PopASmoke at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; The Meaning of Semper Fidelis in Action
United States Marines can be a cantankerous lot, especially when they are at war. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that we are America’s shock troops, assigned to impossible missions, often fighting against overwhelming numbers of enemy forces in the worst of circumstances, all on the short end of the defense budget.
In the end we deliver, but it is never easy or fun, although Marine gallows humor is some of the best in the world. Our casualties are high, percentage wise, because we have to go where the worst of the worst often are dug in waiting, and either overcome their defenses, or keep ours secure against their massed attacks.
Marines who have served in combat have seen the very worst of humanity. Marines who haven’t served in combat are on the waiting list, and it is short. Our training is the opposite of charm school and we aren’t graded on Getting Along With Others.
But when the fighting is over, there is another side to Marines that is often described in the phrase “Best Friend, Worst Enemy,” referring to the Marine who will split his – or these days, her – last ration of food, or who makes sure the Marines nearby have ammo, water, or medical care. Looking out for the safety and well being of our fellow Marines is ingrained in our training from the first day of boot camp.
We are a team, and while individual initiative is appreciated, encouraged and rewarded, in the long run it is the Marine team that prevails. Long after we cease wearing the active duty uniform, Marines are also known for our willingness to help our brothers and sisters, to close ranks around those in need.
This all came to mind in a very personal way this past weekend in Washington, D.C., at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, The Wall, which was dedicated exactly 25 years ago.
I was invited there to join my brother Marines from the USMC Combat Helicopter Association, known as PopASmoke.
From the organization’s website: “During the Vietnam War from 1962 to 1975, helicopter crews were able to locate their fellow Marines on the ground by asking them to “pop a smoke” in the landing zone. The brightly colored smoke grenade identified the ground unit and landing zone and provided wind information to the pilot. Our purpose is to reunite those individuals on the ground with the individuals who flew as flight crew on those missions. We are asking them to PopASmoke so that they can find each other.”
Serving with PopAsmoke this weekend showed how concepts become action. The organization not only reacquaints those who served on the ground with those in the air, it also reunites Marines who served in helicopter squadrons with others whom they haven’t seen or heard from in many years.
A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Larry Zok, a former Marine who is a member of PopASmoke, Together We Served, Sgt. Grit and other Marine oriented organizations and websites. PopASmoke sets up a tent on the National Mall, not far from The Wall, every Memorial Day and Veterans Day, to continue the mission of finding and linking up those who served so long ago. He invited me to join them and sell copies of my book Masters of the Art, A Fighting Marine’s Memoir of Vietnam over the weekend.
I expressed my appreciation for the invitation and after overcoming some last minute changes to travel plans, arrived at 20th and Constitution in Washington on Saturday the 10th at the appointed hour of 8 a.m., or Oh Eight Hundred in military speak. PopASmoke members were putting the finishing touches on a tent bearing the yellow and red colors of the South Vietnamese flag, and soon we were up and running.
The organization sells bumper stickers and decals, mostly Marine related, mostly regarding Vietnam. They also give away items such as Marine Corps recruiting decals, and keep a roster of Marines and helicopter units from Vietnam to assist those who come to the tent.
Now here is the great thing. The reason they sell their wares at The Wall, is not to make a profit, but to continue the mission.
For instance, Larry explained to me how the organization helps family members of Marines killed in action link up with members of their loved one’s squadron. This is especially important to families who spent years wondering what happened on that fateful day so long ago, as well as to the Marines who have the answers and want to share them.
This weekend Larry was assisted by Jim Turner, Reams Wooten, Slick Katz, Crazy Joe Schelle, Tom Cannon and Don Zeller. The crew was busy throughout the weekend, selling the decals and bumper stickers, and engaged in seemingly endless conversations about Vietnam, dates, places and incidents.
Interestingly, there were many visitors from the other services, as well as some from Canada who had served in the U.S Armed Forces during Vietnam. Former soldiers, sailors, air force and coast guardsmen and women stopped by to pick up a decal, a bumper sticker or just to say “Happy Birthday, Marines.”
