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Six conflicts, seven alumni
On Wednesday November 11, 2009, Veterans Day, Boston College will dedicate a memorial to alumni who died in combat while in military service to the country (see sidebar, below). In anticipation of that day, BCM interviewer Seth Meehan sat down with alumni veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq I, Iraq II, and Afghanistan, to learn how it was that they came to be soldiers and sailors and marines and what they saw of war.
Louis V. Sorgi ’45 served with the Navy in the Pacific in the last days of World War II:
The Navy V-12 program signed up 125,000 people [for accelerated officer training]. The program began July 1, 1943. There were 75 of us who went from Boston College in the pre-med program to Brown University. I was 20 when I signed up, and I spent two semesters at Brown. We dressed in Navy uniforms. We had a commissioned officer with us. We had to do all the Navy stuff, besides go to class. [After the war] I could have gone back to Brown, but I didn’t.
Out of the 125,000 V-12 enrollees, 60,000 went on to be commissioned, myself included. I went to midshipman school at Northwestern University in Chicago and after three months, I became what they called in those days a 90-day wonder. I was commissioned an ensign in July of 1944.
I went up to Astoria, Oregon, to pick up my ship, an APA—attack transport—the Rockwall. It was being built up there. You’ve heard the phrase “throwing a monkey wrench into the works”? That actually happened while they were building my ship, so we were delayed a little bit.
We picked the ship up in January and came down the coast to Los Angeles, where we picked up a captain. He was an Air Force guy and really wasn’t very qualified, so one of our new recruits from midshipman school did the navigation. Then we got an old salt, a four-striper, and he was very good. He’d stay down in his room and come up once in a while to play medicine ball. We’d have to play with him. When we got into port, he’d go on a real binge, this guy. He’d come back okay, but he enjoyed himself.
There were 50 officers and 330 personnel, and we were built to carry about 2,000 troops. There were 24 boats on these ships. Each boat carried 36 infantry, and we would use those boats to invade the islands. I was in charge of the 24 boats—I was boat commander and gunnery officer.
When we left L.A., most of the islands were already captured—Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Iwo Jima. We stopped at them, but there was no battle.
The one where we had a battle was Okinawa. We were there D-plus-five [days]. At this point in the war, the Japanese were using kamikaze planes. They would take a plane and dive right down into a ship and kill themselves to destroy the ship. When I was in dock there, two ships got hit by a kamikaze plane. The planes were coming in about every day while we were there. We had anti-aircraft guns, but it was tough trying to shoot them down. Nothing we could do.
The troops had already landed, so we did not have any troops to land. Okinawa was the biggest battle of the Pacific war. Tremendous battle. We were in Okinawa about four or five days, and then we pulled out and went back to Manila and loaded up our ship with troops. At this point, we didn’t know what was going on, but we started out again into the Pacific. We were heading, we later learned, for the invasion of Japan.
We were under way in the Pacific when the atomic bomb ended the war. If we had gone in otherwise, I wouldn’t be here today. It would have been a massacre. At that point we didn’t realize what had gone on. Everyone cheered. But the captain soon let us know we were still at war.
We kept on going and landed in the northern part of Japan, north of Honshu. It was country and farms. The people there were fine at this point. We stayed a couple of days. From then on, we were taking troops back to the States who were going out of the service because they had enough points. I did that until I was discharged—as a lieutenant JG—in May of 1946.
There could be some rough times coming back. I remember hitting what must have been a typhoon. The waves were at least two stories above the ship. Everything had to be tied down, including people. We wouldn’t let the soldiers up at all. Pretty rough, but we came through with the ship’s help. The APAs were called Kaiser’s Coffins by a few, because they were built by Kaiser Shipyards and because they were all metal—there weren’t even wooden decks. They were good ships, though. We used to keep the troops [and] sailors busy scraping and painting.
The soldiers were having a good time, as much as they could, when they weren’t sick. A lot of the officers were in the ward room playing cards, heavy cards—bridge, pinochle. We had good food. We had meat, milk, whatever we wanted, the officers. The sailors did okay, too. They did all right.
James F. Murphy, Jr., ’58 was an Army infantryman in Korea in 1953:
I went to Boston College in 1954, after I got out of the Army.
I didn’t choose to go into the Army. I was at the in-town school, the Boston College Evening College, and I was only part-time. You could be drafted out of the classroom if you weren’t a full-time student. This was 1952.
