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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