PopASmoke sponsors a wreath-laying ceremony at the Wall, which I’ll get back to in a minute, and provides a traditional Marine Corps birthday celebration in miniature. There was no problem rounding up a contingent of Marines, past and present to join in the celebration.
That sense of camaraderie extended to other organizations, including Sgt. Grit, which was sponsoring a get together over the weekend, and TogetherWeServed. I was pleased to finally meet members of TWS, to which I also belong, who I have communicated with on the Internet but never in person until they stopped by to say hello.
A classic example of the closeness of many organizations at The Wall occurred Saturday when a pizza was ordered in mid-afternoon. I live in the country where pizza delivery is a concept, not a reality, so it was interesting to me that you can order a pizza in D.C. and have it delivered to a street corner. There was more than enough for the crew from PopASmoke and Larry took the extra down the way to a tent where Point Man Ministries was working, and hungry.
This sharing of resources occurred throughout the weekend, and speaks volumes about the closeness of America’s veterans and our supporters.
PopASmoke is holding a reunion in D.C. in August, and is working to raise funds to sponsor attendance by family members of fallen Marines. After watching the crew in action I made a promise to myself to help in every way I can.
I also want to tell you about the wreath-laying ceremony. Since this was my first time working the PopASmoke tent Larry asked me to be part of the detail that placed the wreath at the ‘V’ of the Vietnam Memorial.
I was honored by this request, but that was only the beginning. We were accompanied by a color guard of active duty Marines from the headquarters at 8th and I, as well as a bugler and a bagpiper.
Don Zeller and I carefully carried the wreath down to the center of the memorial, through throngs of people, while the piper played Amazing Grace and the Marine Hymn. We placed the wreath, then stood at attention while the piper finished. Larry called “Present Arms” and we saluted as the Marine bugler played taps.
Even without people or music The Wall is a place of intense emotions. That sense of emotion went over the top when the bugler began Taps.
People who had been walking and talking, engrossed in their own missions, suddenly stopped, and looked over at Don and I, standing at attention, saluting as smartly as the day we first were called ‘Marine.’
Everything came to a halt. Silence descended and veterans automatically saluted or placed their hands over their hearts. Even the reading of the names of the dead was temporarily suspended.
I have never experienced a feeling like that. When the final notes faded away, we completed our salutes, conversation and movement returned, the reading of the names continued, and Don and I made our way up the sidewalk where the color guard was being dismissed.
People stopped us, shook our hands, thanked us and told us how much that small ceremony meant to them. I was so proud, and so honored to be part of that moment.
When I first wrote Masters of the Art, I included a chapter on the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial 25 years ago, and the names of Marines I served with that are etched on that black surface. I said then that I would return many times to reflect and remember, and I have kept that promise.
On Sunday morning, Veterans Day, before the crowds arrived, before we got busy at the tent, I went to the wall alone and stopped at several panels, bearing the names of Marines I served with so long ago. I haven’t forgotten any of them.
For decades now, during public speaking engagements, I have noted that when I raised my right hand back in 1965, and took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, there was a beginning date, but no end date. As far as I am concerned, that oath is still in effect. The Marine motto is Semper Fidelis — Always Faithful. The first word is always and always means forever, which means I will stay true to my oath as long as I am still breathing.
I also promised myself and the memories of my fellow Marines that I would speak the truth about Vietnam and what we really did there as long as I am able. I have kept that promise too, and it was clear on this Veterans Day weekend that there are many others who believe the same as I do.
The Marines of PopASmoke, and Sgt. Grit, and Together We Served, and the many other organizations, representing all the services, that gathered on the Mall this weekend, represent the true America, the one I believe in, the one we went to war to preserve.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when Larry invited me to join PopASmoke at the Wall. What I found during the formal ceremony was a sincere and solemn remembrance of people who once stood alongside us and died so our country could continue.
At the tent I found that I had become part of an ongoing effort to assist the living, to make connections, to bring people together.
In total the weekend was powerful, poignant and the memory will stay with me forever. There are very few events in my life that can compare to knowing that my brother Marines thought enough of me to invite me to join them during this special weekend.
For that I am at once proud, humbled, and eternally grateful.