At Fort Dix I lost two weeks of training in the hospital with pneumonia, and had to go to another company. The company I started with spent two years in California, and the company I went on to spent the rest of its time in Korea. I told my mother I was going to Hawaii. I didn’t want her to worry. I went to Korea in the spring of 1953.
I’ve never been so healthy in my life. We had gone through 16 weeks of tough training, and we felt great. We took a troop ship and before we knew it were up in the line.
I have a funny story about that. We were on a troop train, going north from Inchon. I was taller than some of the other guys whom I was standing with, and the sergeant said, all right, what’s your name? Murphy, I said. He said, Murphy, you’ve got train guard. I didn’t know what “train guard” was. We were all very green. You had to stand on the platform outside, between two train cars. There could be snipers up in those hills, he said. I said, snipers, really?
So I’m out there for two, three hours. I remember smelling the morning, and the mist, and the marshes. And when I went in, the other guys were getting me coffee as though I had taken on the Chinese 7th Army. They said, how was it? Do you think anybody was out there? I said, Joe was out there—I had heard that we called the Chinese “Joe.” They said, how do you know? I said, because I could smell him. I had become the veteran. That lasted until we got up in the line.
I was a private. I had a squad leader—he was 23 years old—and you’d think he had gone through World War II. He came from a little backwater town in Virginia. He was so competent, so efficient, and took very good care of his men. I don’t know how he had such wisdom.
I remember one night I was in the trench, and suddenly I saw these two white T-shirts fighting, coming over the parapet. We had heard there was some action that night and our squad leader had gone up to check. Another guy thought he was a Chinese or North Korean, so they started wrestling. The next thing, I heard laughing. Lots of laughing. He was that kind of a guy. Nothing would really unsettle him. I’d say he’s one of the most memorable characters I’ve known. I went looking for him several years ago, and I traced him to Minnesota. They told me he had died. I think he may have come upon tough times.
I had a .30-caliber machine gun and a sidearm, a .45. At night on patrol in the valley, I’d have a carbine—an M1 or an M2. It had a banana clip with 15 rounds you shoved up, and there was one round in the chamber, as I remember. It’s all so long ago.
There were two [battles of] Pork Chop Hill. The first one was in April. I was in the second. It was July 4, 1953. There were a lot of fireworks—shelling and that kind of stuff. And I thought, well, of course. It’s the 4th of July.
A few weeks later, the truce was signed—on July 27, 1953. It was to go into effect at 10:00 p.m. I went out on patrol that night. The sergeant said to me, Murphy, you better keep the safety on your carbine, because if you shoot any Chinese, I’ll put a bullet up your nose. I was so afraid I was going to screw up the truce. We were out there at 10:00. It was suddenly very silent. It was an amazing feeling, because there was always noise there, shelling. If it wasn’t on your hill, it was on the next hill, or you’d hear it in the valley.
Suddenly, it was like someone shut the lights out. It was like a cemetery. I looked at this fellow, Coughlin, who was out there with me—he was lighting up a cigar. He said, Murph. It’s over. It’s over! And then we both lit up, and we’re sitting out there smoking cigars. I was 20 years old, I think.
The next morning, we were blowing up everything in sight. I’m not sure which side of the 38th parallel we were on, but I do remember we didn’t want to leave anything.
I’m antiwar, by the way. I’m very much antiwar. It never solved any kind of a problem, and it takes too many lives, every time—civilian and otherwise. And yet I had a great sense of self in the Army. Someone else is going to have to figure that out for me, because I can’t figure it out.
I left in August and came home, and started at Boston College in September.
Lawrence J. Rawson ’63 was an artillery forward observer with the Marines in Vietnam in 1966:
In 1963, more Marine Corps officers were commissioned out of Boston College than any other university in the United States. There were 13 of us. At that point, Vietnam had not blown up. We had advisors in the country, but you didn’t read about it.
I was in Vietnam from February to August 1966, six months. Doing what I was doing, I’m not sure I would have got through alive for a whole year.
I was assigned as an artillery forward observer. We were on perimeter defense of the headquarters of the First Marine Division at Chu Lai. The way it normally worked, you would get an intelligence briefing at probably 10:00, 11:00 at night. By 5:00 in the morning, you were in a staging area ready to be heli-lifted into battle.
