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They served in the snows of Germany, the valleys of Korea, the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of the Middle East. For many, going to war is a part of a family heritage that stretches both behind them, to the early days of America, and ahead, through their children, to the post-9/11 conflicts. All of their stories are unique — from firefights at eye level with invisible enemies to dangerous helicopter missions into hostile territory. But their accounts have common elements: a sense of duty, a love of country, unbreakable bonds forged in the fire of combat, losses that can’t be forgotten. Here are some of them.
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Francis Whitebird, 80
Whitebird is a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe and former South Dakota Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
I come from a warrior society. My great-grandfathers fought in the Battle of Rosebud in 1876 and the Battle of Little Bighorn eight days later. My uncle fought in the trenches during World War I. My father was a Lakota code talker, and he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He did not even tell me that he was a code talker until 1968.
I graduated from South Dakota State University in 1967 and enlisted in the Army that year. I wound up training as a medic. I landed in Vietnam on March 20, 1969. Before that, I had never flown on an airplane and I had never been to another country. I remember seeing a body bag for the first time. I didn’t know what it was.
What was the job like? I have thought about it over and over in my mind. When someone gets wounded in battle and yells “Medic!,” we have to go get that guy. When a medic starts running to help an infantryman, the other soldiers increase firepower while the medic drags that wounded person out of the line of fire. My job was to keep that guy alive until we could get him onto a helicopter. Sometimes they’d send a medevac, and they would come in without guns. Other times a combat helicopter would come in with two machine guns, one on each side, and they would come in shooting. Those guys had a ton of courage.
The casualty rate of medics in Vietnam was very high. We went through 27 medics the first nine months that I was in Vietnam. I wouldn’t say that medics were fearless, because there was a lot of fear of getting killed. But we hid our fear. Battlefield adrenaline is different than other kinds of adrenaline. It makes you move faster. There is an invisible bond between medics and the infantry. Men become brothers for life.
We were in the mountains and in the jungle a lot, and while people think that medics don’t carry guns, I did. I remember one time, we were trying to figure out our location. The jungle was so thick that we couldn’t make out the terrain. Because I was a medic, the guys all called me Doc. All the medics were called Doc. Someone said, “Doc’s an Indian. Ask Doc where we are. Indians never get lost.” I said, “I come from the plains. I come from South Dakota. You can always see 10 miles all around you.” I had no idea where we were. The Army spread a lot of Agent Orange up in the jungle mountains. It came down into the water, into small creeks and rivers. We put our canteens in this water, not knowing that the dioxin was in there. Everybody was exposed to it.
A firefight could last for a couple hours or, like the Hiep Duc Valley battle, last for 13 straight days. That is where I was wounded, by shrapnel. I still had work to do, and I had to keep going. There were lives to save.
I earned a Purple Heart, and I got out of the military in 1970. Three years later, I was accepted into Harvard, where I earned a graduate degree in education. But I started getting rashes. The doctors did not know what it was, at the time. I ended up having a successful career. But I also ended up with cancer. I tell my wife that Charlie (that’s what we called the enemy, in Vietnam — Charlie) didn’t kill me. But cancer is killing me a little bit, every day.
Two of my sons, Colin and Brendan, have continued the tradition of service. Both were deployed to Iraq. One was wounded by a sniper in Baghdad. He recovered and returned to finish his tour. I am so proud of them, just as I am of all the people who have fought for this country.
Rhonda Cornum, 68
Cornum is a surgeon, health care executive and author of She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story. She lives in North Middletown, Kentucky.
I was coming out of graduate school with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and I wanted a research job. I was interested in working for government services. One day an Army recruiter contacted me and said, “We need somebody to do the kind of research that you do. The only catch is, you have to join the Army.”
This was 1978. I had never considered joining the Army. I didn’t know anybody in the Army. But I went and saw the lab in San Francisco where I would be working, and it was beautiful. They had plenty of money. I wouldn’t have to teach. So, I joined.
It was an easy transition, but after four years, I realized that I was making about half as much as the physicians surrounding me. I was a single mother by this time. I looked at my choices and decided to go to the military medical school in Bethesda, Maryland. There I met Kory Cornum, my husband. I became a flight surgeon at Fort Rucker in Alabama, and he became a flight surgeon at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
On Aug. 2, 1990, I watched Iraqi tanks roll into Kuwait on television — the invasion of Kuwait. Soon after, a commander of an helicopter battalion asked me if I would accompany his unit to Iraq. I decided that I had to go. I thought, You’re really going to war, Rhonda. I remember thinking that I could die. What came to mind was something my grandfather once told me. He was a veteran of World War II. He said, “Rhonda, there are worse things than dying. There is living with dishonor.” If I didn’t go to war, I would have to live with dishonor for the rest of my life.
