s when I started looking around for a career field that had higher visibility for promotion. I discovered the Air Force was looking for Manpower Engineering people so before reenlisting for my second tour, I switched to the Manpower Management Technician career field.

I was sent to Rock Island, Ill for Engineering School and soon got overseas orders for either Lakenheath AFB , United Kingdom or Bitburg AFB, Germany. I took Germany. The three year tour requirement for a married airman forced me to extend my current enlistment beyond eight years.

My assignment at the 36th Air Base Wing was that of an instructor for the 50 hour Air Force Leadership Course. The students in my class were senior NCOs and officers through the rank of Lt. Col. What amazes me about the whole experience is, I was only a Senior Airman (E-4) and yet all those high ranking students respected me because they knew I knew what I was doing. Later I was transferred to manpower management at the 7101st Air Base Wing for the United States Air Force Europe out of Wiesbaden, Germany. I also made Staff Sgt.

I was still in Germany when it became apparent I needed to leave the Air Force. My wife at the time hated the Air Force and hated Germany even more. Also, I was having severe problems with one of the officers I worked for in the Manpower Detachment. So with eight years, one month, and seventeen days, I came back to McGuire AFB to be discharged, which was maybe the biggest mistake I have ever made.

After my discharge, a friend of my wife, offered me a stripe in the Army Reserves. But when my wife found out that I was considering joining the Army Reserves she threw a real fit! Looking back, however, the marriage only lasted 5 more years and then I met the love of my life and at this writing my second marriage has lasted 40 years. I do not think if I had remained in the AF I would have met my wife. God works in mysterious way–and always for what best.


The three years I was stationed at Bitburg were by far the best of my career. The winters were mighty cold there, however. Teaching the Air Force Leadership course gave me the confidence that carried throughout my entire career and the rest of my life. Even some of the best working conditions I had at my civilian jobs do not compare to this experience. The people I met there were the best (and the worst) of any place I was stationed. They all taught me how to deal with and react around people so that you get the best outcome.


The first outstanding memory was when I was on Andrews AFB, Md. I was befriended by the commanding officer of the Marine Corps Detachment on the base. He invited me to ride along on a post-maintenance test flight. The flight took us over Eastern Maryland and before he turned back, he had the co-pilot come get me and had me sit in the co-pilot’s seat. He instructed me to turn the plane around (same plane as an AF C-124) and gave me all the altitude and headings needed to get us back. I flew it with only the altimeter and compass headings and never looked out the window. After some time he firmly said, “I got it!” I released the wheel and pulled my feet off of the peddles. I looked up and out the front windshield and we were several hundred feet off the end of the runway in perfect alignment to land. What happened next was enough to give you a required underwear change.

A few seconds after the Marine Major took control, we hit a crosswind and were headed down between the runway and the taxi way. The major corrected and put the plane down right on the runway. After we landed the major said that the only trouble I exhibited during the flight was that I did not keep the nose down. He kept rolling the nose wheel down during the entire time I was at the controls, but I was flying the plane. What a great experience!

While hardly a fond memory, I must mention what happen at Bitburg, Germany. My wife and I had been there about two and a half months and had just gotten settled into our in-town apartment. While moving stuff in, an airman from down the street came to our home. He asked if I had heard that President Kennedy had been shot. I was totally shocked and somewhat in the dark. We went back to his home and listened to the radio for a few minutes and then realized that we had better get into uniform and get back to base. We were on alert with the base on lock down for over three weeks. What a time, with little news, and no one really knowing what was going on back in the U.S.


The Air Force Outstanding Unit Award given to Andrews AFB Hospital in 1961. I was proud to be a part of that group. I also thought it was neat that the my first Good Conduct Medal was an Army Medal; I later received the Air Force version.


Anyone in the military for any length of time are impacted by others. But the first one I can recall is Tech Sgt. Clayton Riegel at Andrews AFB Hospital. He taught me the skills necessary to be a good Corpsman and how to care for the people with whom we were charged. They were all hurting, although not by something you could see externally, but mentally.