One morning we ran into a combination Vietcong and North Vietnamese unit. In combat, you learned who you were up against based upon how close the bullets came to you. The Vietcong were not trained well, and because of the kick of the rifles, their bullets would go high. If they were trying to hit you at three feet off the ground, the bullets would come in at six, seven, nine feet. The North Vietnamese had a lot of rifle training and they were tough, and their bullets would come straight at you.
We’re moving across this big rice paddy and there’s a big tree line ahead. These guys were buried in the tree line, and we’re just targets. My corpsman, the medical guy for the unit, heard the bullets first and he screamed, get down, sir. I hit the deck, we all hit the deck, and we’re lying there, the bullets whizzing all around us off the dirt—it was the dry season and the ground was hard. All of a sudden, my radio operator screams, sir, I’m hit, sir, I’m hit, oh, Jesus, I’m hit. The bullet had missed his head by probably three inches. It went in his shoulder and down his back and out the skin of his back, and then hit his flak jacket. The flak jacket redirected it and the bullet went back in and tore him right down to his butt.
From the moment we were pinned down until we could suppress the fire from the tree line was probably just a couple of minutes. I remember saying to him, where are you hit, and he said, my back, oh, my back. I said, can you curl your fingers? He said, yes, sir, and he did. And I said, don’t lift your legs. Don’t even try. Can you curl your toes? He said, yes, sir. Well, I knew then that the back wasn’t severed, wherever the bullet had gone.
We had other guys out in the rice paddy across the area. They could hear [the fire]—you don’t necessarily see the flash of the muzzle, but you hear the pop, pop, pop of the guns, and you look in that direction to try and see some movement. The tree line was fairly far away, 75 yards or something like that.
It was one of our first operations. We lost so many men, we had to stay in garrison for a month to get up to staff again, as people transferred in. That’s how bad Operation Utah [waged against the North Vietnamese Army] was, in the unit I was with.
We also were designated the protectors of two Army Green Beret bases on the Cambodian and Laotian borders—really out in the middle of nowhere. They were near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and if the North Vietnamese attacked, then we were going to have to rescue them. The colonel named me and two or three other guys to helicopter down and diagram the whole thing and see how we could get in there, how we could save them.
I got to the first base, and from my tactical training, I saw where we could land, what we could do, how we could put our heads together to save it. But frankly, when I got dropped into the second base I thought, if we ever got called to go there, there was a strong chance that I was going to die on that border of Laos and Vietnam. Picture a football field, and picture logs that defend it. You know how the stands look down on a football field? Well, the little hills all around this thing were like that, looking into the place. The North Vietnamese could get up in the hills with their mortars and drop them right in. There was jungle overgrowth and brush to hide their movements.
Fortunately, the North Vietnamese never tried to overrun that place. We had battle plans drawn up, but let me tell you, there wasn’t a day I got up in the morning that I didn’t say, boy, I hope we don’t get that call today.
I wound up leaving the Marine Corps as a captain. Because of my leadership training and because I was 25, corporations were very willing to talk to me. It was easy to find a job. But back in those days, there was also anger that we were in Vietnam. I wore my uniform once—a roommate of mine was an officer stationed in Boston, and I went to his wedding in my dress whites—and I got hissed at on the streets of Boston.
Captain Claire M. Cronin ’62, USN (retired), saw duty on a hospital ship off Vietnam during the Tet Offensive:
I grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts, and went through the Catherine Labouré School of Nursing in Boston. I worked there for a couple of years and then went to Boston College to get my BSN. I had to give back two years in public health, because of a small grant I had. My friend Laurie Conway Druyor graduated at the same time. She had friends who were Navy nurses, and that sort of colored our thinking. We wanted to see the world.
Because we had several years of nursing experience, and also a bachelor’s degree, we joined as lieutenants. During our first tour of duty, at the Naval station at Great Lakes, Illinois, we saw the casualties coming back, and that’s what influenced our decision to volunteer for service in Vietnam. There were three of us who volunteered together. We served for 13 months, 1967–68, on a hospital ship, the USS Sanctuary, as members of the Sanctuary’s first crew. The Navy was not used to a lot of females aboard ship. There were 32 of us—29 nurses, two Red Cross workers, and one woman in the medical service corps who was in charge of the lab. We got a lot of attention.
When we arrived in Da Nang Harbor, there was another hospital ship already there, the Repose. It had been on line for 45 days, and had 500 patients aboard. As soon as we got there, it left to go to Subic Bay in the Philippines for upkeep and supply.
