Honor and Gratitude Mark National Vietnam War Veterans Day
March 29th, 2020
Before the remaining U.S. Marines departed the United States embassy in Saigon in April 1975, on March 29, 1973, the last American combat troops withdrew from Vietnam.
It is a day that only recently was designated by Congress as a national day of honor where the flag is displayed in recognition of all who participated in the hotly debated conflict.
What began as an initial commitment of military advisors sent by President Eisenhower to South Vietnam escalated in the ensuing decade to a force that at its peak, in 1969, under the Johnson Administration, reached more than 543,000 American service members.
From 1964 to 1975, an estimated 2.7 million American personnel were committed to stopping North Vietnamese aggression into South Vietnam, and with it, containing the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. A staggering toll and a complicated legacy were left behind.
Fifty-eight thousand service members were killed in action, with an estimated 300,000 wounded. The North Vietnamese and Vietcong suffered casualties as high as 851,000, yet far more civilians died in the crossfire and collateral damage.
Service members who survived their deployment to Vietnam returned home to an ungrateful welcome. It was devoid of the fanfare that was showered upon returning GIs from Europe and the Pacific in World War II.
What was expected to be a warm reception turned out to be a hostile and unceremonious welcome.
For Jim Sursely, Bill Corsair, and Melvin Morris, their combat experience in Vietnam fundamentally changed their lives.
Who they were before going to Vietnam was not the same as who they became, and who they are today.
Melvin Morris grew up in segregated Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Times were tough for the family in the post-war years, and money was hard to come by.
He left school before completing the eighth grade, deciding that it was more practical to carry some of the load for his parents and supplement the family’s income.
When he was of age, he and his brother joined the Oklahoma National Guard in 1959, but the monthly paycheck he was getting wasn’t enough to make ends meet. The only other option he saw for himself was to go active duty.
For Morris, pursuing the military was the ideal solution to his circumstances and means towards attaining upward mobility.
While passing through each specialized school at Fort Bragg in North Carolina as part of the 82nd Airborne Division, including an overseas jump in Panama, Morris began to aspire to join the nascent ranks of the Special Forces.
Very little was known then about Special Forces beyond what was talked about in the barracks. Yet from what Morris could gather, it seemed right in line with his upbringing and an avenue to becoming a career soldier.
“I spent all my young days hunting rabbits and squirrels and anything we could find, that’s how tough life was.”
He learned to, “get from point A to point B in the woods,” and with the help from his father, “how to find water and purify it, navigate the land, and backtrack.”
In the time he received the coveted Green Beret in October 1961 and was assigned a Special Forces Group, Morris had already participated in front line operations in the Dominican Republic as part of a task force sent in during the island nation’s public uprising in 1965.
Aware of the growing activism surrounding the Civil Rights Movement enveloping more of the country, and the loss of its iconic leaders along the way, Morris, himself, was no stranger to racism.
He encountered it at Fort Bragg and in the nearby community. When he left home for Basic Training, an overnight stop in Birmingham, Alabama, brought him front and center to the depths of segregation.
These experiences emboldened him to exceed expectations while in uniform and set a new standard in what he saw of himself and his place in the army.
Grinding it out through Special Forces selection and training in 1961, he said of the camaraderie amongst him and 12 other African American soldiers who were in the same class, “We had to check ourselves to make sure we were doing the right thing because we knew eyes were on us.”
“It was a lot of pressure.”
But when he was in Vietnam, in combat, he was a Green Beret.
In 1969 Morris was sent to Vietnam as part of the 3rd Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Mobile Strike Force. The unit he was assigned to was tasked with “search and destroy” missions.
On the afternoon of September 17, then Staff Sergeant Morris was in command of a Strike Force, one of several operating around Chi Lang near the Cambodian border.
The area had become problematic with enemy activity and was being used as a supply route into South Vietnam. The Special Forces units on the ground were to conduct a search and destroy mission. It was supposed to be routine.
When the team sergeant from another group was shot and killed by enemy forces, the mission immediately changed. Retrieving the fallen soldier’s body became the paramount objective that afternoon.
Despite his unit being further behind the others, Morris, 27 years old at the time and with a young wife waiting for him at home, reorganized his men.
“We’re going in hot,” he told them.
“I wasn’t thinking about what could happen,” said Morris about being wounded or killed, “I was only thinking about what I had to do.”
With the enemy and American forces in an all-out firefight, Morris and two others maneuvered themselves towards the body.
In their assault, both his men were shot and wounded. After bringing them back to American lines, Morris charged back into enemy fire, and towards the team sergeant.
