“Back at home a young wife waits
Her Green Beret has met his fate
He has died for those oppressed
Leaving her this last request”
Put silver wings on my son’s chest
Make him one of America’s best
He’ll be a man they’ll test one day
Have him win the Green Beret”
When SSGT Barry Sadler released his song in 1966, American found itself at war in South East Asia. The lyrics were written in honor of Green Beret US Army Specialist 5 James Gabriel, Jr., the first native Hawaiian to die in Vietnam, who was killed by Viet Cong gunfire while on a training mission on April 8, 1962. One verse mentioned Gabriel by name, but it wasn’t included in the recorded version.
When the year began, the US had over 190,000 of its finest men and women risking their lives in the rice patties and towns of South Vietnam. Within a few short months that total would surpass 250,000. Back at home, we were a nation in turmoil. The TV was saturated with news from Vietnam, assaulting us in living color with images of war and seemingly endless body-counts. All the while we saw our college campuses and city squares filled with anti-war demonstrations.
Some of us were in high school and thinking about our draft status as our 18th birthdays approached. We all had the war on our minds. Our thoughts were with our brave servicemen and how many of us would soon join their ranks. The decision many of us faced was not whether or not we would go; but when. Some would go to off college, hoping to keep their student status until things cooled off in ‘Nam. A lot of guys like me, would give college a try, only to discover that it’s not where we wanted to be. It would not be until December 1969 when the lottery would replace the current Selective Service System. The new process gave those who did not choose to serve, a rough chance of a high number, thus avoiding the draft altogether. For the rest of us able-bodied young men, if you didn’t have a student deferment, you were 1A, meaning it was either enlist or be drafted.
It may be hard for you to understand what the pressure was like, unless you were coming of age during that time. We heard the “unjust war” crowd shouting the loudest. The contrast to that was the unquestioning patriotism of our fathers who were part of what we now refer to as “The Greatest American Generation”.
One redeeming quality of that era was our music. Barry Sadler’s ballad hit the charts in 1966 and stayed at number 1 for 5 weeks. Later, Billboard would make it the top hit for that year. In fact, the song reached the top of the charts in March of that year, coinciding with the US announcing the build up of troops that I previously mentioned. The ballad in it’s entirety, tell of a noble nation’s patriot, his undaunted courage and his legacy. That, my friends, was quite a task considering the country’s mood, particularly among teenagers and college students, during that year.
The stanzas quoted in my opening remind me of another group of people that are often forgotten. Those who are left behind at home to pray and worry about their loved ones who have been scattered across the world in service of their country. They patiently wait for the return of their heroes. Some will celebrate with tears of joy as their husbands, fathers, wives and mothers come home to them. Others, with tears of sorrow who will be met with tri-folded American Flags.
So, this year as you remember those who gave their lives for freedom’s cause, along with our active military and veterans, take a moment and consider the unsung family members that pray for the safe return of their own.
Today, I think of those in my family who have served honorably and those who have waited at home: My father and all his brothers (save 2 that did not survive childhood). Both of his sisters married WWII Vets. On my mother’s side, her brother served. She and both of her sisters married Veterans as well. Two of my cousins of that era served (all three of us in the Air Force).
So, I salute you all: My dad. Uncles Hank, Dick, Fred, Paul. Uncles, John Dodge and Wayne Vincent. Uncle Jim Shultz. Uncles Bob Desnoyers and Earl Mills. Cousins Ernie Vincent and Dave Desnoyers. And, all of those who loved and waited.