KEYNOTE ADDRESS GIVEN BY

JOHN J. O’BRIEN

TO THE

LOWER COLORADO RIVER

AUTHORITY

VETERANS APPRECIATION DAY

PICNIC

AT

RIVERBEND PARK

SMITHVILLE, TEXAS

8 NOVEMBER 2007

On Veterans Day, our Nation will honor the sacrifices

of America’s Armed Forces – past and present. Today I

would like to share with you my thoughts on what it means

to be a “veteran,” highlighting the time when I served in the

Republic of Vietnam from February to June of 1968. It is

not an exaggeration to say that who I am today is shaped by

my interaction many years ago with young Sailors and

Marines. Although there are so many acts of heroism that

I’d like to acknowledge, today I’ll focus on these three

men:

A Lieutenant who volunteered to serve when the nation

called him; - 2nd Lieutenant Al Kettner, U S Marine Corps,

my classmate at the US Naval Academy;

a Corpsman who valued the lives of others more than his

own; - Corpsman David Bronson, U S Navy;

and a Sergeant who lead his unit.

- Sergeant David Harrison, U S Marines.

These American heroes were members of the 1st

Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment. I was Platoon leader for

Delta Company’s First platoon. My remarks today will

draw from a book written by Dr. Gary Jarvis, a Sergeant in

1/27 who wrote our unit history. Gary named his book

“Young Blood” because the majority of Marines who died

in our unit were under the age of 20. In our Battalion, if

you were 18 years old, you had roughly a 50-50 chance of

surviving Nam. Take a moment right now to look at the

person on your left and right, knowing that one of them

would perish within the next 5 ½ months. Those where the

odds for countless young Marines who helped beat back the

North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Once,

the selfless service I saw in and around my Platoon seemed

unique, but now I know this quality has been demonstrated

time and again by millions of Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors and

Marines.

Let me begin with 2nd Lieutenant Al Kettner.

As I mentioned, Al and I were classmates in

Annapolis. His room was just down the hall from me, and

we were good friends. I remember talking with him for

hours about why we decided to attend the Naval Academy

and why we wanted to join the Marine Corps when we

graduated. We were young men wrestling with the larger

questions of what we wanted to do with our lives. Our

nation was at war then, just as we are today. Looking back,

the decisions we made as young men were difficult, even

perilous—Al’s cost him his life on April 12th, 1968.

Al was leading Bravo Company 2nd Platoon on patrol

along a canal when the North Vietnamese Army attacked

them from a nearby village. Fighting intensified as the

Americans moved towards the village. Al received a

wound to his right hand and the radioman got hit in the leg.

The antenna on the radio was shot off. A Navy corpsman

pulled the wounded radioman to safety, while Al called in

an air strike to quell the ambush.

The next morning, Al’s platoon was part of a larger

operation to force the enemy away from the city of Hue. It

was a classic hammer and anvil tactic. Platoons from

Alpha and Delta Companies swept through the vegetation

along a canal. We were the hammer, forcing the retreating

enemy toward Al’s Company – the anvil. Al and his men

bore the brunt of the enemy’s counter attack. Things were

so bad that Bravo’s commanding officer had to call in

artillery nearly on top of his own position. Al was in the

front of his unit when they ran into a well designed

ambush. The first six Marines in line were immediately

killed. Most were wounded. The unit pulled back to a

defensive position until the NVA overran them. Twentysix

Americans were killed and forty-three were wounded

that day. Those who survived were just about out of ammo

when relief arrived. We found Al’s body on Easter

Sunday.

A month and a half earlier, Al had written a letter to

be opened only in the event of his death. He wrote the

following:

“Dear Mom and family,

It seems a little strange to sit down this morning

and write this letter and at first impression, it may seem

strange to you, too, to know I did it. For the past four and a

half years, I have lived the life of a military man and have

learned that an intelligent and efficient officer is in control

of his emotions at all times. Therefore, you must know that

I write this with a clear mind and have thought out the

contents beforehand.

First of all let me restate my willingness to serve

in Vietnam. It is only another step in doing what I believe I

owe to God and my country. As you raised me you taught

me what is right and wrong, that no one owed me anything

– that I had been given the opportunity to better myself.

