Purpose and the Cost of Freedom

Honoring service in the US military has been long tradition that had its darkest hours in the 1960’s & 70’s.  The War in Vietnam had come into Americas living-rooms through TV and traditional media.  At the time, reports & stories were not kind or fair to us who had volunteered or who had been drafted to fulfill our countries obligation to help the South Vietnamese government resist a Communists takeover of their country.  Public opinion had reached a new low, so much so that many returning combat veterans were advised to not wear their uniforms and to travel in civilian clothes to avoid harassment by fellow citizens.  The malicious reversal of public sentiment was in stark contrast to the honors or indifference bestowed upon our WWII and Korean War veterans who came home to a welcoming public in the 1940’s or to the disinterested public of the 1950’s. 

I arrived home to New York City in January 1969, as the TET offensive was rolling through South Vietnam.  I had participated in the explosive beginning of this country wide assault and saw firsthand what radical groups were doing to disrupt and change society to suit their agendas.  My first duty station after boot camp (1964) in Paris Island was Sea Duty on board the US Navy Ship Little Rock - CLG 4.  This was a choice assignment for Marines.  Because I had received the coveted “Dress Blue’s” award at Paris Island, after graduation I was assigned to travel the world on a US Navy ship carrying Americas message to our allies in the North Atlantic and our allies in all the Mediterranean and the Adriatic Sea with stops in the Caribbean to practice our naval gun fire technique and participate in the ships landing party.  The small unit training and weapons familiarization that was achieved by our ships landing party had a significant positive effect on my experience in combat.

I had served my extended tour in Vietnam as a US Marine Sergeant.  Originally assigned as a Platoon Sgt. in C Co. 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.  ”Charlie” Company is a historic unit that lived up to its nick name” Suicide Charlie”; earned for extraordinary action in Korea.  My first live war fighting experience in my first week in country was as the Sargent in Charge of a relief operation in support of a besieged Green Berets base in the I Corps area of Ba To.  After intense fighting and the loss of a helicopter full of responders we relieved this besieged unit and set up a combat operation that stabilized the area.  From this position I volunteered to lead a Combined Action Platoon, at “Fort Page”, located in the northern I Corps area of Vietnam that had been overrun; suffering 50% casualties.  Picking up from where the Marine infantry unit left off after the Fort was overrun; through aggressive patrolling, being able to develop a situation where Marines could live with the local population and incorporate their local militia force into our operations led to the successful elimination of the entrenched local guerrilla operation that was supported by North Vietnamese Army Soldiers.  The history of this unique strategy and the story of how a bunch of young Marines lived it is documented in the Vietnam War classic counter insurgency book, on the Commandant’s Professional Reading List / Category: Counterinsurgency book, written by Assistant Sec. of Defense and USMC Marine Major F.J.West, “The Village.”  “The Village” is a true story of 17 months in the life of a Vietnamese village where a handful of American volunteers and Vietnamese militia lived and died together trying to defend it.

The war in Vietnam raged on for 10 years and up until that time is was the longest running combat operation that our country had engaged in.  All of us knew we were not embraced by a grateful nation but none of us knew the depth of contempt that our fellow citizens held for those of who served.

I was born in the West Side of Manhattan in an area called Hell’s Kitchen.  This is where I came back to after my discharge.  New York City in the 1970's was in very poor financial condition and the moral of its citizens was at the lowest point in time since the depression in the 1930's.  In this context, Vietnam Veterans were not welcomed by traditional comrade-in-arms organizations.  There was no local support in place to give guidance to returning Veterans and the Veterans Administration was running on rules and directives designed for a completely different set of Veterans from decades past.  We were excluded by the very systems and support that were designed to help us make the transition from service back to civilian life.  And, because of this, we lost many great men who served with distinction and honor to an indifferent country after they came home to a country which did not recognize our service or our needs.

    Seeking the company & comfort of men with similar experience; my attempts to join traditional veteran membership organizations was met with indifference and resistance.  Over time I was able to get into an American Legion Post that was located on the West Side of Manhattan.  The Post, # 1396, was made up of veterans of Greek background who had been drafted to fight in Korea.  English was the second language of the group.  It was during this time that antiwar Veterans started to organize as "Vietnam Veterans Against the War".  I owned a local bar that attracted likeminded, proud Vietnam Veterans who were looking for a shared experience and the company of likeminded comrades-in-arms.  We were not pleased that Vietnam Veterans were organizing against the war and determined that we should not support this but rather take a positive approach and honor our service if only by ourselves.  Our refusal to be bullied through peer pressure to embrace antiwar activity led to our group applying for and receiving a charter to organize a Manhattan Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter.  VVA was at its beginning stages at this time and we, the original organizers of the Manhattan Chapter, took seriously our responsibility to be a voice of reason and support during those nasty anti-war days.  I was elected as an officer of the original Board of Directors, I served 5 different terms as its President and I continue to serve our community as a senior officer of the Board.  