On Feb. 27, 1991, I was aboard a Black Hawk helicopter on a search and rescue mission over southern Iraq. An F-16 pilot had ejected from his plane, and we were told he was alive and talking on his radio. We went to get him, but we did not have intel on what was going on where we were headed. We just had coordinates. In fact, we were headed into the biggest ammunition supply point in southern Iraq.
We got shot down. I was shot in the back. I broke both my arms. I had a transected anterior cruciate ligament in my right leg. I lost a lot of blood. I ended up a prisoner of war. I was very fortunate to have survived the wreck, as five guys from my aircraft did not. After eight days in captivity, I was repatriated.
It took a few surgeries to heal me up. But at that point, the fact that I had been a prisoner of war, that I was a woman, that I had been on the front lines — I had a lot of credibility to speak out about equal opportunity for including women in combat. I realized that people would listen to me, and I had a lot to say. I got asked by congressional panels and the media to speak about my experiences. I was asked to develop a psychological fitness training program for the Army.
The reason I fared well as a wounded prisoner of war was because I was mentally prepared. We have a bunch of people serving our country who are brave and patriotic but not always psychologically robust. They don’t always have good coping skills. If we can instill optimism, good coping and communication skills before something bad happens, they will be less likely to succumb to that negative event.
When I was a child, I read a book that had the most remarkable quote in it. It went something like this: “The great men in history are those who can turn a disadvantage into an advantage.” I internalized that, and I have been living my life by those words ever since.
George B. Price, 93
Price is a retired U.S. Army brigadier general living in Columbia, Maryland.
I have to give credit to my hometown of Laurel, Mississippi. Every day when I went to school, we sang the National Anthem. We said the Pledge of Allegiance. In my hometown, we were raised to believe that service to one’s country was an honorable and dignified profession, and we were raised to love our country. We had veterans in our community who had served in all the branches of service. So we had role models. I also think it was important that we had African American veterans of World War I living in my hometown. It was a community spirit. Everybody felt part of it, including my sister, Leontyne Price, who went on to become the famous opera singer.
I first left home on a football scholarship to [what is now South Carolina State University], but I was fully determined to become a military officer. I qualified for ROTC. In the summer after my junior year, I was one of about 4,000 ROTC cadets from different schools who went to Fort Benning in Georgia, where we took basic training. This was during the period when President Truman signed the desegregation order for the Armed Forces, and the services were just being desegregated. So we had that issue, plus we were training in Georgia, where there were strict segregation laws and all that business. We worked through that. It was difficult, but we focused.
I graduated college and went back to Fort Benning. At this time, the Army was not only in the process of desegregating, but also deploying to a war zone — on the Korean peninsula. I finished my training and was assigned as an officer to the 45th Infantry Division in Korea. From the day I put on the uniform, I felt it was my job to perform above and beyond the call of duty. So that’s what I did. I served in Korea, where I was in combat nearly every day I was there. I was wounded and ended up spending six months in the hospital in Virginia. I went to airborne school. I went to Army Ranger school. I served as an adviser to the South Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War and embedded with them as part of their team. I served in Central America and I was a brigade commander in Germany. Then I ultimately became chief of staff of the First United States Army, in 1976.
My obligation was to be the best officer I could, in service to my country and to the soldiers whom I led. That’s what had been instilled in me by my community and my mentors, as a kid growing up in Laurel, Mississippi.
In the late 1970s, I was asked to represent the minority community with regard to the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. At the time, a core group of people — about 12 folks — were working on this. The team was led by Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran whose dream it was to build this memorial. I met with them, and I was captivated by their plans. I told them I wanted to help in any way I could, and this became one of the biggest thrills of my life.
At one point, there was a political backlash in Washington. Some powerful people were trying to stop the memorial from being built. The designer and architect in charge, Maya Lin, came under fire. As far as I was concerned, this was a major display of ignorance. I wasn’t going to put up with it.
Ultimately, we got the job done. Those people involved — such as Maya Lin and Jan Scruggs — deserve the highest praises that this country can offer. The wall was designed so that each person who visited can draw his or her own conclusions as to what their views were about that era, in order to help reconcile the country. It’s an enormous sensation that people feel when they see their reflection in the wall imposed on the names of the 58,318 people who were killed in the war. It might have taken years for this monument to be realized. But it was worth every minute.