The first casualties that we took on were 10 serious burn cases. Helicopters would pick up [the wounded] from the battlefields, and bring them directly to the ship. We had a triage area, where decisions were made on who went immediately to surgery, who could wait. Unfortunately, there were some very serious head injuries that were set aside. Many times, they were the ones that didn’t survive.
From offshore in Da Nang, we could hear the gunfire and see the illuminating tracers that lit up the area. When things got busy, everybody volunteered to help out, regardless of what they were assigned to do. People just went to work. The corpsmen would come back from their off-duty time, and even the ship’s crew would come in and try to help. It was an all-out effort.
We were on 12-hour shifts. The nurses worked six days a week, and usually had one day off. When you were going from one shift to another, that didn’t leave many hours. There was a small space up on the sun deck for us, where we could go and relax, write letters. The corpsmen never got a day off.
Occasionally we got off ship and into Da Nang, or places nearby. There was one time when they thought the ship had been fired upon, even though we were a white ship with red crosses. After that, we had to keep moving and couldn’t anchor.
We did get to the Philippines for supply and upkeep. And we made two trips to Hong Kong. Those were wonderful. We anchored out in the harbor. We still had patients, but we arranged it so we had eight-hour shifts and as many days off as we could. We stayed at a hotel and came back to the ship to work. Never did we really have time away from the ship.
The Tet Offensive [a massive assault launched by the Communists on January 31, 1968] was unreal. We had times when the operating room went constantly for three days. When a helicopter was landing, they would call: “Naval hospital, man your patient handling stations,” and triage would go into effect. We had to stop the night landings, because one of the helicopters didn’t make it and went down in the water. We put lifeboats in immediately and were able to save a lot of the patients, but not all of them. We were designed to carry from 500 to 800 patients. But there were times when we had so many patients that the ones who were recuperating were out on the deck. We ran out of beds—and nearly all the wards had bunks.
I was in the intensive care unit, ICU. Naturally, you want to save everybody. And sometimes you can’t. And that’s a very difficult thing. The patients who they knew weren’t going to survive, they would bring to the ICU. And the nurses would monitor them. Many times, I would sit with them. Just for the family to know somebody was with them.
We saw a lot of amputees. We had land mines in Vietnam, so you saw a lot of injuries like you’re seeing nowadays in Iraq and Afghanistan. Multiple amputees. A lot of head injuries. We would medevac patients off the ship when they were stable. They would be taken ashore and then medevaced to some of the other hospitals. They’d go to Japan, or wherever they could send them, before going stateside.
The ambulatory patients got sent back to duty. You knew they were at high risk for being injured and back again. They would bring all the ambulatory patients down and put them on the boats, and then—it was a horrendous thing to watch—those that hadn’t survived, they brought out in black body bags and put in the same boat with the ambulatory patients.
We had what we called a people-to-people ward. We took care of Vietnamese, a lot of children. So when we went into Subic Bay, we had to buy cribs.
On November 12, 1993, I participated in the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., where they dedicated a statue of a military nurse. All four branches of military women joined together, and we marched down the Mall to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And all along the way, Vietnam veterans lined the Mall, cheering us on. Many of them had been our patients.
Darlene MacIsaac Hinojosa ’86 was a MASH nurse near the Euphrates River in 1991:
The summer after my freshman year in nursing at Boston College, I received a letter from an Army recruiter looking to recruit nurses. There was no ROTC at Boston College. The program was out of Northeastern University, but a lot of BC students participated. I had grown up in Boston, was probably going to spend the rest of my life in Boston, and I kind of wanted a different path for myself. It was a four-year commitment and I figured, well, I’m going to be working as a nurse anyway. I left Boston College as a second lieutenant, and after 12 weeks of officer training, my first duty assignment was in the Presidio of San Francisco, California. I was put right into a leadership position, in charge of a group of corpsmen, a shift of nurses.
I was young. I had energy. I decided critical care was where the action was, taking care of the sickest patients and managing the high-tech equipment. The Army sent me to Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Denver for six months training, then to Seoul, Korea, where I worked at the old 121, an evacuation hospital. I met my future husband at one of the camps near the Demilitarized Zone.
