An open letter to deployed U.S. troops

Terry Garlock's picture

While you are doing America’s hardest work in Iraq and Afghanistan, you may have heard the buzz that the Berkeley, Calif., City Council passed a resolution: “... the Marine recruiting office is not welcome in our city, and if recruiters choose to stay, they do so as uninvited and unwelcome intruders ...“ and that the council went further to “Encourage all people to avoid cooperation with the Marine Corps recruiting station, and applaud residents and organizations such as Code Pink, that may volunteer to impede, passively or actively, by nonviolent means, the work of any military recruiting office located in the City of Berkeley.”

The Berkeley City Council granted Code Pink a parking permit in front of the Marine recruiting office with blanket permit approval for anti-war demonstrations.

You may wonder if our country has lost its mind, so I’d like to pass on a little reassurance.

There is a vast difference in what you see on TV news and what is in the minds and hearts of the American people you represent.

Opinions are all over the map on how we should or should not use military force, but every American I know is pulling for you, hoping you come home in one piece. Most cross their fingers for success in your difficult mission.

Of those who disagree with our president on Iraq, like me, some are smart enough to defer their right to speak out, knowing they can apply their views in the next election, keeping their opinion to themselves out of respect and support of you as you face an enemy who watches our TV reports.

Our politicians, of course, are not that smart, nor that disciplined.

When I and other Vietnam veterans came home 30-something years ago, we, too, thought the country had gone mad. Norm McDonald of Provo, Utah, a drafted grunt machine gunner in the jungles not far from Saigon, did his duty but was still a hippie in his heart and dubious about the war when he came home. He felt some kinship with protesters in the LA airport until one of them, a pretty blond girl, spit in his face and called him a “murderer.”

What Norm and the rest of us didn’t know back then was anti-war radicals were just a tiny minority, magnified out of all proportion by the press, while most Americans were supportive of our troops until the press gave legitimacy to the absurd fabrication that we were a bunch of war criminals.

Major battles like the 1968 Tet Offensive, the 1970 Cambodia incursion and the 1971 Easter Offensive were huge military victories against our enemy in Vietnam, but portrayed by the American media as failures, the way conventional wisdom remembers them.

Now the press is twisting the truth of your war.

A few weeks ago in January, in Iraq, you carried out Operation Phantom Phoenix, squeezing al Qaeda out of dwindling hidey-holes, destroying safe houses, IED assembly operations and weapons caches as the enemy ran instead of fighting as expected.

The locals, including tribal chiefs, cheered your success because they were sick of the violence. Schools are open. Water runs. Businesses are sprouting. Adversaries are beginning to negotiate.

The news reports at home about Operation Phantom Phoenix? “Nine American Soldiers Killed.” At the same time the press devoted top billing to the overdose death of actor Heath Ledger, too busy to cover victories in Iraq or to focus on the virtues of soldiers who paid the ultimate price for their country.

You won’t find perspective on TV news, and even in quality newspapers you have to hunt for stories that should be on the front page.

In Peachtree City, Ga., I pulled together a group of guys who were helicopter pilots in the Vietnam War. We meet for breakfast at a restaurant called Mike and C’s and call ourselves the Pucker Factor Liars Club.

Those of you in Iraq and Afghanistan who have been shot at enough times know all about the pucker factor, being scared as hell while doing your job, going back into the fire again and again when your brothers need you.

Liars Club comes from how we tell our stories with a little entertaining flair, true stories civilians might find hard to believe, stories that usually start with “You’re not gonna believe this!” or, “Now, this is no @#$%!, guys.” Somehow the stories are always hilarious, the more solemn ones kept to ourselves because that’s what men do.

All of us in the Liars Club know the pucker factor well. Just a few examples:

Wayne King tells how his butt cheeks clenched his seat while he hovered his slick under fire, down into a jungle opening too small, careful with his fragile tail rotor but hearing “Whack-Whack-Whack!” as his main rotor blades beat tree branches to a pulp and he descended 150 feet down to pull a LRRP (Ranger) team out of a hot area.

Skip Ragan tells about flying clandestine teams to forbidden places, how he sweated from every pore in his body while hovering over the jungle to pull them out “on the strings” because there was no opening to land and the enemy was on their tail, shooting at him while he hovered, and how wide-eyed he was in the jungle when he was shot down because we pilots were wussies when it comes to fighting on the ground.

My Cobra gunship was shot down in a firefight and I came home on a stretcher with a broken back, but being shot down was not always debilitating. Mike King, who recently lost a bid for Peachtree City Council, knows that well.

Mike flew small OH-6 scout helicopters, a dangerous job of flying low and slow to find the infiltrating enemy’s trail and to draw their fire to expose their position. When Mike prepared for a mission he gathered his grease gun, CAR 15, 9mm pistol, Smith & Wesson .38 pistol, M-16, survival knife, machete and an 80-pound sack of grenades, each wrapped in 2 pounds of C4 for tossing into bunkers from his scout helicopter, a tough and highly maneuverable little bird.

It was a good thing Mike suited up like Rambo and it was a good thing that little helicopter was so tough because Mike was shot down five times in Vietnam; well, six, if you count the time his own gunner was trading fire with the enemy when Mike turned too suddenly and too steep and he shot off the ends of the rotor blades. Mike had to put it on the ground before it thrashed itself to pieces. We are undecided whether we will count that one.

The point is we understand what you guys in Iraq and Afghanistan are enduring even though many things are different than Vietnam, but ask yourself this question.

How can civilians understand this stuff? How can the good people who never left comfort and safety know and appreciate what you are sacrificing for your country and for them? They don’t, they can’t, though some try.

When you add the distortion of the media molding the news to their agenda, the truth gets lost. That is why it is so important for you not to count on the media too much, and vital for you to tell your stories loud and clear when you come home. America is hungry for the truth.

While the press magnifies fringe groups like the Berkeley City Council and Code Pink, or the radicals who burned a soldier in effigy and defecated on an American flag in Seattle a few months ago, the vast majority of Americans may not be visible, but they support you.

Be sustained by knowing the truth in your heart, and by the support of regular Joes and Janes at home. Be proud of your service and know the quiet gratitude of America is there, and it is strong.

If you live near us, join us for lies over coffee when you come home.

[Terry Garlock ( was a Cobra gunship helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War.]

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