Crash is reminder of war's human toll

Casualties: The deaths of two U.S. helicopter pilots last week sadly recalled the event that defined the baby boom generation.

May 09, 1999|By MIKE ADAMS

EARLY WEDNESDAY morning, two U.S. Army helicopter pilots became the first fatalities in NATO's seven-week-old air campaign against Yugo-slavia.

David Gibbs, 38, of Massillon, Ohio, and Kevin L. Reichert, 28, of Chippewa Falls, Wis., were killed when an Apache assault helicopter crashed during a training exercise in Albania. It was the second training crash since 24 of the heavily armed, tank-busting Apaches arrived in Albania a few weeks ago. Gibbs and Reichert, like other Apache crews, were preparing for night strikes on Serb forces in Yugoslavia's mountains.

A little more than a generation ago, another conflict began with airstrikes and promises that U.S. forces would not get bogged down in a protracted ground war. When it was over, more than 58,000 Americans were dead. Saving South Vietnam from communism provided the moral imperative for that war. Today, NATO says it is waging war in the Balkans for humanitarian reasons -- to save Kosovar Albanians from "ethnic cleansing" by the Serbs. Gibbs and Reichert became the first Americans to be killed in action in this latest undeclared war.

The war in Vietnam was the defining event for the baby boom generation. The wounds from that war remain unhealed, and even today divisions exist between those who served in Vietnam and those who didn't.

Of the 26.8 million men of draft age during the Vietnam era, 8.7 million enlisted, 2.2 million were drafted -- and nearly 16 million did not serve.

Silent boomers

Today, we have an all-volunteer military. Maybe that explains why there are so few protests when we become involved in undeclared wars or questionable military actions. In the 1960s, baby boomers filled the streets to denounce the Vietnam war as immoral and unjust. Today, the boomer generation is silent as bombs fall in the Balkans. In retrospect, perhaps the draft -- not the horror of war -- was the true target of the anti-war protests 30 years ago.

A medical condition exempted me from military duty. Although I never saw action in Vietnam, the images of that war are with me. Bullets, body bags, helicopters, burning napalm, dead and dying soldiers and civilians -- it was all on the evening news with Walter Cronkite.

I'm left with a sick, empty feeling every time I think of the people from my generation who died in Vietnam. I have yet to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial ("The Wall") in Washington, but I have visited the cyberspace equivalent called the Virtual Wall (www.VirtualWall.org). This Web site has links that enable you to search for information about U.S. military personnel who died in Vietnam.

When I searched Maryland, I got a town-by-town listing. When I clicked on Baltimore, I discovered 416 names. One of them was a guy I sat next to in an English literature class at Dundalk High School. His name was John Tesauro, he was a laid-back guy who liked soul music and wore nice Italian knit shirts.

Some years after I graduated, I heard he had been killed in Vietnam, but nobody had any details. I searched for John's name, and when I found it, I pulled up the information about him.

I learned that his full name was John Apollo Tesauro, that his date of birth was Friday, Dec. 23, 1949, and that he was a private first-class in the Marine Corps. He started his tour in Vietnam on July 17, 1968, and he was killed Sunday, Aug. 11, 1968. He was 18 years old when he was hit by small-arms fire in Quang Nam Province. His name is located on Panel 49 W Row O50 of the The Wall.

Many years ago, I heard that another guy I knew from school had been killed in Vietnam. His name was Tommy Hill, and I met him when I attended school in Connecticut. I did a search and discovered that Tommy, who lived in New Hartford, Conn., was killed by "artillery, rocket, mortar" fire on Monday, June 9, 1969, in Binh Duong Province. He had been in Vietnam about eight months before he died at age 21.

Dealing with denial

It's strange, but when people told me that John and Tommy had been killed, denial set in. These were guys that I met and liked, but our lives simply went in different directions. Even though we were not close friends, I did not want to believe they were dead. I was deeply saddened when I found their names on the cyberspace wall. Under different circumstances, my name could have would up on The Wall, too.

In 1983, when terrorists blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut, I was assigned to cover the story's local angle. The blast killed 241 Marine and Navy personnel including a handful from the Baltimore area. I interviewed several grieving families -- among them a Baltimore woman whose only child had been killed in the blast.

I sat in her living room as she clutched a photo of her son in uniform. She wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn't come. There was silence, then she started telling me about her son, the precious child who meant so much to her. Her voice was strong and calm for a while, but it gradually weakened and finally broke. Once again, war had left a grieving mother in a house filled with wails and lamentations.

At least there is a Wall for John Tesauro and Tommy Hill, and the 58,000 others who died in Vietnam. We have yet to build a monument to honor the hundreds of military personnel -- including the Apache pilots -- who have died in undeclared military actions since Vietnam. The nation's memory may be fleeting, but the grief is permanent for the families of the dead.

Mike Adams is the editor of Perspective.

Pub Date: 05/09/99

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