Honor Flight Keynote Speech

I had the singular honor to be asked to do the keynote speech for the gathering following the Maryland Honor Flight at the American Legion on 11 May. That day, volunteers had accompanied forty-odd veterans from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War to visit monuments on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. At the end of the trip, we came together for a celebratory meal, the bestowing of honors, and my speech.

As any reader of this blog knows, veterans are sacred to me. I served beside so many on the battlefield. The willingness of all of them to give up their lives for the good of others and the deaths of so many beside me in combat changed my life. These men and women—ordinary, everyday citizens—deserve every honor we can give them.

I spoke at the end of the celebration. I had the full attention of everyone in the room. Regular readers of this blog will recognize some of what I had to say. That notwithstanding, here’s the text of my speech:

The time has come for all of us to recognize and thank the veterans who are with us today. Please rise, if you are able, and join me in a round of applause for our Maryland veterans.

My job today is to honor you, our Maryland veterans, who put your lives on the line for the good your country and your fellow citizens. I want to start by telling you who I am, then tell you a story.

My name is Tom Glenn. I am a veteran, but my time in combat came after my military service, when I, an NSA civilian, was operating under cover in Vietnam as a signals intelligence operative. I was supporting U.S. troops on the battlefield. Between 1962 and 1975, I was in Vietnam at least four months every year. I had two complete tours there and so many shorter trips—what we called TDYs—that I lost count.

I was sent to Vietnam repeatedly for several reasons. One, I knew North Vietnamese radio communications like the back of my hand. I’d been intercepting and exploiting them fulltime since 1960. Second, I spoke Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. But most important, I was willing to go into combat with the U.S. units I was supporting, both army and Marine Corps, all over South Vietnam. That made me very popular with the troops. So no sooner did I get back to the states then a message would come saying, “send Glenn back,” and back I’d go.

More tomorrow.

Do What You Have to Do

Adelaide Books of New York will be publishing my novel, Secretocracy, and my short story collection, Coming to Terms, early next year. The publisher sent me a long complex form to fill out providing information that can be used to promote the new books. Among many other things, the form asked for memorable quotes from my published writing.

My favorite quote comes from Last of the Annamese. It appears at the beginning and the end of the novel and is a motto for the principal characters who serve their country:
“Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.”

Those words mean, among other things, putting one’s life on the line for the good of others. That’s what anyone in military service is committed to do. But it was also my guiding principle during my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam supporting both army and Marine units in combat. It was an honor to be on the battlefield with the troops, but it also meant that I had to be willing to give up my life if that’s what it took.

I’m justifiably proud of my service to my country. But I still grieve over the men killed at my side. They did what they had to do, and it cost them their lives.

Last night, I had the honor of delivering the keynote speech at the Maryland Honor Flight gathering. The celebration ended a day during which members of my American Legion post accompanied about forty veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam to visit the memorials on the National Mall. While I didn’t use the words, “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes” during the speech, that’s what it was about. I’ll quote the speech here, starting tomorrow.

Honor Flights

American Legion Post 156, to which I belong, provides “guardians” to assist veterans being brought to the Washington area to visit our national monuments. We load the veterans on busses and transport them to D.C. We do this in cooperation with the Honor Flight Network. Here’s what the network says on its web site:

“Our Mission: To transport America’s Veterans to Washington, DC to visit those memorials dedicated to honor the service and sacrifices of themselves and their friends.

“Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. We transport our heroes to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials. Top priority is given to the senior veterans – World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.

“Of all of the wars in recent memory, it was World War II that truly threatened our very existence as a nation—and as a culturally diverse, free society. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 640 WWII veterans die each day. Our time to express our thanks to these brave men and women is running out.”

The Honor Flight Network operates 131 hubs in 45 states and has used 17,655 guardians—volunteers to accompany and help the veterans during the trips. It sponsored 20,327 visitors in 2017, the most recent year for which complete data is available. It is, in short, a very large undertaking.

My American Legion post is gathering veterans from Maryland and Delaware for the Honor Flight trip to view the monuments on 11 May. Upon return from the tour, the veterans will gather for a celebration at our post. I’m honored to be the keynote speaker at the event. It will be my privilege to thank and esteem the men who put their lives on the line for the good of the nation. I’m humbled by the honor.

My Deafness

I’m deaf. Even with hearing aids, I often misunderstand what is being said, especially in places with background noise. It’s a constant curse.

My hearing was damaged during the fall of Saigon. The North Vietnamese began their attack on city just before sunset on 28 April 1975 with a rocket attack followed by artillery shelling. I was holed up in the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) building at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of the city. The shelling went on throughout the night and much of the next day. I finally escaped by helicopter under fire after dark on 29 April.

During the shelling, I and the two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me to the end were in the communications center of our office suite. Exploding rocket and artillery shells hit close enough to us that the room lurched throwing us to the floor. The explosions were the loudest sounds I have ever heard.