I spent 18 months in Korea, then, in August of 1990, was assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, just as the whole Desert Shield/Desert Storm thing started. The 82nd Airborne Division was deploying overseas to Saudi Arabia, and I was assigned to the 5th MASH unit, which was assigned to the 82nd. My belongings were still coming over from Korea when I left in the advance party.
The MASH unit is a mobile Army surgical hospital—it’s considered a field unit, versus a fixed, hospital building facility. Technically, it is a 60-bed surgical hospital. Basically, it is a series of interconnected tents strung together.
This was my first assignment to a field unit. That’s kind of how it is in the military. They put you in new and challenging circumstances, and you either rise to the occasion or you (laughter) fail miserably. What I found out was that I was kind of good at it. I had the right personality, skill set. I liked it.
I ended up in Saudi Arabia as the head nurse of the Emergency Medical Treatment area (EMT), the entry point into the MASH. At the time, the MASH unit was the most far-forward medical unit on the battlefield, the smallest element and supposedly the lightest. But what we found was that it wasn’t small enough. There was a huge build-up of troops prior to Desert Storm—probably six or eight months before we actually went on the offensive. And because my unit was the first medical unit in, we were the first to set up. As more troops got in country, and troops moved north, we moved with them. In a 10-month period, we set up our MASH six times. Everybody helps—nurses, doctors, medics. You’re out there putting up tentage and it’s 120 degrees in Saudi Arabia in August. We had to fill sandbags and sandbag the whole thing down. Then we had to make fortified areas out of sandbags. Then we had to put up our living quarter tents.
Once you put up a hospital and you’re operational, people do come. We were working six, seven days a week, 12-hour shifts. In three months, I logged in 10,000 patient visits. Not every one was admitted, but when they’re not in direct combat, soldiers still get injured, sick, they have health conditions that they bring with them.
During the ground assault war, we were tasked to provide medical support to the 24th Infantry Division. It was only a very brief war. I think they called it the 100-hour war. But at the time that’s not known; no one can tell us how long we’re going to be there. I remember being in this huge convoy in the back of an Army vehicle they call the Five Ton—a bunch of nurses in the back of a truck that’s moving 5 mph through the desert. We were in the rear of the convoy, and it took us two days to get to the point where the front vehicles, the combat units, started.
Because it was such a fast war and they encountered little resistance, the combat troops were far ahead of everybody else. They were already encountering injuries, and we were told to stop where we were. By this point, we were in Iraq, very, very close to the Euphrates River Valley area. It was the middle of the night. We had never set up the hospital in the dark before, but by morning we were ready to receive casualties. The adrenaline was running and, boom, the helicopters start flying in, the ambulances start coming, and they’re unloading casualties. Triage takes place outside of the emergency medical treatment area. In the EMT, we do what’s called a primary and secondary survey. We stabilize, treat, and medically evacuate. It’s very stressful—lots going on, lots of doctors, lots of nurses working on patients, trying to save soldiers’ lives.
Fortunately, there weren’t a lot of American casualties. We started getting waves of POWs—we designated one wing of the hospital for them, with extra security. We’d had cultural sensitivity training early on about male and female boundaries in Islamic culture. You had to be very careful about what you were doing, how you were doing it. Removing clothing, putting in airways, putting in IVs. It was difficult because of the language. I think they were very grateful that we were there, because their government hadn’t sent medical people.
We were in Iraq five days. The combat troops went back first. As we were tearing the hospital down, we were waiting for one last patient to be picked up and medevaced out to the rear. We kept up one little tented area until he was finally picked up. When he was gone, we were out of there, back down to Saudi Arabia. We didn’t set up the hospital again.
The whole concept of medical treatment on the battlefield changed after that conflict. We realized that it took a lot of resources, manpower, and hours to pack up even a 60-bed hospital, move it to another location, and set up. What we now have in the Army is smaller elements of these forward surgical teams, made up of just a couple of surgeons, an anesthesiologist, a couple of nurses, a couple of medics. They can go more forward, and set up just a tent. We now have better medical evacuation out of the combat zone. Within 48 hours, patients are medevaced out of country, into Germany. That’s largely due to the fact that the Air Force has gotten better at transporting critically ill patients. The doctors and nurses came back from Iraq and said, listen, we can do this better.
