Roundtable: Soldiers Reflect
ED GORDON, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
Today, a special memorial edition of our roundtable. We've brought together three soldiers to share their thoughts about the ultimate sacrifice for our country and why America should take time to remember. We're joined from Chicago by Ted Hudson--he's a Korean War veteran--and on the line from Fayetteville, North Carolina, Shirley McDougald, who served in Vietnam.
Welcome to you, and we're hoping to be joined by Staff Sergeant Anthony Smith, an Army Reservist who did tours of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He'll be joining us from New York, hopefully.
Thank you guys very much for joining us. Mr. Hudson, let me start with you. As you look back and think of the times that you have observed Memorial Day--and the fact that you were in the Korean War has allowed you to observe, thank goodness, a number of them--what do you consider most often on this day?
Mr. TED HUDSON (Korean War Veteran): I think a lot about the people that I lost in my unit and about those brave young men who didn't come back, and about those who came back with a loss of their legs and arms, and that sort of thing.
GORDON: Do you do anything in particular, or over the years have you been part of special observances or parades?
Mr. HUDSON: I have taken part in parades in the past, but I suppose the one thing that I like to do best is to find a quiet, peaceful place, usually in the outdoors, and just to think and meditate on those days when I was young and in combat.
GORDON: Shirley McDougald, so much has been talked about and written in terms of veterans of the Vietnam War, that war being slightly different in terms of how America, throughout the years, has looked at it. Is there anything special about your part in that war that brings to bear how you observe today?
Ms. SHIRLEY McDOUGALD (Vietnam War Veteran): Yes, I think there is something special about my part in the war, and that being--is the fact that I'm a female, a female who was not a nurse; also a black female. There were very few of us that served over in Vietnam, us women, that is. Our numbers were very small. At the time I was there, '71-'72, at Long Binh post, Vietnam, I think the population was around 35,000 troops, 35 of which were females who were not nurses. So our numbers were very small.
GORDON: Shirley, I'm curious. You volunteered...
Ms. McDOUGALD: Yes, I did.
GORDON: ...for that war. What made you do that?
Ms. McDOUGALD: Well, I wanted to see what the real story was. I had been in the military for approximately a year. I had been working at Oakland Army Base in California, which was a major transfer point. We processed soldiers going over to Vietnam and coming back. Some of the soldiers, you could look at them and tell they were pretty much broken for life. Others came back energized and they were ready to go again. I had always been sort of a curious person, and I wanted to know what the real story was myself. And so at that time, women could not be compelled to go into combat theaters, so I had to volunteer. And because of my young age, my mother had to sign for me. So that's why I volunteered. I really wanted to know what was going on over there.
GORDON: Ted Hudson, you went to Korea in 1950, and though the armed forces were, quote, "integrated" officially in 1948, I would suspect that during that time it must have been difficult for an African-American in many parts of the military.
Mr. HUDSON: Yes, it was very difficult. I remember I volunteered for the Marine Corps Reserve, and I served in a unit here at Navy Pier in Chicago. At the time I joined, there were no African-Americans in the company. They were somewhat reluctant to have me in the company and I experienced a number of difficulties.
GORDON: Ted, how difficult was it for you to be placed in a situation, in combat, that clearly was dangerous, clearly life-threatening, to know that not only within the military but when you got back home, you were not seen as an equal citizen?
Mr. HUDSON: Well, I suppose the most difficult experience that I had encountered was in combat, I was the only African-American in my company, and during the time that we would be attacked, I found that no one wanted to foxhole with me, and that was difficult.
Shirley, you served in the military for 20 years.
Ms. McDOUGALD: Yes.
GORDON: I'm curious, over those 20 years, as you looked at the sacrifices that you and many of your friends made, what was the difficulty for you, not only, as we mentioned with Ted, for issues of racial equality, but as you mentioned earlier, gender equality? I suspect that you, too, faced some of the same demons that Ted talked about.