You took me to church and I learned about God. All this

had influenced my thoughts and ideas. I see an attack on

the people of another land – both their bodies and their

minds – and it disturbs me. I believe my way of serving

must be in the Marine Corps. Here I can actually carry out

my beliefs by fighting for my Country. All of this reminds

me of the words of Thomas Jefferson written inside his

memorial in Washington, D.C., ‘I have sworn before the

altar of God – eternal hostility toward every form of

tyranny over the mind of man.’

Do not let feelings of sadness linger. Rather, think

of my willingness to serve. It is my hope that what I have

done with my life has made life better for others.

(Signed) Your son and brother, Alan”

Although his memory is never far, I try to make a

special effort every year on Al’s birthday, August 22nd, as

well as on Veterans Day to honor my friend from

Annapolis. As I reflect on his service this Veterans Day, I

realize Al taught me that being a “veteran” of the United

States Armed Forces means a willingness to give all for a

cause you believe in. Al believed in his country. Al

believed in the Marine Corps. And he would be proud to

know that today, almost 40 years later, his sacrifice is not

forgotten.

On Veterans Day, I’ll also remember Corpsman David

Bronson, or “Doc” as we called him. He taught me, first

hand, the meaning of service before self.

In early May of 1968, the 1st Platoon of Delta

Company set up an overnight position near a pagoda just

east of Hue. The day before, we had captured an enemy

paymaster and killed two others who had tried to ambush

us. Throughout the night everyone was on alert waiting for

the retaliatory attack we knew would come. After dark, I

directed the machine gunner, Cpl. James Buccola, to move

his team a few meters from where they were positioned and

to establish new lines of fire. The Platoon command post

was also moved. At 0440 after checking the perimeter and

calling in the report to the Company headquarters, I was

startled when someone yelled, “Hey Lt.” Instinctively I hit

the deck and rolled. Seconds later we were hit by a rocket

attack close to where I was. Two rockets landed exactly

where the command post and the gun had been located.

Near the CP, Sergeant Elmus Bolen from Missouri and

Private First Class Gerald Vinson, my radioman, were hit.

Bolen had serious injuries; Vinson was bleeding, and I had

some light shrapnel on my right side. Doc Bronson was

there in an instant.

I moved quickly to the perimeter to see what damage

had been done to our positions. Sergeant Mahsetky, a

Comanche from Oklahoma whom we called “Big Chief,”

fired off an illuminating mortar round. I looked towards

the direction of the incoming rockets to see NVA soldiers

flooding into the rice paddy. Our machine gun opened up.

I moved quickly to where the second rocket had landed.

Somehow Doc Bronson had gotten there first. PFC Arthur

Hull had moved into the position where the machine gun

had been and was wounded. After Doc fixed him up, I

asked PFC Hull if he could fire his weapon. He yelled,

“Yes Sir!” We fired together while the illumination was

aloft. Although the enemy tried to overrun our position,

their attack subsided shortly thereafter. We waited for

daybreak and the Medivac of the wounded.

Sergeant Bolen was permanently blinded and received

internal injuries in the attack. In 1999, he succumbed to his

wounds. PFC Vinson went stateside to heal. Today he

owns a large plumbing business in Alabama. Because I had

a lower leg injury, I was forced to leave my men after this

battle for a short time. And, by the way, no one else in the

Platoon heard anyone yell “Hey LT.”

I am forever grateful to all my men for their ability to

function and think in this truly “life or death” situation.

But Doc Bronson’s quick action and complete disregard for

his own welfare no doubt saved many lives. Like so many

corpsmen in Vietnam, he repeatedly exposed himself to

hostile fire to give first-aid to the wounded. A few weeks

earlier, in the action near Hue, Doc Bronson had crossed a

canal under heavy fire to treat several injured Marines. He

managed to save their lives, but nearly lost his own.

Following this daring rescue, we found that Doc had two

bullet holes in his shirt and his canteen was shot off. Doc

Bronson was awarded a Bronze Star for his actions.

Doc Bronson taught me what it means to be a veteran:

it means you’re willing to put the well-being of others

before your own. Doc went stateside after his tour in

Vietnam; I’m sure he’s still helping others.

I’ll close with a story about Sergeant David Harrison, a real

Marine’s Marine. His memory, like that of Al and Doc, has

stayed with me for decades.

