1 FEB 2017: ‘What Now, Lieutenant‘ is the #1 new release at Amazon in Vietnam War Biographies.
This excerpt is the story’s beginning… and ending.
In between are 73,000+ words depicting the three decade plus career of a highly-decorated, retired, 4-star general in the United States Marine Corps. The book has been published and the hardback and paperback are available at Amazon (including the eBook version), Barnes & Noble and other online booksellers.
The Italian poet, and novelist, Cesare Pavese wrote “We do not remember days, we remember moments,” and I agree. This book is a collection of moments—from events—that I assembled. After reviewing the manuscript, I was concerned that it was more of a diary and though it was accurate and readable; it did not adequately capture the impact or my reactions to a variety of moments encountered over a long span of time that defined who I am. While searching for a means to address my concern, I learned about the concept of creative nonfiction (a type of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives). That’s the solution, I thought. And with the help of a professional writer, I believe I’ve accomplished my objective.
Wars, fought on a grand scale with global consequences, are made up of countless smaller battles and events. For the men who fought, bled and died in them they are not small—those little pieces of war—and the personal aftermath and their effect is beyond measure. I’m going to tell you a little bit about one such battle (covered in full detail later on). It pitted a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalion of 700+ men against the men (approximately 175) of Company I, Third Battalion, Ninth Marines, Third Marine Division. Of the seven officers in the field at the beginning, only three walked out:
Something didn’t feel right to me; I thought it was more than just a tentative effort by the NVA just to harass us. “I think it’s a prep before they attack and that we should head back now before it’s too late.”
It was already too late. The number of mortar rounds increased and showered down on Hill 70. Interspersed with the sound of them impacting we could hear the distinct sound of AK-47 rifle fire. A lot of it. It was obvious this was not just some probing action as the volume of fire and the sound of mortars increased. The gut thump sound of grenades exploding joined in and signaled direct, close, engagement. The command group was in serious trouble.
Captain Getlin was on the radio. “John I need you guys back here in a hurry and tell Butch to get us all the artillery support he can muster—danger close—on Hill 70.” He hurriedly read off the coordinates.
“That’s your location, captain!”
“Do it—danger close!” Getlin barked. “It’s the enemy’s too, they’re inside our perimeter! We’ll try to get some separation and fall back to another defensive position.”
We had already started back at full speed, retracing our steps over the same terrain we had just passed. As we moved on a run back to Hill 70, I had my radio operator beside me keeping pace as I called in a fire mission. We were nearly to command group’s defensive position when we rounded a turn in the trail and ran right into a significant number of enemy troops, supported by a 30 cal. machine gun on wheels. They were between us and the command group’s position.
I was 24 years old, and this was my first significant combat experience (and surprisingly, what happened—what I was called upon to do, was something I never imagined. What came afterward defined me for the rest of my life). The fighting lasted six hours and toward the end we were almost out of ammunition. Those few hours changed forever the lives of the survivors, including me, and the next of kin of the men we lost.
That battle was the crucial event in my life; an ultimate What Now Lieutenant moment that taught me so much that came into play in other such moments in my future. True, they would not be as traumatic as what I had experienced as a young lieutenant. But they were moments that whether I was a lieutenant, major or general, each forced me to call upon my experience, knowledge, training and common sense to respond appropriately. That phrase… that question with all it entails and how one responds when it’s asked of them… seemed to fit best as a title for what you’re reading now. Seeing that question in the eyes of the men on Hill 70 that day is how I learned a most valuable lesson about leadership over the course of a bloody day in Vietnam, now more than 49 years ago.
“All I am and all I have is at the service of my country.”
–General Stonewall Jackson
My wife and I live on Capitol Hill, about two miles from the Lincoln Memorial. To the right of the Lincoln Memorial is the Vietnam Wall, which reportedly receives a greater number of annual visitors than any other site in Washington, D.C. Whenever I am asked why the Vietnam Wall is such a magnet for visitors, I say that it’s the names that make this monument so compelling. Each name represents a real person, someone who gave his or her all for their comrades in a distant country in an unpopular war.