Ms. McDOUGALD: Yes, I did, Mr. Gordon, I certainly did. Well, starting over in Vietnam itself, I was the victim of a near-fragging. That is, for those who don't know what fragging is, it's when friendly forces turn on each other. I had a boomerang thrown at me from across the room that went right by my head and knocked a big hole in the wall. Now this happened by one of my fellow soldiers. And I asked him why he had done that, and he said because he didn't believe women belonged in the Army, and he also didn't believe women belonged in Vietnam.
GORDON: Shirley, let me ask you this: So much was talked about in terms of the public reaction towards soldiers returning from Vietnam. When you think about a day like today--and luckily the country has, to a great degree now, given the official salute to those soldiers. Even though you may not agree with the war, you understood why the soldiers were there. How difficult, during those immediate years, was it to live through a day like Memorial Day when the country did not necessarily give you its just due?
Ms. McDOUGALD: It was very difficult indeed, because as you said, Vietnam veterans did not get the honor and the respect that our modern-day soldiers are getting, our Gulf War vets and Iraqi Freedom vets are getting. The Vietnam War was a very unpopular war that divided the country, pretty much the way we are now, and we suffered a lot of abuse, both from civilians and also from other members of the military. I myself would not even wear my medals or my combat patch that identified me as a Vietnam veteran for many years because of the sanctions and because of the just overall bad feelings about Vietnam vets. But I thank God...
Ms. McDOUGALD: ...that the country really has matured today and they understand that veterans should not be carrying the weight or the load for decisions that our politicians and government officials make.
GORDON: Ted, you're 75 years young.
Mr. HUDSON: Well, that's correct.
GORDON: When you look at the country today and look at how soldiers are treated, and also the idea that on a day like today, when the country is asked to observe those who've given the ultimate sacrifice, yet, frankly, many people and many of those who we've heard from on this program early don't necessarily see this day as that; they see it simply as a day off work, a day to go to the beach, a day to relax--how difficult is it to know that people that you went into combat with did not return home? Do you wish the country would focus a bit more on the remembrance during this day?
Mr. HUDSON: Yes, I do. I find it very difficult that we forget, or have forgotten, those Americans that have given their lives for the service of this great country of ours. And--but I notice that, like you said, this seems to be a day when we would barbecue, have a picnic or have a family outing. But it's really a day when we should stop and think about those of us that cannot do that anymore, those that gave the full sacrifice, their lives, for our country.
GORDON: Shirley, is it more difficult for you to not only deal with the idea of friends lost, but is it more difficult during a time of war? Ofttimes soldiers who've been drafted, actually seen combat, moved into the groundwork of war in a true sense, have a different feeling about war when they come back.
Ms. McDOUGALD: Mm-hmm. Your question again, Mr. Gordon, is?
GORDON: I'm asking is it more difficult during a time of war for you...
Ms. McDOUGALD: Oh.
GORDON: ...to deal with the idea of those you've lost?
Ms. McDOUGALD: Well, yes, it is very difficult, as a matter of fact. The feelings that I had about what happened to me in Vietnam and in the years afterwards, I sort of tried to suppress for many years. I didn't want to deal with it. I didn't want to talk about it. But after 9/11, all those feelings came back, and I had to deal with it and I had to talk about it. And really, I'm glad I did, because it's been a freeing and a liberating time for me. What I've done to sort of help myself is I've got involved in veterans' issues, veterans' service issues, because what I feel right now, what we ought to be doing, along with remembering those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, is keeping faith with those who did return, those who did come back with physical and mental disabilities, those who have not been able to take their places back in society, those who have not been able to regain gainful employment. I started to work on behalf of veterans' issues and, really, that's helped me and, you know, kept me going.
GORDON: Ted, what about with you? How difficult was it to get back into society and ready your mind and try to forget some of the things that you saw on the battlefield?
Ms. McDOUGALD: Well, it...
Mr. HUDSON: It...
Ms. McDOUGALD: It was difficult and it really is still difficult, because some of the same issues that we were dealing with during the Vietnam era, we're dealing with today. We haven't kept our promises to our veterans. And yes, we like the parades, we like the accolades, we like being told that we were brave and trail-blazers, but the Department of Veteran Affairs in this country has made promises to veterans that are just not being kept.
GORDON: Ted, what about you?
