Veterans’ Reflections: A Responsibility Never to Forget

WASHINGTON, Nov. 15, 2010 — In California’s San Fran­cis­co Bay area in 1967, “Viet­nam” was a dirty word.
But for Nick Gillen, it meant an oppor­tu­ni­ty to put his mon­ey where his mouth was and serve his coun­try. Though he already was plan­ning to enlist, he said, the draft expe­dit­ed his deci­sion to join the Army and serve in Viet­nam.

National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Army Viet­nam vet­er­an Nick Gillen dis­cuss­es his time in ser­vice dur­ing an inter­view at the Nation­al Mall in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., on Aug. 12, 2010. Gillen served in Viet­nam for two years.
DoD pho­to by Navy Pet­ty Offi­cer 2nd Class William Sel­by
Click to enlarge

“I’ve always been a bit of a red­neck and firm­ly believed in what our coun­try was doing there, and I still do today,” he said. “I think we were doing what was required of us as soldiers.” 

Gillen said he was unsure of what to expect when he was en route to Vietnam. 

“When I got on the plane and we took off, I was look­ing out the win­dow [and] I thought it was the last time I’d see my coun­try,” Gillen said. 

He was lucky in com­bat, and returned from Viet­nam in 1968 rel­a­tive­ly unscathed. He said he was for­tu­nate to come back, because a lot of peo­ple did­n’t. Even more impor­tant to remem­ber, though, is that each of the young ser­vice­mem­bers who died in Viet­nam left fam­i­lies, friends and loved ones behind, Gillen said, call­ing them “unrec­og­nized casualties.” 

“I’m mar­ried to a love­ly lady who could­n’t be here with me today,” he said dur­ing a recent vis­it to the nation’s cap­i­tal. “A young man she was engaged to, his name is on the wall. 

So I’m going to be get­ting a rub­bing of his name for her. He gave every­thing. I always say to [my wife], ‘I can’t com­pete with him, because he died a hero.’ ” 

Gillen said his mem­o­ries from Viet­nam are large­ly about the peo­ple he served with. It was a broth­er­hood of sorts, he said — a lot of peo­ple work­ing hard to get the job done — and he added that he’ll nev­er for­get the peo­ple who shared his service. 

“I was for­tu­nate enough in this last year, 42 years lat­er. I got to meet up with a few guys that I served with in Viet­nam,” Gillen said. “In fact, while I’m here in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., I’ll be meet­ing up with my old com­mand­ing offi­cer, who retired from the mil­i­tary as a colonel recently.” 

Ser­vice­mem­bers today share that same bond, he said, and deserve the same respect as any pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of servicemember. 

“Those that are in uni­form today are putting their lives on the line and risk­ing every­thing. Their fam­i­lies are risk­ing every­thing, too,” he said. “They’re step­ping up to do things that peo­ple should­n’t have to do, but peo­ple are con­tin­u­al­ly asked to do.” 

Gillen, a mem­ber of the Viet­nam Vet­er­ans of Amer­i­ca, said he planned to spend Vet­er­ans Day march­ing in a parade in Car­son City, Nev., where he now lives. Mem­o­ries of serv­ing in Viet­nam brought a tear to his eye, though a bit of soldier’s brava­do con­tained his emotion. 

“Being a vet­er­an is prob­a­bly the thing that draws the most pride out of me,” he said. “I’m proud to have served my coun­try. I’m proud to be a vet­er­an today. So many peo­ple weren’t as for­tu­nate as me –- they did­n’t come back. As vet­er­ans, we have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to those who gave every­thing –- to serve, and to nev­er forget.” 

(“Vet­er­ans’ Reflec­tions” is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries of men and women who served their coun­try in World War II, the Kore­an War, the Viet­nam War, oper­a­tions Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the present-day con­flicts. They will be post­ed through­out Novem­ber in hon­or of Vet­er­ans Day.) 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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