As we marked the 246th birthday of the United States Army in a room full of veterans, one of our friends, Mike Bertell was getting ready for a trip to Ft. Campbell, Ky., to be a part of the 101st Airborne Division’s “Eagle Week.”
He served as a combat infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division’s 327th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Bastogne Bulldogs.”
Bertell, a draftee, had a lot of his life disrupted when Uncle Sam came calling with that famous telegram that began with the word, “Greetings.” It meant you were required, as a matter of being an American male of military age, to come and make yourself available for two years of military service. Not always willingly, but most went, even during the Vietnam War, which ended the draft.
The Vietnam War was going on in 1969 and it had nearly torn the American nation apart in a way similar to the divisions that threaten the country’s peace today. Most young American men who got that “Greetings” notice went, because they weren’t quite willing to not go.
Obligation. Duty. Dread of consequences. No one who was drafted and sent to the infantry could begin to grasp what would be required of them and Bertell was no exception. Infantry squads live in a world that get reduced to the most basic level of existence. Somewhere out there, it is kill or be killed by the enemy. Politics do not reign in the battle space. Survival of you and your buddies takes priority.
Bertell went and staged out of a place in Vietnam named “Firebase Bastogne.” And like the Bastogne Bulldogs of his regiment’s nickname, it was named after the place where the “Screaming Eagles” division of the US Army made a famous stand.
During the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium, the troopers of the division — and the 327th Regiment — were toughing out the coldest winter in 50 years. They were low on ammunition and high on dead and combat wounded. They were surrounded by Nazi panzer divisions, tanks and some of the most savage fighters in Hitler’s army.
The Germans demanded their surrender and their acting commander, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, gave a terse response: “Nuts.” The Nazi commanders did not know what to make of that answer. Nuts? That’s all? It meant the Screaming Eagles kept fighting until Patton’s tanks broke through and they were relieved. Not saved. Relieved. They had taken the worst that the best of the Nazi war machine could throw at them and they survived.
Bertell did not like being drafted and he certainly didn’t like being sent to Vietnam as infantry — a rifleman. But he did it because his country required it. His regiment’s motto is “Honor and Country.”
“I guess you go because it is for the honor of your country,” he said.
Both of us have met original “Bastogne Bulldogs” of World War II. Vincent “Vinnie” Speranza, in his 90s, is still making trips to Bastogne, where the US Army whipped the Third Reich. Another of our friends was Henry Ochsner of California City, one of the “glider riders,” who flew, or rode, into combat in rickety crates instead of jumping in by parachute.
Bertell is going to reconnect with his 101st Airborne comrades, because 50 years after his war in Vietnam, he is finally being awarded an Airborne qualification badge. The Air Assault badge is a set of silver wings with a helicopter in the same position as where a glider was for 101st Airborne glider troops.
In Vietnam, airmobile infantry were awarded an Air Medal, for flight hours logged on combat operations. Troops awarded the Air Medal are being awarded Air Assault wings. Fifty years late is better than never.
Another holder of the Air Medal for combat operations is local therapist Gerry Lawrence and also Pastor Larry Pratt, both afforded the involuntary honor of serving as draftees with the Screaming Eagles. Lawrence served with the unit for which this column is named, “Easy Company,” 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne. If you saw Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’s mini-series epic “Band of Brothers,” you know Easy Company.
“It’s a little thing, but it’s kind of a big thing,” Bertell said. “It’s an honor.”
Volunteer, professional military, or drafted citizen soldier, Americans have been showing up for 246 years. It’s worth hearing that Bertell and some of the others to be pinned during Eagle Week were among the long green line that showed up for “Honor and Country.”
Dennis Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker at High Desert Medical Group. An Army paratrooper veteran, he deployed with a local National Guard unit to cover the Iraq War for the Antelope Valley Press. He works on veterans and community health issues.