The second was Airman Alvin (I do not remember his last name) who ended up in our Psychiatric Ward after he had been thrown off of a high voltage utility pole after his Sgt had told him the power was off. He was in a near vegetative state when he arrived. Doctors and nurses told him he would never walk or talk again. Everyone working in the ward thought differently. Day and night, we all took turns caring and feeding him. Most of us being about this Airman’s age, we interacted with him to encourage him to do more and more. Long story short and against all odds and many long months, Airman Alvin walked out of the hospital talking to his parents. I have never seen the courage and determination that Airman Alvin displayed by anyone before or since.

Finally, there was Master Sgt. Jim Bratton. A practical man, he made sure the first things I did arriving overseas was to get my family there and settled. He rightly figured I would learn my new job more completely and quickly if I knew my family was settled. He helped me to understand what was important for both the Air Force and my personal life.


I had rich and varied career after leaving the Air Force, beginning as an management engineer for United Parcel Service (until the Teamsters Union went out on strike and closed down Eastern Pennsylvania).

Other jobs I held was an engineer for ACME Markets (American Stores) and in retail as an Operations Manager for J. C. Penney Company where I was in charge of all the credit, accounting, receiving, cashiers and both internal and external security. This was a lot of responsibility for a young man of 27 years of age. It is doubtful that without the experience the Air Force had given me, the success I enjoyed would not have been mine.

I returned to engineering at The Hartford Insurance Group in both the Claim Department and as a project manager in the Operations Department. I was responsible for seven to fourteen projects at the same time, making sure the design, testing, and installation at each regional office in the system. My Air Force engineering training and the experience of handling a class room full of people who all out ranked me was what had given me what I needed to succeed.

Over the years there were many times I would be called into a corporate officer’s office to explain where a project was or what had gone wrong to cause the project to be delayed. These officers were pussy cats compared to the officers I had to deal with in the Air Force. This lasted over 22 years. It is also where I met the woman I have been married to for over 40 years. She and I both worked for The Hartford and both retired early at age 50 and 52 respectively.

In all of these positions the impact of my service training and my experience of interacting with people (both good and bad) has taught me some very great lessons. The most significant of which was how to handle people with whom you do not agree. It helped me work toward the position of disagreeing without being disagreeable or coming to a mutual position of “agreeing to disagree.”

After retiring from the civilian working world, I have since become a real estate broker, real estate instructor, and Real Estate School administrator after having held a real estate license in three states with lots of experience in real estate investments.

But my military training was not only helpful in my work world, it also helped me succeed as ‘Guardian ad Litem’ (GAL) for the children caught up in the Florida family court system. We represent one or more children before the family court, making sure the court makes the right decision is in the best interest of the child while the system works with parents to overcome their substance abuse or child abuse issues. This has been some of the most rewarding work I have done since I have left the service!

Much of what the military taught me in organizing and sticking with the details has helped me handle as many as seven cases at a time and still keep on top of all the issues the children are having.

Though most of the Guardian ad Litem (GALs) are woman the need for some men in the program is constant. Many times you are dealing with unruly fathers who try to bully the woman GALs, so men work out better those cases. The program phrase is It take a special man to be a GAL. I also like to remember that a man never stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.


As a young man straight out of high school the Air Force not only set me on the right path but gave me the training and the discipline to be successful. In the military I learned how to respect other people and how to act to be respected, especially in the medical career field where compassion and caring are critical for our patients at what may well be the most difficult time in their lives. Also, the engineer training I received showed up in every work situation I’ve been in as a civilian.

What I learned in the service about dealing with difficult people and problem situation has served me very well in my civilian careers. The foundation of military training such as attention to detail, doing things the right way the first time, and being satisfied when you know you have done your very best has been the guiding principle throughout my work and family life.


Try to find the part of the job you enjoy and capitalize on that area. Do not be afraid to change career fields if you find something more interesting and enjoyable. Strive to be the best in your duties, your job, and your career field. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. If you really enjoy a career in the military, find ways to overcome any distraction or interference with that desire. My biggest mistake in life was not staying in the Air Force.


I have not been a member very long, which is not surprising then that I have not yet found anyone I served with through the site. Still, I know if I keep looking and use the many search capabilities of TWS, I will find old friends. I have however made friends of other service members of Together We Served and enjoy the interaction with them. Reading other members reflections, especially those with totally different experience in both war and peace, had made me appreciate their service and the things that they have been through.

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