Mr. HUDSON: You know, it's very strange. I have experienced the same thing. I lost two very good friends in Korea. One of them was a young African-American who was bayoneted in his sleeping bag, and another one was a young white Marine that had befriended me one day--or one period in combat. And I don't know; when I came back I said that I wanted to keep their memory alive. I wanted to do something and honor them, and I just involved myself in veterans' affairs...
Ms. McDOUGALD: Yes.
Mr. HUDSON: ...and in veterans' organizations. And I'm very active with the DAV, the American Legion, the VFW and an organization called the Chosen Few.
GORDON: All right. We're now joined, I'm told, via phone by Staff Sergeant Anthony Smith, an Army Reservist who did tours of duty in Pakistan, Afghanistan and was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Staff Sergeant Smith, thanks for joining us. Appreciate it.
Staff Sergeant ANTHONY SMITH (US Army Reserve): Thank you.
GORDON: We should al...
Staff Sgt. SMITH: Good morning.
GORDON: We should also note that I'm told you have a son currently in the military. Is that correct?
Staff Sgt. SMITH: Yes. Actually, he recently got out. He was also in Iraq.
GORDON: Let me ask you this, as relates to this day. Someone who has seen battle fairly recently, and I would imagine have, unfortunately, lost some comrades--what do you reflect on this day?
Staff Sgt. SMITH: I'm sorry. I didn't get the last part of your...
GORDON: What do you reflect on, on this day?
Staff Sgt. SMITH: Ooh--just the sacrifices that everyone is making, to leave their homes, to leave their loved ones and, you know, just the experience of being able to actually come back and help the younger soldiers coming in, that are actually joining now.
GORDON: Let me ask all three of you--I don't know if this is appropriate for any, but did any of you lose a close friend?
Ms. McDOUGALD: Yes, I did.
Staff Sgt. SMITH: Yes.
Mr. HUDSON: Oh, I did.
Staff Sgt. SMITH: I did, too.
Ms. McDOUGALD: Yes, definitely, and I want to tell you about mine. His name was Larry McCoy. We went to high school together. Larry McCoy was very popular with the girls. All the girls wanted to be his girlfriend, including me. Of course, he never paid me any attention. But anyway, he was just great. And I got to talk to him the summer before he went to Vietnam, and we had planned to talk after he got back. Well, he never returned, and I never forgot Larry McCoy.
GORDON: Mr. Hudson, what about you?
Mr. HUDSON: Yes. I lost a very, very dear friend. His name was Gunnery Sergeant Henry Foster, and it's kind of strange the way I met him. He was not in my company. I was with a group of Marines that were at a place called Yu Dan-Li(ph) in 1950 when the Chinese surrounded the Marines in North Korea. We had a company there called Fox Company that was surrounded and trapped, and it was our job to go through the mountains and to relieve the company that was trapped there. And this particular night, I was lying on my back on this mountain, oh, some 11,000 miles away from home, and this sergeant walked up to me, or crawled up to me, rather, and he asked me where was I from, and I told him, I said, `Oh, you wouldn't know.' I said, `I'm from a small town called North Chicago.' And he says, `I know where it is.' He says, `I live in Waukegan,' which is the sister city. And we got to know one another very well and we got very close. In fact, that night it was about 45 below 0 and I was shaking like a leaf, and Gunny Foster went somewhere and found a blanket and gave it to me, wrapped up, and then we talked about whoever returned home first...
Mr. HUDSON: ...would visit our respective families. And it so happened that he was killed a few days later, and I made it back home and I did go up to visit his wife. And I've never forgotten that. That's always been very close and dear to my heart.
GORDON: Well, I think with those two stories we should remember that ofttimes we remember people on this holiday, and it's a faceless remembrance for those of us who don't necessarily know the idea of war and have lost close friends or relatives, but so many people have, and as you go through this day, take time to know that these people had faces, lives, stories and families.
Staff Sergeant Anthony Smith, Ted Hudson and Shirley McDougald, we thank you all for joining us. Greatly appreciate it.
Ms. McDOUGALD: Thank you.
Staff Sgt. SMITH: Thank you.
Mr. HUDSON: Thank you.
GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.
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