The showing of respect for service traditionally had been through public events such as parades and ceremonies at memorials to military service.  These were organized by traditional Veterans organizations but the leadership of these organizations were caught up in the same malaise that smothered public support for honoring service.  I had been working my way up the ranks of the New York County American Legion organization as a compliment member.  My assignment with NY County was to get the failing support back on track for events that honor service.  Quickly I found myself on the defense for organizing events as the senior members of the Legion refused to cooperate with the concept of including Vietnam Veterans as a recognized unit and rather than deal with the issue of transition for this new group of Veterans their wisdom was to shut down support, remove funding and decline to participate in future events that honor service as long as we Vietnam Veterans insisted on our own identity; this was the status quo for a time. 

    By the mid 1980's this condition could no longer be tolerated and at the point where our comrades-in-arms from traditional Veteran organizations determined that it was best to shut down the events that honor service rather than support them, we Vietnam Veterans were forced to choose between staying in the shadow of those who came before us or find a way to include all likeminded Veterans from all generations of service.  It quickly became clear that to achieve this goal of inclusion of all Veterans a new process had to be built that had history, support and was free of the internal politics that discriminated against us.  It couldn’t be a lobby group but had to have the ability to reach everyone who was interested in the lives of Veterans. 

    The War of 1812 was a significant event in the history of our country, as it is often called the Second Revolutionary War.  From that conflict there arose an organization, The United War Veteran’s Council (UWVC), which took on the responsibility of caring for the widows and orphans of those who served.  The charter that had established this time and place organization had lapsed into history.  Through the efforts of Bernard Ray, WWII Air Force Officer, Harvey Bagg, US Navy Officer who lost his brother from conditions associated with his Vietnam Service and myself, we determined to revive the Charter and continue creating events that honored service in NYC; the Capitol of the World at the time.

As we stood up UWVC, I took the lead as President and in 1983 we took over the NYC Veterans Day Parade from the American Legion.  The challenges of permits, insurance, participation, funding, etc., all came through my volunteer office.  We had no staff or physical office and were hit with roadblocks and obstacles associated with beginning such a public display of honoring service in a hostile environment.  At first the group was so small that the City did not want us to parade in the street because there was enough room on the side walk for the group that marched.  This was unacceptable and after digging in our heels over the issues that outline our future success we took over Fifth Ave in NYC to show our support for one another.  Our fledgling organization participated in the 1985 "Welcome Home” Parade and we organized, funded and built the NYC Vietnam Veterans Memorial ourselves. I was invited to be an officer, Secretary, of the founding Board of Directors and continue to serve in this capacity.

The United War Veterans Council and Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 126 operated in close coordination with one another to create what became the new face of the New York City Veterans Community.  Over time and buttressed by successful fundraising & public displays of patriotism new systems for support of military service developed and became institutionalized with wide government support.  We made some great friends along the way who stick with us to this day.  Part of our success included the Vietnam Veteran Leadership Program, which was one of the first self-help programs that UWVC/ VVA helped organized.  Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program gave access to Veterans who wanted to participate in healing their wounds of war but who were left out of the traditional systems.  Additionally, we helped establish the NYC Veterans Advisory Board (VAB), and I was elected the Chairman for 20 years.  The VAB had the ear of the Mayor concerning all things affecting our community and continues to channel help and guidance to our elected officials concerning our post service needs.  

When our city built its first Veteran only homeless shelter I represented UWVC & VVA 126 and served on the Board of Directors.  Through organized sports and social events this first of its kind shelter helped needy Veterans transition into a better life. 

The mission for the Veteran’s community has expanded with the turmoil experienced in this still new century.  We remain on a war footing nationally and every State and City relies on the men and women who bring their experience from their military service into all the agencies of government that protect our borders, give relief during and after natural disasters and that support the general welfare of the country and communities. Our military veterans represent all that is right in our wonderful country and we will never abandon our fellow citizens.  

Vince McGowen - Vice President VVA 126