Quang Pham, 58
Pham is founder and CEO of the biopharmaceutical company Cadrenal Therapeutics and author of A Sense of Duty: Our Journey from Vietnam to America. He lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
I was born in Saigon about six months before the United States ordered combat troops into the war in March 1965. My father was a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese Air Force. When Saigon fell in 1975, and the North Vietnamese overran the whole area, I had just finished the fifth grade. Evacuations started in secrecy because they didn’t want the whole country to panic. The planes started flying out at 2 a.m. on April 22. We were on the second flight — me, my three sisters and my mother. I remember big, tall Americans helping us onto the C-130, and I can still hear in my mind the sound of the thundering engines. My father remained behind and became a military prisoner. For many years, we never knew if he was alive or dead.
My family ended up in Oxnard, California. When we moved there, people would say, “What are you doing here? I thought you were the enemy.” I said, “No, we’re on the American side. We lost the war.” My father was my hero, and I had dreams of becoming a military pilot like him. But those dreams vanished. I went to UCLA to study economics. Then one day, I saw a Marine captain on campus, a recruiter in his dress blues. He saw me looking at a brochure and said, “How would you like to go to Officer Candidates School?”
I had just become an American citizen, but I had never seen an Asian American in the U.S. military. I ended up getting my degree, and when I showed up at Officer Candidates School in 1986, in Quantico, Virginia, my father was still in prison. The biggest shock was how much the Vietnam War was still on the minds of the U.S. military. There were a lot of racial slurs. But there was no way I was not going to make it through.
When I became an officer, things changed. I went through flight school, did well, and when I got to my squadron in 1990, the Gulf War kicked off. I was a new copilot aboard a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, and I volunteered to go. When I showed up in Saudi Arabia, I was the second youngest pilot, as far as experience, in my squadron. We flew medevac, and I was part of a two-helicopter team. We flew the first medical evacuation out of Kuwait International Airport, on Feb. 27, 1991. We went through smoky fields at 120 knots, 50 feet off the desert floor. We got Marines evacuated, and we flew out some Iraqi prisoners.
As I was getting ready for my second deployment, my father finally arrived in America. The last time I had seen him, in 1975, he was wearing a flight suit, in Saigon. Now in May 1992, here he was in California, a free man. I was a Marine pilot. We were united, and my life had come full circle.
I spent three very special days with him. Then I went back to the Persian Gulf and later to Somalia. The whole time, people did not understand why I was so driven to serve and how proud I was to be a Marine. It was a sense of duty—and that is where the title of my book comes from. The country gave me an opportunity, and it was my way to pay it back.
As a kid, I dreamed of following in my father’s footsteps — to become a military pilot. I never imagined that America would trust me to fly U.S. Marines off a ship at night. It was a tremendous experience and a way to honor my father and pay back my citizenship to the U.S. (He died in 2000 of a stroke, after living as a free man in the U.S. for eight years.) People ask me if I would do it again. Yes — without a doubt.
Harold Radish, 97
Radish is a retired junior high school shop teacher living in Douglaston, New York.
I was 18 when I was drafted into the Army in 1943. I thought that nothing could go wrong; I never felt that I could be killed or wounded. The whole country was psyched up for the war, and you could see it and feel it — in the movies, on the radio. I got to my first camp in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and I liked it very much. You had your duties. You ate well. Being Jewish and coming from a kosher home was a little bit of a problem. I asked my rabbi what to do and the rabbi said, “You eat, but don’t lick your fingers.” In other words: Eat but don’t enjoy it.
I went across the Atlantic and joined the 90th Division of the 3rd Army just after D-Day. I was in the Battle of the Bulge. [Later] we were going through the Siegfried Line, which was a fortification on the French and German border. The Germans had set it up. Our duty was to go in the middle of the night and take over a pillbox [a concrete bunker]. Just blow the door off, get in and hold it, and then we could fire from that the next day so that the troops could work their way forward.
One night we got trapped in a bunker, and the Germans kept us there until we ran out of food and water. About the fifth day, we had to give up. I was captured. Our dog tags had our religion on them. This was so that, if you got killed or wounded, the Army would know the proper ceremony for you. Mine had an “H” stamped on it, for Hebrew. By this time, Hitler’s Final Solution was well known to the world. Before I got captured, I got rid of my dog tag.
Naturally, I was terrified. During the interrogation at the prison camp in Germany, they asked me my name, rank, what outfit I was with, and how many men were in that outfit. This guy looked at me and said, “Radish. Radish. What kind of name is that?” I realized what he was gunning for. I said, “It’s a vegetable. Tastes like pepper.” He laughed, and that was it. In this camp, all we had was a cup and a blanket. I used to talk to the Germans in Yiddish, because they could understand some of that, but these German guards didn’t know what Yiddish was. Then, one day, I spoke Yiddish to a guy who turned out to be an SS guard. I said to him, “Vi lang?”—which means, how long? He looked at me and screamed, “You’re the Jew! Wall Street! You started the war!” And he rapped me on my arm.
