Gen. Colin Powell honors Vietnam Vets
Fairfax County Times
By Gregg MacDonald Staff Writer
“I entered Saigon for the first time as a 25-year-old infantry captain on a one-year tour,” former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell said as he addressed fellow Vietnam War veterans April 11 on the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War at Vinson Hall Retirement Community in McLean.
Over the years, historians have differed on when U.S. involvement in Vietnam actually began, but according to the U.S. Dept. of Defense Historical Office, July 28, 1965, represents the date when the United States completed its transitional role from providing advice and support to supplying direct military intervention.
On that date, “The U.S. Commander in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, concluded that American combat troops had to enter the conflict as combatants, or else South Vietnam would collapse within six months,” Defense Department historian Dr. John Carland wrote in 2012.
During the commemorative 50th Anniversary event in McLean on April 11, Powell said he first served a tour in Vietnam as a South Vietnamese Army adviser from 1962 to 1963.
Seven months into his tour while on patrol in a Viet Cong-held area, Powell said he was wounded by falling into a Punji trap. During the war, Punji traps were a common weapon of the Viet Cong. They were deep, dug-out holes outfitted at the bottom with sharpened stakes — often dipped in natural poisons or excrement to hasten infection in an unfortunate victim’s wound — and then covered and hidden with straw or dried leaves and grasses.
“The spike went through my foot, and my leg soon began turning purple from the infection,” Powell said.
The worsening infection cut Powell’s first Vietnam tour short.
“Kennedy was assassinated the day I returned to the U.S. from that tour,” he said.
Powell said he later returned to Vietnam as a major in 1968.
“That was during the time when the Civil Rights movement was going on, and I saw Birmingham Sheriff Bull Conner aiming fire hoses at African-Americans and siccing dogs on them,” he said. “As my wife was home standing guard over our children with a shotgun, I was defending democracy 8,000 miles away.
Powell said he went back to Saigon only once after the war, in his capacity as Secretary of State.
“All the old memories flooded back at me as my plane was landing and I saw the mountains and the landscape,” he said.
Powell told those in attendance in McLean that he was proud to have served during the war and thanked fellow Vietnam War veterans for their service.
“It was a rough time for many of you returning home,” he said. “Today, I think many more people have come to realize that you served your country proudly and admirably,”
Glen Bratcher, 80, a Vietnam War veteran and resident at Vinson Hall in McLean, said he remembers very well the negative way soldiers were treated when they returned home from the war.
“It upset me greatly that people would meet soldiers in uniform at the airports when they landed and then spit on them,” he said. “It was very important to us to let the American public know that we were not the enemy. The military does not start wars; that is done by politicians and presidents. The military simply serves.”
Bratcher, who served in the U.S. Marines and was stationed in Da Nang in 1965, said he remembers running for shelter on a nightly basis as Viet Cong rockets bombarded his living quarters which were camped near a strategic runway.
“I remember one rocket that landed in our barracks and killed three marines,” he said. “Luckily, another rocket that had entered the junior officers’ quarters was a dud. Otherwise, it might have killed 14 officers.”
Bratcher said he was very glad to see Powell thank him and others personally for their service during the war.
“The WWII generation was not the only greatest generation,” he said. “Any wartime generation that faced death in combat was — and is — the greatest generation. All a lot of us have ever really wanted was for someone to tell us that, and today General Powell did.”