On the Folger Shakespeare Theater, there is a quote by writer/poet Ben Jonson, and I see it every day when I walk my dog: “Thou art a monument without a tomb and art alive still while thy book doth live and we have wits to read and praise to give…” I believe this quote applies not only to Shakespeare’s works but by substituting a few words in the quote it has great relevance to the Wall and the names inscribed on it: “Thou art a monument without a tomb and art alive still while the Wall doth stand and we have wits to read the names and honor to give…”
For years, I avoided visiting the Wall for reasons I cannot articulate, even to myself. Now I can’t seem to stay away. Since retirement from full-time employment, I have established a habit of walking down there routinely. It is a solemn place and the quiet demeanor of those visiting the Wall is comforting and always appreciated. It is obvious that those walking beside the black granite panels feel a sense of wonder and reverence for those whose names are chiseled on its Spartan surface.
Now, as I make my way down the Wall, I arrive at panel 17-E, Row 70, a place I know quite well. At eye level, the first familiar name to catch my eye is that of John P. Bobo, a Marine lieutenant. In a cluster surrounding his name are the names of those fourteen other Marines from Company I, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division (India Company 3/9) who died on the night of March 30—31st, 1967. Rank and organization are not listed on the Wall, only names, but we surviving Brothers from India 3/9 know these names as we know no others. They are Pfc. Albert G. Antler, Pfc. Rubin M. Armenta, Cpl. James E. Blevins, Pfc. Edward E. Cannon, Lance Cpl. Larry H. Crumbaker, Capt. Michael P. Getlin, Pfc. Donald W. Krick, Cpl. John L. Loweranitis, Cpl. Walter J. Nerad, Jr., Capt. Ralph B. Pappas, Cpl. David A. Siemon, Pfc. Frank H. Thomas, Jr., Pfc. Wallace Williams, and Lance Cpl. Roman R. Villamor, Jr.
I usually spend a few minutes looking at that panel and the names of my fifteen Brothers who lost their lives. As I stand there, the first thing that goes through my mind is the randomness of war; why some die and others survive. I think of the lost potential represented on the Wall—not just the fifteen men in India 3/9 who died, but all 58,315 who died in the Vietnam War and whose names are etched on that black granite. Of course, I am especially moved by the names of my fifteen Brothers; I did not know all of them personally but the sense of comradeship and the dangers we shared ensured that they would always remain in my memory and be a part of my life. I continue my walk, deep in reflection as I head back down the Wall and up toward my home.
All the men in India 3/9 were family. When we use the term ‘Brothers,’ we don’t use it loosely. And there is nothing like the cauldron of combat to intensify that brotherhood even further. As it states on the Marine Corps website:
“Semper Fidelis distinguishes the Marine Corps bond from any other. It goes beyond teamwork—it is a brotherhood that can always be counted on. Latin for “always faithful,” Semper Fidelis became the Marine Corps motto in 1883. It guides Marines to be faithful to the mission at hand, to each other, to the Corps and to country, no matter what. Becoming a Marine is a transformation that cannot be undone, and Semper Fidelis is a permanent reminder of that. Once made, a Marine will forever live by the ethics and values of the Corps.”
From a geographical standpoint, I live closer to the Wall than any of the other survivors from India Company 3/9. In some ways, I feel like I’m their representative. The walks I take to the Wall help keep alive the memories of those we lost. I once read in a book about Vietnam that those who survived have a solemn responsibility to remember and keep alive the memory of those who died. I agree; this obligation is probably why I ultimately decided to stay in the Marine Corps, not only to not forget those who died but just as importantly to do my damndest to try to ensure that future Marines do not have to experience a Getlin’s Corner because of poor leadership.
Recently, as was my custom, I stopped at the Vietnam Wall just to see the names and think for a few minutes about my Brothers. As I stood in front of Panel 17E looking at the fifteen names all clustered around row 70, a little elderly lady (a grandmother type, my age) moved almost in front of me. I was about to step back to give her more room when I realized she was one of the volunteers that help people at the Wall find names, and learn the history, etc.
She was polite and said she was looking for row 70. I pointed it out to her and asked. “What name are you looking for?”