Daniel M. Arkins, Jr., ’81 was a military intelligence officer in Iraq II, serving in the National Guard:
My intent was to go into the Foreign Service with the U.S. State Department. I ended up in the insurance industry, but I wanted to build up my credentials for the Foreign Service, and I had $10,000 worth of student loans—so I went into the National Guard. I enlisted in August of 1983 as an intelligence analyst in the Massachusetts Guard. Everybody kept telling me I should be an officer, and in 1986 I took the entrance exams and ended up in officer candidate school. I took command of an MI [military intelligence] company when I made major. We had one MI unit in Massachusetts—a human intelligence company comprised of linguists. I had interrogators and counter-intelligence officers.
Valentine’s Day 2003, I got the call that 19 people from my unit were being activated to join a California National Guard battalion. I had 70 in my unit, but in the National Guard you’re always going to have people who haven’t completed training, who don’t pass medically, and they were filling slots. We were mobilized and sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on February 27. On March 27, I was in Kuwait, and two weeks later we were following the Third Infantry Division as they invaded Iraq. So, it was 60 days total.
There was a lot of scurrying, a lot of jerryrigging of relationships. I went over as a company commander, but before we deployed I became the operations officer for our battalion. I went from worrying about my 19 people to worrying about 148 people from three different National Guards—California, Massachusetts, Utah. And then we had Army Reserve units attached to us, and active duty.
National Guard units at the time did not get the best equipment. We went 700 kilometers from Kuwait to the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad with 30-year-old vehicles. I had no crew-served weapons [which typically require more than one person to operate]. The biggest thing that we had was the M16, and we had a couple of AT4 anti-tank weapons. We had no spare tires. We had no radios that communicated with the active duty folks, because we had an older generation radio. By the grace of God, we made it up there.
We saw a lot of blown-up stuff, sporadic gunfire, a lot of the Iraqi army burnt up along the side of the road. The Third Infantry Division did a very nice job of settling things down. It was probably 60 days after we were there that everybody started popping their heads up. I was at the Anaconda-Balad Army/Air Force Base, and from April to July we had 59 straight days of mortar or rocket attacks.
The first time you go through something like that it’s a life-changing event. You hear this muffled thump. Smaller mortar rounds, unless you’re within 30 feet of them, can’t do much. But these were bigger. They had access to 170-mm rockets, 81-mm mortars, and above. You feel it, you hear it, and then all hell breaks loose because we had counter-mortar battery radar that picked up this stuff coming in.
My response was to grab my helmet and flak jacket and do what any officer would do. Relatively quickly you count everybody up. I won’t say we ever got jaded about it, but it’s amazing what you get used to. Unless it was hitting real, real close, it became just another noise in the background. Once you’ve heard it and felt it, it’s over.
The base bordered the farmland owned by Uday and Qusay Hussein, so there were a lot of people beholden to the old regime in the area. They had access to arms and ammunition. I’d go out at night to the head—you’re drinking eight liters of water a day, so you get a lot of nocturnal wandering. It’s kind of bizarre when you’re out there in your flak jacket and your skivvies to see the machine gun fire. Tracer rounds contain a chemical so you can see where they’re going. We had one color tracer round, they had another. I’d look over on the fence line and see stuff going out from our base, different color stuff coming in. We got used to that, too.
Our original orders were for six months. At the time, for called-up reservists, that was it—if you went over 181 days, you became a veteran. Everyone assumed this was going to be like Desert Storm, over quickly. I’ll never forget the day in June 2003 when our brigade commander called us [officers] in. They had this huge brigade headquarters and tactical operations center, and they were going through the whole plan. We had four active duty units and four reserve battalions attached to this brigade—it was the largest MI brigade ever assembled for combat operations—and all the reservists tended to hang out in the back. We heard that the recommendation to the commanding general was to keep the reserve component battalions on active duty for two years, while rotating the active duty units in and out, and the air got sucked out of the room.
This was the largest call for reservists since World War II. They had no model. It wasn’t like we were disposable, they were making a business decision—to sustain the active duty side, we’ve got the reservists, let’s keep them. It’s gotten better with every deployment. We get more training, better equipment, it’s much more predictable.
Typical of militaries, you train for the last war. We trained for the entire Soviet army coming through the Fulda Gap in East Germany. We didn’t have enough Arab linguists. They shut down the Farsi and Dari programs back in 1988 when the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan.
We had trained for going in suits and ties and doing counter-surveillance against East German and Soviet agents. Well, we got sent into full battle, trying to establish intelligence networks in a place where we hadn’t been in 40 years. I think the U.S. military in general has gone through a sea change in a very short period of time.