Using hand grenades and his rifle, he destroyed several enemy bunkers. Shot in the chest, arm, and hand, Morris eventually recovered the team sergeant and brought him back to friendly lines.
For his actions that day, Morris received the Distinguished Service Cross in 1970 on the same day he deployed for a second tour in Vietnam.
Nearly 45 years after the events from that September day, on March 18, 2014, Morris received the Medal of Honor.
“I know there are many soldiers that could have received the Medal of Honor,” he said. “I wear that for them, and I wear it for the ones who gave the ultimate sacrifice.”
Wearing the Medal of Honor, Morris explained, brings with it an obligation to recognize others, not just his actions.
The personal loss of friends killed in combat amplifies the message he conveys to the public, especially school-aged children, “It’s about patriotism, courage, commitment, and sacrifice.”
Jim Sursely was 18-years-old when he graduated high school in May 1966. His friends had been considering joining the Marine Corps by going in on the buddy system, but for Sursely, the last thing on his mind was signing up to join the military.
The Rochester native was interested in other pursuits like getting a job and saving up enough money to buy a car or motorcycle to fix up.
In a matter of months, his circle of friends dwindled. Some went off to college or took jobs in the Twin Cities. Others had already shipped off for Basic Training.
While out driving around town one September day, Sursely came across an army recruiting sign that said, “Uncle Sam Needs You.”
He found himself fixated on the thought of joining the army and pondering what options he would have if he enlisted.
After circling the block and thinking it over, he decided to go into the recruiting station and find out what was on the table.
He confided to his parents about the contents of the conversation he had with the recruiter. They weren’t dismissive of his interest in pursuing military service but cautioned him about what was going on in Vietnam.
But his mind was made up, and in December, he packed his bags for Ft. Polk, Louisiana, in what began a three-year enlistment in Uncle Sam’s army.
Not long after the Tet Offensive, Sursely deployed to Vietnam on March 1, 1968. He was eager, after having spent the previous six months in Germany, where he felt underutilized and frustrated by not being where the action was.
Surviving engagement after engagement, Sursely was witness to the horrors of war and the frailty of life.
“It doesn’t hit home as strongly as it does if you actually know the person and stop and think, my god they were 18, 19, or 20 years old,” he said while reflecting on the loss of two friends from Rochester who were around his age when they were killed in action.
“You just never had the realization that something like that can happen. But it truly did.”
During a night operation in January of the following year, while assigned to the 17th Armored Cavalry Division, Sursely stepped on a landmine. The force of the blast led to amputations on both his legs and left arm.
After being medically evacuated and sent to Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Colorado, he faced a long road ahead of him. But it was a road he wouldn’t be alone on.
Sursely learned how to navigate routine tasks like getting into and out of the shower, from his fellow veterans who were already at various points in their recovery.
“It was extremely important because if you ever were going to function you had to get out of the bed and go figure out what was going to work and what wouldn’t work, and there were just a lot of people around to help you with that and point you in the right direction.”
He credits his recovery efforts in large part to his family, the hospital staff, and fellow amputees he was surrounded by throughout his ten months of rehabilitation.
It wasn’t long before he began paying it forward by counseling those new to their injury and in the beginning stages of their recovery as an amputee.
When he was discharged from Fitzsimons, Sursely said, “You could actually feel good about yourself, about who you were, what you were, and proud of your military service.”
Working alongside the Gary Sinise Foundation, Disabled American Veterans, and Boulder Crest Retreat, he continues to advise generations of veterans from conflicts past and present.
No retreat is alike, and no answer is ever the same for veterans struggling in their transition to life as a civilian. Yet, Sursely preaches to them about the power of maintaining a positive mental attitude.
“Don’t worry about what anybody says about you, you’re going to be just fine,” he says. “You’re a good person. Get out that front door, go find a niche in life and do whatever you want to do.”
For Sursely, who continues to enjoy a fulfilling career as a realtor in Florida, he drew from the well of confidence and self-belief that despite his physical mobility, it would not impede him getting the job done and being successful.
What he went through in combat, and the months he endured recuperating after sustaining a life-changing injury, has given him a new perspective and outlook he continues to share with veterans. “It gave me a much greater sense of appreciation for all the little things in life.”
“The satisfaction that I’m still alive, that I have a wife that loves me, and four children and 12 grandchildren, I don’t think I could have ever asked for any more than that in my expectations before joining the military.”
During the 1960s, Bill Corsair was enjoying a promising career as a radio host on WICE-AM in Rhode Island. His show held court over the airwaves from noon to 3 p.m.