“John Bobo.” Her eyes never stopped scanning the names.
I almost fell over. I pointed to his name.
“Thank you. I’m doing a pencil etching of his name. Someone requested it on our web site,” she said.
Talk about coincidence, it’s a small world, whatever, but it was an amazing happenstance. “John was a Medal of Honor winner,” I told her. She immediately checked her list, nodding her head when she saw that was so. “Thank you for what you’re doing,” I told her then turned away to continue my walk, happy in spite of the fact that it was cold, raining and the cherry blossoms had not yet exploded. There were those—other than me—who would not let my Brothers be forgotten.
What happened that morning leads me to close with this as it ties back to that most significant moment in my life. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that in late 1968, during a Viet Cong mortar attack against Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, a memorial chapel was destroyed. A few days later as a chaplain passed by its ruins, his eye caught the glimmer of an object among the rubble. It was a board upon which was inscribed a poem of unknown origin:
Not for fame or reward,
Not for place or rank,
Not lured by ambition
or goaded by necessity,
But in simple obedience
as they understood it.
These men suffered all,
dared all, and died.
Lest we forget…lest we forget…
–Butch Neal, 2017
Following is the author’s bio (source Wikipedia):
Richard I. Neal born on June 20, 1942, in Hull, Massachusetts. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps upon graduation in 1965 from Northeastern University, where he received a B.S. degree in History and Education. He later earned a Master of Arts degree in Education from Tulane University (1973).
Following completion of The Basic School and subsequently the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Neal was assigned to the 3rd Marine Division in Republic of Vietnam, where he served as a Forward Observer with the 3rd Battalion 9th Marines. He returned to Vietnam in January 1970, where he was assigned as an Infantry Battalion Advisor to the Vietnamese Marine Corps. Upon his return he attended Amphibious Warfare School.
In 1973, he served as the Commanding Officer of the 2d 155 Howitzer Battery, 2d Field Artillery Group at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Following a tour as head of the Company Grade Assignment Section at Headquarters Marine Corps, he attended the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. He served on the Air-Ground Exchange Program as S-3, Marine Aircraft Group 36, on Okinawa. Upon return from overseas, General Neal was assigned as the Head, Operations Division, Amphibious Warfare School, Quantico. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1981.
In 1982, he was selected to attend the National War College in Washington, D.C. Upon completion of school, he returned to Camp Lejeune to command the 5th Battalion, 10th Marines. Neal was promoted to colonel in 1985 and was assigned to the United States Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, as the Chief of Policy/Strategy Division and later as the Chief of the Special Projects Division in the J-5 Directorate.
Neal was assigned duty as Director, Amphibious Warfare School, Quantico in August 1988. While serving in this capacity he was selected for promotion to brigadier general in December 1989.
In July 1990, Neal was advanced to brigadier general and assigned duty as the Director, Manpower Plans and Policy Division, Manpower and Reserve Affairs Department. He served in this capacity until May 1992. From September 1990 to April 1991, he was assigned temporary duty as the Deputy for Operations at U.S. Central Command for Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
Neal was assigned as the Deputy Commanding General, II MEF in June 1992. From June 1992 – August 1992, he served as Commanding General, Joint Task Force for Operations GITMO, a humanitarian relief effort for Haitian migrants at Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba.
Neal was advanced to major general in April 1993, and assigned as the Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Division. In August 1994, he was assigned as the Deputy Commander in Chief/Chief of Staff, U.S. Central Command, MacDill AFB, and advanced to lieutenant general in October 1994.
Neal was promoted to four-star rank on September 19, 1996 and assumed duties as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps on September 27, 1996. He retired on November 1, 1998.
Since retiring from the Marine Corps, Neal has served on various corporate boards and has been associated with intellectual property rights in the private sector and defense-related companies. He is president of Audio MPEG, a patent licensing company. He has served on the Board of Directors of Humanetics Corporation, a pharmaceutical company, since January 2006. Neal has also served as the Chairman of the Board of the Military Officers Association of America — elected to a two-year term in November 2008, Neal had previously served on the MOAA Board for four years.