My big joke was, you could spend 20 years in the Massachusetts National Guard and never leave Massachusetts. We’ve all seen really bad things, and people have bad things happen to them. I have gone to enough memorial services. But I feel we’re all better officers and better soldiers and a better reserve component because we had this opportunity. I’m still in, and I’m still committed.
George J. Harrington ’80 has been deployed to Bosnia, Guantanamo, and Afghanistan in the National Guard:
I graduated from Boston College and enlisted [in the Army National Guard]. My father was a military officer, my grandfather was a military officer, and my intent was to follow in their footsteps. The unit that I was in put me through drill sergeant school. I apparently did well, because they asked me to come back and teach. The basic training program of instruction has changed radically since then. Where they might have had four full weeks of marching and drill ceremonies, they’re only doing that for about half a week now. Everything’s on war fighting and shooting.
The throwaway line is “weekend warrior,” but if you want a career in the National Guard, what it really means is you have to do two very different jobs well. At the time, I was also doing audit work for Occidental Life Insurance Company of North Carolina. I came up to Massachusetts, still working in insurance and public accounting, and got into officer candidate school, from which I graduated in July 1987. Infantry squad leader was probably one of the best jobs I had with the Army—that and battalion commander, opposite ends of the spectrum. I was a staff officer in a brigade when I was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina. I got into Tuzla on September 8, 2001. Three days later, the world changed.
In my first 19 and a half years in the Army, I’d been overseas, but only for two weeks at a time. September 11 happened, and I was deployed three and a half out of the next five years.
We were scheduled to be in Bosnia for six months. I was there for about seven and a half, working with forces from Denmark, Norway, Poland, Russia. The biggest issue was language—in fact, in two out of my three deployments, language has been a major factor. Working with different armies, you have to give them credit. They’ve been doing this much longer than we have, in many cases.
There are three major ethnic groups in Bosnia: the Serbs, who are primarily orthodox Christian, the Croats, who are primarily Roman Catholic, and the Bosniaks, who are essentially the Muslims. As soon as 9/11 happened, the Serbs and the Croats were, hey, we’ll help you take out those Muslims, just let us know. We did round up a couple of people while I was there and send them to Guantanamo.
Guantanamo was my second deployment, about a year and a half later. We got the call on St. Patrick’s Day 2003, and we were in country in July. I was the operations officer for an infantry battalion. We took about 350 soldiers, broken down into three companies, and we were responsible for the external security of the detention facility. At the time, the press put the population of the detention facility at approximately 600.
On the ground, you could not tell the difference between us and an active duty battalion. We worked with the Marine Corps security force that had responsibility for the fence line with Cuba. We worked with the Coast Guard, with the active duty Navy, the Air Force. It was an active duty Navy base, and we did some very, very difficult work. Our soldiers were working 12-hour shifts. That means you’re somewhere into a 16- to 20-hour day. They worked six days of mounted and dismounted patrol in the hills and arroyos. They worked six days on traffic control points, entry control points. Then they had three days of training, because you have to work in your training. Then they had three days off. Our tour was supposed to be one year. It was a little bit over. We were there on the ground about 10 months.
Our soldiers had an incredible variety of backgrounds. There were bricklayers, police officers. We had somebody who literally was a rocket scientist—there he was working the gate.
When you say, bring me an infantry battalion, you get people who do their job very well, from waging a war to peacekeeping. When you say, bring me a National Guard battalion, you get soldiers who can do that same variety of work, but who can also build villages, because they’re carpenters. They can dig wells, because they’re engineers. We can do a lot that is not in the regular tool kit. It’s like bringing in a utility infielder.
I was home for about a year and a half, and then was deployed again in June 2005, to Afghanistan. We landed in country July 8. My mission was to help train the Afghani brigade that was responsible for the security of the Ministry of Defense, and some of the security of the president. I was based in Kabul, and at Camp Phoenix, which is right outside of Kabul, and I commuted every day into the Ministry of Defense. The worst that happened was that, while I was not there, the Ministry of Defense was rocketed.
I’m in my late forties, I have kids. For me, one of the toughest things was going into the chow hall and seeing these 18- and 19-year-old kids—boys who aren’t even shaving, girls in full battle rattle. It was really, really tough to take off my dad hat and think, okay, I’m going to have to ask them to go to a really crappy place and do really crappy things. And in the meantime, my oldest son was a senior in high school.