After healing from my wounds for about a month, I

rejoined Delta Company in June. When I reported for duty,

I learned that the unit was commencing Operation Allen

Brook. The purpose of this operation was to achieve

tactical dominance in an area where the NVA had become

increasingly and openly aggressive. I was with my

Platoon, when things got hot on the morning of June 19th

in the vicinity of Bac Dong Ban, just south of Danang.

Bravo Company was pinned down and we were called in to

help. When we got there, the enemy had wounded or killed

several Marines and pinned down the rest. Entrenched

NVA were ready for us. In an attempt to better understand

the situation, I ran towards Bravo’s position. Corporal Bill

Drennan came with me. I was almost there when I was hit

in the lower leg and did a cartwheel in the open field. As

fate would have it, I was wounded in the same spot on my

leg where I had taken shrapnel about a month earlier.

Drennan made it to Bravo. He later said that he was able to

reach them because all of the hostile fire was aimed at me. I

think the real reason was that he was a faster runner.

I crawled to safety behind a paddy dike and was

helped back to our lines. It seemed like enemy soldiers

were firing at us from every direction. I immediately told

Sergeant Harrison to move to the front. Most men would

have been terrified at the prospect of running across a fireswept

“no man’s land.” But Sergeant Harrison dashed

across the open ground. How he got into position, I’ll

never know. Showing extraordinary bravery, he led the

men of Bravo back to relative safety. Then Harrison

directed our “rocket man,” Lance Corporal Bob Short, to

zero in on the location of an enemy machinegun and rocket

launcher and wait. When the enemy fired, Short let them

have it. He was extremely accurate and destroyed that

position. It gave us some breathing room for the moment,

while we called in artillery and air strikes.

A few hours later we launched a frontal assault. It was

bloody for both sides. The machine gun team lost two men.

Our machine gunner, Cpl. Buccola, was alone and exposed,

but he kept firing. The assault halted and Alpha Company

arrived to sweep the village from where the initial contact

had come. They met little resistance. The remaining

enemy had fled.

Dave Harrison was truly courageous that day. I was

with him in Riverside, California, when he was awarded a

Bronze Star medal over thirty years later. His citation

reads, “Sergeant Harrison directed the Platoon to cover,

continually exposing himself to enemy fire and ensuring

the recovery of casualties while continuing to bring fire on

the enemy. He moved throughout the platoon position

directing fire and inspiring the Marines to continue to fight.

His personal courage, sound tactical judgment and calm

demeanor provided the inspiration for the platoon to

continue the battle . . . . By his initiative, courageous

actions and complete dedication to duty, Sergeant Harrison

reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest

traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval

Service.”

Courage. Bravery. Valor. These words are

synonymous with Sergeant Harrison’s actions that day and,

I’m confident, actions that were repeated on thousands of

occasions by Service members throughout Vietnam.

Monday is a federal holiday to honor all those who

have worn “the cloth of the nation”. For many people, that

means a day to sleep in, relax with a cup of coffee, and read

the newspaper. Some of you will host a BBQ in your back

yard; others may have a picnic at the local park. However

you’re planning to spend Veterans Day, I’d ask you take a

minute to reflect on what the term “veteran” means to you.

To me, it is synonymous with the stories of American

heroes like

- Al, who died for a cause he believed in;

- Doc, who risked his life to save countless others;

and

- Sergeant Harrison, who demonstrated tremendous

courage under fire.

We are a Nation at war. In Iraq and Afghanistan today,

there are nearly 200,000 Service men and women in

combat. For the last six years, General Peter Pace has

proudly and honorably represented our Armed Forces as

the Vice Chairman and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of

Staff. When he retired on October 1st, he performed one

final act of duty. Without fanfare or media attention, he

went to the Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall. And

as hundreds of thousands of people have before, Pete

placed a remembrance at the base of the monument beneath

the names of the Marines he’d lost in combat. He removed

his four star insignia from his uniform and placed them

with a note saying, “These are yours – not mine!” and

signed the note by writing, “With love and respect, your

platoon leader, Pete Pace.”

Like General Pace, I feel I owe more than I can ever

repay to those who served beside me in Vietnam. I am

truly humbled by their courage and honored to have served

with them. Fortunately for all of us, their legacy lives on

among the almost 2.5 million men and women in uniform

today. Among them are American heroes like Al, Doc, and

Sgt. Harrison. As a veteran I am proud to have marched

with these Marines, shoulder to shoulder, to the sound of

the guns.

May God bless America and bring us peace.

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