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Remembering the 28

Dan Smith

Veteran’s Day is all about remembering. For many, it’s remembering the battles we were taught in school – York Town, Gettysburg, San Juan Hill, Belleau Wood, Normandy, Pork Chop Hill, Khe San, Kafji and others more recent. For me it has always been remembering the people. Not just the people with the medals, but all the others.Over 42 millionmen and women have served in our armed forces, and around 1 million have died as a result. Not surprisingly, I never knew most of them. I wasn’t even alive when the majority of them served. However, those I did know were the men in my unit who were killed in action between September 1969 and August 1970. On paper, there were supposed to be 220 of us in the unit, five officers and 215 enlisted. In reality, we rarely had more than three officers and on occasion were down to around 90 men, thanks to rotation home and casualties. It was a small unit, just a single calvary troop attached to an infantry brigade in a hostilities-only division. Not a lot of history, not a lot of glamour, but 28 dead men nonetheless.I don’t remember most of their names. I guess I knew I wouldn’t. So as the plane for home took off, I counted up those who had died. There were 28.I’d love to say that all of our 28 dead were heroes, but it wouldn’t be true. No cowards, but no great heroics, either, just 28 guys trying not to let their buddies down. I’d really like to say that they were all good men, but that wouldn’t pass the red-faced test either. I can’t even say that they were all my friends, because, frankly, there were many of them I hardly knew. But they were all part of my unit and, in a sense, all part of me.Why were they there? A lot of reasons, I suppose. Most were there because they were drafted. Some were there because they enlisted to go, others because they didn’t have anything else to do at the moment.How did they die? All of them were killed by mines or what has come to be known today as improvised explosives. Some died instantly, others in one of the hospitals or in the dust-off chopper. While the unit fired and received a lot of rounds, only one of ours was ever hit by gunfire and that was just a minor wound. As a unit, we did our share and overall probably gave out more than we got.What did it mean? In the saying of the day, “It don’t mean nuthin’.” This was the way of dealing with everything from poor chow, extended missions and personal wounds to dead friends. Of course, it wasn’t really true. It did mean something. You just weren’t willing to admit it. In hindsight, maybe now I know what it meant. It meant we were all in the same place at the same time because the citizens of the United States asked us to be there. And we went because that was what you did when you were asked to. While many citizens, about 68 percent by most counts, later repudiated asking us to go, it was a bit too late for the 28.I know that in a free society, people and governments are just that, free to change their minds. But they have to remember the cost. People have to separate their views on the conflict from their support for those involved. They have to remember the 28. I know I will. Dan Smith is a Vietnam veteran, teaches at Colorado Mountain College, is involved in Vail Mountain Rescue and a number of other activities. His views are his own.


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