Having voiced Hasbro’s G.I. Joe doll, and married the love of his life, Janis in November 1966, life was bliss.
He had been a part of the 115th Military Police Company of the Rhode Island National Guard, and up until early 1968, he felt it was unlikely they would be activated and sent overseas.
While in the middle of his show, he took a break to let the newsman deliver the half-hour news. He soon learned that his company had been called up and activated.
After training at West Point alongside the 82nd Airborne, Corsair was sent to Vietnam in January 1969 and assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division stationed at Phuc Vinh.
With Bill overseas, Janis moved in with her parents, who also lived in Rhode Island. Communicating with each other through reel-to-reel tapes and letters, they bridged the distance apart as best they could.
By playing down the actual situation on the ground he was facing, and the combat situations he was taking part in, Bill reassured Janis that he was safe and doing fine.
Little did she know that Bill had written her father in private, with an accounting of what was happening in Phuc Vinh where he was based, and the air missions he was participating in.
Each time Corsair and his men were whisked into and out of hot zones by pilots of the 1st Air Cavalry, the shields on their helmets were always down. He had no way of knowing what they looked like.
“They were kids,” he said. They looked so young that if they were home, “they would be driving hot rods.”
These boys who acted like John Wayne, who became men through their bravery and heroism behind the stick and rudders, said Corsair, “to this day it dazzles me that I was able to march with them. It was the complement of my life.”
Finding the intersection between the horrors of war and the beauty, Corsair said, “the beauty is the courage and conviction of the men fighting this war. Seeing these young kids putting their lives on the line every day, it was dazzling.”
When Corsair returned home from Vietnam, whose distinguished service and contributions merited the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Combat Air Medal, he expected to pick up the pieces at WICE from where he had left off. But management had other ideas. One year later, he was out of a job.
His participation in Vietnam became an unlikely reason for why he was passed over for several positions he had applied for. “You put down Vietnam vet on the resume, it was more of a negative than a positive.”
Though he was able to eventually pick up the pieces and enjoy a distinguished career in entertainment, his thoughts turn towards what could have been had the U.S. not withdrawn its forces and abandoned the South Vietnamese.
While having a designated day on the calendar to honor his fellow Vietnam veterans is a step in the right direction, Corsair remains committed to getting people to “understand who the heroes were and today, who the heroes are.”
As Corsair looks back on his service, he takes stock of where he came from and of the men he served alongside whose courage and action, he feels, were superior to his.
“They were so much more than I felt I was, but what I was, was so much more than I thought I could be.”
On July 6, 1994, the film “Forrest Gump” made its nationwide debut. For Vietnam veterans, the character of Lieutenant Dan Taylor played by Gary Sinise struck a chord.
Lt. Dan illustrated the struggles Vietnam veterans, particularly those disabled, faced upon returning home and adjusting to civilian life. To many, the character demonstrated the depths of the human spirit and the resiliency and courage to overcome hardship.
The character has been a lightning rod of inspiration for Gary’s enduring support and advocacy for veterans, their families, and the real Lt. Dan's from conflicts past and present.
Yet his connection to Vietnam-era veterans, and what became the catalyst to eventually forming the Gary Sinise Foundation, took root in the experiences conveyed to him by family members.
His wife’s two brothers, Arthur and Mac Harris had each served in combat. Arthur had flown more than 800 combat hours while assigned to Delta Company and Bravo Company, 229th Assault Battalion of the First Cavalry Division stationed at Bien Hoa.
Mac had graduated from West Point in 1966 just as the United States was increasing its commitment of forces in Vietnam. During his two tours, his distinguished service and leadership merited several medals and commendations, including the Silver Star.
Jack Treese was the husband of his wife’s sister, and who had been a combat medic assigned to the Second Battalion, 502nd Airborne. At 19-years-old he had spent 245 days in combat before returning home in March 1968, to a rude awakening upon landing at San Francisco Airport.
The collective experiences Arthur, Mac, and Jack intimately shared with Gary continues to be a source of motivation in his decades-long mission of serving and honoring America’s heroes and their families.
Nearly 44 years after the United States withdrew its last forces from Vietnam,
in March 2017, Congress passed, and the president signed the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act, which designated March 29 as a national day of remembrance and honor to all who served during the Vietnam War.
For many veterans, this day of honor and gratitude is understandably decades overdue.
Yet on this day, the nation looks inward to honor a generation of veterans whose homecoming never was. It is an opportunity for many to receive a proper commendation and recognition of their actions carried out far from United States soil.
To all who served during the Vietnam War: welcome home, and thank you for your service and sacrifices made while in the uniform of the United States.