At first, I didn’t realize that I’d suffered hearing damage. I had amoebic dysentery and pneumonia due to muscle fatigue, inadequate diet, and sleep deprivation. Worse, I had all the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI)—panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks, and irrational rages. It wasn’t until I got back on my feet during the autumn of 1975 that I realized my hearing was defective.

Even then, I did nothing about it, dismissing it as trivial. But over time, it got worse. My wife finally insisted that I have my hearing checked. I was diagnosed with severe hearing loss in both ears, particularly in the upper frequencies. I got hearing aids.

With aging, my hearing loss has deteriorated further. I have learned to read lips, but if an interlocutor turns away from me, I lose comprehension. I don’t hear common sounds others are aware of—crickets, highway noises, sirens. Worse, I have trouble hearing music, and I’m a trained musician with a BA in Music from the University of California.

If I could find a way to correct my hearing, I’d certainly avail myself of it. But deafness is not without its side benefits. I sleep through noise that disturbs others. I’m rarely distracted by annoying buzzes, hums, and crackles. And I savor the quiet that allows me to write. That is my vocation. I’m grateful for the inner peace my deafness allows me.

Medical Staffs

I’ve had to cope with a number of diseases during my long life. In recent years, I’ve undergone knee replacement surgery and had the upper lobe of my right lung removed surgically. In the aftermath of the lung surgery, I’m regularly treated for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

As a consequence, I frequently visit doctors’ offices and other medical establishments. On the whole, I’ve ended up respecting and admiring physicians and nurses. And I’m less and less patient with their staffs.

Repeatedly, I find staff members who treat patients with disrespect and even annoyance. I’m made to feel like I’m a nuisance. I’m forced to wait while they finish whatever task they’re engaged in, then rushed during our conversation. I occasionally overhear catty remarks about other patients and the problems they create. In short, I and other patients are belittled.

To be fair, I have to add that the staff of my current primary care physician consists of one person, his secretary. She goes out of her way to assist me, call in prescriptions for me, and to make my visits to the doctor comfortable and burden-free.

But she is the exception. Too often, in other doctors’ offices, I’m cast in the role of an annoyance to be tolerated with forced patience. I’m patronized for my age, shouted at for my deafness, ignored while staff members talk to one another.

I want to remind these office staffers that it is me and other patients who pay their salaries. The purpose of their jobs is to serve us. We are, in a very real sense, the reason for their existence.

We, the patients, deserve respect. Instead, we are treated with thinly veiled contempt. It’s long since time for that to change.

Guns in America (2)

An editorial in the Washington Post of May 2, 2019 (page A20) captured my thoughts and said it better than I could. It reads, in part, “So far this year — that’s some 120 days — there have been more than 100 mass shootings, more than 4,500 gun deaths (not counting suicides) and more than 8,500 gun injuries. . . . Americans make up about 4.4 percent of the global population but own 42 percent of the world’s guns.”

The parallel between the plethora of firearms in the U.S.—the number is greater than the population—and the unconscionable high in gun deaths makes plain the problem: until we reduce the number of guns in the hands of our population, many of us will continue to die tragic and horrible deaths.

Some argue that the second Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right of gun ownership. That amendment reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” My understanding of the amendment is that to assure the existence of a well-regulated militia, we shall not infringe upon the right to keep and bear arms. I see no justification for unbridled gun ownership in those words. Nonetheless, if reduction of gun deaths requires a constitutional amendment, let’s get to it now.

Others stress that the culture of the U.S. has always favored gun ownership, in part because our pioneer tradition and the need to hunt to feed our families. The time of pioneering at our new frontiers in the west ended well over a century ago. Hunting in modern times is a sport, not a necessity. And if guns are embedded in our culture, let’s change our culture.

The Washington Post had it right. It’s long since time for us Americans to greatly reduce the number of firearms available to the general population and stop killing of 30,000 of our people every year.

Guns in America

I’m too familiar with firearms and the unspeakable damage they can do to the human body. For the better part of thirteen years, I was in Vietnam during the war, much of that time spent on the battlefield. I saw closeup how the human body can be destroyed by gunfire.

In the U.S., we have a plurality of the guns in the world, and our deaths by gunfire is proportionally the highest among the advanced countries of the world.

According to Amnesty International, “A staggering number of people are killed with guns in the United States every year. More than 30,000 men, women, and children are killed with guns each year in the United States.

“Among high-income countries, the United States accounts for 80 percent of all gun deaths in the world, 86 percent of all women killed by guns, and 87 percent of all children younger than 14 who are killed by guns.

“Fueling this epidemic, laws on guns in the United States are inconsistent and weak – and federal, state, and local governments are not meeting their obligation under international law to protect people’s safety.”

What about gun ownership? According to Wikipdedia, “In 2018, Small Arms Survey reported that there are over one billion small arms distributed globally, of which 857 million (about 85 percent) are in civilian hands. U.S. civilians alone account for 393 million (about 46 percent) of the worldwide total of civilian held firearms. This amounts to ‘120.5 firearms for every 100 residents.’”

Americans, we have a gun problem. Some 30,000-plus of our people are killed every year by guns. Isn’t it time we did something about it?

More tomorrow.