Each morning we got a loaf of bread — maybe 8 or 10 inches long. That had to be sliced up for 12 guys. We had a deck of cards and we’d all pick one. The guy who got the high card got the job of slicing the bread. Everybody looked to him to make sure every slice was the same thickness, and the slicer got to keep the crumbs. That was extra for him. The Germans sometimes brought around barrels of what they called soup. It was just hot water and, occasionally, some vegetables. We did get Red Cross packages, and in there you had juice, powdered milk and cigarettes. I found out that if I gave a guard two cigarettes, he would give me an apple.
I was there for about four months, and I lost about 30 pounds. One of the worst parts was the lice. You’d wake in the morning and take your clothes off and try to get rid of all the insects. That was just miserable.
One night, the German guards came into our barracks and said, “The British are out there! You are not to go outside!” The next morning, we woke up and there wasn’t a German in sight. When we were liberated by the British, the first thing they did was take all our clothes and burn them, and they sheared off our hair like we were sheep. They brought in these wagons with hot noodles and other things to eat. We got British uniforms. We ended up in a camp near Le Havre called Lucky Strike — named after the cigarettes.
When I got back to New York, I went straight to a phone booth and called my mother. She said, “My God! He’s alive!” Apparently, the Army had sent her a telegram telling her I was missing in action, and she had gotten no news since. When I finally saw her, I couldn’t believe my eyes. When I had left for the war, she was this vivacious dark-haired housewife. Now, she looked like a broken gray-haired woman. She was sick with worry, because of that telegram. It took months before she was herself again.
I consider myself lucky. I made it out of Europe alive. Not everybody did.
Jeffrey Brodeur, 58
Brodeur is a retired postal worker and national president of the Korean War Veterans Association. He lives in Naples, Florida.
I come from a long list of military veterans in my family, going back to my grandfather, who served in the U.S. Navy in World War I. My father was in World War II. He was in the U.S. Navy and had 13 battle stars. My uncles were all in the Korean War. My older brother, a Marine, was in Vietnam. Naturally, I wanted to serve. I was living in Boston, where I was raised, and I enlisted in the Army in 1982.
When I first got to Fort Benning in Georgia, the drill instructors were saying to all the recruits: “You don’t want to go to Korea because people get killed over there.” We all looked at each other and didn’t know what they were talking about. We were just 18-year-old kids. This was well after the end of the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was the line at the 38th parallel that separated North and South Korea. More than any other place in the world, this was the dividing line of the Cold War, where the two sides stood face-to-face.
Eventually, I ended up going to Korea and was stationed along the DMZ, patrolling. It was a hot area, and I requested to go because I wanted to see what it really about. We’d hear the North Koreans every night. They were on a loudspeaker, and they would blast music. They would drop leaflets of propaganda on us from balloons. According to statistics, there were 141 Americans (and Koreans serving with the American Army) killed in combat and hundreds more wounded since the Korean War armistice, on the Korean peninsula. It was an incredible place.
They teach you things in the military they don’t teach you in college. You’re a young kid ready to put your life on the line with kids from all over the country, from every race, every religion. You are out in some of the most intimate environments for weeks and sometimes months at a time with these fellow soldiers — who are your brothers. They are as close to you as your own family, or closer. That’s what the military was about for me. I’ve carried those values with me every day. And I had no idea that those lessons were exactly what I would need, for myself and my family, to face that challenges that were to come.
When I got out of the military, I used the VA vocational rehabilitation program to help me get multiple degrees from the University of Massachusetts Boston. That helped me to get started in my career. I ended up marrying a woman who had served in the Navy. We have a son and a daughter. Our son Vincent went into the Army after 9/11. He wanted to serve, like his father and his uncles and his grandfathers. He served with the 82nd Airborne. He went over to Iraq and, within a month, during the surge, his team went in to clear a building. His team leader opened the door and a bomb blew him up and killed him. My son was 4 feet away, to his right. You never forget that phone call when it comes.
The Army wanted to send Vincent to a VA polytrauma center in Tampa. But our family was based in Massachusetts. I knew Boston had a great brain injury program at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. I had to fight to get Vincent there. Through my work with the Korean War Veterans Association, and because of my training in college, some of which had to do with medicine, I knew the system well. My wife and I did everything in our power to save him. At Spaulding, my son finally came out of a coma after a year.
In total, Vincent has had 48 operations. He has unique injuries, and you can’t bring him to any doctor. He has to be carefully cared for. My wife and I now live in Florida, and he lives with us. We have been taking care of Vincent and will continue to do so, for the rest of our lives. It is all part of the commitment we all made the day we signed up — to ourselves, to our country and to taking care of our brothers and sisters who have also served.