My dad was in Vietnam for a year, 13 months, whatever it was. We talked to him by military affiliate radio systems, MARS, where he would call up, they would link him into a ham radio, and he would be linked to us by phone. We talked to him maybe three times out of a year and a half. When I’m overseas now, I’ve got e-mail, I’ve got morale lines—phone lines where you can dial a military number and be switched to a local one. I can purchase a cell phone and it will cost me, I think, $2 a minute to call home. The point I’m trying to make is being a dad by remote control is very, very difficult. E-mail is instant, but it’s dangerous. It’s hard to get all the right things across, to get emotion correct. My wife got very good at reading between the lines, and she knew when it was time to say we should wait for the next phone call. Everyone who is deployed has someone like that. It’s a force multiplier, I guess.
Seth Meehan is a doctoral student in the history department.
War has never for long been foreign to the community of Boston College. During World War I, 750 soldiers attended classes and trained on campus as enlistees in the federal Student Army Training Corps, bunking in wooden barracks improvised for them on land where Devlin and Campion halls now stand. During World War II, the Jesuits moved out of St. Mary’s Hall to make room for another corps of Army soldiers assigned to Chestnut Hill for training—in languages and engineering. Boston College men fought and died in these wars and in Korea, Vietnam, and most recently, Afghanistan.
And yet, there has never been a memorial to Boston College’s own who fell in military engagements abroad. That will change this coming Veterans Day, as the University dedicates a granite wall that will stretch some 68 feet along the Burns Library lawn, honoring 205 Boston College students and alumni who perished in the line of duty. The low, winding wall will be constructed below Commonwealth Avenue, diagonally across from the labyrinth that memorializes 9/11 victims. It will be made of the same rough-cut stone used on some of the campus’s gothic facades, and capped with black granite panels, polished and engraved with the names of the fallen.
“Finally, we can honor as a community those that gave so much to the rest of us,” says Paul Delaney ’66, who performed his military service in Vietnam, as did 26 of those whose names will be etched on the wall. The former Army captain spearheaded the memorial effort together with Paul Lufkin ’64, who fought as a Marine Corps captain in Vietnam and whose brother, Thomas, was a Navy pilot who died in a jet accident during that war. The name of Thomas P. Lufkin ’66, along with his rank, armed-services branch, and graduation year, will be among those engraved.
All alumni will be invited to the November 11 dedication, as will the families of those who are to be remembered. The dedication will follow a morning Mass in St. Ignatius Church—the ninth annual Veterans Remembrance Mass and Ceremony—which will be celebrated by University President William P. Leahy, SJ. Remarks will be delivered by General John J. Sheehan ’62, a retired Marine Corps four-star who served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in the Atlantic from 1994 to 1997.
William McInnes, SJ, ’44, former chaplain of the Alumni Association, serves on the memorial committee and was an Air Force meteorologist during World War II. Some 158 Boston College men died in that conflict—the highest count of any war. “One thing that Jesuit education stands for is service, including service to country. These people gave their lives to their country, and you can’t do much more than that,” says McInnes. The Jesuit added that the memorial reflects, in part, “a restoration of a sense of patriotism” in the wider culture and on campus, notable since the atrocities of September 11, 2001.
“BC always had a tradition of service that included military service. That was part of our DNA. When called, we’d say, ‘Who’ll go? We’ll go,’” recalls Delaney. His daughter, Kara ’99, has continued that tradition as a captain serving in the Army Medical Service Corps in Iraq. “And then,” says Delaney, “ROTC was kicked off campus.” The action, taken in 1970, was common among colleges during the Vietnam period, when antiwar feelings ran high on campuses across the country, and it remains, Delaney says, an open wound for some alumni. (Boston College ROTC students do much of their training on campus, as members of a company attached to a battalion at Northeastern University, where cadets from 11 other area colleges train.)
Asked if the upcoming dedication might help bring about a healing of that wound, Delaney said, “I think it’ll be appreciated by all veterans.”
Delaney traces the memorial drive to an ROTC project nearly a decade ago, when cadets sought to identify the alumni who died in military service—a task that drew in others at the University and continued until this past spring. Funding has come entirely from $500,000 in donations given by alumni who served in the military and some who did not. For more details on the dedication, check the University calendar via www.bc.edu after Labor Day.